Sixteen sixth, seventh and eighth grade students from Thompson Middle School (TMS) joined peers from around the state at the University of Rhode Island for the URI SMILE program’s Middle School Challenge Weekend March 3 and 4.

The Science & Math Investigative Learning Experiences, or SMILE program, is an after school academic enrichment program that encourages students—in particular minorities and disadvantaged youth— in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) content, to keep good grades and to go to college. There are 25 SMILE programs throughout the state, serving 500 students.

This year’s SMILE theme is Engineering, with TMS students meeting weekly after school to undertake challenges ranging from designing self-stopping robots to creating a variety of bridges.

The engineering challenges culminated at the Challenge Weekend with students working in multi-school teams to create bridges made from chopsticks that could support at least 60 pounds of weights. TMS students were members of each of the top two teams, whose bridges held 63 and 55.5 pounds respectively. The TMS SMILE club also brought two balsa wood bridges that were tested on a “shake table” from the lab of URI engineering professor George Tsiatas, to determine how well the design could withstand an earthquake.

In addition to the bridge challenge, TMS students toured the URI campus and heard inspiring presentations from current undergraduates and admissions office representatives. The response from the students was overwhelmingly enthusiastic and many said at the end of the weekend that they aspire to attend URI.

Says eighth grader Mariela Miniño of the SMILE program, “[students] do loads of fun challenges that will teach you things that will stick with you for the rest of your life…it was probably one of the best experiences I will cherish from middle school.” Lily Sones, also in grade eight,  responded, “I never imagined that I would love engineering as much as I do and thanks to SMILE I have found my calling!”

Photo Caption:  Thompson Middle School student watch as George Tsiatas, Professor and Graduate Director at the URI Department of Civil and Engineering, tests a balsa wood bridge the students built at school and brought to the SMILE club Middle School Challenge Weekend at URI. From left are Meghan Leddy, Brooke Green, Felicity Jackson, Nevaeh Maseey (in back), Khatima Bulmer, T.J. Mello, Kalina Thaxter and Alexander Gaines.

Information from a Newport Public Schools press release was used in this story.

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Ryan Belmore has been the Owner & Publisher of What's Up Newp since 2012. He also currently works for Mountain News, where he serves as Senior Editor - North America for OnTheSnow. He previously worked for the New England Patriots and American Cancer Society. He currently serves as Vice President of Fort Adams Trust and is a member of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers and North American Snowsports Journalists Association (NASJA).