The Davidson Fellows, 2007: Time, Access, Affection
I just returned home yesterday from the annual Davidson Fellows award ceremony in Washington DC. While the ceremony at the Library of Congress is always fun, this year was particularly nice for me because I got to interview most of the children that morning. I think the quality of fellows continues to improve as more people hear about the program. Among the winners this year were two performers from the Juilliard pre-college program, and another young woman who'd been featured on NPR. Several young writers talked with me about their creative process. The scientists are always a stand-out lot, and among them this year we had a young woman who figured out a new process for recycling plastic, one who figured out a way of penetrating drug resistant biofilms, and a young woman who'd developed a process for a potential urine test for the early detection of cancer. Anyone who's been through some rather invasive and unpleasant cancer screenings will immediately see the benefit of potentially coverting these screenings into nothing worse than a pregnancy test.
After the interviews, I had two main observations. First: These fellows often go to specialized secondary schools. On one hand, this is simple correlation. There are a growing number of specialized math and science high schools, and if you're interested in math and science, why wouldn't you go? Given that the students at these schools tend to be bright and eager to learn, if you're bright and eager to learn, you also would take advantage of them, even if math and science aren't your main gifts. Christina Beasley, one of the young writers, attends a school for science and technology. Much of her creative writing is extra-curricular, but since the students are so eager to learn, there are good programs for them in areas outside S&T.
But there's also a causal connection. To do a prodigious work as a young person, you need time and access (to labs, mentors, etc.) Specialized schools often arrange one or both. Shannon Lee, of Plano Texas, attends a compressed school that caters to gymnasts and actors. Students do their studies in the morning, and their special interest in the afternoon. This works for her musical schedule as well. Nora Xu attends the Illinois Math and Science Academy. She told me that she has no classes on Wednesday, and the school shuttles them to labs, or mentoring situations so the students can pursue independent work. Billy Dorminy, who is homeschooled, has a mom who favors "delight directed" education. He has time to pursue what interests him.
The other observation is that the sweet spot occurs when you have time, access and affection for what you do. You can force a child into a lab (and given the competition to get into top colleges, perhaps some parents do this). You can give them a free day every week to pursue independent projects. But you can't force them to love it, to travel after school and work all night in the lab as Danielle Lent did at SUNY Stony Brook -- and then switch off driving home with a friend to be at school the next day. As Yuqing Meng, a musician, told me, after one particular recital when he was little, he realized that he would always want to do music. Maybe he wouldn't make a career of it. But he couldn't imagine it not being in his life. Yale Fan spoke of doing his physics and comp sci work as a form of stress release.
When you love what you do, you naturally become better at it. You do a lot of of it. You ponder problems as you're taking the bus to school, and you doodle in your other subject notebooks. You figure out problems in this area because you find it fun. When you have a great love for something, and the time and mentors necessary to develop this affection, there's no telling what you can do. (Well, OK, here's one thing you can do: Impress the Senate Majority Leader. Bob Davidson, Colleen Harsin -- the Davidson Academy's principal -- and I got to meet Sen. Harry Reid the other day to talk with him about gifted education issues. When Bob and Colleen mentioned the work some of the fellows had done, Reid about fell off his chair. "A 17-year-old kid can do that?" he asked. Yep!)