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For gifted students, USC initiative fosters summer learning

August 8, 2019

A pilot program serves up an interdisciplinary smorgasbord

By Diane Krieger

MAT student Erika Mejia (right) helps guide students through computer work during the USC Discovery Project, a summer initiative for gifted middle school students. (Photo/Brian Morri)

MAT student Erika Mejia (right) helps guide students through computer work during the USC Discovery Project, a summer initiative for gifted middle school students. (Photo/Brian Morri)

Take 25 bright middle schoolers. Blitz them with fact-filled presentations by USC professors in computer science, medicine, economics, urban planning, political science, philosophy and neuroscience. Engage them in Socratic back-and-forth. Give the kids laptops and coach them in concept-rich coding tasks.

Then ask them to think long and hard about what they want to do with their lives.

Throw in community-building games, critical- and creative-thinking drills, healthy snacks and hot lunches. Do this for six-and-a-half hours a day over two weeks. And watch for ah-ha moments and life-shaping transformations.

That, in a nutshell, is the Discovery Project at USC.

Developing intellectualism

For the last two weeks, room 105 in Dauterive Hall was ground zero for a group of precocious 13- to 15-year-olds participating in this experimental summer program.

Discovery Project is the brainchild of USC Rossier clinical professor Sandra Kaplan, a world-renowned authority in gifted education. Kaplan collaborated with USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Leana Golubchik and USC Price School of Public Policy’s Elizabeth Currid-Halkett to put together the pilot, which ended August 2.

The 25 participating middle schoolers were drawn from USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative, the Mirman School and a handful of USC faculty families. Funding for the program came from the Provost’s Office with support from USC Rossier Dean Karen Symms Gallagher, USC Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos and of USC Price Dean Jack Knott.

The goal, Kaplan said, was to immerse the kids in topics and disciplines they wouldn’t normally encounter—urban economics and food supply, for example. In two lectures, scholars from USC Price compared the cost of living in L.A. with other cities and mapped residents’ shopping options by neighborhood. These research-driven niches would never turn up in a middle school lesson plan, Kaplan noted.

“But we’re interested in developing scholars, not just exposing bright kids to scholarship. We’re not interested in their intelligence, per se, but in developing intellectualism. We’re hoping everybody walks out of here with the skills to be a researcher—how to develop an interest, and to seed it so it can grow,” said Kaplan, who is famous for creating the “Depth and Complexity” prompt system for critical thinking.

Diving into many disciplines

Computer science is central to the project—the platform on which students can build out their interests, noted Golubchik, who holds joint appointments in computer science and electrical engineering and chairs the university’s Women in Science and Engineering initiative.

“The K-12 curriculum is very focused on programming, which is a just a tool,” she said. “We wanted to show them computer science as a discipline, a potential career and a foundation for other things.”

On Wednesday morning of week two, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles pediatric fellows Dejeunee Ashby and Jennifer Johnson led the students on a guided tour of the human brain. The kids learned to differentiate between Broka’s aphasia and Wernicke’s aphasia. They saw how synaptic pruning works differently in people on the autism spectrum.

After lunch, they wrestled with game theory and philosopher Robert Nozick’s principles of rule-following and fairness. USC Dornsife College philosophy professor Mark Schroeder and doctoral student Jennifer Foster walked them through a set of intriguing thought-experiments.

Earlier, USC Viterbi computer scientists Michael Shindler and Séb Arnold had explained the machine-learning concepts behind the uncanny ability of AI systems to teach themselves complex games like chess, Othello and go, and then rapidly outstrip the skill-levels of human champions.

Big concepts in computing

Between disciplinary dives, the students grabbed their assigned laptops and coded. Coached by USC Viterbi grad students, they worked in small-groups or individually, applying big ideas to byte-sized problems.

Sydne Carmon was working on a program she called “Closet.” It could catalog her shoes, dresses, shirts and pants by color, track what’s dirty and clean, let her mix and match wardrobe elements, and display her final outfit selection.

For Carmon, the Discovery Project only reinforced her ambition to be a singer and fashion designer. “It also made me realize I have a lot of options,” said the Mirman student. “I can have different streams of income.”

Malichi Martinez sees himself majoring in computer science. His top career picks are “game designer and manga/anime artist, but I’m also very interested in geology and geography,” said the NAI scholar, a rising freshman at Foshay Learning Center.

Discovery Project days were tiring, Martinez admitted. “There was a lot of information to take in. But it allowed me to use my brain and think outside my comfort zone,” he said. “And I got to learn from my brilliant peers.”

Diverse and driven

The program enrolled a diverse mix of students, but Kaplan’s research has shown that gifted education works with children of all backgrounds. NAI students, drawn from USC neighborhoods, may be environmentally and socio-economically different from Mirman kids, she explained, “but they’re on the same intellectual scale. And it’s that intellectual interaction we’re looking for.”

Everyone attended the program free of charge. Lunches, snacks and laptops also were provided at no cost. The NAI kids walked to campus, while the Mirman kids came by pre-arranged Uber. Four participants were the children of USC faculty. (The Discovery Project was, among other things, a trial balloon for a potential independent school on the University Park Campus—an idea being explored by the Faculty Senate.)

Some kids made meaningful connections with certain faculty speakers. After Wednesday’s neurology presentation, a girl named Sheila exchanged email addresses with the USC doctors.

“She was talking about shadowing them at Children’s Hospital. They lit a fire,” said Robyn Arnold, a third-grade teacher at Sherman Oaks Charter Elementary School.

Another student’s enthusiasm swung from anesthesiology to political science and back to medicine in the span of three days.

“That’s perfectly fine,” said Arnold, who was recently named an LAUSD Teacher of the Year. “We weren’t trying to sway their opinion, but to show them how to grow an idea and make it successful.”

The intellectual toolbelt

She and Rachel Windler MAT ’11 were master-teachers with the Discovery Program. Each afternoon, they drilled down on techniques and strategies that promote scholarly thinking.

Arnold called it “giving the kids an intellectual toolbelt.”

“We had a different focus every day: critical thinking, creative thinking, depth and complexity,” said Windler, a middle-school social studies teacher with the Redondo Beach Unified School District.

Wednesday’s lesson was on making intra-and interdisciplinary connections.

“These kids were exposed to so many different disciplines,” Windler said, “and we wanted to make clear the connections among and between them—so they could engage in their own independent study.”

Discovery Project organizers are compiling data for a post-mortem analysis; they plan to roll out an improved version next summer.

Golubchik’s early assessment is quite favorable.

“The kids were very engaged,” she said. “Most days we couldn’t get through everything, because they were asking so many questions, participating, wanting to have input. I am amazed at how they absorbed the material and rose to the challenge of thinking about and solving problems.”

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