Undergraduate Academic Affairs

March 20, 2024

Uplifting one another

Danielle Marie Holland

Photo of Reese Johnson in Robinson Center classroom.

Johnston graduated from the UW and the Robinson Center in 2012, with majors in math, computer science and philosophy. Today, he teaches in the same program in which he found belonging.Photo by Jayden Becles

Reese Johnston’s early childhood years were spent in traditional schools studying standard curriculums. Yet at a young age, he knew something was missing.

Johnston craved depth and complexity in his learning, an experience that left him feeling estranged and isolated from his classmates. Advanced learners like Johnston need to be nurtured to realize their potential as scholars. They require a center for innovation.

“It is through innovation that we ensure our students are prepared for the ever-changing world they will enter upon graduation, “ shared Dr. Kristina Collins, executive director of the Robinson Center. “By teaching them to think critically, problem-solve and adapt to new situations, we set them up for success in whatever they choose to pursue.”

Finding a second home

After school, Johnston would hang out at the Robinson Center, where over the years his mother played many roles, from teacher to principal to associate director. There he found the community and connection he had been seeking. He “got to know all the EEPers,” or Early Entrance Program students, as they filled the lounge with vibrant discussions spanning disciplines and fields. The space transformed from a warm and welcoming social meeting hall to a workspace of collaboration and deep thinking.

“The University of Washington, known for its large community of learners, is a place where smaller learning communities thrive,” said Ed Taylor, vice provost and dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs. “The Robinson Center’s diverse, distinctive and vibrant community embodies this, standing out as a unique entity leading the nation in development of programs for highly-capable youth.”

The students of the Robinson Center arrive with a desire to stretch themselves, to go further and to push the boundaries of learning.

Designing grand challenges

For Johnston, attending the Summer Challenge at the Robinson Center after his fifth-grade graduation was a no-brainer. Summer Challenge provided him with his first taste of an immersive educational experience. The interdisciplinary classes went beyond the boundaries of what he had experienced in conventional schools.

In his Mars City Alpha class, the scholars collaborated to design a city on Mars. Applying their learning from multiple disciplines, they sought out answers to the toughest of questions. How do you build habitats that screen out harmful radiation? Can aquaponics provide nutritional food access on an inhospitable planet? “It was awesome,” Johnston said of the experience that would forever alter his academic trajectory.

Intentional investment

Johnston recalls seeing clearly how invested and passionate the Robinson Center teachers were. He watched as even outside of the classrooms, in conversations from hallways and office spaces, every teacher was fully committed to making positive and interesting experiences while cultivating the space for intellectual and personal growth.

Johnston found belonging at the Center. The community he became a part of remains at the heart of his Husky experience. “I found people who thought very differently from me, but with the same values and interests,” Johnston explains, “they challenged me and pushed me to new ideas and directions.”

As an abstract and philosophical thinker, this community invited him to explore new and creative ways of being. He fondly recalls his time performing with the Drama Society at the Robinson Center, a student-run organization that puts on plays every year and exists to this day.

Giving back to the community

Photo of Reese Johnston and two students working out math problems on a white board.

Reese Johnston helps students in the Transition School with a math problem.Photo by Jayden Becles

Johnston graduated from the UW and the Robinson Center in 2012, with majors in math, computer science and philosophy. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics, specializing in computability theory, from the University of Wisconsin. Afterward, Johnston felt called to return to his second home, to give back to the community that had given so much to him. He returned to the Robinson Center, this time as a teacher himself.

The Center continues to push Johnston. “One thing I appreciate as a teacher here is that not only are there high expectations, there is correspondingly high support.” He understands that the Robinson Center became an effective program through their support of passionate and dynamic teachers and by providing the resources they need to achieve success.

“The Robinson Center, by its very nature, invites the entire UW campus to broaden our horizon,” shared Taylor. “Our society would be missing out on great intellectual diversity if we weren’t challenging these students and meeting them where they are and where they aspire to be.”

Cycle of innovation continues

In Johnston’s Transition School precalculus class, he assigns a blue-sky realm project where the students formulate a mathematical question for which the answer does not yet exist. Over half a quarter, they pursue that question, imagining possibilities, debating and engaging with new ways of thinking about mathematics. At the end of the quarter they write a paper, and every year they show Johnston something he didn’t already know.

The Robinson Center continues to grow and is leading the way in understanding and meeting the needs of highly-capable students. Johnston, noting that this is one of the greatest areas of growth he has seen working at the Robinson Center, said, “As we grow as educators and as an organization, we are finding ways to treat the word highly-capable as the rich, diverse and complicated space that it deserves to be.”

Photo of Reese Johnston in front of a smart board teaching a math class.

Reese Johnston teaches math in the Robinson Center’s Transition School.Photo by Jayden Becles

About the Robinson Center for Young Scholars

The Robinson Center is a national leader for developing programs that serve highly-capable young pre-college and college students. Through specialized early entrance programs, the Robinson Center has been a leader in preparing highly-capable young students for college success at the UW for more than 40 years. With expanding programs to meet the changing needs of young students, Summer Enrichment classes were developed more than a decade ago, followed shortly by Saturday classes, to diversify enrichment opportunities for students in kindergarten through 10th grade. By providing challenging, accelerated learning opportunities in a vibrant, intellectual community, the Robinson Center is a site for research and discovery and maintains the UW’s position as an internationally renowned center of gifted education.