Most high school chemistry lessons don't end with the class sitting down for a gourmet cherry tomato salad and roasted leg of lamb lunch. But that was just another day during one week in July for 12 gifted high school students who tossed aside their textbooks and headed to the kitchen, dance floor and music room to gain more creative perspectives on science through the first Catalyst Summit.

Developed by APA's Center for Gifted Education Policy and sponsored by The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, the program linked students with nationally renowned experts in four chemistry subfields--nanotechnology, chemical engineering, physical chemistry and biochemistry-- for intensive mentoring. Three eminent artists joined the team to explore interdisciplinary commonalities and differences.

"The summit was an amazing experience," says Kiran Gollakota, a high school junior from Lawrenceville, N.J. "It's not really that often that you get to be around people of such caliber, every day for a week."

The week culminated with each scholar introducing a project they will work on with their mentor over the next year. For example, Peter Zhang, a high school junior from West Roxbury, Mass., will research molecular options for renewable energy in the lab of Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemistry professor Daniel Nocera, PhD.

The workshop in Williamstown, Mass., July 8-14, also featured demonstrations by chef Paul Canales, choreographer Stephen Pier and composer Andrew Thomas, who helped students explore the creative process of developing a gourmet meal, a dance routine or a musical score.

"The way a dancer or choreographer thinks about creating dance shares a lot of similarities with how a chemist might think about creating a new material," says Matthew Tirrell, PhD, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and one of the program's science masters.

Catalyst is based on a model developed in 2001 by former APA President Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, and Rena Subotnik, PhD, director of APA's Center for Psychology in Schools and Education, to encourage optimal performance among adolescents gifted in specific fields. Catalyst was designed to spark students' creative thinking and enhance their interest in chemistry careers, says Ashley Edmiston, the program's director.

"We're helping develop future innovators in science," she says.

Words to live by

To be selected for the program, each Catalyst scholar had to demonstrate a passion and commitment to chemistry, says Subotnik, and mentors handpicked their scholars from a pool of 32 applicants. In addition to Nocera and Tirrell, this year's group of science mentors included University of California, Berkeley, chemistry professor Carolyn Bertozzi, PhD, and Princeton chemistry professor Giacinto Scoles, PhD, who is also affiliated with the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy.

A typical day at the summit included morning lectures and discussions among the scholars and their mentors, ending with a group lunch. Then mentors led presentations on their particular science or artistic expertise for the entire group, followed by a dinner discussion on the topic. With the help of the program's six associates--graduate students under the program's mentors who helped lead discussions--the scholars learned about preparing for an academic lifestyle, including how to tackle the challenges of college and the dynamics of graduate school.

Another important component of the Catalyst program, says Subotnik, is the exploration of the psychosocial dimensions of talent development, such as risk taking, persistence in the face of failure, and collaboration and other social skills.

So, while the week focused on chemistry, life lessons also emerged, says Stephanie Wong, a high school senior from Saratoga, Calif. Mentors and scholars alike discussed the value of independence and fighting for your ideas, and the importance of knowing when it makes sense to break the rules.

"In school, we're taught to learn for the test," says Gollakota. "At the Catalyst Summit, it was learn for the sake of learning and see what you can do with that [knowledge] afterwards that no one's ever done before."

The year ahead

As the week ended, participants finalized their proposals for yearlong projects with their mentors. High school juniors Ben Gross and Jeff Samuelson, both from California, will work with Tirrell to create a nanostructure that can detect and eliminate cancer cell growth. Another group of students, including Wong, will work with Bertozzi and associates Stavroula Hatzios and Sarah Hubbard, chemistry graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley, to investigate potential therapeutic strategies for latent tuberculosis. Gollakota plans to study the protein thought to cause Alzheimer's disease in Scoles' lab.

Next summer, the scholars and mentors will meet again when the students present their project results at the kickoff for the 2008 Catalyst Summit.

APA and The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation plan to run Catalyst for at least three years, says Mark Cardillo, executive director of the foundation.

"I look forward to the reunion next year to see how the momentum of the workshop carries forward in terms of the projects and eventually the development of the young scholars' directions," Cardillo says.

But for one mentor at least, next year's reunion may just confirm the talent he's already recognized in these scholars after just one week.

"If these kids are the future, the future looks bright," says Scoles.