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Department of Communications/
News Bureau
22 Davis Hall, 10 Lippitt Road, Kingston, RI 0288
Phone: 401-874-2116 Fax: 401-874-7872

Media Contact: Todd McLeish 874-7892

URI senior advises Central Falls students in
math, science through new SMILE program

KINGSTON, R.I. -- January 12, 2004 -- When University of Rhode Island senior Patty Plante of Pawtucket was 10 years old, she saw an Earth Day exhibit at a local shopping center and discovered a passion for environmental education. As she nears completion of her bachelor’s degree in environmental science and management, she is working with middle school students in Central Falls to instill in them the same passion.

Plante spends her Wednesday afternoons at Calcutt Middle School working with about 20 students each week on math and science activities through the Science and Math Investigative Learning Experience (SMILE) program sponsored in part by URI.

Rhode Island SMILE, founded by Carol and Larry Englander, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and has expanded from one to four school districts since then. Central Falls is the latest school system in the state to participate in this unique program aimed at encouraging students with strong science and math aptitude to concentrate on those abilities and pursue a college degree in science, math or engineering.

"It’s so important to make these children aware of the environment at that age so they can develop a passion for it," Plante said. "The whole focus of the program is in getting kids to appreciate the environment, while teaching them science and math at the same time."

"The SMILE program is about science and mathematics but also about recruiting students from underprivileged backgrounds into the sciences," said Josef Görres, an associate research professor in the URI Department of Natural Resources Science who teaches a class preparing URI students to teach SMILE students about the environment. "URI students are not just teachers in the program, but also mentors. We are trying to mobilize an immense untapped science resource. Kids who would never think about getting into a university science program are nurtured by students like Patty and the teachers in the SMILE program. Most of the SMILE kids will be the first family member to go to a university, and just getting there takes students like Patty to light their path."

The sixth and seventh grade students all volunteer to participate in the program and are excited by the weekly mix of math exercises, science experiments, and field trips planned to such places as the Boston Museum of Science, URI and aboard the Blackstone Valley Explorer riverboat.

"The students all want to be there," said Plante, who hopes to earn a master’s degree and perhaps become a science teacher. "They’re not getting any extra credit or anything else out of it, just an extra opportunity to learn about a subject they’re interested in."

Working with Central Falls teachers Cheryl Wilson and Marie Bernier, Plante first leads the group through a series of math exercises that involve complicated problems and statistical calculations. She then follows up with a science experiment, like one that tests what happens to penguin feathers when there is oil in their water.

"The majority of the children in the program are ESL students, so the reading is a little hard for them. We emphasize a lot of reading and writing," explained Plante. "But the kids are enthusiastic about it. There’s one boy who can’t read English very well, but you can just tell he’s the smartest in the class because he’s always the first one to say, ‘I know the answer! I’ve got it!’"

"The hands-on, minds-on pedagogy used in the SMILE clubs often encourages students whose reading and writing skills are not well developed but who are analytical thinkers or need to experiment with materials," said Görres about the SMILE approach. "It really engages the kids to excel who are often regarded as underachievers because their language achievement is low."

The culmination of the year-long program is Challenge Weekend in April, when all of the SMILE students from Central Falls, Woonsocket, West Warwick and South Kingstown gather at URI for a weekend of friendly competitions. The students are given an assignment to design, build and test a complicated device with the help of URI students.

"That weekend is a lot of work, and it’s right before our final exams so it’s a huge time commitment for the URI student volunteers," explained Plante. "But we all just love the kids, and it’s such a great program. The way the kids look up to you, it’s like you’re a hero. They’re so excited to learn all these cool things."

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Page last revised Monday, January 12, 2004 .