CORVALLIS - President Clinton has honored a pioneering science program at Oregon State University which for more than a decade has tried to nurture an interest in science and mathematics among Oregon's Native American, Hispanic, African American and economically disadvantaged youth.

The Science and Math Investigative Learning Experience, or SMILE program at OSU, has received the 1999 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. It was one of only five such awards made to institutions around the nation, and includes a $10,000 grant.

The individuals and programs that were honored, such as SMILE, "serve as examples to their colleagues and will be leaders in the national effort to train the next century of scientists, mathematicians and engineers," Clinton said.

Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation which administers and funds the awards, said that "no personal influence is as powerful, long lasting and positive as that of a superlative mentor."

"The mentors receiving this award are a true national resource who play a key role in defining the quality of our nation's future human resources in science, mathematics, technology and engineering," she said.

These awards, federal officials said, are meant to recognize individuals and institutions which show a long-term commitment to providing opportunities for greater participation in science and engineering by all Americans, especially under-represented groups such as women, minorities and persons with disabilities.

SMILE, which began in 1988, addresses exactly those issues.

Working with youths in grades four through 12, SMILE offers fun, hands-on experiences in science and mathematics to "clubs" of about 20 students each at elementary, middle and high schools across Oregon. Almost 10 times its original size, it now serves 700 students and assists 70 teachers in 39 schools, and recently expanded beyond its original rural or small-town roots to begin operations in the Portland metropolitan area.

Since its inception, more than 2,400 students have participated in SMILE, with clear results.

In 1998, 100 percent of the SMILE participants who stayed with the program through high school got their diploma, about double the usual rate for the minority students the program serves and solidly higher than the rate for Oregon students as a whole. And 89 percent of the SMILE class of 1998 went on to college.

The program helps provide college scholarships to SMILE graduates who attend OSU, and features a Study Techniques, Academics and Research Skills, or STARS program that provides an eight-week summer bridge to college and an academic and social head start. But college is already familiar to SMILE participants - through "Challenge Weekends" and other events, many of them have been on a college campus seven to nine times by the time they graduate from high school.

In their programs, SMILE students have done field trips to lakes to plant willow trees, clean up the lake and prevent soil erosion. They go to outdoor science camps, build bridges out of straw and paper clips. They solve math riddles and learn how science relates to real problems in the world around them.

"We think one key to SMILE's success has been that it's a long-term strategy, not a quick fix," said Sue Borden, former director of the program. "SMILE puts young students in touch with caring adults, helps them have fun, and is in it for the long haul. Plus, it gives them a lot of exposure to higher education and is associated with a prestigious university, which is very important."

SMILE is one of several K-12 outreach initiatives based at OSU, all working on the premise that an interest in science or engineering starts at a young age and should be carefully nurtured. Other programs tap into parents or community members who are working scientists, or get OSU undergraduate and graduate students involved directly in K-12 outreach activities.

"OSU for decades has been committed to bringing the opportunities of higher education and the world of math and science to all Oregonians, especially those groups who traditionally had not been fairly represented," said OSU President Paul Risser. "SMILE is just one of our efforts in this area, but clearly one that has proven results and shows what can be accomplished when parents, teachers, and citizens at every level reach out to our young scholars and give them the encouragement they need."

"This recognition from the president is a well-deserved tribute to every teacher, OSU educator and hard-working student who helped over the years to make SMILE the outstanding program it is today," he said.

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Sue Borden, 541-737-2388