Odyssey Day Highlights Liberal Arts, Sciences
ome of the most talented young minds in New England interacted with some of UConn's most talented teaching faculty March 11, during a day of presentations for about 200 gifted middle school students and their parents.
The occasion, known as Odyssey Day, is sponsored each year by Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth at colleges around the country.
Charged with the task of presenting the liberal arts to the students, UConn's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences offered an array of presentations from fields as varied as English, political science, psychology, geology and materials science. The topics were selected to appeal to a seventh, eighth and ninth grade audience: "Solids, Liquids and Slime;" "The Importance of Teenage Diary Keeping: Anne Frank's Story and Yours;" and "Constitutional Rights in the Schools."
Keynote speaker Robert Birge, the Harold S. Schwenk Sr. Distinguished Chair in Chemistry, described a bacterium that is expected to revolutionize computing. Without "dumbing down" his subject matter for the students, most of whom score in the top few percentiles on standardized tests for their age group and have already taken SATs, he talked about molecular electronics and explained that biology can make molecular electronics much more powerful.
He encouraged the students to get a background in several different disciplines. "My work is at the interface of chemistry, physics, molecular biology and electronics," Birge said, noting that he once intended to be a music major. "Most of the advances in the next decade will take place at the interface between disciplines. To be successful, you need to be general. You need to keep an open mind and take courses in a number of different areas."
Birge said he works with students doing experiments in schools throughout the country, and he invited the Odyssey Day participants to correspond with him through e-mail.
David Janelle, a seventh grader from Enfield, N.H., thought he might follow up. "It sounds like something I might want to go into later," he said.
In the broad range of presentations that followed, a constant was enthusiasm, as faculty conveyed their excitement about their discipline and the students responded with keen attention and thoughtful questions.
"Thinking is fun and mathematics helps," said Chuck Vinsonhaler, professor and chair of the mathematics department. "The ways mathematicians think translate readily into solving other, non-mathemat ical problems," he said. "The theme is to simplify. Many times the great discoveries in mathematics are based on an example that's very simple."
Acknowledging that middle school students have their careers ahead of them, Vinsonhaler told them, "There's still plenty to do," and he gave them two unsolved mathematical problems to try.
Kathleen Segerson, a professor of economics, used the price of Pokemon cards to demonstrate principles of a market economy, such as supply and demand.
"Business is about making money," she said. "Economics is about making decisions."
She also engaged the students in a discussion of how to decide how much effort to put into studying for a science test, to illustrate the concept of diminishing returns.
Gary Doyle, from Burlington, Vt., who accompanied his son Ian, a seventh grader, said he appreciated the faculty giving up time on a weekend.
"As parents of bright kids, we're always searching for enrichment opportunities," said Doyle, who also brought along his daughter Jessica, a fourth grader who already reads at the level of a high school senior.
"Schools need to do a much better job of paying attention to higher-level students," Doyle said. "The education system ... leaves a lot of bright kids to a school career of boredom."
Betsy Lowe of Lake Placid, N.Y., also spoke of the problems many gifted students experience in school. She said her son, Christopher Verner, a seventh grader, complains he knows everything, so why should he go to school? "But you don't know what you don't know until you know what there is to know," said Lowe. "This program is opening so many windows."
Christopher listened intently as Philip Gould, a professor of physics, described the uses of lasers in items most teenagers are familiar with: CD players and phones, for example. Handing round a sample of fiber optic cable, Gould noted that a couple of these slender cables are capable of conveying a million teenage conversations. He also explained how lasers are used by the police to monitor traffic speed and by some scientists who rely on atomic clocks for a high degree of accuracy.
Christopher, for whom the day at UConn was his first time on a college campus, has exceptionally high scores in science and math. He is now applying his skills to the stock market to help save for his college education.