Carol Englander

Carol Englander’s “aha moment” came 21 years ago, when she discovered a program at Oregon State University that engaged under-represented K-12 students in after-school, hands-on science activities. The middle-school teacher vowed to bring the program to Rhode Island. Now in its 21st year, the URI Science and Math Investigative Learning Experiences (SMILE) program has generated enthusiasm for science, math, engineering and technology among more than 2,250 students in six  Rhode Island communities.

“It not only engages students in hands-on science and math, but it makes them confident in their skills and produces a peer group where it’s cool to be smart,” Englander said. “Kids just pour into the classroom at the end of the day, they’re so excited to be participating.”

A nice side-effect of the program is a continual source of motivated future URI students who are well prepared to be successful in a wide variety of challenging majors. And it brings tremendous diversity to campus. Today URI enrolls 75 former SMILE students, and 73 percent of them are majoring in STEM disciplines. Some also mentor younger SMILE students through a collegiate SMILE program on campus.

Dozens of SMILE students come to campus for the annual Engineering Challenge Weekend to test their skills in a competition to design and build a complex machine or device. It’s an event they look forward to year after year.

“The whole idea is to keep kids doing well in school, interested in science, math, engineering and technology, and keep them in a group where doing well and being smart is an advantage. That’s the premise,” said Englander, who is seeking funding to expand the program to additional communities in the near future. “It was serendipity that I fell into it in Oregon, but there is no lack of students in Rhode Island who want to be in SMILE.”