Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., was the site for the second annual Pinnacle Project, where for one week in August, masters from a wide array of disciplines interacted with seven highly gifted adolescents in a relaxed setting of group discussions, cultural events and group projects.
Sponsored by the American Psychological Foundation (APF) with additional support from the Clay Mathematics Institute, the Pinnacle Project spans across levels of academic backgrounds and a wide array of fields including psychology, journalism, music composition, visual art, computer science, theoretical physics and creative writing.
Rena Subotnik, PhD, director of the APF Center for Gifted Education Policy (CGEP), says it was a life-changing experience for the adolescents in two ways. "One was in terms of being exposed to high levels of expertise," says Subotnik. "The other was socially where they had a chance to be around other kids who were not competitors, who each had their own level of expertise but who were very talented and very serious about their work."
Julia Carney of Newton, Mass.,16, says meeting with her mentor, Alex Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, proved to be an eye-opening experience because he explored the theoretical, rather than mechanical aspects of his field. "Editors and journalists are forced to make numerous decisions in situations that before, to me, would seem black and white," the high school newspaper editor says. "Alex helped, and is helping me, to recognize how to identify these different and more complex layers, which only someone so highly developed in his craft can do."
Edward Coakley of Fairfax County, Va., 17, says the week was the one of the most interesting and intellectually stimulating times of his life. Because of the diversity of mentors present, the psychology scholar was able to explore his multidisciplinary interests that include math, physics and music.
But the week was also memorable for the masters. "For the first time, [the masters] could appreciate how talented adolescents could be within their own field," says Subotnik, "because often they don't have exposure to high school students."
Janet Soller, PhD, assistant CGEP director, pointed out that Cumrun Vafa, PhD, a renowned physics professor at Harvard University, was delighted to discover that his 16-year-old scholar, Emily Russell of Yorktown Heights, N.Y., was able to learn in only 30 minutes the theoretical physics material that he teaches his graduate students. Vafa says that he and Russell will now work on a theoretical physics project that deals with the study of the "Matrix models." Meanwhile, Joan Oliver Goldsmith, the creative writing master and author, challenged the scholar, Sophie Kerman, 16, of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., to live more of a writer's life. "Two of the reasons young writers tend to write is when inspiration strikes or when they have a class assignment," says Goldsmith. "Sophie committed to write four to six hours a week." They will then participate in a biweekly "virtual coffee house" discussion of their writing progress by telephone.
The CGEP team wants the Pinnacle Project to serve as a model for other programs. "What we're trying to do is develop a program that not only affects people's lives who were lucky enough to participate," Subotnik says, "we want to try to develop a prototype that can be used by schools, universities, other regions, other countries, so that more kids can have the opportunity."