Pipeline to Science

Puzzling out the interactions of currents, winds and temperatures to locate a lost ship engaged students in real-world problem-solving, a hallmark of the SMILE approach. (Photo: Karl Maasdam)
Puzzling out the interactions of currents, winds and temperatures to locate a lost ship engaged students in real-world problem-solving, a hallmark of the SMILE approach. (Photo: Karl Maasdam)

By Lee Anna Sherman

Strange, alien environments — far–away planets, fathomless seas, shadowy forests — figure in countless daydreams. What child hasn’t imagined herself at the controls of a futuristic spacecraft? Or at the prow of a wave–tossed vessel? Or on the trail of a secretive beast? Exploiting kids’ universal yen to explore remote and exotic places, a noted OSU outreach program entices underserved students to consider college.

The mostly low–income, rural, minority youngsters who sign up for the Science and Math Investigative Learning Experiences (SMILE) Program meet face–to–face with scientists, engineers and researchers. In teams, they simulate galactic travel, oceanic voyages, ecological problem–solving and all sorts of other mind–expanding projects, both at their schools and on the OSU campus. With guidance from K–12 teachers and college–age mentors, they might, for example, design a self–contained space capsule. Or locate a lost ship using GPS tracking devices. Or study satellite maps for evidence of toxic algae blooms. “Fun, hands–on projects about astronomy, oceanography and ecology make students comfortable with science so they’re not afraid of it,” says Eda Davis–Lowe, SMILE director in the College of Education. “Science and math are essential for college admission. They are the gatekeepers to higher education.” By training teachers, engaging students in learning adventures and offering college scholarships, SMILE leads students through the gates.

Modules on Mars

Last spring, two cohorts of boisterous students from a dozen middle schools teamed up noisily around tables in the OSU Memorial Union to contemplate the constraints of living on Mars. These 192 adolescents from across Oregon, from Siletz Valley on the Pacific Coast to Nyssa and Ontario on Idaho’s edge, considered factors such as raging sandstorms, dangerous sunrays, poisonous air, scarce water and limited power as they designed “crew modules” capable of supporting four to six astronauts for 600 days on the Red Planet.

Giggles and groans erupted when they learned that urine is a source of drinking water in NASA’s recycling system, along with “grey water” (leftovers from sinks and showers) and condensation (breath vapor). One of SMILE’s college–age mentors, OSU mechanical engineering major Ashley Swander of Salem, demonstrated the high–tech NASA technology on a small–scale replica. Then she let the kids come up and operate the manual pump.

At “briefing stations” located around the room’s perimeter, other OSU mentors answered kids’ questions about coping with Martian environmental conditions, power systems and daily living challenges. Steve Carpenter, a student in the Department of Science and Mathematics Education, engaged the middle schoolers with questions designed to provoke higher–order thinking about capturing and purifying water. “In outer space, water’s like gold,” he reminded a seventhgrader named Amy.

For Ontario sixth–grader Ana, a straight–A student aiming for medical school, the “different ways you can recycle water” was the day’s most intriguing lesson. Since joining SMILE in fourth grade, her eyes have been opened, she says, to “so many opportunities.” Ana’s Mars module team, Las Cinco Estrellas (The Five Stars), included her pal Natalie, an aspiring lawyer. Together, the two Hispanic girls talked excitedly about the program’s challenges, teamwork, creativity, firsthand exposure to university life and fun (evidenced by the many “whoops!” and high–fives gyrating through the room). “We get to ask more questions and get more explanations,” Natalie says.

Ana sums it up this way: “SMILE gives us a better chance.”

Rescue at Sea

Lured by such irresistible mysteries as Mars’ red rocks, Earth’s opaque oceans and nature’s intricate web, nearly 5,000 students from 12 Oregon school districts have participated in SMILE during its 20–year history. More than 300 classroom teachers have received professional development to lead weekly SMILE Clubs, where kids take field trips and dig into projects like designing a waterwheel, a catapult, a laser communications system or a crane for hazardous materials. Family math–and–science nights give parents a chance to join in. Once a year, high–school scholars come to OSU and nearby Western Oregon University for a megaevent, a multi–district weekend Challenge. They not only take part in projects like the mission to Mars, developed by engineers and researchers, they also get to meet those very same scientists and hang out with college kids who can give them the skinny on campus life. All of this adds up to what former SMILE Associate Director SueAnn Bottoms calls “education beyond the diploma.”

Whatever project they tackle, all the fourth– through 12th–grade SMILE participants take away one overarching lesson: Math, science, engineering and technology aren’t just dry theories stamped on the pages of boring textbooks. Rather, these fields, windows on challenging and lucrative careers, have exciting applications in the real world. One of those applications is search and rescue. Last spring, Madras senior Nick Katchia was one of 136 high schoolers tasked with finding a mock ship lost on the high seas. Learning about GPS technology, navigation and remote sensing was cool, he says. But what really lit him up was the ocean itself. “I’ve never seen the ocean,” reveals this young man from Oregon’s landlocked high desert, a six–year SMILE participant. “There’s a lot more to the ocean than I realized — currents, deep–sea creatures, plankton blooms.” His buddy, junior Daniel Serrano, was awed by the economics of oceanography. “I was surprised by the cost of a research voyage, from $3,000 per day to $30,000 per day,” says the honor student. “That’s a lot of money!” Then, sounding very much like a concerned taxpayer, he adds, “I hope they know what they’re doing.”

Daniel was jarred, too, when he learned about the tons of junk afloat on the Earth’s oceans. “The garbage stays in the ocean forever,” he explains. “It just keeps going around in circles.”

Oceanographers from the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were on hand to guide and prompt the young scientist–wannabes as they battled imaginary 22–knot winds to locate the fictional Juan Marichal, a merchant ship adrift somewhere in a 6,000–square–kilometer area of the Pacific (in reality, they were looking for a wooden dowel hidden in the grass on the MU Quad). NOAA scientist Luke Spence shared his expertise in fisheries and satellite imaging. “We use real nautical charts and real data on currents and temperatures to teach the students about range, bearing, wind direction, speed, all the forces that affect the ship,” says Spence, who is based in Monterey, California. “We try to make the project as real as we can.”

Stratospheric Expectations

The longer students stay in SMILE, the greater their academic success. By the time they’ve spent at least four years in SMILE, their chances of high school graduation are better than 90 percent. That figure eclipses Oregon’s overall graduation rate of 75 percent. But the number is made even more impressive by the fact that SMILE students represent groups — Hispanic, American Indian and low–income whites — whose educational careers are too often cut short. Cool projects are unquestionably one key to SMILE’s track record. But there’s another factor, one that’s more subtle but at least as powerful: believing in these kids. An invisible but insidious form of racism — low expectations for children of color — permeates many public schools, says Davis–Lowe, who grew up in the segregated South. For her, infusing every child’s heart with sky’s–the–limit aspirations is the program’s greatest mission.

“From day one,” Davis–Lowe says, “we treat them all as future college students.”

Priming the Pump

Priming the Pump

The Science and Math Investigative Learning Experiences Program’s funding comes from state, federal and private sources in roughly equal parts. SMILE’s many partners help to drive project content and design. Major supporters and program collaborators include:

  • Howard Hughes Medical Institute
  • Oregon Space Grant Consortium (National Aeronautics and Space Administration)
  • University-School Partnerships Program (U.S. Department of Education)
  • Cooperative Institute for Oceanographic Satellite Studies (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
  • Science and Technology Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction (National Science Foundation)
  • Oregon Engineering and Technology Industry Council (ETIC)