Where bright kids can break the classroom barrier

While educators wrestle with the problems of slow learners, the equally pressing needs of the exceptionally bright* have been neglected. Now an exciting experiment in learning is freeing frustrated minds—and challenging teaching’s old lock-step methods

DOUGLAS MARSHALL December 1 1967

Where bright kids can break the classroom barrier

While educators wrestle with the problems of slow learners, the equally pressing needs of the exceptionally bright* have been neglected. Now an exciting experiment in learning is freeing frustrated minds—and challenging teaching’s old lock-step methods

DOUGLAS MARSHALL December 1 1967

Where bright kids can break the classroom barrier

While educators wrestle with the problems of slow learners, the equally pressing needs of the exceptionally bright* have been neglected. Now an exciting experiment in learning is freeing frustrated minds—and challenging teaching’s old lock-step methods

DR. DAVID BAIRD, a geologist at Ottawa's National Museum of Science and Technology, has a question he likes to toss at university graduate students when he begins a lecture course. It's designed to show the geology graduates that they don't know everything. And it works. None of them has ever been able to answer it. Just for laughs, Dr. Baird tried the question out on 35 high-school students attending the Royal Canadian Institute’s summer science program last July.

“There's a shallow bay on the Caspian Sea,” he said. “Does anyone know what they mine there?”

“Epsom salts, sir,” said 16-year-old Robert Israel, of Winnipeg. Baird was flabbergasted. “What side of the sea is it on?” he challenged Robert. “The east side, sir.”

Baird recovered from his surprise and went on with his lecture. It turned out to be one of the most stimulating teaching sessions he'd ever had. The 20 other professors and lecturers who took part in the six-week summer science program had similar experiences. This was no ordinary class. The 13 girls and 22 boys involved in the RCI program were culled from some 300 applicants and probably represented the cream of the grades 1 1 and 12 science students across Canada.

These students are the latest dividends on the crash investment in science education that followed the beep-beep-beep of the first Sputnik. They can play with mathematical concepts that baffle their parents, build rockets in their basements, isolate bacteria by spcctroanalysis and manufacture LSD in the school lab.

But they are not the smug, precocious, know-it-all freaks we once called whiz kids. It would be more accurate to label them over-achievers — brighter than the average high-school pupil but just as involved in the pleasures and problems of growing up as the boy or girl next door. They are to science what the 16-vear-old prize-essay writer is to literature—students who should be encouraged and desperately want to learn more. Their hang-up is that the high-school system in this country is simply not equipped, technically or intellectually, to satisfy their scientific curiosity and hunger for knowledge.

Educational theorists have expended considerable energy in recent years developing special programs for what they call under-achievers. Nobody in Canada has paid much practical attention to the problems of the over-achievers. Yet gifted pupils are obviously just as much out of place in the normal classroom as below-avcrage students.

“T his summer program has taught me more in six weeks than I learned in all the last high-school year,” said Robert Israel, who was counting the days until he could begin a maths and physics course at the University of Chicago. “It’s not just learning new' facts; it's learning about the methods of scientists and the way scientists think. That’s something you never get in high school.”

The RCI program, which started in 1965, clearly solves some of the problems facing students like Robert. So far, it is the only one of its kind in Canada. Britain has four similar courses and there are more than 200 in the United States. But in 1966 the RCI program had to be cancelled because the Institute ran out of money. It was remounted last summer only as a result of unexpected financial help from United Funds Management Ltd., a nationwide investment firm. As a Centennial project, the firm agreed to underwrite the $20,000-ayear program until 1969.

Even with this Bay Street / continued, on pa^e 65


BRIGHT KIDS continued from pa^e 41

“This is education at its best”

backing, the students are expected to chip in a couple of hundred dollars each if at all possible. They do so willingly, and last summer they got their money's worth out of the program organized by the 1967 director. Dr. Derek Sida, an associate professor of mathematics at Ottawa's Carleton University.

The students spent the first five weeks of the course in the summercamp surroundings of Lakefield College. a private boys' school near Peterborough. Ont. The sixth and final week was spent at Expo 67, where the RCI contingent formed the nucleus of the Canadian participation in an international youth science seminar. From Lakefield. students made various day trips to university labs and industrial research institutes throughout Ontario. The best trip was purely cultural: a National Youth Orchestra concert in Toronto. All the RCI students. being mathematically inclined, like music and most play at least one instrument.

Lakefield provided ideal recreational facilities. But it also had the advantage of being roughly equidistant from all the major Ontario universities, which supplied the scientific equipment and most of the lecturers and instructors. The stimulating experience of listening to a university professor — a real scientist waxing strong on his own subject — left these high-school students bright-eyed and breathless. For the first time

somebody was telling them not just what has happened in science, but what is happening and what will happen.

"This is education at its best." said George Hurley, an 18-year-old from Stratford. Ont. "The lecturers are fluid, they stimulate your curiosity and they make you feel you can ask them anything. They never talk down to you. They talk right across to you."

Dr. Sida, the program director, found the students were reacting so enthusiastically to the lecturers that he had to caution them. "1 was worried that they might think this sort of imaginative and personal teaching would be instantly available as soon as they started university. The sad thing is it won't be. For the first couple of years, at any rate, a university course can be just as numbing as high school."

Sida himself was partly to blame for the false impression that university could and would be so exciting. He organized a comprehensive course that ranged from the earth sciences through physics, chemistry and biology to the behavioral sciences — all underlaid by a continuing study of maths and computer science. But he deliberately made it free and easy for the students to skip lectures that didn't interest them, to make their own discoveries and to pursue their own interests. Even the most liberal university would never be so tolerant.

The students made full use of the

BRIGHT KIDS continued

outside, pranks and Cult of the Prune

In the lab, science—

opportunities Sida handed them. One midnight the program’s counselors, Tom Richardson and his wife Gay (both graduate students at Carlcton), discovered that one of the girls was missing. Alarums were sounded and excursions initiated. Finally at 1 a.m. the counselors found 17-year-old Marijane Doyle, of Welland, Ont., in

the laboratory. She was absorbed in a microscopic spcctroanalysis of a suspect meat loaf the students had been served at dinner.

Marijane plans to take chemistry at the University of Toronto and become a medical researcher when she graduates. The RCI program, she said, helped her organize her .ideas about

science and her own future. For one thing, she became fascinated with microbiology and spent hours in the lab studying samples of lake water and testing smears of staphylococci with antibiotics.

“On this course you can work in the labs without people looking over your shoulder all the time,” said Marijane.

“All the high-school experiments are terribly controlled.”

The students were particularly excited by the sophisticated scientific equipment Dr. Sida managed to beg or borrow. Besides extensive lab equipment, there was an eight-inch reflecting telescope, which was in use every clear night, and a complete set of meteorological instruments. For one part of the program, students had access to a big General Electric computer in Toronto.

“You just don’t get a chance to make experiments like this in high school,” said Diane Hoar, 17, who comes from Newcastle, Ont. “The schools have sufficient lab equipment for basic science, but there’s not enough to really inspire any interest.” Diane, who plans to take maths and physics at the U of T, said the main thing that surprised her about the RCI program was the other students. She had been brainwashed into thinking that above-average students were freaks. “But I found the kids here were as human as everybody else and that I was human, too.”

The Richardsons, charged with the task of maintaining some sort of discipline, soon discovered they had an absurdly normal collection of teenage boys and girls on their hands. There were the routine number of apple-pie beds, a few cases of shaving cream between the sheets and a spectacular prank involving a smoke bomb wired to Gay Richardson’s car. (She screamed on cue.) Within a couple of days the students were all on a first-name basis and had organized themselves into the bridge players and the chess players. They even set up a secret society called the Cult of the Prune. It originated when one of the students made a slip of the tongue and described God as “a suprime being.” Seventeen-year-old Olga Volkoff, of Vancouver, said she was worried that the program might turn out to be six weeks of unrelieved discussions about science. Instead, she was struck by the varied interests of the group. “They are ready to do anything and can talk about anything,” she said. “They are not at all the group of narrow-minded scientists I expected.” At the beginning. Dr. Sida was concerned that students were perhaps a little too broad-minded. He would have liked to hear more after-hours discussions about science and less talk about prunes. But as the program decontinued on page 68

veloped it became clear that the students were, in fact, acutely aware of some of the academic problems they’ll inherit.

For one thing, there was a friendly but fairly basic division between the students who thought of themselves as experimentalists and those who considered themselves theoreticians. The experimentalists argued that the theoreticians miss the reality of science. The rebuttal: “Einstein was a theoretician — do you think he lost touch with reality?" That started a second argument. Can scientists rationalize doing work that may be connected with germ warfare or nuclear devices? Most of the students simply hoped they would never be faced with such a moral conundrum.

The opportunity to thresh out this sort of argument, and especially the ability to find out what other intelligent students think, is just one of the many fringe benefits of the RCI summer program. Its main purpose is to provide an antidote to a high-school system that bores gifted students to tears, blunts their curiosity and leaves many of them resigned and indifferent.

For about half the students, the program stimulates an interest in a particular field and helps them make up their minds. For others, like 17year-old Ralph Danyluk, of St. Boniface, Man., it merely confuses the issue by opening up a wider range of possibilities. “I was planning to take maths and physics," said Ralph. “Now I'm not so sure. I never thought geology would be as interesting as I found it.”

The program's theme is based on a quotation from G. K. Chesterton: “It isn't that they can't see the solution; it is that they can't see the problem." There's no question that Chesterton would have approved of what happened at Lakefield last summer. “I came confused and I'm still confused,” said George Hurley. “But at least I can now understand the problems.”

There's only one real problem raised by the RCI summer science program itself — and this time it’s the departments of education that apparently can't see it. The problem is simply this: what is going to be done about the thousands of other over-achievers trapped in our highschool system? At the very least, there should be three or four more such programs operating in Canada. ★