Early on a Friday morning the Memorial Union Quad is transformed into a vast ocean, its imagined waves and currents tugging 120 high school students across a grassy sea.
The students, as well as 20 of their teachers, all played a part of the marine debris cycle in this hands-on modeling exercise on April 26 as part of the Oregon State University Science and Math Investigative Learning Experiences program’s annual High School Challenge. The participants turned the MU Quad into an interactive model of the ocean to learn how marine debris is carried. This was just one of the challenges the students from across the state of Oregon participated in throughout the program.
“I think what’s powerful about the experience of the challenge is that the students feel like what they know matters. They feel like what they do matters,” said Susan O’Brien, an environmental science doctoral student who co-coordinated this year’s challenge. “They’re not just here sitting, they’re here interacting, thinking and learning something as well.”
The SMILE program serves students, particularly those from minority and lower-income families, from fourth grade through high school. The program’s goal is to increase the number of underserved students graduating high school and pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics in college. Students in high school SMILE clubs meet weekly with SMILE-trained teachers at their schools to study curriculum and complete projects related to the High School Challenge, a culmination of the year’s work.
The two-day challenge was funded by a combination of University and community sources including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation. The program brought students to Western Oregon University on April 25 and to Oregon State on April 26 to work with volunteer scientists, professors and college students. After a day of sessions in which the students reviewed curriculum they’d learned throughout the year at WOU, they came to Oregon State to apply that knowledge in a group project to create a public service announcement about marine debris.
“What we love to be able to do is to support students to use their science knowledge to solve real-world problems,” program assistant director Ryan Collay said. “We want them to leave here with a better idea of college, and with the skills to start a campaign in their communities around their interests.”
Each group of around 10 students was encouraged to think creatively about increasing public awareness of marine debris through their project, which included an art piece that was created using marine debris and communicated some aspect of the issue, a 30-second elevator speech addressing the problem, and a five-minute presentation designed to communicate knowledge and motivate action.
Cedar Freeman, a junior at Illinois Valley High School, said his group’s presentation would encourage people to reuse their bags and plastic items rather than to litter by illustrating the effect of debris on marine animals.
“I knew marine debris was hurting animals, but I didn’t know how severe it is,” Freeman said.
He hopes to attend Oregon State after graduating high school next year.
Students developed their projects in the MU Ballroom, tackling topics from the impact litter has on families visiting the beach to the damage inflicted on the environment. One group made “No littering” signs that were written in both English and Spanish, reflecting the cultures of the students. Others used pieces of debris along with pipe cleaners, Popsicle sticks and colorful feathers to create art pieces, such as a paper-and-pipe-cleaner turtle with debris glued to its shell and a paper bird covered in plastic netting debris.
“It’s amazing how quickly they can come up with ideas and work together to put them together and grow those ideas,” said Cora Wahl, an Oregon State junior studying agricultural business management who volunteered as a challenge mentor. “It’s really rewarding to see the progress they make.”
The students’ presentations put that creativity on display, with groups performing songs they wrote, acting out skits and using props to illustrate the impacts of marine debris and call for problem-solving steps to be taken.
Fostering college experiences
Collay said the High School Challenge exemplifies the SMILE Program’s goal of increasing the number of educationally disadvantaged students graduating high school and continuing on to college.
Guy Chittenden, a math and science teacher and SMILE mentor at Madras High School, said he agrees.
“By taking them annually to a college, we give them a chance to look around at the freedom and the responsibility to be college students,” Chittenden said. “I think the exposure is pretty special for those populations that don’t have immediate family members who have gone to college.”
Jenny de la Hoz, a math and science education doctoral student who coordinated the challenge with O’Brien, said she hopes that giving students the opportunity to interact with researchers as well as develop mentoring relationships Oregon State students will help the young students see themselves in college.
“We’re trying to get them to see college on their horizon and to feel like they can be college students,” she said. “That’s really what the SMILE program is all about, to really create those moments and have kids envision themselves here. If they can do that, maybe they can see themselves as scientists eventually, too.”
Terran Coblentz, a senior at Willamina High School, is one example of the goal SMILE coordinators and mentors work toward. Coblentz, who worked alongside Freeman to create a skit that communicated how debris harms marine animals, joined SMILE as a middle school student and will attend Pacific University next year.
“I think the regular visits to a college campus do give you a better idea of what attending college can be like,” Coblentz said. “It makes it seem more attainable.”