For the past two years, an American Psychological Foundation-funded program has been helping gifted teenagers develop skills in their fields of interest by linking them with early-career and top professionals.
Each summer, seven gifted students work with professionals from a variety of disciplines during the one-week Pinnacle Summit. They use that time to meet with their mentors and begin work on at least one project over the following year.
The program, launched in 2001, was developed for teens who have achieved at an "extraordinary level" and show a passion for a particular discipline, says Rena Subotnik, PhD, director of APA's Center for Gifted Education Policy, housed in APA's Education Directorate, which administers the Pinnacle program. By selecting scholars based on their demonstrated work and recognition in an area, it shows that intelligence tests are not the only way to identify highly talented adolescents, Subotnik notes.
While providing an environment in which students can work with top experts in specialized areas, the project also aims to expose them to other disciplines, Subotnik says. That way, for example, a young creative writer can draw from the psychology mentors in developing fictional characters, she notes.
"The Pinnacle Project offers a very sophisticated, research-based experience to teenagers that only college students would normally have," Subotnik says. The project, grounded in the psychological literature on talent development, creativity and expertise, places it at the forefront of modeling teaching and learning for excellence, Subotnik adds.
The Monitor recently caught up with three of the 14 Pinn-acle scholars to find out what the program has done for them:
Edward Coakley, 17, from Fairfax County, Va., is a Pinnacle scholar in psychology. But psychology isn't his only interest--as his mentors Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, former APA president and psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Sergei Gukov, PhD, who teaches at both Harvard University and Rutgers University, discovered during the Pinnacle Summit this past summer.
Coakley not only studies graduate-level work in positive psychology with Seligman but also in superstring theory, used in theoretical physics, with Gukov. "We found out that Coakley may not only be a good psychologist, but also a genius at superstring theory," Seligman says. "He seemed to be terrific at two widely disparate things."
Coakley is currently working with Seligman and another mentor, Derek Isaacowitz, PhD, a Brandeis University assistant professor of psychology, on a case study of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson. Using recently released White House telephone conversations during Johnson's administration, they are doing a content analysis to investigate the relationship between positive language and risk-taking behavior. Coakley has been analyzing tapes from 1963 to 1965.
The Thomas Jefferson High School senior plans to attend either Harvard College or Princeton University this year and to ultimately pursue a PhD in psychology, mathematics, physics or philosophy.
Coakley says he is thankful for the access the Pinnacle Project has given him to top experts. "The greatest part of being a Pinnacle scholar has been the opportunity to discuss so many interesting ideas with so many highly intelligent and accomplished individuals," Coakley says. "The experience has helped solidify my aspirations as an academic."
At 5 years old, Matthew Baker became fascinated with history as he watched a Ken Burns Civil War documentary. His interest has only grown through the years and has evolved into trying to answer one question: "Why is everything the way it is?"
"The only way to answer that would be to look back at history and see how things came about," Baker says. And that's exactly what the 18-year-old freshman at Yale University has been doing.
Selected as the history Pinnacle scholar in 2001, Baker has worked with his mentors--religion history professors Vincent Wimbush, PhD, and Delmond Coates--on his research into his great-grandfathers' experiences as bishops in the African-American Church of God in Christ. Baker's historical narrative--which he hopes to finish before he graduates--includes a description of how his great-grandfather was driven out of his town by the Ku Klux Klan.
Baker says his mentors have helped him to develop and pursue his interest in African-American religious studies and that the knowledge of research techniques they've passed on to him will help him in future research projects as well.
But a fascination with history isn't the only thing this former Pinnacle scholar balances. Baker, a political science major, also plays football for Yale and hopes to play professionally one day or join the front office of a professional sports team. He is also considering a career in politics.
Part of the first Pinnacle program cohort, Baker remains in contact with his mentors. "When I was chosen to take part in the Pinnacle Project, I really didn't know what to think," Baker says. "All I knew was that I would be able to spend a week with a prominent mind in a field that I was very interested in. Luckily, we were able to continue our relationship, and keep in touch as much as we can."
Pinnacle journalism scholar Julia Carney would like to become a New York Times correspondent in Iraq or Iran one day, combining her interests in journalism and foreign policy. Through the Pinnacle Project, she has gained a greater understanding of journalism that she hopes will help her achieve that goal.
Carney, a senior at Newton North High School in Newton, Mass., has been working with her Pinnacle mentor, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Jones, on two projects. Jones is the director of Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
For the first project, Jones directed Carney to try opinion writing--a style she wasn't used to. Based on her experiences with community service, Carney decided to write an essay encouraging teenagers to get involved in community service because it can help teach tolerance and respect for others.
Carney's second project with Jones is a news article about children and teenagers with AIDS. To research her article, she has been volunteering at a center for children who are HIV-positive. She plans to focus on people who contracted the virus through blood transfusions or through their mothers.
What most draws Carney to journalism is telling stories that look below the surface while exploring areas that often go unnoticed. Carney, who is also co-editor of her high school newspaper, says the Pinnacle mentorship has exposed her to journalism ethics and the field's relationship to other disciplines, and it has pushed her to tackle difficult projects.
Jones sees a bright future for Carney in journalism. "She is not only smart but passionate," says Jones, adding that the energy and writing ability she demonstrated in the essays submitted with her application are what made her stand out among other applicants and why he chose her as the Pinnacle journalism scholar.
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