The joy of learning combines naturally with the joy of teaching in Peter Mirakian's chemistry class for gifted students.
"I'm excited because the kids are excited," said Mirakian, a 20-year veteran of teaching science in the Torrance Unified School District. "When I explain something new or throw out a challenge, these kids want to take it 10 steps further."
For Quynh Anh Trieu Nguyen, one of the seventh-graders in Mirakian's summer class at the Madrona Middle School, delving into the mysteries of chemistry with her middle-school intellectual peers is "sort of like really neat."
"We get to learn lots of things and really explore what things mean," said the animated, sparkling-eyed 12-year-old. "I'm excited practically all the time."
About 20 youngsters, most of them in the district's Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program, bustled around the room, checking the colors emerging in test tube solutions and comparing notes on their experiments.
One of the students tried to use a pair of metal tongs to lift a full beaker off a Bunsen burner. The beaker crashed to the floor, bringing activity in the room to a sudden halt.
"Now, what did I tell you about moving the beakers?"said Mirakian. "Can it be that someone wasn't listening? Don't try to move the beakers."
As soon as the teacher finished his admonition, the bustling activity resumed. "Their hands aren't big enough yet to lift heavy beakers," Mirakian explained to a visitor.
He explained that the students were boiling spinach leaves and testing the resulting mixture for the presence of sugar and other compounds.
"I'm giving them just a smattering of organic chemistry at this point," said Mirakian, whose regular assignment is teaching advanced courses in anatomy, physiology and biology to high school students. "They have to start with simple concepts, like anybody else, and then build to the complex."
Mirakian said he divides his class into committees, all working on the same problem. An intense competitive spirit spurs the groups to to try to be the first with a solution. If it's a good solution, Mirakian said, the committee is sent on to the next level of experimentation.
Sid Morrison, principal of the Magruder Middle School and coordinator of the Torrance district's special summer classes for GATE and other advanced students, said the kind of instruction provided by teachers like Mirakian is the key to successful programs.
"The special need of gifted students is for stimulation, for ideas and information that will challenge their abilities and motivate them to take what you give them and run with it," Morrison said.
"Without these special programs, the tendency may be to get bored, to vegetate in class--and what a terrible waste that is for them and for society."
Morrison and Mirakian agree with the contention that inadequate funding limits what schools can do for the gifted--along with other groups with special needs.
More money, they said, could be used to finance more field trips and to buy more and better materials, like supplementary textbooks, science equipment, films and videotapes.
More qualified teachers were at the top of their shopping list. "It all starts with an experienced teacher who knows his or her subject and understands the art of teaching," Mirakian said. "If you don't have a teacher like that in front of the class, you will lose these kids."
But attracting the best and the brightest teachers, Morrison said, takes money. "There are capable teachers who know that working with GATE kids would be personally satisfying," he said. "But since very few tangible rewards go with the assignment, they have to ask themselves if it's worth the extra work" that it takes to teach the advanced classes.
"For some, the answer may be to coast along (teaching regular classes) and still get the same salary that they would receive if they took more challenging assignments."
For Mirakian, who has taught only advanced students for nearly all of his 30-year career, the extra work is worth it.
"Without the challenge, I would have burned out long ago," he said. "These kids keep me on my toes. They will keep me going 10 years beyond the time I would otherwise retire."
Not all of the district's brightest students are in programs designated as GATE. Some prefer to concentrate their efforts in honors classes and, at the junior and senior level, high achievers flock to advanced placement courses in which they can earn college credit.
And some students, as well as teachers, the educators said, are afflicted by the lack-of-tangible-rewards syndrome.
"These kids ask themselves, 'Why should I do all of that work and end up with a B grade, when I can be in the regular class and always get an A? And I need the almighty A to get into Stanford,' " Mirakian said.
"So I tell them, 'Fine, you will get into Stanford, but you will soon flunk out because you cheated yourself out of a chance to learn what it takes to be a success in college.' "