URI SMILE program founder named one of Rhode Island’s Women of the Year

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KINGSTON –June 19, 2008 –Kingston resident and Curtis Corner Middle School teacher Carol Englander sure has plenty to smile about.

Englander has been named one of Rhode Island’s 2008 “Women of the Year” by the Rhode Island Commission on Women as a result of her work with the University of Rhode Island’s Science and Math Investigative Learning Experience (SMILE), which Englander started in Rhode Island 14 years ago.

The after-school program is a partnership between URI and several Rhode Island school districts, which aims to increase the number of disadvantaged students who attain higher education in the fields of math, science, and engineering.

Englander learned about SMILE while on a sabbatical leave at Oregon State University, where the program was conceived. “I instantly knew, if they can do this program in a state as big as Oregon, we can do it in Rhode Island.”

In 1994 Englander launched the first after-school SMILE program in Rhode Island, with the support and funding of a local company, American Power Conversion.

Today, SMILE has expanded to 15 different clubs in six school districts, South Kingstown, West Warwick, Central Falls, Woonsocket, Providence and East Providence, with additional support from companies such as Amgen, Stanley Bostitch, Toray Plastics, grants from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, and funding from the Rhode Island Foundation and the Nellie May Education Foundation.

Englander hopes to expand SMILE to other Rhode Island school districts. “The problem is funding, not student or teacher interest,” Englander said.

The club begins in elementary school and feeds into middle and high school programs, creating what Englander calls a “pipeline effect.”

At the entry level SMILE, looks for girls who are underrepresented in math and sciences, as well as economically disadvantaged students and those who don’t fit in with any other clubs—a unique criteria that fits well with SMILE’s mission statement.

“We encourage children to ‘be who you want to be.’ We teach them to be science literate and show them a variety of careers that can use science, but ultimately the kids are good at so many different things, we want them to pursue a degree which matches their interests,” Englander said.

This has meant that SMILE graduates have taken diverse paths, including Brown Medical School, URI’s pharmacy program, The American Museum of Natural History, Carnival Cruise ships, and graduate schools around the country.

Englander explained that SMILE appeals to many kids, specifically girls, because the program encourages the children to think of themselves as intellectual learners. “Girls get it a little faster, that it’s cool to be smart,” Englander said.

She continued, “The children begin to realize that knowledge is power. They learn things ahead of the other students in their class so they often know an answer in the classroom and they can say, ‘I learned that at SMILE.’”

The program is a self-esteem booster and a fun way for students to learn math and science without the pressure of tests, Englander explained. Still participating students have to follow a college track and maintain a C or better average.

SMILE also has real results. The program boasts a 100 percent high school graduation rate of its seniors and 94 percent graduation rate from college.

Of the 20 SMILE students graduating from high school this year, 65 percent will be attending URI in the fall. SMILE students are often attracted to URI because they get a chance to see the campus and meet students during the SMILE Engineering Challenge Weekend held annually at URI, Englander said. URI students serve as student mentors who assist SMILE participants in the hands-on challenges.

Those interested in supporting SMILE are welcome to make contributions The SMILE Program c/o URI Foundation, 79 Upper College Road, Kingston, RI 02881 (phone) 401-874-7900.

URI Department of Communications and Marketing photo by Michael Salerno Photography