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Racing to the Top

Center for Talent Development offers summer fun for gifted students

They descended on Northwestern University from around the country for a summer of academic enrichment. Three weeks later, 20 academically gifted fourth- to sixth-graders were ready for the biggest race of their lives.

As part of Northwestern’s Center for Talent Development (CTD) Summer Program, students in the three-week “Designing Machines That Work” class recently competed in a racing tournament to see whose custom-designed car would reign supreme.

The class delved into Newton’s law of motion, exploring the relationship of mass and acceleration and discussing concepts of physics, aerodynamics and engineering that many adults wouldn’t understand. They applied these lessons to designing and building mini-dragsters powered by carbon dioxide canisters that, when ruptured, sent the cars racing between 20 and 30 miles per hour along an 80-foot track.

With the help of instructor Jim Depies and several teaching assistants, students initially drew their car specifications on paper before realizing their designs from a block of wood.

“They measure the mass of their cars, and they try to figure out if they want to be a lightweight or a heavyweight,” said Depies, a science teacher at Maine South High School in Park Ridge, Ill., who has taught the design class at CTD for the past nine summers. “They try to get it as close to the minimum weight as they can for their class without going under. It’s really competitive, and it’s challenging for them because they have to keep tweaking it.”

Every summer, more than 4,000 children (age 4 through 12th grade) from across the nation and around the world come to Northwestern to participate in CTD’s academic programs. The gifted children perform in the top percentiles of academic achievement, and the summer program allows them to pursue a subject they are passionate about in depth, with innovative, hands-on experiences and a level of learning that challenges them to excel further.

Housed at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy, the Center for Talent Development was founded 30 years ago as the “Midwest Academic Talent Search” to administer the SAT to more accurately assess the abilities of young students showing academic promise. The center’s mission and programming have evolved and expanded to include four central goals: talent identification, talent development, research and advocacy.

“There are only four talent development centers across the nation, so it is a unique opportunity for students to come here and experience this campus and work in a program that’s designed for them,” said Susan Corwith, CTD’s associate director. “They have an opportunity to be with peers who have similar interests and abilities, so it’s both an academic experience and a social experience.”

Children in grades 4 through 12 can opt to participate as a daily commuter or reside on the Northwestern campus, sampling the life of a college student.

“For a lot of kids, this is the first time they’ve ever been challenged to this degree,” Depies said. “You see them having fun with the race, but we do a lot of physics problems that are pushing their math skills, so it’s kind of cool that we have a good mix of things that are really challenging and really fun.”

In addition to the summer sessions, the Center for Talent Development offers a variety of enrichment programs throughout the year. Visit for more information.

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