Rider symposium aims to increase focus on Gifted Education

About 100 educators and students attended the fourth annual event
Keith Fernbach

On Aug. 20, Rider University hosted its fourth annual Gifted Education, STEM and Creativity Symposium. The event, which was attended by approximately 100 educators and students, provided stand-alone workshops that delved into topics including the nature of gifted education, talent development, social-emotional needs of the gifted, and creativity within the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines.  

The diverse group of participants included teachers ranging from preschool to high school levels, superintendents, STEM and gifted education supervisors, college professors, and graduate students. There were even five teachers from Saudi Arabia who are spending the year studying in the United States.

The symposium was the brainchild of Dr. Don Ambrose, a professor of graduate education in Rider’s College of Education and Human Services and one of the world’s leading experts on gifted education. Ambrose, who has been the recipient of the Hall of Fame Award from the New Jersey Association for Gifted Children, as well as the Distinguished Scholar Award from the National Association for Gifted Children, says that Rider is ideally suited to host an event such as this for a number of reasons. 

“First, our graduate teacher preparation students tend to be highly accomplished career changers and they are very interested in gifted education, primarily because they are rather gifted themselves, so we’ve always been addressing giftedness in our program,” he says. “And second, our faculty includes world leaders in the field of gifted education and in the related field of creativity studies.”

He adds that the third key element that brought the symposium to life was a grant Rider secured from the Martinson Family Foundation to study the connections between giftedness and STEM. Funds from this grant made it possible for Rider to host the event at no cost to its attendees. The grant was written by Dean Sharon Sherman, who is the principal investigator, and is being managed by Christine Laquidara-Kolvek. The symposium was managed by Nicole Caplinger. 

The inaugural symposium took place in the summer of 2016, and it has grown and evolved every year since. “We’ve had leaders in the field contributing insights, as well as practitioners who work with gifted students who have provided practical strategies for use in classrooms,” says Ambrose. “Last year, the president of the National Association for Gifted Children offered perspectives on the provision of gifted education across the country.” 

According to Ambrose, conferences such as the one at Rider are important because the subject of how to teach gifted and talented students doesn’t receive as much focus as specialized instruction for other populations does. 

“Giftedness isn’t addressed in a uniform manner across the country,” he says. “It’s been described as a patchwork quilt of offerings. You can be a gifted student in one county and move to the next county and suddenly you’re not gifted anymore because the criteria for selection are different.” 

He compares this to special education, where national standards for instruction are more common. “If you’re a special needs student and move from Delaware to Nebraska, your needs are probably going to be addressed in a very similar manner. But that’s not the case with giftedness.”

Ambrose adds that there are other issues associated with gifted education that he believes deserve greater attention from educators. As an example, he cites dual exceptionality, which he explains occurs when a gifted student also has a learning disability. 

“The strength hides the weakness, and the weakness pulls down the strength. As a result, it may appear that the child looks average in school, when really she or he has genius-level brilliance but also has a learning problem,” he says. “General classroom teachers need more awareness of this and they need to know how to modify instruction for these students.” 

This year’s symposium began with opening remarks from Dean Sherman, after which attendees had the opportunity to participate in more than a dozen panels and presentations on a wide range of topics related to giftedness, creativity and STEM education. These included a session led by Ambrose on dual exceptionality, and one led by Dr. John Baer, an eminent professor of educational psychology at Rider, discussing how to build bridges between creativity and common core standards.

Ambrose says one of the day’s highlights for him was a panel led by four of Rider’s graduate students: doctoral candidates Lori Gerald, Maria Kruzdlo, and Roxann Clarke-Holmes, who are in the educational leadership program, as well as Master of Arts in Teaching student Annais Cummiskey. The panelists shared ideas about how to use creative and critical thinking strategies for educational innovation. 

“They developed absolutely brilliant ideas that can be applied to classroom teaching and to leadership in their school districts,” he says. 

Other session topics included how to incorporate podcasts into the classroom, teaching social emotional learning through roundtable games and a rundown of the most current education technology. There was even a panel led by three gifted students from nearby school districts, who offered inspiring insights on how teachers can help them find and develop their strengths. 

Another unique feature of the symposium is that it was integrated with a three-credit, online graduate course, “Understanding Gifted Learners.” The course explores topics including the definitions of giftedness, creativity and talent development; what strategies are best for gifted learners; and how interest in the STEM disciplines can be cultivated in gifted students. Students enrolled in the course had the opportunity to participate in the symposium and then supplement the day’s learnings with additional readings and course assignments.  

Ambrose is excited about the future of the symposium and is hopeful to expand its scope even further. “We would like to bring in more presenters from different parts of the country, or even different parts of the world, to share their expertise,” he says. 

He adds that there is a possibility of partnering with a global organization such as the International Center for Innovation in Education.  “They run conferences on creativity and giftedness in places throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa,” he says. “Since we are affiliated with them, we could possibly get them to join up with us for another symposium sometime down the road.”