A select group of 13-year-olds started eighth-grade in Pinellas County this fall with a renewed or newly kindled interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects after spending the summer writing computer code, creating video shorts and tinkering with robots as an extension of Duke University's Talent Identification Program (TIP).
The TIP camp, initiated in Pinellas last year by School Superintendent Dr. Michael A. Grego, is designed to identify and support the best and brightest seventh-graders.
The following are snippets of experiences during a week at TIP camp, which took place at Oak Grove Middle School
in Clearwater and included a day of hands-on learning with robotics, computer programming and multimedia at Lakewood High School
in St. Petersburg and a day exploring orthotics and prosthetics at St. Petersburg College
Lights, Camera, Robots!
It's Wednesday and the kids are at Lakewood High School, where they visit three modules: computer programming, multimedia and robotics. In the computer programming module led by Melissa Hereen, a Lakewood computer science teacher, students hear from experts about computer capabilities in the future and explore object-oriented programming.
Desaray Dilday, a 13-year-old from Clearwater Fundamental Middle School
, speaks up with enthusiasm. "They showed us a video and it had the Google office in it. Working at Google seems really cool because they seem to use a lot of imagination,'' says Dilday.
In David Schneider's CATCOM presentation later in the morning, Zachary Carroll, a 13-year-old student from Dunedin Highland Middle School
, enjoys being in front of and behind the camera in the school's television studio. Although he says he likes the experiences at Lakewood over the medical ones at SPC, it hasn't swayed him from his career goal. "I want to be a neurosurgeon. It's more hands-on. That's why I think a classroom that's more hands-on is better. It helps me learn. It seems pretty cool to be able to work on someone's brain.''
And then there was the robotics module, where students got a look at cutting-edge robotics and got to compete in a short robotics competition using the demonstration robots in the school's robotics lab.
Jason Ness, who teaches robotics at Lakewood, enjoys the learning taking place. "I always say I have it easy because I have a room full of robots. I just have to point the kids in the right direction and let them go. Even in middle school they are amazingly capable of picking up new skills quickly, they jump in full speed and learn by doing.''
Classroom Code Collaboration
In Jack Mattheus' class at Oak Grove on Thursday morning, students are already in their seats waiting for class to begin. It's a mixed bunch of kids representing a wealth of global nationalities and there's not a pocket protector in sight. Discussions range from who likes whom to what is and isn't pidgin language.
It's pretty quiet until a group of boys arrives just before class starts. With boisterous enthusiasm, they take their seats, casting a few smiles at an attractive brunette sitting across the aisle and throwing wisecracks at a buddy sitting up front poised to man the laptop hooked to projection equipment.
"What are we learning today, Mr. Mattheus?'' their leader calls out.
"Code. We're finishing the one you worked on Tuesday,'' the teacher responds.
Mattheus passes out a manual and students who haven't yet gotten their laptops walk over to the shelves below the window to grab one.
Grego says the TIP experience is designed to build confidence among students sometimes overlooked in an environment focused on leaving no child behind. There's no lack of attention here. Unlike the fumbling geek archetype, one perceives a cool detachment among the teens in the room. All exude charm and poise and a few demonstrate talent for wit. Most suffer no fools, confronting each other and the teacher with challenging questions and observations, settling on agreement only after spirited debate.
By the end of class, they've completed the project.
Down the hall in Dan Yeazell's class, students are creating photographic stories on their laptops using Microsoft Photo Story. A cacophony of musical genres play from laptops throughout the room as students try to find the right music to tell their stories.
Osceola Middle School
students Danielle Benson, 13, and Kaitlyn Carlock, 13, come across a jazz piece. "That's gonna be so boss,'' says Benson. They try piano music. "That's so inspirational,'' Benson comments.
"It's elevator music,'' says a boy in the next row.
The girls decide to stick with the piano music anyway.
The kids took pictures throughout the week using sophisticated equipment. Images range from medical equipment and robotics explored during field trips to fashion shoot chic poses -- candid portraits to random shots of tennis shoes and chairs. Every now and then, a picture no one has seen yet pops up on a laptop screen. There's a shout, and soon everyone is scrambling through their photo galleries to find it.
Across the room, Yeazell works with two students filming pencils using stop motion. He says his favorite part of the experience has been the students. "They all have great attitudes and are a lot of fun. They're motivated, they like doing things and that's what makes it fun for a teacher.''
It's show time at the end of the period, which also signifies the end of camp. The lights go down and movie-score music accompanies the first story montage, a piece called "Crime Boss.'' The story features two boys fighting over an attractive brunette from class. Another features candids with captions that all begin with hashtags. The last one features various pictures of Yeazell, with the word "HOT'' pasted across each image. Yeazell takes it in gracious stride. He's here to have fun. "They're good kids,'' he says with a grin.
In 21st century public school classrooms, it's chic to be a geek.
David Lucas, 13, a Tarpon Springs Middle School
student who admits he had to be dragged to camp, smiles grudgingly when asked about his experience. "It's been a little better than what I thought.''
Students Sat For The SAT
To qualify for TIP camp
, each student had to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) in January 2013. Three hundred Pinellas County seventh graders sat for the test -- identical to the one high schoolers were taking the same day. Kailey Albert, a 13-year-old camper from Clearwater Fundamental Middle School, says, "I understand there are some colleges that there's a possibility that I can, like, get into now because my score was high enough.''
Grego is responsible for ushering in early SAT testing to identify, support and challenge talented students. The camp was an extension of the program to keep keen minds engaged over the summer. To him, grooming the best and brightest students is as important as leaving no child behind. He says he envisions the program continuing to grow as more universities get involved.
"I truly believe in creating a school district that is a top performer in the nation and to do that we need to address top performing students.
"I think one of the unfortunate consequences in an environment of testing and accountability is that students who are already proficient don't always get the attention they deserve. This program looks at top tiered students and stretches them by providing opportunities that challenge them. This is our way of saying, 'It's cool to be smart and we are going to help you reach your potential and fulfill your dreams.' ''
Missy Kavanaugh, a professional freelance writer based in Safety Harbor, FL, enjoys writing children's books, helping children and adults reach their creative potential and kayaking the waterways that surround the Tampa Bay region. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.