18 October 2009

Davidson Fellowships

Last month, I traveled down to Washington to attend a ceremony at which a young cousin was being honored for her academic achievements. I didn’t really understand what the ceremony was for or what organization was holding it, but this young woman, Allison Ross, is the daughter of my cousin Nancy who moved away from New Jersey years ago and now lives in Seattle so we don’t see her or her family very often anymore. Even more, Nancy’s two brothers, Paul and Jim, who have also moved away from the Mid-Atlantic region, were going to attend the ceremony, so my mother was excited at the chance to see them all and and I was urged to come down, too. (These particular cousins are the children of my mom’s cousin Suzanne, part of a gang of four who grew up together when they were little, with whom she had remained close until Suzanne died a few years ago. Both my parents had always had a special feeling for Suzanne’s three children and Mom tries to keep in contact by telephone as much as she can. As you might imagine, this was an especially important family gathering for Mom.)

My “invitation” to the ceremony and reception, which was being held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall, came orally through my mother so I never really got the details of the award, the Davidson Fellowship, or the sponsoring organization, the Davidson Institute. In fact, I didn’t learn the name of the foundation until I arrived in Washington and saw Mother’s invitation. It wasn’t until after I returned home that I could learn anything about it beyond its own publicity. It seems to be a remarkable organization and the award 16-year-old Allison received on Wednesday, 30 September, is quite spectacular.

Back in 1982, the dawn of the home-computer era, Jan and Bob Davidson bought one of the first PC’s. They were disappointed, however, because they wondered why all they could do with it was play games. "There was supposed to be some educational software,” says Jan, then a teacher in Los Angeles, “but it was terrible, I mean, it just didn't work well, and it wasn't accurate. It was horrible." So she and Bob began to fool around with the computer and Jan eventually came up with a teaching program that worked like a game. They named it Math Blaster and in 1989, Jan and Bob Davidson launched Davidson & Associates in Torrance, California, to produce and market the new software. Along the way, they also developed Reading Blaster and the company made millions for the couple. In 1996, the Davidsons sold the company for “more than we knew what to do with, let's put it that way," as Bob Davidson describes it. (Several sources reported that the purchaser paid $1.6 billion in stock; the New York Times reported that the figure was $1.8 billion for Davidson & Associates and another software company together. Either way, it was a pile of dough!) What’s interesting is what the Davidsons decided to do with their profits.

Looking around for a way to do some good, they saw that there were programs in schools for average students, for underachieving students, and for children with special needs--but there were few programs anywhere for gifted and talented students. "Intelligence is a gift,” says Jan Davidson. “But you have to develop it if you're going to keep it. You have to nurture it like any other talent." So that’s where the couple determined to put their efforts. In 1998, they developed the Young Scholars program “to provide support services for profoundly intelligent young people” and in 1999 they formed the Davidson Institute for Talent Development in Reno. In 2001, the Institute awarded the first Davidson Fellowships. Jan and Bob Davidson published Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Young Minds (Simon & Schuster), written with freelancer Laura Vanderkam, in 2004. In 2006, the Davidson Academy of Nevada, a free public school specializing in “profoundly intelligent” students from middle school through high school, opened on the campus of the University of Nevada in Reno. The Institute has many additional programs to provide financial and other assistance for gifted students, but it is the fellowships on which I want to focus. (Interested readers can find out more about the Davidson Institute on its website, www.DavidsonGifted.org. There are many other sites and further sources, including press coverage of Institute activities.)

I guess it’s obvious, just by the fact that I’m writing this, that I’m impressed with this organization and its work. It’s hard not to be, if only on the evidence of the work the Davidson Fellows have done to earn the awards. Here are a few of the titles of the award-winning projects from this year’s Fellows:

  • Music: “Harping Around the World: Cultural Leadership for the 21st Century” (Melody Lindsay, 17, Honolulu)
  • Literature: “The Dictionary of Distance” (Nicole Rhodes, 17, Vancouver, Washington)
  • Science: “Computer Analysis of the HLA Histocompatibility Complex: Identification of Bone Marrow Donor Matches” (Eric Sherman, 15, Ephrata, Pennsylvania)
  • Outside the Box: “African and Western Heroes’ Journeys in Literature: An Exemplification” (Allison Ross, 16, Mercer Island, Washington)
  • Philosophy: “The Roots of Evil” (Duolin (Doreen) Xu, 16, Indianapolis)
  • Technology: “A Heterogeneous Mixture Model for Unsupervised Pattern Classification” (Aditya Palepu, 17, Oakton, Virginia)

To hear the young students describe their work is like attending a grad school conference in a field that’s not your own. I wouldn’t even know how to unpack the titles, much less the projects. Even my cousin’s work was really beyond me, and it began in my own area of . . . well, expertise, if I can call it that. She began with the plays of August Wilson, to which she was introduced in 2005 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and explored hero myths through the prism of Joseph Campbell’s work, Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, and pre-colonial African mythology. The resulting study was over 200 pages and took Allison two years to complete. Allison finished 10th grade last spring but won’t be returning to high school because this year she started in the Honors Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. Several of the music laureates were already enrolled in programs at Juilliard; Fellows in the sciences and technology were already working in university labs on projects that sound to me like graduate level and above with senior academics and professionals as mentors. At least one of the 2009 Fellows, 15-year old Anshul Samar from Cupertino, California, is already the CEO of his own company.


The Davidson Fellowships, which come with scholarships of $50,000, $25,000, and $10,000, among other benefits, are not easy to get, as you can probably guess. Applicants must be under 18 years old on 1 October of the application year (currently 2010), though there is no minimum age. (This year’s youngest Fellow is a 13-year-old pianist, Sarina Zhang from San Diego--who’s already studying at Juilliard. Some past Fellows have been even younger, including an 11-year-old in 2001, and a 6-year-old and another 11-year-old in 2005, all pianists.) Fellowships are awarded in the fields of science, math, technology, music, literature, and philosophy. For work that doesn’t fit into these categories or spans two or more of them, there is a fellowship awarded for work “outside the box,” the category in which my cousin competed. (There was one other outside-the-box laureate this year, and no one was awarded a fellowship for mathematics in 2009.) No fellowships are offered in sports, performing or fine arts (except music), or other fields, nor does work in these disciplines qualify for an outside-the-box submission. Each fellowship category has its own criteria but they all must meet the same standard, a level of “accomplishment that experts in the field recognize as significant and has the potential to make a positive contribution to society.” Each applicant must be nominated by three people familiar with the applicant’s project: “a mentor or supervising scientist”; “a teacher, tutor or school administrator”; and “a professional in the field related to the work.” The mentor, of course, guides and oversees the applicant’s work on the submitted project.

The Davidson criteria demand that the projects submitted “should reflect prodigious development of talents focused on creating something of significance” in the estimation of judges specifically chosen to evaluate the work in each category. (Outside-the-box applications, which have to be submitted three weeks earlier than the others, must be sent in before judges for each submission are selected for their expertise in the disciplines applied in the work.) The standards the submissions must meet sound very much like those demanded of doctoral dissertations. According to DavidsonGifted.org:

To qualify for consideration as a Davidson Fellow, an applicant must contribute a work that is recognized as an outstanding accomplishment by experts in the field and has the potential to benefit society. A qualified work may be an exceptionally creative application of existing knowledge; a new idea with high impact; a unique application; an innovative solution with broad-range implications; an important advancement that can be replicated and built upon; an interdisciplinary discovery with the potential to effect positive change; or other demonstration of extraordinary accomplishment.

The judges, who are independent, though anonymous, professionals in the pertinent fields, consider each entry on the basis of its “quality and scope”; “the level of significance of the work”; and “the applicant's depth of knowledge and understanding of the work and the related domain area.” The website describes the selection procedure:

Each application is examined for completeness and accuracy. Qualified entries are sorted and evaluated by category and reviewed by an independent team of judges comprised of professionals with expertise in related domain areas. The judges may, at their sole discretion, consult with additional experts to assist in evaluating the merits of any of the submissions. Based on the criteria specified, the independent team of judges selects the most extraordinary applicants to be named Davidson Fellows and determines the level of scholarship to be awarded.

You can see, I think, that the Davidson Institute expects the Fellows to be performing at a level far above the traditional high school science fair and even above undergraduate college work. The fellowship is an award not for being smart or taking tests well, but for actual, and hard-won, achievement. The evaluation criteria also appear to be pitched at a high level, commensurate, I’d say, with the amount of the scholarship awards.

The submission requirements are pretty arduous as well. They’re slightly different for each category but they all demand a great deal of effort and an accomplishment that is substantial and carefully presented within the parameters for the field. For instance, the areas of science, technology, and mathematics all require “a Formal Research Report with a works cited page and an annotated bibliography formatted according to the American Psychological Association’s Publication Manual or any other widely recognized style guide” and “a computer model or physical model” of the project. (All parts of each submission must be in triplicate. There are guidelines for the formats of each submission and other provisions.) The philosophy applicant must submit “a portfolio presenting analyses of fundamental assumptions or beliefs relating to human thought or culture” which includes “three to five unique, written pieces,” each no more than 3,000 words.

The literature submission must consist of “a portfolio displaying a number of literary styles and genres.” The requirement has two components. The first is a collection totaling 60-75 pages representing three of four genres of writing (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama or screenplay). The applicant is free to decide how to allot the pages for each genre which may be exemplified by one or more individual pieces. The second component of the literature submission is “a 500-word reflective essay about the works in the portfolio.” As we shall see, doing something extraordinary isn’t sufficient for the Davidson Fellowship: successful Fellows must also analyze the significance of what they’ve accomplished.

Music nominees may apply in four areas: composer, vocalist, classical instrumentalist, and “other instrumentalist.” Composing applicants submit at least three scores with recordings (recording formats are specified in the application materials). Vocalists and instrumentalists must submit videos “demonstrating your breadth and depth” of talent in the field, meeting specified requirements for each category, and video recordings of public performances of their work, also meeting specific criteria.

The outside-the-box submission is the most complex, combining elements of the science-math-tech applications and the lit application. The submission requires either a formal research report or a portfolio of the applicant’s work, both demonstrating the “breadth and depth of knowledge in a specific subject area at university graduate level or beyond.” The applicant determines the appropriate length of the submission, but it obviously must be substantial to fulfill the requirements and describe a project of the scope demanded. (My cousin’s submission, as I noted, was over 200 pages in length. My incomplete doctoral dissertation is only 500 pages. My master’s thesis was less than 25 pages--plus a performance--and that was considered long.)

All applications must include the same four attachments in addition to the individual projects. Attachment one is the “Significance Essay” explaining “why your submission qualifies as a significant piece of work.” The second attachment is the “Benefit to Society Essay” describing “how your work may make a positive contribution to society or has social relevance.” Attachment three, the “Process Essay,” answers a series of detailed questions concerning how the work was conducted. The final attachment is the “Videotape Describing Prodigious Work” on which the applicant talks “from the heart” about “a topic not addressed in the essays or to expand upon a point the essays touched on only briefly.” (A suggested structure for the 15-minute video presentation is included on the application forms. The lengths of the three essays is up to the applicant.)

There are 19 Davidson Fellows for 2009 and a similar number of laureates in past years. The recipients come from all across the U.S. (Nominees must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents of the United States and its territories. Dependents of U.S. service personnel serving abroad are also eligible.) As this year, over $3.6 million has been awarded to 146 young students in scholarships. “With nurturing,” says Bob Davidson, “gifted students will be among those who will solve the world's most vexing problems, now and in the future." According to the Institute’s estimation, some of the contributions past and current Fellows have made to society include:

  • Developing a system to identify bone marrow donors in a fraction of the time and cost than previous methods; potential for use with organ transplants
  • Designing computer simulations to determine how various patterns affect an epidemic’s spread across a social network
  • Designing a computer model to aid physicians in patient diagnosis
  • Performed advanced musical compositions for piano, cello and violin at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center
  • Created a literary portfolio focused on deepening our understanding of human responses to grief

Several of the Fellows made the same remark when they received their awards at the reception. They all thanked their nominators, mentors, teachers, and families, of course, and they each described their projects (most of which went right over my head), but a number also said one other thing, too. In addition to expressing how honored they felt to have been recognized with the fellowship, they described how gratified they were to have spent several days among the other laureates. It was one of the few times, they explained, when they were able to talk with contemporaries who understood them. That feeling, in large part, is the rationale the Davidsons give for launching their efforts to support our brightest students: they often feel isolated and neglected, bored and misunderstood by both their peers and their teachers. Studies have shown that top students often languish in schools that ignore their special needs and that as many as 20% of drop-outs from high school are gifted students forced into underachievement and boredom by being under-challenged.


Of course, it wouldn’t be unusual for someone from the outside, a spectator like me, to assume these young scholars are all classic nerds and grinds with narrow focus and little in the way of other interests. I’m sure that might be true of some of the students in this group, but it’s not true of all of them--or, I daresay, most of them. First, I was impressed with how well they all presented themselves and their work before an audience of strangers. Of course, these students are used to being among adults and being in a spotlight, but academic excellence, even at their level, is not necessarily linked to the ability to perform, as it were. They’re not analogous talents: speaking well and presenting yourself well is not the same as being smart. I also took notice in the Fellows’ biographies in the program booklet of how many had other strong interests in unrelated fields--musicians who also studied science or scientists who began in music, for instance. Once again, if I may use my cousin Allison, who’s fairly typical of this atypical group, as an illustration: Leaving aside the complementary focuses in her fellowship project, Western classical mythology and pre-colonial African mythology, not to mention the modern literature--the plays of Wilson and Wole Soyinka and the novels of Toni Morrison--Allison says she hasn’t decided on a concentration for her studies at UW because she’s interested in both science and the humanities. (The scholarships need not be applied only to the fields of the Fellows’ projects and can be used at any accredited institution of learning over a period of 10 years.) Allison, who volunteers with several community-service organizations, earned a black belt in karate when she was 12 and, in high school, studied Latin and ran cross country. She also likes to cook and played the trumpet in the marching band. Other 2009 Fellows are involved in similarly varied activities. The difference with the rest of us may be that they’re more involved with what they do: tenacity is a hallmark of advanced intelligence. Allison, for instance, says she likes “staying in one place and really digging into a subject.” That’s essentially how her fellowship project was born: she saw her first performance of a Wilson play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, in Ashland four years ago. Last year, after a matinee of Fences, Allison heard one of the actors, G. Valmont Thomas (who played Gabriel Maxson), speak at a post-performance discussion and introduced herself to him. For her English class, she read Wilson’s 10-play cycle and spoke again with Thomas, talking with him about the parallels between Wilson’s themes and Campbell’s theories. That, of course, is how scholarship is supposed to work--but most people don’t get to pursue that kind of inquiry until graduate school and post-grad research.

One reason most students don’t get to follow this kind of pursuit as early as high school is, certainly, that few adolescents are really intellectually ready to do it. According to researchers such as William G. Perry, most early and middle adolescent brains haven’t reached the stage yet where this kind of intellectual inquiry is possible; it takes until late adolescence, the early college years, for the human mind to develop the capacity to mange this level of learning. Obviously, that’s why it’s rare for a high-schooler to want to go this deeply into a subject, much less be able to. That’s also why few high schools make allowances for students who are interested and capable of this kind of work, and why few teachers and administrators know how to handle them when they come along. But Perry and other educational theorists also recognize that everyone’s mind develops at a different rate and some young teenagers and pre-teens are ready to understand more complex concepts than even their older peers. Another of the Davidson Institute’s programs is training and support for educators to prepare them to work with gifted students, especially when resources are minimal or unavailable. Many of the Davidson Fellows have had to assemble for themselves the support and resources they needed to achieve their successes. There are, however, strategies for the motivated and resourceful teacher to encourage and guide these enormously curious students with the means that are on hand. More and better resources are always desirable, but the worst thing is to stifle the impulse to inquire. "There shouldn't be a ceiling," insists Bob Davidson, "particularly in school.” If a mind is a terrible thing to waste, then wasting a bright mind is a loss to all of us as a nation.

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