Sac State faculty prepares for summer youth program

Sean Keister

The Sacramento State faculty is gearing up for kids in the Sacramento region to start another summer semester of the Academic Talent Search program.

The talent search has showcased an array of courses for sixth through ninth graders, and was expanded in 2009 by adding programs for fourth and fifth graders.

This summer’s courses include a wide variety of subjects like acting, cartooning, physics, forensic science, cooking, photography and more.

The founder of the program, Terry Thomas, still holds his position as the executive director of the Academic Talent Search.

He said when he founded the talent search program in 1982 there was an obvious need for a special program to meet the needs of kids in the area.

“Lots of students, who are very bright, have little opportunity to develop in regular school settings,” Thomas said. “So the academic talent search then gives the brightest students an opportunity to really develop their areas of strength.”

When Academic Talent Search started, there were 100 students and three classes. Now, there are approximately 120 courses (40 for fourth and fifth graders, 80 for sixth through ninth graders), and more than 2,000 students who attend every summer, looking to prepare themselves for college life. 

“Some of our students are recruited from the finest Ivy league universities throughout the country,” Thomas said. “So we have a chance to help them along the way, and that’s what (the Academic Talent Search is) all about.”

Chris Taylor, who has been a physics and astronomy professor at Sac State for eight years, is going into his fourth year teaching astrobiology for the talent search program. He is a strong supporter of the program and how it helps local kids to begin thinking about their future careers.

“It gets kids to see what college is like, but I also think it’s good for (Sac State) because it brings a whole bunch of kids who are local to the area, and lets them see we do cool things here so they don’t automatically think, ‘Well I’m going to go to a UC,’” Taylor said. 

To attend, students must take a college ability test to see if they are able to handle the program. The test was taken by more than 6,000 students in Sacramento between January and March of this year. 

Many of those involved in the program say one of the most exciting aspects of the program for kids is just experiencing the atmosphere of college life.

“That is a very important part program, they aren’t just lined up and moved around like they would be at a typical elementary school,” Thomas said. “They enjoy the (University) Union for example, and that’s good for the university too because they are bringing their lunch money there.”

Current and former Sac State students can be found in the talent search classrooms during summer where they earn a minimum wage as teaching assistants.

Academic Talent Search is a self-supported program on campus, receiving no state, federal or university funding. The classes cost anywhere from $114 to $399 depending on the length of the course and financial aid is available for those who qualify. 

Thomas said Academic Talent Search is really appealing to parents who want their gifted kids to go somewhere fun where they can also be challenged. 

Michelle Felten, theater and dance professor, has taught in the talent search program for four years; this year, she is teaching acting for the camera. She said she is impressed by the intellect of her students. 

“The idea is teachers are not necessarily supposed to bring (the material) down to a younger level,” Felten said. “I mean obviously I’m going to give them scenes from movies that are age appropriate, but as far as the way I instruct them and the way I try to help them through things – I try to really approach it that way.” 

The kids in the Academic Talent Search are experiencing the same level of course difficulty that Sac State students face. 

While many instructors are professors who teach at Sac State the rest of the year, others might just be professionals from the area, like a local attorney who teaches kids about solving crimes. 

Academic Talent Search is a program that brings a big change from the teachers’ usual routine throughout the year, and Felten said the professors really respond to that shift. 

“I was thinking about taking a summer off, but I thought, you know I just really enjoy the class. And it’s worthwhile to me. It’s a change from what I normally do, so I’m happy to be a part of it,” Felten said.

Even after nearly 30 years, Thomas continues to be excited for the program to start up again every summer. 

“When you see a student who’s totally engaged in what they’re doing in class, and there’s a whole classroom full of students just like that who are really intent, and the teachers afterwards come back and tell me things like, ‘Gee, these students do a better job than my regular college students at the same kind of material.’ That is pretty rewarding,” Thomas said.