For Talented High Schoolers, Summer Fun Includes an Academic Challenge

A course in the mathematical field of topology was one of many that students in the Neag School of Education's Mentor Connection program had to choose from. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

A course in the mathematical field of topology was one of many choices for students in the Neag School of Education’s Mentor Connection summer program. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

For some high school students, summer means a choice between working at a local farm stand or burger joint, or choosing to sleep late and then maybe hitting the beach. But for academically talented students, UConn offers a more challenging option.

The Neag School of Education’s Mentor Connection program attracts some of the nation’s best and brightest high school students to the Storrs campus each July. Once they arrive, they plunge into such diverse topics as nanoparticle-based drug delivery, making memories in the mammalian brain, and the mathematical field of topology – described by Patrick Dragon, assistant professor-in-residence in the Department of Mathematics, as being “like geometry, but squishier.”

Asked why he chose to spend precious summer weeks studying one specialized aspects of mathematics, Nicholas Serrambana from East Hartford, Connecticut and a student at the Classical Magnet High School in Hartford said, “I didn’t see a course offered [in any other program] that would be as obscure yet as important as this one. It’s unique for a high school student to be able to study topology. I can’t tell you exactly what my expectations were, but this program has a college environment, and I feel it has given me the skills to problem solve – to work collaboratively when I need to and also to work on my own.”

Mentor Connection was established in 1996 with the goal of bringing gifted high school students to UConn for a summer program where they would work side by side with faculty, graduate students, and research assistants on current research initiatives. Housed in the Neag School of Education’s Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, the program has so far reached more than 1,000 students, who have traveled from around the country and even overseas to attend.

Patrick Dragon, visiting assistant professor of mathematics, worked with high school students who hailed from as far away as California during the Mentor Connection program. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Patrick Dragon, assistant professor-in-residence of mathematics, worked with high school students who hailed from as far away as California, during the Mentor Connection program. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

The program is offered to high school students who will be entering their junior or senior years, who are ranked in the top 25 per cent of their class, and who have a GPA of 3.0 or higher on an unweighted 4.0 scale. But first and foremost, applicants must demonstrate their commitment to academic excellence in order to be considered.

Some of the students who have attended Mentor Connection have elected to attend UConn after graduating from high school, while others have gone on to such institutions as MIT, Yale, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins, among others.

The center’s director, Joseph S. Renzulli, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Educational Psychology, says Mentor Connection is different from many other summer programs. “Our students don’t take regular college courses. Rather, they go directly into labs, studios, and other places where research is being conducted so that they can experience a ‘brand’ of learning that is different from traditional classes.

“Hands-on experiences help them understand the investigative and creative processes being used by UConn professors who are leading researchers, writers, and contributors to various fields of knowledge,” he adds.

Taking notes the old-fashioned way: a high school student works on problem solving during a course on topology in the Mentor Connection program. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Taking notes the old-fashioned way: a high school student works on problem solving during a course on topology in the Mentor Connection program. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Mira Varma is a rising junior at Greenwich High School in Greenwich, Conn. For her, enrollment was a tossup between a course on the theory of relativity at Brown University, or Dragon’s course on topology at UConn.

“I really wanted to do a summer course,” she says, “and I felt Mentor Connection had fewer kids in class and it offered the opportunity to work closely with professors. I want to become a cosmologist and that involves math and that’s why I came here. I’m really glad I did.”

But it’s not just students who benefit. Dragon, who was voted Honors Faculty Member of the Year for 2013-14, says this is the third year he has participated in Mentor Connection, and every year is both different and rewarding. “The goal of the program is to give these students a research experience similar to what they would get on an undergraduate level in college but while they’re still in high school. The students I have this summer are great, they’re all talented and they all know the [math] terminology fluently, to a degree I would expect from an ‘A’ student. They’re fun to teach.”

As she was wrapping up her three-week experience, Ilana Freeman who attends Dougherty Valley High School in San Ramon, Calif., said, “I took AP calculus [in high school] which is supposed to be college level, but they don’t teach it like Dr. Dragon teaches. He really makes it interesting and challenging at the same time. This has been a great experience.”

Freeman will be making college visits on her way home from UConn. Chances are, this future math major will be using the lessons learned in Mentor Connection when she makes her final selection.