From theoretical physics to novel writing, these teens are studying college-level subjects this summer as part of DCU’s Centre for Talented Youth Ireland
There aren’t too many kids that will thank you for weeks of academic learning once the school bell has rung out for summer, but the teenagers at the Centre for Talented Youth Ireland’s (CTY) summer programme just might.
Lucy Flynn (13) from Drogheda, has elected to study university-level theoretical physics on the programme. Given that she hasn’t yet been taught physics in school, she is revelling in the challenge. That the course is being taught in the collegiate surrounds of DCU is another boon.
“It’s amazing,” she enthuses. “I’m not in my comfort zone. The first day, I couldn’t comprehend what was going on, but it was brilliant.”
Lucy is an all-rounder at school, consistently getting A marks across each subject.
“My English teacher describes me as her right-hand woman because if no one else puts up their hand and she asks a difficult question, she’ll just come to me.”
Similarly, Hayley Lau (15) from Cavan is academically exceptional across the board, with a particular enthusiasm for business. Here, studying game theory, she has met fellow teenagers that share her love of learning.
“In primary school, I’d read a book under the table while the teacher was reading something else,” she says. “I don’t really like raising my hand in class. I don’t ever like to seem like the person who is all, ‘I know this’. Here, you’re in an environment where you go from the top of the class to everyone being on the same level as you.”
CTY Ireland, which celebrates its 30th anniversary next year, prides itself on offering college-level courses to high-ability children aged 6-17. The students are assessed by the centre (or can be admitted via an educational psychologist’s report at primary school level), and often arrive from the top-graded 5pc of the generation’s academic population. The selection of courses runs a wide gamut, from biotechnology and medicine to coding and zoology. Six- to seven-year-olds can also take Saturday courses in chemistry, veterinary science, engineering and computers. The objective of the programme is not just to stimulate kids who are hungry for challenges, but to let them try different specialisms on for size and get a feel for college life.
Young adult author Claire Hennessy, herself an alumnus of the CTY Ireland programme, now teaches on the novel writing course. “What really struck me with these teenagers was the talent,” she says. “They’re so funny and brilliant and smart. The difference you see from week one to week three is amazing. They become much more confident in sharing their thoughts and opinions.”
Oran Glynn (16) from Ticknock, Dublin, has opted to take Hennessy’s novel writing class this summer. “It’s a subject in which I could express myself a bit more than if I did cognitive psychology,” he says. “If I were to pick a favourite subject [in school], I really love art. It’s a break from the general class environment.”
The word ‘gifted’ often gets bandied about in reference to the students on the programme — something that these kids can sometimes take exception to.
“I really hate the word ‘gifted’,” Oran says emphatically. “’Talented’, I can deal with a little bit more, but ‘gifted’… I don’t like to be treated differently. Your parents treat you differently. Your higher-ups treat you differently. And then your peers treat you differently.”
Hanna Kuczera (13) from Milltown in Dublin, studying theoretical physics on the programme, agrees with him.
“Some things may come easy to you, but I still work hard,” she says. ‘Gifted’ makes it seem like you’re born with it, and you’re not working for what you get. It kind of makes life harder because people expect more from you.”
Perhaps a more accurate summation of these students is that they are youngsters with a voracious appetite for learning and an aptitude in subjects that can run counter to those of most other teens.
Susan Crummond from Kilternan, Dublin, has enrolled her 11-year-old son Josh on this summer’s programme. While the family were living in the US, Josh was recognised for giftedness in the elementary school system via the routine assessments that every child takes there. His main passion is zoology and veterinary science.
“He’s just so positive and enthusiastic — it’s just questions, questions, questions in the car,” says Susan. “In the [school] yard, when the kids are all playing soccer, he doesn’t want to play. He’s perfectly contented to sit and read his book and talk about his interests.”
In Josh’s school in Shankill, teachers have encouraged Josh’s interests by allowing him to give Powerpoint presentations on various animals, and to get the class involved by offering them quizzes.
And yet, Josh has taken especially well to the structure of the CTY programme. “My husband picked him up on the first day and Josh said, ‘Everyone wanted to be there. Everyone listened. Everyone lined up when they were meant to. If school was like that, I’d go seven days a week’. That was upsetting for me, to realise that normal everyday schooling isn’t doing it for him.
"Someone said to me that his class accept him for who he is, and that’s hard to witness as a parent sometimes, because why would they not accept him for who he is? He's not all that different."
There is a widely held belief that those children who are academically exceptional may also be socially maladjusted. Though these kids doubtless face a singular set of challenges, their social abilities are as mixed a bag, just as they are in the wider population.
Colm O’Reilly, director of CTY Ireland, came to work on the programme in its infancy as work experience and, as he notes, ‘never left’. His academic research interests lie in the experiences of Ireland’s gifted students.
“In terms of the academic, it wasn’t surprising to find [in the research] that a lot of them aren’t stimulated or challenged enough. The social results were much more different and mixed,” he says. “Some of them are very resilient and have levels of confidence, but there’s probably 30-35pc that struggle in social situations. Some kids are very astute and will settle into school and dumb themselves down, but there are others who are not socially able, or too introverted, to do that, and they isolate themselves further through no fault of their own because they can’t adapt.
“It’s good for people to be aware that they may have social and emotional challenges related to people putting too much pressure on them, and that peers aren’t going to accept them because they don’t fit into the [peer] group because they’re not into the same things.”
Even in a world fixated on academic excellence and top results, ‘gifted’ kids can face a particular difficulty. “Some of these students might be mathematically talented but verbally average, and then their English teacher is on their case, asking them why they get 100pc in one subject and not the other,” says O’Reilly. “Sometimes, they’ll get the points to do medicine and realise they’re not suited to medicine, or don’t want to do it, and they’ll hear a lot of ‘don’t waste your points’. It’s such a dangerous message.
“And, once you’re identified as gifted, there’s a target on your back,” O’Reilly continues. “There are people willing you to fail. Some people are gleefully happy when you don’t do well in tests.”
Oran is happy to debunk any ideas of social awkwardness among academically talented youngsters. “I’m a pretty socially focused person,” says Oran. “If I don’t have social contact, I don’t feel as good. But when people treat you differently and set you aside from others, that’s not a good social experience.”
Over in Kilternan, meanwhile, Josh has one more year of primary school before he moves into secondary school. Does Susan ever worry about what his future — academically, socially — holds?
“A little bit,” she admits. “I worry about making the right choices about where he’s going to be stimulated and extended. And I worry that people will accept him being a little bit different. I shouldn’t really worry about that because he’s a really great kid, but that’s our job as parents.”
For more information on CTY Ireland, see dcu.ie/ctyi