Top Students Converge at Mind Summit in Montana

High-performing students from around the country are meeting with some of the nation's top thinkers at an enrichment event known as 'Adventures of the Mind.' Paleontologist Jack Horner, former astronaut Bonnie Dunbar, and high school student Brandon Ford give an inside look at the meeting.

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IRA FLATOW, host: Now for some good news. It's truly amazing how inventive young adults can be if you just give them the right environment, the tools, and you let them go, do what they'd like to do. We thought we would share with you the creative talents of some of these young men and women and start with an unusual meeting of the minds taking place this week in Montana.

A hundred and 75 high school students from around the country are meeting with some pretty big thinkers from the worlds of art, literature, science and technology. It's called The Adventures of the Mind, and for almost 10 years, the group has been organizing these mentoring summits, bringing together some of the country's most creative, inventive students, regardless of what their test scores might say.

Joining me now, are two of the adult mentors and one of the students from the meeting. They're all in a studio in Montana Public Radio in Missoula, on the campus of the University of Montana.

Jack Horner is curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies. He really, really needs no introduction. He's a renowned fossil hunter. He served as technical advisor for all of the Jurassic Park movies, and he's professor at Montana State University in Bozeman. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

JACK HORNER: Thank you.

FLATOW: Bonnie Dunbar is another familiar name. She is a Former NASA Astronaut, a veteran of five space flights. She's the former president and CEO of the Museum of Flight in Seattle, and she's now a consultant. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

BONNIE DUNBAR: Good afternoon.

FLATOW: Good afternoon to you. Brandon Ford is a student participant in The Adventures of the Mind Summit. He's a member of the Hybrid X Team, a student organization at West Philadelphia High School in Pennsylvania. You might remember a while back we featured this team that was building a car with off-the-shelf parts that got over 60 miles a gallon. Welcome, Brandon.

BRANDON FORD: Thank you, nice to be here.

FLATOW: How are you enjoying this meeting?

FORD: It's really a great place. I'm loving everybody I'm meeting, you know, learning a lot of new things.

FLATOW: Like that?

FORD: Like about dinosaurs.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FORD: And being a mechanic and engineer, and you know, maybe you're thinking about working at NASA.

FLATOW: Oh, is that right? Jack, tell us about the event. Set the scene for us a bit.

HORNER: Well, it's pretty incredible. You know, everybody here is really smart, except for me. I'd say I'm just surrounded by a whole lot of people that really inspire me.

FLATOW: How do you decide what kids are going to go to this meeting?

HORNER: Well, that's a good question. You know, that's - that has to do with the administration of this outfit, and I don't know exactly how they do that. They go out and I think come up with some very creative kids from all over the country.

FLATOW: And Bonnie, is there a goal of the summit?

HORNER: Well, absolutely. I think they bring these very creative, intellectually curious students in and give them a broad range and taste of potential careers to see what clicks. And, you know, this is something that most young people don't have an opportunity to do, and it's equally exciting for us to kind of cross-fertilize on different fields, as well, because we have some Nobel physicists here. We have writers, cartoonists. We've got biologists. And my secret love, of course, is dinosaurs. So I've really had a lot of fun.

FLATOW: There you go. You're in dinosaur heaven. We're going to take a break and come back, 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You can tweet us @scifri if you'd like to talk about these kids and their mentors and kids and inventions. We'll be right back after this break.

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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about an incredibly interesting event that goes on every year called Adventures of the Mind, where kids get to meet their mentors: scientists, technologist, paleontologists, all kinds of stuff like that.

And we're talking about Jack Horner, curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies; Bonnie Dunbar, former NASA astronaut, and Brandon Ford, student participant in the Adventures of the Mind Summit. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Brandon, are you seeing people from all over the country comign?

FORD: Yes, I'm seeing everybody from all the different parts of the country coming. It's nice to meet them and, you know, learn a lot of new things from them.

FLATOW: Do you know how you were chosen to be one of the students?

FORD: I'm not exactly sure. I still haven't met my mentor yet, the person who sponsored me. But I'm going to find him and, you know, give them a thank you not that, you know, that he deserves, you know, for giving me the opportunity to come down to Montana and learn some new things.

FLATOW: You know, it might be a she, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: And do you have a favorite hobby, something you like to work on a lot or something you're going to ask people to help you with?

FORD: Well, when I was younger - my hobby - I used to like to draw a lot. So maybe I can talk to the cartoonist and, you know, learn more things. But as I've gotten older, you know, I like learning about different things, and it's not just about art. It's about everything. You know, the more you learn, the better you are.

FLATOW: And go ahead, Jack, did you want to jump in?

HORNER: No, (unintelligible), no.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Bonnie, what got you interested in your career, and what's driving you now to work with these kids?

DUNBAR: Well, that's a good question. In fact, that's being asked of all of the mentors here, and they were even forcing us to show pictures from high school.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Oh, I hate it when that happens, right?

DUNBAR: Yeah, so the students would realize that we were once young. And I think what they're learning is that some of us - and Jack and I are sort of alike in this way - knew what we wanted to do when we were very young, but many people decide later on. And so you end up - we're providing sort of a large array of options.

But I was one of those young children that was fascinated with space. I grew up on a cattle ranch in eastern Washington state. So I had big skies out there, as well, not just Montana. And we went out and looked for Sputnik. And I looked for shooting stars, and I could see the Milky Way, and I just knew that was something that I had to be involved with, and that's how I became an engineer was so I could be involved in it.

FLATOW: And Jack, is it possible, and in what ways do you mentor these kids? What does it mean to be a mentor for these kids here?

HORNER: Well, that's a very good question. I mean, I can't really teach them anything. We just hope it's sort of...

FLATOW: Do you show them your fossils...?

HORNER: Well, I didn't bring any fossils, no. No, I think, you know, it's just sort of tell them about what we do and how exciting it is and just see, you know, which ones are interested.

DUNBAR: I think it gives them an opportunity to ask the questions they wouldn't normally be able to ask and to also realize that people that they see in these other careers are real people - I hope Brandon feels that way - and that that's something they can become, it's not out of reach. And what is the pathway to getting there?

And Brandon didn't tell you that he's working on an electric car.

FLATOW: Well, you know, Brandon, we last - as they say on TV, the last time we checked in with West Philadelphia High School, you guys were working on, I think it was a 60-mile-per-gallon and maybe even, you know, 100-mile-per-gallon car. Where do you - what are you guys up to with that project?

FORD: Well, the Automotive Express was a competition that we worked on. We were semi-finalists in the competition. We didn't win the competition, but we were the only high school that made it to the semi-final round.

And the winner of that prize, we partnered with them, and now what we're working on at our school is a car that gets 240 miles per gallon equivalency. When they had it in the X Prize, it was a gas car, and it only got about 110 miles per gallon equivalency. So that's our new project that we're working on at our school.

And we just came from a conference in California to present our business plan to judges from all different parts of the country to see if our plan was foolproof, and we were winners in that competition, too. We were in the eco-friendly part of the competition out in California - San Jose, California.

FLATOW: Is this a total electric car you're talking about?

FORD: Yes, it's supposed to an all-electric car.

FLATOW: Is it a plug-in? Is it solar-paneled? How does it work? Describe it for us.

FORD: It's supposed to be a plug-in car that's called the Electric Very Light Car, and, you know, we're building the all-electric model for them, you know, so that they can market that one out there to other - even with their gas car. But that's what we're working on at our shop now.

FLATOW: Did you make it from off-the-shelf parts, or are they specialty items you had to design for it?

FORD: Yeah, well, the reason they gave it to us is because when they made it in the X Prize, they spent a lot of money. So they really liked us, and so they gave us their chassis, and they left it up to us so that we can make the car with, you know, easier parts, you know, less affordable parts. So that's what we're helping them to do. We're finding less - more affordable parts to build the car with, and, you know, that's what we're doing at our shop now.

FLATOW: Because I remember before, you were using a Ford Focus body, if I remember correctly. And now, so you're using their body and your ideas on how to make it go farther on less power?

FORD: Oh, we still have those two cars. You're talking about the Ford Focus. We took the Ford Focus and, you know, we turned it into a hybrid vehicle, and then we have the Factory Five(ph) car that we've been working on, which was a kit car that you build from their parts, and then we changed that into a hybrid car when it's supposed to be an all-gas car.

FLATOW: So when do you think you're going to get this new car working? When can - when is it...?

FORD: We're thinking by the end of the school year. It might be somewhere in the summer that we'll have our first prototype built. And, you know, after that, it'll be easier for us to build, and, you know, to build upon, so that, you know, we can start marketing it out there.

FLATOW: And Jack, have you talked to these kids about their projects, or are you just there to tell them what, you know, interests you?

HORNER: Well, no. I'm interested in everything they're doing. We have kids that are painters and poets, and it's great. We get to have meals with them and sit down and do a lot of talking. But there are a lot of panel discussions going on all day, as well.

FLATOW: I know you've been involved with the project for several years. Do you see, over the years, some common themes or ideas that keep coming up all the time?

HORNER: Well, unfortunately, we don't get - us - you know, us mentors don't really get to hear from as many kids as we'd like to hear - in fact, I'd just as soon all us mentors had sat down and were quiet, and we listened to the kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Yeah, they've got some good ideas, you know.

HORNER: Yes, they do.

FLATOW: Listening to Brandon talk about his cars, it sounds like he - as I say, you give kids a pile of stuff in the middle of a room and let them go with their imagination, and they'll put something out there.

HORNER: Yeah, that's a fact.

DUNBAR: We also...

FLATOW: Yes, Bonnie, go ahead.

DUNBAR: I was going to say we've also been hearing from entrepreneurs, and it's been fascinating for I think both the students, as well as the rest of the mentors, because they're teaching them the business side and the innovation side and taking ideas and what it takes to become an entrepreneur. So they're getting a full spectrum, I hope, of the potential careers they can partake in.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones, 1-800-989-8255. Terry(ph) in New York, New York. Hi, Terry.

TERRY: Hi, actually, I'm from Smithtown, New York.

FLATOW: Oh, that's right out there in Long Island.

TERRY: I'm sorry, I'm on a cell phone, so you get that feedback. I just wanted to mention that I think this is a fantastic program, what they're doing, this mentor. And my son, actually, last weekend, was up at MIT Lemelson, MIT InvenTeam. I don't know if you've heard of this.

FLATOW: Yes.

TERRY: I am telling you, the excitement of seeing 200 kids from around the United States, there were two teams from China, with their inventions and to have the mentors there with them, it was so incredibly exciting. And for the young people, they just came out of there on fire, ready to set the world on fire. So I think this is great.

FLATOW: It is good, and we're going to talk more about that a little bit later. We have some more students coming in who are inventors. But it's great to see kids doing that kind of stuff and not just, you know, hanging out on the couch.

TERRY: It sure is, and if I can put a plug in for Smithtown High School West, their InvenTeam actually came up with a portable solar tracker.

FLATOW: Wow. Good luck to them, and good luck to you, and thanks for calling.

TERRY: Thank you, bye-bye.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Bye-bye. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Cora(ph) in Sunnyside, Washington. Hi, Cora.

CORA: Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

CORA: I just wanted to call and say I went to the same elementary school and middle school and high school as Bonnie, Outlook Elementary. Bonnie...

DUNBAR: Yes, wonderful.

CORA: ...and she came and spoke when I was in fifth grade. I'm now 30 years old, but it was so inspirational. And it's kinda funny. It marked my childhood in a major way, and sometimes, you know, you don't get that feedback. I have a similar bus route on the way home with - by your parents' house, and they have a space shuttle mailbox.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORA: And every day, I got to see that mailbox, and it was just a reminder that we can do anything we set our minds to when we're children. And to have someone who's achieved something so significant, it's just amazing, especially for them to come to their hometown and speak to us. So I appreciate it with all of my heart.

FLATOW: Thank you for calling, Cora. Thank you.

DUNBAR: Thank you so much.

CORA: Yeah, no problem.

FLATOW: How much...

DUNBAR: Thank you.

FLATOW: Bonnie, how much of this stuff is inspirational to the kids, like you inspired her?

DUNBAR: Well, I think all of it is, and it's sharing. It's hearing stories. It's encouraging. It's the human interaction. It's one thing to read books, and the area she's talking about in Central Washington, Yakima Valley, I - the only way I interacted with the world in the summers was through BookMobile, and I would check out all the books I could . And so I was a voracious reader, but I didn't have an opportunity to always interact with people and ask them key questions. But I went to this little grade school she's talking about. Outlook Grade School, there were 22 in my class for the first eight grades in those - but I had phenomenal teachers.

And they gave us projects and talked about the world, and they made me feel like anything was possible. So that in the eighth grade when I had to transfer to the big school of Sunnyside, another bus ride, and my eighth grade teacher stopped me in the hall and said, what do you want to become when you grow up? And I said, well, I want to design spaceships and fly in them. And he said, Bonnie, you'll have to have algebra. And I looked at him, and I said, what's that? And he said trust me, and I trusted him.

And I'd tell you if I hadn't enrolled in algebra in the ninth grade, I wouldn't be sitting here. That led me down the math track and physics, chemistry and biology. So this kind of mentoring and interaction and opening up horizons, I think, is very important.

FLATOW: You know, when you talk to scientists about their careers and what got them interested or kept them interested, sooner or later, you'll find that there's some mentor - some adult, some teacher, someone who took an interest in them as a teenager and got, you know - and showed that there was value in what they believed in and kept them at it, as opposed to just losing interest along the way. Do you find that to be true, that there's usually something working like that?

DUNBAR: Well, and Jack can answer this too, but I have to tell you when I told my eighth grade teacher what I wanted to do - and you have to remember what year this was - he didn't laugh. He didn't say, well, you know, that's, you know, too hard for you, or, you know, you're in this rural area. I find, too often, that young kids build their own walls right now, and one of the lessons I received from my parents was don't build your own fences. You know, there's enough other people out there to build them. You've got to find your dreams and then follow them.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Jack Horner, Bonnie Dunbar and Brandon Ford. Jack, what got you interested in what you're doing?

HORNER: Well, my background is a little different than the rest of these people here. That's why it's almost - well, I was born wanting to be a paleontologist and wanting to have a pet dinosaur. And so that's basically what I've been striving for. But, unfortunately, I was born with dyslexia, and reading is the hardest thing that I've ever had to do in my whole life. And so I was very poor in school and... - But I did - one of the things that I was able to do pretty well was make science - high school science fair projects that I could, you know, I didn't have to really read, and I could just make things.

And so I won some science fairs, and that helped quite a bit, because otherwise, I was just flunking all the time. I mean, I flunked out of everything. I, you know, I...

FLATOW: But, you know...

HORNER: ...I have no high - I have no college degrees. You know, I don't...

FLATOW: But then, you're a good...

HORNER: I just barely made it out.

FLATOW: You're a good role model for some kids to have...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: ...seriously, you know, that...

HORNER: Well...

FLATOW: ...they always see you have to be - they think you have to be Einstein to be successful and...

HORNER: Well...

FLATOW: They...

HORNER: You know, it has to do with passion. Just really, you know, it's what I wanted to do. And I think when a person goes into a field that they just love to do, obviously, they're going to be the best at it.

FLATOW: Brandon, do you have that kind of passion at all?

FORD: Well, I'm still not sure what my passion is. I do like building cars, but it's not the aspect of just building cars. It's the aspect I just like learning, you know. Being around and, you know, learning new things from people, you know, working with people, you know, that's just what I do. That's what I like to do, so.

FLATOW: Nothing wrong with that. You just have to settle on or find something. That could take a lifetime to figure out exactly...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: I'm still trying to figure it out myself, so, in all seriousness, it's something that takes a while to do, but you seemed like, you know, you have the drive and the motivation. That's also important...

FORD: Thank you.

FLATOW: ...you know, and to keep an open mind about what you're interested in. Do you have, Bonnie, any advice for Brandon?

DUNBAR: Well, I'm very impressed with this young man. I think the fact that he is here is to be commended. It's summer. The other is that he's inquisitive, and he wants to keep learning. And the lesson I received from my 93-year-old grandfather before he passed away was - he'd read a book - he'd emigrated from Scotland and wasn't able to go to a university, and so he'd really valued education, and he read all the time. And he had just learned, really, about the moon's influence on the tides, and he was so excited. And his lesson to me is you learned your whole life. You don't want to stop learning, and I'm sure Brandon is going to find his passion.

FLATOW: Well, good luck to you, Brandon, and I wish you a good summer. I want to thank you and Bonnie Dunbar, former NASA astronaut, and Jack Horner, curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies, and hope you all have a good summer. And you can follow your dreams, Brandon. Thanks again for taking time to be with us.

FORD: Thank you. Thank you.

FLATOW: We're going to take a break...

HORNER: Thank you.

FLATOW: ...and meet some more young scientists, young inventors, right here, more locally here in New York City. We'll talk about - and we'll actually be able to show you one of their inventions on our pick of the week this week, so stay with us. We'll come right back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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