Oct 18 2007

Johns Hopkins' New Web Site Challenges Teens

Cogito.org connects bright students with one another and experts in math and science.

Cogito.org connects bright students with one another and experts in math and science.

If ever an institution could bring online learning to a new level, it would be the Center for Talented Youth (CTY) at Johns Hopkins University. For the past quarter century, CTY has been encouraging and challenging high-performing middle school and high school students in math and science, mainly through summer programs on the Hopkins campus and at other locations in the United States and abroad. Last summer, more than 10,000 students participated.

So when CTY launched its Web site Cogito.org last December, it brought a new dimension to the nonprofit’s long-standing mission. “We offered A.P. [advanced placement] courses online, but they were always focused on students taking a particular course,” says Lea Ybarra, CTY’s executive director. “With the new site, we’re trying to deal with the critical issue of making math and science more available in a format that advanced students will really enjoy.”

The online student community at Cogito (inspired by the Latin slogan Cogito ergo sum — I think, therefore I am) has emerged not only from CTY’s rolls but also from nine other gifted and talented programs, including those at Duke, Northwestern and Iowa universities, as well as affiliates in Jerusalem; Dublin, Ireland; and Calgary, Alberta. Membership has increased to 2,600, including participants from 25 foreign countries.

The new site — which operates free of charge — gives its users plenty to think about. They can submit questions for guest scientists, most recently a prominent botanist studying evidence found in the Alps with a 5,200-year-old frozen corpse and a fractal artist who works with geometric shapes and their associated equations.

Cogito students also find the latest — and often less covered — developments in the fields, take on a spate of brain teasers and puzzles, get information on dozens of science and math competitions, and participate in password-protected forums.

Recent articles have covered the development of a pedal-powered laptop computer at MIT and the discovery of whale fossils by teenage students in Chile, as well as presenting firsthand accounts of the 18th International Biology Olympiad and the Global Challenge competition supported by the National Science Foundation.

“We wanted to expose kids to content they might not get elsewhere and link [them] to peers who have similar interests and abilities,” says Linda Brody, the director of the center’s Study of Exceptional Talent and a designer of the new site. “Cogito provides almost one-stop shopping.”

While much of the content is available to the public, a second tier is just for Cogito members, who interact closely with one another and with working scientists and mathematicians. “It’s encouraging researchers to mentor bright students,” Ybarra explains. “It’s too late to wait for college.”

Cogito was 18 months in the making and has been funded by a three-year $1.7 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation. While CTY outsourced the hosting of the site to a local Internet company, the building of Cogito’s content has proceeded in-house.

“When we’ve approached the adults to participate, they’ve been wonderful about wanting to give back,” Brody says. “I really got excited when the Johns Hopkins math team got involved.”

She adds that Cogito has given CTY an unprecedented and immediate geographical reach. “We’re trying to build a community where the goal is not only learning about science but also broadening culture,” she points out.

Yadia Colindres-Fontecha, an aspiring engineer and a 15-year-old high school sophomore in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, joined Cogito last June and spends up to five hours a day discussing topics from global warming and the evolution/creationism controversy to debating the intellectual and psychological merits of playing computer games.

“It brings another sense to your life,” she says. “You can talk to people who will understand you. And you learn things you don’t get at school or in the media.”

Cogito is looking to double its membership in the coming months, and is also looking for new funding. Its grant expires this year.