CHAMPAIGN — Students learning about philosophy and critical thinking faced some tough questions last week, like whether government is necessary, what makes humans exist and whether there's more to an argument than winning.
It was the second year for the University of Illinois Department of Philosophy's Illinois Lyceum, and this year it included 26 students ages 12 through 18.
In a classroom at the UI's Wohlers Hall, the philosophical questions were written on large pieces of paper on the wall Friday, while students prepared the presentations they delivered Saturday to their parents.
Their presentations, inspired by such questions, tackled issues in creative ways.
One group wrote a song about time travel and another planned its arguments about whether machines can think. Another group planned a game with candy, while discussing human nature and whether people might share or steal.
Chae Won Park, who's a 16-year-old student at University Laboratory High School in Urbana, said she enjoyed the discussion among students and their instructors, who are all graduate students in the Department of Philosophy.
She said she found the instructors especially open to her and other participants' ideas, even on topics they may already have opinions about.
"It's philosophy," she said. "It's always changing."
Brianna Coulter, a 14-year-old student at Urbana High School, said she liked discussions about power, society, social equality and "how you present yourself."
Enrollment tripled this year compared. Last year, eight students attended, and three came back this year. This year, the program also included students from Uni High.
This year, Illinois Lyceum is funded by a grant from the UI's public engagement office, so it's free for participants. Co-organizer and director Alexis Dyschkant said this year is the start of the UI Department of Philosophy's long-term research using the program. Last year's version was a pilot.
Dyschkant, who also is a graduate student, researches the effects of philosophical education on youth. She's using Illinois Lyceum to study whether a week of philosophical training increases the students' ability to think critically. She said such research has been done using college students and adults, but not youths.
The first day of the program, participating students were given a set of six Law School Admission Test questions. They took a second set of six LSAT questions Friday. All the questions tested for a certain reasoning skill, like logical inferences and resolving disputes.
"I anticipate seeing a slight improvement in several of the question types," Dyschkant said, although results aren't available yet.
The results will tell Dyschkant and other researchers how to adjust the camp next year.
"My goal is to have a clear, systematic approach to improving critical thinking skills by 2014," she said. "Our long term goal is to track students' performance in school over time, but this is something we are still in the process of developing and (it) will likely not be possible for a couple of years."
Students also took the Cognitive Reflection Test, "a common test used in psychology to test for problem-solving abilities," Dyschkant said.
That test has been heavily documented, so students took it just once, at the end of Illinois Lyceum. Dyschkant said she wasn't sure what to expect from the results, but found out Friday the students scored the same average as college students.
"We will also document more subjective measures, such as whether students are more likely to question basic assumptions as the course goes on, or if they are able to make connections between the various different topics," Dyschkant said.
Dyschkant will be presenting some of her research, both test results and those subjective measures, at the annual American Association of Philosophy Teachers conference in July.