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BSU professor was featured speaker at international conference in Abu Dhabi

Bemidji State University professor Kathryn Smith was amused to find the abstract she originally sent in English to a conference in Abu Dhabi returned to her in Arabic script.

"It was beautiful, visually," she said.

Smith was the keynote speaker at the United Arabs Emirates' first international conference on special education held Oct. 30-31 at Abu Dhabi University in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Her talk was titled, "Talent for the 21st Century: Pedagogy that Challenges Minds and Motivates Creativity."

Smith has been a professor at BSU since 1986. She teaches courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and prepares students and teachers on developing curriculum for the 21st century. Much of her work is wrapped around incorporating technology into the classroom.

"I have been a big proponent my entire career in helping teachers to encourage students to be self-directed learners, to use whatever the current tools are for motivating students and to get them to learn," Smith said.

Smith was asked to be the keynote presenter in Abu Dhabi because of her active involvement in national and international organizations. She was also asked to host a computer lab workshop on creativity.

"That is sort of my niche right there," Smith said. "There is a whole set of skills out there that are called 21st century skills. We are teaching people how to inquire, find resources, and interpret information so they can be lifelong learners."

Opening the international conference in Abu Dhabi was Humaid Mohammad Obaid Al Qattami, the UAE Minister of Education, whom Smith found particularly interesting to meet and listen to.

"I was really impressed with what Abu Dhabi is doing in terms of looking at the issue of gifted and talented education," Smith said. "They realize they are very wealthy right now with oil, but they also realize that it is a short-term resource. They are putting in a great deal of money into teacher preparation."

According to Smith, special education is a broad umbrella term that is used to describe unique programs in schools. One of the programs under the category of special education is programming for gifted and talented students.

What qualifies students as being gifted and talented has changed in recent years, she said.

"There was a period of time where we thought gifted and talented meant being really smart at doing schoolwork," she said. "We have a lot more research now that helps us to understand that giftedness can also mean people who are creative, but may not necessarily be good at traditional school."

Smith said because the definition has changed, it has created challenges for some school districts to identify which students qualify for gifted and talented programming.

Smith said found conference presenter Osama Maajeeny, vice dean of graduate studies and scientific research at King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia also especially interesting to meet.

"(Maajeeny) asked me to critique his paper for him. It was very interesting," Smith said. "It gave a complete overview of the development of gifted and talented in Saudi Arabia starting in 1970. The detail of the work they have done in Saudi Arabia for the last (40) years has been absolutely remarkable in preparing teachers for teaching gifted and talented."

According to Smith, when she started researching for her conference presentation, she noted many of the references in her research were published in the 1970s and 1980s. She said she has observed published literature and curriculum designed for gifted and talented students has since been on the decline.

"We have a national association and graduate programs for gifted and talented, but in general, in the United States, the emphasis has not been as great as what we might be able to do."

Smith said the No Child Left Behind Act has played a big role in limiting creativity in the classroom and designing curriculum for gifted and talented students.

"I think, the NCLB act has put us more into remediation mode," Smith said. "We're now trying to catch people up rather than perhaps looking at the gifted students we have. We need to start moving forward and trying to provide greater emphasis on those kinds of skill building, in particular, for our very talented and gifted young people."

Before traveling to the Abu Dhabi, the BSU professor said she had researched information about the UAE.

"It was wonderful going there," she said. "What was exciting about it is that it is a very young country. They really are doing a great job, I think, of looking at the future for their country and building their intellectual capital to prepare them to be able to be strong in the modern world."

While on her trip, Smith said she sent e-mails to students enrolled in her online classes at BSU. She also shared information from her trip with colleagues. Smith said she remains at BSU because it has a "tremendous amount of potential" in the area of education.

"We sit in a unique area. There are a lot of things we can do here," she said. "This area lends itself to creativity and collaboration."

In 2000, BSU received a large, four-year technology grant that allowed area schools and the university to prepare teachers to use technology in the classroom. Smith said she was the writer and director of the grant.

"I know what the potential is here," she said. "I think right now we're facing some real challenges in terms of programming and staffing. But I think with challenges comes opportunities. We have so much richness around us. We have wonderful colleagues here that allow us to do things. Bemidji is my home base."