By Donathan Prater of the Spartanburg Herald Journal
They analyze DNA, classify fingerprints and conduct pH tests for the presence of poisons in liquids. The conductors of these high-tech experiments, however, do not don a scientist’s lab coat or flash the badges of a law enforcement officer. The experiments are part of the Converse College-sponsored Athena program at Spartanburg Day School. This marks the 21st year Converse has sponsored the event. A different theme is selected each year for the program, with this year’s centering on mysteries. The mystery-solving classes were broken up into three groups: crime scene investigation, history’s mysteries and unsolved mysteries, which focus on various geographical regions of the world.
The Athena program serves a dual role, according to Dr. Nancy Breard, Assistant Professor of Education and Assistant Director of Graduate Studies at Converse. It not only is a summer institution for the 200 academically gifted elementary school students but also a part of the practicum for Converse graduate students. In the past the program has been based on themes of space exploration and culture. The program has an approach to learning Breard has found invaluable. “Research has shown that gifted students learn better with a theme,” said Breard. “We want them to realize that persistence and imagination are necessary to solve problems.”
The 12 Converse students are responsible for the curriculum used for the program, and some basic learning principles are still applied. “This program stresses the hands-on teaching method,” said Breard. “This is a summertime activity, but we still want it to be a learning experience.” That learning process is not one just for the elementary school students in the program, according to Breard. The teachers are leaning just as much. “They are becoming better teachers whether they go on to teach gifted students or not,” said Breard. “They will be more sensitive to the learning needs of their students.”
Graduate student Vickie Sloop said the accelerated learning rate of the students has helped maximize the time and amount of material she can cover each session. “It would typically take 10 to 15 lessons with other students to cover what I do in about three hours with the gifted students,” said Sloop.
Echoing Sloop’s comments was Boiling Springs Elementary School art teacher and graduate student Melanie Campbell. Campbell conducts the portion of the mystery program that focuses on art and the ability to recognize patterns in geometric and organic shapes. “It gets them to think outside the box,” said Campbell. While Campbell says she notices the high creativity and comprehension levels the students in the gifted program possess, their ability to closely follow directions is a bonus.
To Sloop and Campbell, it’s a class lesson, but to 8-year-old Abbey Sims, it’s just a lot of fun. “It’s not really like school,” said Sims. “It’s learning and having fun at the same time.” “Every day we do something different,” said rising fifth-grader Nathan Branch. “It’s not like regular school. The teachers here aren’t bossing you around.”
That nurturing learning environment is one 12-year-old David Bomar has come to appreciate over the years since he started attending the Athena program in the third grade. Bomar now works as an assistant, preparing snacks and helping out with the younger children at the school. Bomar recalled a few experiences in public school when being academically gifted didn’t always yield positive social results and even