Critical thinking, consensus building nurtured at annual Summer Laureate program

It’s a sweltering July afternoon and 13-year-old Jessica Nunn has 40 seconds left to help her teammates finish the construction of a two-story edifice strong enough to support the weight of a book using only 10 playing cards and tape as raw building materials.

When their teacher Sandra Leiterman announces additional time has been granted after the project’s general contractor has determined a 10 percent cost overrun, the students scramble to finish their engineering feat with two more minutes to spare.

The classroom experience highlights the mission of Summer Laureate University for Youth (SLUFY), a program of the Jodie Mahony Center for Gifted Education at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

UALR SLUFYEstablished in 2001, the Mahony Center is only one of 25 such centers nationwide, according to director Ann Robinson, who believes it is essential to provide services and support to gifted students and their families, teachers, and administrators.

Summer Laureate offers a variety of classes taught by a staff that includes teachers certified in educating the gifted and talented student. Open to students in kindergarten through eighth grade, the annual program has been in full swing this summer and just ended on July 19. Booker Arts Magnet School in Little Rock has once again been the host site.

From Pixar animation to Greek mythology to modern art, students are stimulated to think outside the box, while also building consensus among like-minded peers.

New this year was a pilot STEM class, called Engineering is Elementary, geared toward third- and fourth-grade students. Led by Lyndsey Drain of Russellville, the class encouraged younger students to think about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in new ways.

Classroom learning was augmented by invited guests, such as a local photojournalist who showcased his work covering oil spills to demonstrate the environmental impact of such disasters.

Nunn, in her third year enrolled as a participant, was clearly not intimidated even though she was the only female. She also took a course on persuasive writing and speech.

“I’m pretty eclectic,” she admitted. “I enjoy meeting new people and piggybacking off other people’s ideas. I love learning about their different backgrounds and perspectives.”

Robinson said one of the most valuable aspects of the program is its ability to award financial need scholarships, funded in part by a generous endowment created in honor of education leader Martha Gaunt Bass. This year, 44 gifted students with financial need received funding to help offset tuition for the program.

“We like to encourage student participation from a variety of backgrounds, socio-economic and otherwise,” Robinson said.

Meanwhile, in the class called “Switch it, Change it, Rearrange it,” Nunn was prayerfully focused on Leiterman as she carefully perched an eighth book on their structure before it collapsed under the weight, eclipsing the other two groups by at least seven books.

During the debriefing session, Nunn said a last-minute decision by the team to encase their triangular base with a square one may have been key to their win. Compromise was also essential, Nunn said.

“This activity helped me think in a different way,” she said.

Nunn, who has also been taking Chinese language lessons for several years and managed to secure a top 20 spot in the National Spelling Bee last year, had parting words of wisdom for her peers.

“Some people only think of today. You need to think long-term. It’s really important to think down the road,” she said.

Nunn shares more about her experience at SLUFY in a guest post she wrote for the UALR Sights and Sounds blog.

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