If you think building model space ships, solar-powered cars, and hydraulic cranes sounds fun, just imagine the impact you’d have if you were doing these things with middle school and high school students, acting as a mentor and inspiring the minds of young scientists.
That’s exactly what happens every year in URI’s Science and Math Investigative Learning Experiences (SMILE) Program. For nearly two decades, more than 2,000 elementary, middle, and high school students have participated in the program, working together in after-school activities and family science nights at their own schools and in engineering challenge weekends at URI, where they learn more about “STEM” subjects—science, technology, engineering, and math—through hands-on experiences with URI students and professors. The purpose of the program is to inspire more underrepresented and educationally underserved students to attend college and major in STEM fields.
I get to pass on my knowledge and experience about the program and answer their questions about what college is like. It’s important that they know that college is definitely possible, regardless of their background. ~Jimmy Li
And it’s working. Since 1998, SMILE grads have attended 88 different colleges and universities, including 170 who’ve enrolled at URI, where two-thirds have pursued STEM degrees. And, many graduates of the SMILE program who later attended URI have become SMILE mentors themselves, enthusiastically sharing their knowledge and experience with others.
One of those students is Jimmy Li, who’s studying electrical engineering and Chinese at URI after participating in SMILE during all four of his high school years. “I love the whole idea of the program—hands-on science and math. And when I came for Challenge Weekend and got to tour URI, I knew this was the place for me,” Jimmy said.
Soon after arriving on campus as a freshman, Jimmy quickly took the opportunity to mentor middle and high school students in the program. “I remember how encouraging the mentors were when I was in high school, and I really wanted to do the same once I got here,” said Jimmy, who started a club on campus called Collegiate SMILE to keep the mentors engaged year-round and further the program’s goals. “I get to pass on my knowledge and experience about the program and answer their questions about what college is like. It’s important that they know that college is definitely possible, regardless of their background.”
This year, he worked with 90 pre-teens from several Rhode Island school districts to design, build, and test model wind turbines during Middle School Challenge Weekend. The SMILE students worked, ate, and played together with Jimmy and lots of other URI students, and in the end, all the turbines generated electricity—up to 14.58 volts.
At this year’s High School Challenge Weekend, students from seven Rhode Island high schools gathered here, joined together into teams of three or four, and worked to develop new vehicle and fuel technologies—making decisions that balanced mobility with environmental and economic needs. By the time it was all over, every one of the students, both the high schoolers and URI mentors, did just what the program called for. They smiled.
Pictured above: URI student Jimmy Li working with local middle school students to build a wind turbine.