High School Challenge Connects Rural Students to STEM Careers and College

Two high school girls testing bioplastic film for presence of starch

- Story and photos by Adriene Koett-Cronn

Teams of rural high school students put their analytical and creative skills to the test during the annual SMILE High School Challenge and College Connection Days, held April 28-29 on the campuses of Western Oregon University (WOU) and Oregon State University (OSU).

This year, the teams were challenged to make a flexible, bioplastic film to use as a time-released drug delivery device. This STEM-based event is organized by the SMILE (Science & Math Investigative Learning Experiences) Program and the Bioenergy Education Initiative at Oregon State University.

The students participating in the Challenge and College Connection Days are all members of after school SMILE clubs. The clubs provide students in grades 4-12 with opportunities to explore STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects and careers. The clubs serve students in rural school districts who are either minority students, from low-income households, or who would be the first in their family to go to college.  Over 120 high school students from clubs across the state have signed up to attend this event, some coming from as far away as Ontario and Cave Junction.

Students worked in small teams to make thin, biodegradable, bioplastic films. They will then tested their films for flexibility and durability. They create a prototype that theoretically can be infused with medicine that releases over time – much like a nicotine patch. Finally, the teams devised a marketing pitch for their film and make a presentation to investors, as if they were a start-up biotech firm. In these presentations, students showed their knowledge about making the bioplastic film and its beneficial uses as a drug delivery method.

Several OSU undergraduates volunteered to be team mentors during the Challenge. Many of them were former SMILE club members themselves.  They provided guidance and encouragement as the high schoolers work to meet the goals of the Challenge. Additionally, graduate students from OSU BioResource Research Program and the Austin Entrepreneurship Program lead breakout sessions teaching students how to make the biofilms, infuse them with medicines and market their prototypes.

Jay Well, lead education coordinator for the Challenge, said about this year’s event, “We are excited to give students a chance to try some innovative, cutting edge science. These are real materials, products and challenges that scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs are wrestling with right now.”

The College Connection Day was held on the OSU campus the following afternoon. Students had a chance to tour labs where engineers and scientists are actively creating products of the future. Activities included campus tours, participating in lab experiments, visiting the Makers Space at Austin Business School, and a panel discussion to answers questions about college life and debunk myths about college.

Reflecting on the goals of this two-day event, Well said, “During these two, hectic days the students have fun, make new friends and are challenged. They are learning about and make some cutting-edge bioproducts. Plus, they are also making connections to college campuses and STEM-related careers. Events like these truly help these students get one step closer to actually going to college.”

Click to see photo album of Challenge.