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SMILE program prepares underrepresented students for college future in math, sciences

By Lance San Souci
On April 7, 2011

It is not often that college students are able to teach young teens how to build a perfectly engineered airplane, especially one that's made of paper.  But last weekend kids from all over the state had the opportunity to learn about engineering through the University of Rhode Island Science and Math Investigative Learning Experience (SMILE) program's annual High School Biotechnology Engineering Challenge Weekend.

By providing low-income and underrepresented students with alternative learning methods, SMILE has been preparing students for college in the areas of science, technology, math, and engineering for the past 17 years.  This year, the program teamed up with the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) to illustrate the importance of a college education.

"Some of the students that come to these [events] will be the first in their family to go onto college," Director of SMILE Carol Englander said.  "Bringing them to URI just makes going to college more transparent."

She added that because NSBE is a group dominated by minority students, it is easier for the underrepresented pre-college and college students to relate to one another.  This way, they are more apt to associate with someone whose major they may pursue.

These majors include biomedical engineering, chemical engineering, and civil engineering, among others, Englander said.  Because of the wide scope of careers engineering has to offer, Englander believes that students attending the annual event will be further encouraged to attend college.

"NSBE is a wonderful group of kids whose mission is to outreach [to the community]," she said.  "They really give a positive picture of what college is like."

This past weekend in particular, more than 200 pre-college students attended four work stations in the Memorial Union where NSBE was able to do just that.

Program Coordinator of SMILE Lacey Schlachter said these stations included ice breakers to make visiting students more comfortable and an open forum where URI students explained what they were studying and where they came from.

"It was eye-opening for the  [visiting] students when they realized NSBE had to be resourceful to find funding for college," Englander said.   "The more stories you hear about struggles and success, the more [inspired you get]."

Schlachter added that because schools tend to focus on test scores and because of the reduction in the number of guidance counselors, it was good for students to understand what really needed to be accomplished to attend college.

For example, she mentioned a discussion she had with a high school student who wanted to attend college.  Although he plans to attend to further his education beyond high school, he had not taken a geometry class, which is a prerequisite for admission to URI.  He did not know this before the challenge last weekend.

"Students got a first-hand account on how to get into college and stay in college," Schlachter said.

In regards to engineering, SMILE and NSBE hosted a work station where participants made paper airplanes.

Englander said that although the project seems simple, it taught the attending pre-college students about cooperation and critical thinking.  During the project, students built their own paper airplanes, measured whose went the farthest and then broke into groups.

"In the groups, students collaborated to design an airplane that incorporated the best ideas from each student," Englander said.  "There is a lot of engineering behind it, like aerodynamics, momentum, and weight."

Paralleling the engineering theme of last weekend's Challenge, students also learned of the importance of engineering.

"Engineering actually keeps the world going," Englander said.  "They want to better the lives of people."

As an example, she noted that engineers designed machines that can produce thousands of socks by the hour, indicating that there is a large amount of science behind the process.

"I was putting on my socks this morning and thought, ‘Wow. You guys are pretty impressive things,'" Englander laughed as she pointed to her socks.

Based on the feedback SMILE and NSBE received from the students, Englander believes that pre-college students who have never thought about pursuing engineering as a career now will do so.

"We will repay NSBE in future engineers," she said.  "If we don't show kids different career paths, it's like being in a candy store and knowing only five of 100 candies, so you only stick to those five."

SMILE, which is a nonprofit organization through URI, believes the relationships it builds between URI students and pre-college students is mutually beneficial in that both parties gain skills necessary to succeed in the real world.

"It really boosts URI students' self-esteem when the kids compliment them or tell them how good their presentation was," Englander said.  "And the kids have a [better understanding] of what to do to get and stay in college]."

Any student interested in participating in SMILE or NSBE can contact Englander at englanca@etal.uri.edu or NSBE President Michael Fagbote at mfagbote@yahoo.com.


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