Feature

During the first hazy days of August, the American Psychological Foundation (APF) gave seven talented high school students the experience of a lifetime: a week working one-on-one with leading experts in journalism, history, psychology, music, fiction writing, mathematics and science at a summit called the Pinnacle Project.

"The world needs more Michelangelos," says APA Past-president Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, one of the project's psychology mentors. "Gifted kids don't always become great. Identifying gifted kids and putting them with a world-class mentor could be the missing link."

Offering that connection is the Pinnacle Project's goal. At the project--held July 31-Aug. 6 at Simon's Rock College in Great Barrington, Mass.--each of the students was paired with a "master" and up-and-coming scholar or professional in his or her field of interest. The students will continue to work with their mentors in the coming years. For example, high school senior Scott Thompson will work with Seligman and psychologist E. Belvin Williams, PhD, to form a social intelligence assessment. Meanwhile, 15-year-old composer Julia Scott Carey will work with Pennsylvania Ballet music director and conductor Beatrice Affron to learn how to conduct an orchestra performing one of her own compositions.

"Encouraging gifted young people is one of the most important things we can do for the future of our country," says Arthur Jaffe, PhD, the Pinnacle Project master in mathematics. "What people invent in math and science in the future is going to determine the future of our world."

Other masters at the project included fiction writers Jonathan and Faye Kellerman, Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Joshua Lederberg, PhD, "60 Minutes" Executive Editor Philip Scheffler and Vincent Wimbush, PhD, an expert in religious history.

"Going into the project, I was kind of intimidated by all of these people who had these lists of accomplishments as long as your arm," says Thompson. "I was very impressed with how socially intelligent, outgoing and fun the masters were."

The Pinnacle Project was funded through a bequest from clinical psychologist Esther Katz Rosen, PhD. Rosen strongly believed that gifted and talented children should have more resources to develop their potential.

The glue of excitement

The Pinnacle Project is a unique model, says its director, Rena Subotnik, PhD, because it brings together three levels of highly talented individuals--high school students, early career stars and eminent professionals and academics--in seven fields.

"We came from all different walks of life and disciplines," says 16-year-old Rachel Emery, who garnered writing tips and knowledge about the publishing industry from the Kellermans and short-fiction writer Sarah Sonner. "And yet there was a glue, metaphorically speaking, holding us all together. Everybody was really excited and they loved what they were doing, which was pretty amazing."

Each of the summit's five days started out with some one-on-one time for the students and their mentors to come up with a collaborative long-term project. For example, Zach Wissner-Gross and his science mentors brainstormed on the best way to create a computer program that will assess the importance of certain genes that allow animals to recognize their kin.

Over lunch, the teams came together to discuss the common threads in each of their disciplines, such as creativity, building on talent and working on long-term projects. In the afternoon and evening, the attendees went on several outings, including a tap show at Jacob's Pillow, a performance of the opera "Salome" at Tanglewood and a hike up a mountain. The masters also gave talks about their respective fields for the entire group.

"Hearing Joshua Lederberg talk about bacteria was very eye-opening," says music master Affron. "And I could say that pretty much down the line about all of the lecturers."

"It was unique to be around such a diversely talented group of people that are passionate and committed about doing what they're doing," adds immunology researcher Matthew Albert, PhD, MD, of The Rockefeller University, who mentored Wissner-Gross in science with Lederberg. "It was a privilege to participate in such a project."

Laying future foundations

Developmentally, the Pinnacle Project's scholars are at the perfect age to participate in a program that provides them with great mentoring, says Subotnik, head of APA's Center for Gifted Education Policy. Since the students have spent a lot of time in their chosen disciplines, they've honed their exceptional abilities to the point where they are ready for the guidance of high-level professionals and scholars.

"The Pinnacle Project gave the scholars the kind of mentoring they need at this stage and reminded them that great creativity is often stimulated by exposing one's deep thinking in one area with ideas from other disciplines," she explains. "It's a model that we plan to replicate and that we hope will be replicated by others."

The project's organizers plan to follow their first cohort of scholars over time to see the effects of the mentoring experience. They're also tossing around new ideas for future Pinnacle Project summits, including adding different disciplines or recruiting mentors from other professions.

Regardless of the project's future plans, this year's scholars can't say enough good things about the experience.

"The fact that there were a variety of disciplines was a really distinctive part of the project," says Thompson. "It was an amazing group of people."