High school students to get taste of college-style labs

CELS News Editor

The finished product--an underwater robot--was the goal of last year's SMILE program at URI.

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The finished product--an underwater robot--was the goal of last year's SMILE program at URI.

Starting March 5th, "smiles" will abound on the URI campus especially around the Center for Biotechnology and Life Sciences (CBLS) as more than 100 high school students will take over some of the best high-tech laboratories in the state.

SMILE stands for Science and Math Investigative Learning Experiences, an after-school academic enrichment program that started at Oregon State University and is for youngsters in grades 4 through 12. The program’s goal is to increase the number of underrepresented and other educationally underserved students and give them a glimpse of careers in science, math, engineering and technology.

Having fun while learning is part of the experience in the SMILE program. This was last year's event at URI.
Having fun while learning is part of the experience in the SMILE program. This was last year's event at URI.

During this year's high school annual activity at URI, explains Carol Englander who has directed the program for 16 years, SMILE students will be exploring biotechnology, a field that is important to Rhode Island.

Following the steps the biotechnology industry uses in the in the discovery of new human therapeutics, SMILE students will be working on recombinant DNA and the purification of a red fluorescent protein. This curriculum comes from the AMGEN educational outreach Bruce

Having fun while learning is part of the experience in the SMILE program. This was last year's event at URI.
Having fun while learning is part of the experience in the SMILE program. This was last year's event at URI.

Wallace Biotechnology Lab Program directed by Dr. Marty Ikkanda of Pierce College, Los Angeles. This program was brought to Rhode Island thanks to a collaborative effort of Dr. Greg Paquette, Ph.D., Director of the Biotechnology and Clinical Laboratory Science, and the SMILE Program.

The Bruce Wallace Biotechnology Lab Program is a nationwide program that runs in the schools, and this will be the first year that the program is going take place as a major event conducted during a weekend in state-of-the-art college labs. The high schools piloting this project include Woonsocket, Central Falls, Pawtucket, Coventry, North Kingstown, West Warwick, and South Kingstown.

With this project, SMILE is trying to increase awareness of the role of biotechnology in industry and biomedical advances, to enhance student science learning in participating schools, and to promote interest in science careers.

The theory is that if you give young people exposure to various career fields, they may gravitate to certain career paths after high school graduation. The SMILE students also get a small taste of life on a college campus.

"It's amazing how much enthusiasm they have," said Lacey Schlachter, SMILE programs coordinator.

In the past, SMILE challenge weekends at URI have been based at the Memorial Union, but this year, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Marian Goldsmith, chair of the CELS Biological Sciences Department, and Dr. Jay Sperry, chair of the CELS Cell and Molecular Biology Department, the students will get a real taste of college is by being able to use the CBLS’ one-year-old labs.

Prior to coming to URI, the students will be given some biotech experience such as how to use micropipettes and exposure to some of the technical machines used in biotech labs. Because of the support of Dr. Paquette, Dave Vito, and Christina Bifumo, from the URI Providence Biotechnology Center, the SMILE clubs have already received supplied kits so they will get a head start on the laboratory activities that they will be involved in on March 5th and 6th.

Each year the challenge weekend theme changes. Last year the SMILE students worked on building and testing remotely operated vehicles (ROV) that can work underwater. The students who come to URI are housed overnight in the Holiday Inn and they are given all-you-can-eat meal tickets

in the dining halls. The experience this year may not be as dramatic as running underwater robots, but the high tech equipment and lab facilities at the new biotech building should give the students a taste of what could lie ahead after high school.

Operating out a small office in the basement of Eleanor Roosevelt Hall, the SMILE program has but three staffers—besides Englander and Schlachter there is Gabriela Lizano who specializes in writing grants to keep the program expanding.

The member schools have SMILE "clubs" taught by teachers who get a small stipend. Englander said each "club" can take no more than 20 students and in many cases there are waiting lists. Four of the school districts contribute toward the teachers’ stipends, she added.

"School districts that have the program for three years, absolutely love it," she said.

Students have to have good grades (As and Bs), have good attendance and possess good citizenship qualities. In Rhode Island there are 16 schools in the program involving seven districts-South Kingstown, North Kingstown, Coventry, West Warwick, Pawtucket, Central Falls and Woonsocket.

SMILE involves middle and elementary school students too. The middle school students will come to URI April 9th and 10th and the elementary school kids will be at the W. Alton Jones Campus, April 30th, May 1st and 2nd.

A major player in the program is AMGEN, the pharmaceutical giant, which has been responsible for supporting many programs to boost employment in the biotechnical industry in the state.

While AMGEN continues to be a major player this year, the SMILE program has other benefactors such as American Power Conversion, Toray Industries and Eaton Aerospace said Englander, a science teacher at the Curtis Corner Middle School in South Kingstown. These companies are interested in the program because they know it is in their best interest to promote careers in science and technology. They know the students in the SMILE program would be welcome additions to Rhode Island’s workforce in fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), added Englander.


Published: Feb 11, 2010.