Each summer, Michael T. Lotze, MD, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Molecular Medicine Institute, hires one or two high school or undergraduate students to give them research experience in his lab.

He views mentoring the next generation of researchers as a professional obligation. "Young students always surprise me with the quality of the work they do," he says. "I'm amazed at how bright and nimble their minds are."

So, when APA offered him an opportunity to mentor three high-achieving 16-year-olds using evidence-based practices, he quickly signed up.

The experience is part of the first annual APEX Project, sponsored by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. APEX provides the Jack Kent Cooke "young scholars" with firsthand experience working with leaders in fields as far-ranging as biomedicine, theater and computer science. Through its Young Scholars Program, the foundation selects high-achieving students with financial need and provides them with extensive, individualized supplementary educational support throughout high school.

The project grew out of the APA Center for Gifted Education Policy's Pinnacle Project, which linked high-achieving high school students with mentors at the top their fields.

The APEX program revolves around a one-week workshop, held this year in July in Williamstown, Mass., in which two or three young scholars pair with a "master" in one of six fields. To follow up, the masters will informally help the young scholars complete a project they started during the workshop. During the year, they also meet in a "work" location, where students get a real-world look at their mentors in action. For example, students interested in creative writing will meet fiction master Janette Turner Hospital in the New York City office of her editor.

That real-world focus is a major APEX staple.

"We don't believe that education stops in the classroom," says Joshua S. Wyner, the foundation's vice president of programs. "APEX allows students to meet experts and learn skills that they otherwise would not be able to develop."

Honing students' talents

Each student chosen for the workshop was part of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation's Young Scholars Program and already in love with a particular area of study, such as the law, medicine or journalism, says Jason Gorgia, assistant director of APA's Center for Gifted Education Policy.

Indeed, says Rena Subotnik, PhD, director of the APA Center for Psychology in Schools and Education, "Giving students this experience helps to socialize them into chosen fields of study and hopefully provides them with new insights regarding potential career choices."

The experts' interactions with students follow the talent-development model proposed by psychologist Benjamin S. Bloom, PhD, in "Developing Talent in Young People" (Ballantine, 1984). He theorized that with appropriate support and instruction, people move through three periods of talent development:

  • Romance: People fall in love with a topic or field.

  • Technique: People gain competence in the area and want to master the field's technical demands.

  • Mastery: People develop strong personal identification with the talent area and channel personal expression through the medium.

"The mentors took a leap of faith in agreeing to work with these students," says Pete Mackey, PhD, the foundation's director of public affairs. "The masters didn't know the students' ability levels. But once they met them, they realized that the young scholars were at a place where the masters could help them hone their talents."

Due to the young scholars' high skill levels, the masters were able to help the students significantly, Mackey says. For instance, a young scholar who recently returned from a year in China worked with David Goldman, executive director of the National Center for New Plays at Stanford University, on integrating elements of Chinese opera and experimental Brechtian techniques into her directing style.

"She was already theoretically quite advanced," Goldman says. "So we were able to focus her knowledge and experience in a very specific way." Likewise, Goldman's other student, who is more interested in performing than directing, worked on his acting and will be developing and writing his own one-person play.

Future directions

Masters gave their young scholars homework each night of the workshop. And in the last few days, they assigned them a yearlong project to present at next year's workshop.

Their projects ranged from one student writing a novella about a lost love to another investigating whether the No Child Left Behind legislation is true to the principles of federalism.

The masters will also meet with their students to further develop their areas of interest. For instance, young scholars who worked on legal projects will meet up with law master Alan Morrison, a Stanford University law professor who has argued 18 cases in front of the Supreme Court, in Washington, D.C., in March to observe the court.

"My three students are incredibly eager to learn," he says. "So being able to see oral arguments at the Supreme Court will help raise new questions, and hopefully probe new ideas."

The experience should help the young scholars narrow their areas of interest, Mackey suggests.

"These [young scholars] are so hardworking and able that by the time they're in their last few years of high school, they'll need to think about the various disciplines they've explored and what kind of work is necessary to succeed in those fields," he says. "[The APEX project] is their first chance to try to think about focusing their preferences and narrowing their possibilities."

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and APA are already planning for next year's project, which will feature a reunion for this year's participants. Both the foundation and APA hope to make the project an annual event.