Over the past three years, Wilde Lake High School senior Daniel Ingham says he has learned something each year at the annual Student Learning Conference that has changed his life.
After making his presentation to peers Friday on the history of Howard County's African American Civil War soldiers, Ingham had only one criticism of the event.
"I only wish it were longer," he said with a laugh.
Ingham was one of more than 40 students to present the culmination of their year-long research on a topic of their choosing program at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
The school system's Student Learning Conference offers students the opportunity to share their work completed through the gifted and talented program in a professional conference setting with their peers.
Ingham, who has been pursuing the history of his topic for the past two years, spoke to students on the struggles and hardships that African American soldiers of the Civil War faced after the war.
"It means the world to see my peers light up, like I do, when I share the stories of these soldiers," he said. "That's what it's all about."
In the courses offered through the gifted and talented program, students are given the opportunity to research a topic of their interest, which includes enlisting the help of a mentor in the field outside of the school and following up with an adviser almost on a daily basis.
"This [conference] is a really wonderful opportunity to share what they have learned," said Debbie Blum, central office resource teacher for the gifted and talented program.
In addition to researching a passion of theirs, the program gives students the opportunity to develop collegiate-level research and presentation skills, Blum said.
There are about 60 to 80 students in gifted and talented programs at each high school in the county, according to Blum.
This year, some topics explored by students include the potential for bias in history textbooks, the effectiveness of school system Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies, the benefits of using sunscreen and cosmetic products, and the issues faced by deaf children.
While textbook analysis may sound like a dry topic to some, Reservoir High School sophomore Joe Smith engaged students during his presentation to begin questioning the sources in their textbooks.
Over the course of the year, he specifically researched bias in school materials on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and found that most texts focus on the benefits of the trade agreement, while the Mexican commercial industry tells a different story.
"We never really hear the whole story," he said.
Smith, who pursued the topic because of his love for learning, said he believes Howard County teachers do a "great job" of supplementing textbooks in the classroom.
"They do know how to diversify their subject materials," he said.
For Collin Sullivan, a junior at Long Reach High School, an interest in the county's BYOD policy led him to research similar policies across the nation.
Over the past year, he's met with the school system's technology staff and led professional development sessions with teachers on the use of technology in the classroom.
While he calls, Howard County's BYOD policy a "work in progress," he has one piece of advice for the school system.
Keep it simple.
"A lot of teachers try to do too much too fast," he said.
Diane McAllister, a resource teacher for the gifted and talented program at Long Reach, had nothing but praise for Sullivan following his presentation, saying he is "a natural speaker and passionate about the topic."
"He's the man," she said.
Jillian Dlugos, a senior at Glenelg High School, called the year-end conference an "empowering experience" to be around students exploring "world-changing topics."
Dlugos, who has spent the past few years researching the effects of using sunscreen and cosmetic products protect the skin from ultraviolet radiation, said the experience was much more beneficial than reading from a textbook and influenced what she will study in college.
"It opened up so many doors for me," she said.