When Sydney Dillmann, a 12-year-old from Fond du Lac, enrolled in five-day course called "Study Technology" at her local University of Wisconsin campus this summer, she and her mother thought it would be a good way for young Sydney to improve her study skills.
Thanks to the course, she stumbled upon a surprise subject - the Church of Scientology.
The Study Technology curriculum relies on the educational writings of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Scientology movement.
On one hand, it appears rather routine, and, in the words of Sydney and some of her friends, "boring." The children are taught effective methods of using a dictionary, for example, or how to associate abstract math exercises with concrete objects.
But according to some scholars who follow Scientology, the same Hubbard writings used to devise Study Technology are considered scriptures in the church. The point of sponsoring such courses is to promote Scientology methods and beliefs while burnishing Hubbard's image, skeptics say.
Much of this Sydney and her mother, Mary, learned from scouring the Internet. And they haven't been shy about challenging UW-Fond du Lac or the session's teacher, Barbara Abler. "It's just such junk science," Mary Dillmann said.
But that's one side.
Study Technology has its defenders, and they adamantly deny trying to promote a religion in the classroom. UW-Fond du Lac officials, for the record, say they're comfortable with the summer enrichment offering.
Abler declined Thursday to identify her religious background and said she never tried to promote Scientology in the classroom.
"I'm teaching a study skills class - it's a totally secular class," Abler said, adding that she welcomed calls and visits from parents.
She referred a reporter to Mary Adams, a senior vice president for external affairs at Applied Scholastics International in St. Louis. Applied Scholastics is a non-profit group founded in 1972 that promotes Hubbard's Study Technology. However, outside of using his educational writings, Applied Scholastics isn't affiliated with the church itself, Adams said.
"It's just a misconception," Adams said. "When people see Mr. Hubbard's name, they immediately think of the things that they are familiar with that he is associated with. I don't know if they know of Study Technology."
Adams said Applied Scholastics has 450 groups on six continents. She defined groups as "schools, community learning centers or tutoring centers." She also said school districts in the United States had started to use Study Technology but declined to identify which ones or how many.
A spokeswoman for the church, Karin Pouw, offered this statement: "The church completely supports Applied Scholastics, but Applied Scholastics is an independent, secular organization."
UW-Fond du Lac's dean, Dan Blankenship, said the two-year college was not allowed to question its employees about their religious backgrounds before hiring them. He said he'd talked to Abler after hearing about the concerns.
"It sounded like, to me, that the allegations that she was teaching a religion seemed extraordinary and didn't seem consistent with what she was doing," he said.
Leanne Doyle, director of continuing education at UW-Fond du Lac, said the college was aware that Study Technology was based on educational methods devised by Hubbard, but she observed the class and doesn't believe Abler was promoting the church.
Mary and Sydney Dillmann said they didn't believe Abler was trying to convert the students to Scientology either, but the methods and ideas didn't make sense.
According to the Dillmanns, the students were told that a key part of learning is knowing certain words, and that if they ever felt tired or dizzy that they needed to learn the meanings of certain words to get re-energized.
David S. Touretzky, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied Scientologists, said such concepts were central to church teachings.
"Scientology believes that if someone has misunderstood a word, that that can actually cause a kind of pain or trauma," said Touretzky, a frequent critic of Scientology whose academic specialty is computational neuroscience.
Touretzky believes teaching Study Technology in public schools violates laws governing separation of church and state and promotes Scientology beliefs. The church spokeswoman, Pouw, blasted Touretzky, insisting: "He is discredited in the field that he's trying to comment on. He is a specialist in rat brains."
Despite her concerns, Dillmann chose to keep Sydney in the class, which ends today.
"This is the best time she's had all summer," Dillmann said. "Her forensic skills, her research skills, her sifting through different Web sites, looking at data, interpreting information. . . . You wouldn't believe how much she learned from this class. It's just not the type of information we thought she'd get out of it."