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Major Minors : 300 Whiz Kids Given a Chance to Excel in UC Irvine’s Pre-College Program

Times Staff Writer

While the other kids were playing sandlot ball this summer, 13-year-old Matthew Horowitz made the big leagues.

Matthew, one of more than 300 whiz kids in UC Irvine’s first summer college program for gifted students, combined his twin loves, baseball and computers, in a digital format. The result was “The Baseball Player,” a computer picture story starring the Corona del Mar utility player on the mound and throughout the infield. In a dramatic final play, Matthew even wins the game by sliding into home plate.

Hey, it’s his story.

“I love the computer class--I learn so much here,” Matthew said. “Before I came here, I hadn’t heard of any other kids getting into computers like I do. This is the first time I’ve been around kids like me.”

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Matthew and his summer classmates, ages 12 to 17, are an extraordinary bunch.

Although few have had the opportunity to take advanced courses in their regular schools, all scored higher than the average college-bound high school senior on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. The top 10% of this brain pool scored in the high 600s or low 700s on math or verbal portions of the test--high enough to qualify for honors admission to any UC campus.

“When these kids take the SAT, they’re not recalling things they have learned in the classroom, they are figuring things out that they’ve never seen before,” said James Waldron, director of UCI’s honors division.

“These are kids who usually excel, so society typically says, ‘They’ll do fine on their own.’ But many of these kids are bored. We want to challenge them. They’re the people who are going to be running things in 15 or 20 years.”

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More than 1,400 top students from 100 schools in Orange and Los Angeles counties applied for the three- and five-week summer sessions, which ended Friday. The fast-paced classes, ranging from advanced computer to debate, chemistry and jazz dance, were taught by UCI professors, including nationally known computer scholar Alfred Bork and graduate students and outside instructors recruited for their skill and experience with talented teen-agers.

At $535 for three weeks and $585 for the five-week session, UCI’s Pre-College wasn’t cheap. John Boomer, director of Pre-College math programs, offered seminars in Santa Ana schools to teach test-taking savvy to bright barrio youngsters to help them perform well on the qualifying SAT test, and 29 students who otherwise could not have attended received scholarships for the program.

The students tend to follow their strengths by “majoring” in math or writing during their short stay. Their ambitions include medicine, law and high-level physics, and many, like Matthew Horowitz, are already deciding between Harvard or Princeton.

“I’m usually called a “smack” at school,” said 14-year-old Erica Grosjean of Irvine, recounting with a wince the nickname that the best students at her junior high school must endure. “The other kids leave you out. They don’t invite you to parties because they don’t think you’re a real teen-ager.”

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Erica, who plans to become a lawyer, said she was surprised by the Pre-College courses because “for the first time, I didn’t say anything in some of my classes. It was wonderful. I just didn’t have a lot to add.

“In my regular school, it’s cool not to do your homework. Here, people say, ‘Oh, you didn’t do your homework?’ It’s bad. We’ve only got three weeks to fit in enough to make it worthwhile.”

That often means a year’s worth of material in just weeks--advanced instruction that these young students probably won’t have a chance to study in their regular school curriculum for three or four years. The style of instruction is also very different than what they are likely to encounter elsewhere. Race relations and international human rights are analyzed in writing exercises, and critical thinking and discussion are encouraged in all classes.

“The teachers here want to hear what you think, and you feel comfortable talking in class,” said Patti Lee, 13, of Cerritos. “It’s not like, ‘Sit here and be quiet or I’ll talk to your parents.’ ”

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In a course called “Thinking and Writing,” Lee and her classmates discussed the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, immigration issues and discrimination against blacks.

‘Made Us Think’

“We talked and wrote about the reasons why people come to the United States from Mexico and other countries,” said Lee’s classmate, Nicole Inouye, 13, of Huntington Beach. “It was an experience that really made us think about the world and things besides going to the beach or shopping.”

For 14-year-old Eddie Suh of Anaheim, the highlight of the summer was physics, a scientific discipline he won’t be permitted to study in high school until his junior year.

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“We put liquid nitrogen in a plastic bottle and after about five minutes it warmed in the sun and exploded,” Eddie said, growing animated at the memory. “Gas has more volume than air, you know. It was really neat.”

Alex Keh, an outgoing 12-year-old who joined Eddie and three other physics class friends for lunch around a table at UCI’s Gateway Plaza, said the summer classes are “faster and more fun than regular school.”

“Nerds don’t come here, only cool kids,” he added.

These gifted students, who busted the quiet, bespectacled stereotype, responded to classroom challenges with challenges of their own, teachers said.

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12 Going on 40

“They’re 12 going on 40,” said Waldron. “They’ve got a lot of maturing to do socially, but academically, they’re very sophisticated. They process information faster than other kids, and they are able to see multiple sides of an issue, approaches that aren’t so obvious.”

Boomer, a Dana Point junior high instructor who heads the Pre-College math program, said the brainy students keep teachers on their toes.

“They are so quick,” he said of his algebra and geometry students. “If I make a mistake, they catch me.”

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Myrona Delaney, a star of UCI’s graduate drama program, described her young theater students as “incredibly curious and enthusiastic. They want to explore everything, to learn everything they can.”

UCI offers college and high school credits for many of the courses taken by students who will enter the 11th and 12th grades in the fall. Younger students, who have grown intellectually through the summer, also gain valuable exposure to university life.

“We do have an ulterior motive,” Waldron said. “We’d love to see these students come here when they choose a university. And maybe some of them will enter higher education as professors.”


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