Chicago’s Field Museum isn’t the only place harboring 3,500-year-old mummies from ancient Egypt. Last week, students at the Field-Stevenson school were given the task of mummifying life-size cloth figures as part of the school’s Challenge Program.

The Challenge Program is geared toward gifted students who have demonstrated high levels of achievement in school. Over the last 15 years, students have studied everything from Islam to architecture. This year, they’re focusing on ancient Egypt.

“We have to recognize that our kids can learn at a higher, more sophisticated level; that they go beyond being bright students,” Principal Robert Giovannani said.

Since late-September, teacher Anne Mertz has been working with students for two hours each week covering various topics related to ancient Egypt. In addition to learning about its history, culture, and religion, the students have been designing their own sarcophagi and cat-shaped canopic jars, transforming Mertz’s classroom into a museum of its own. Students also visited the Field Museum to see the King Tut exhibit.

“We want our students to become life-long learners,” Mertz said. “We want to keep pace with their abilities.”

In order to qualify for the year-long program, students must pass a number of tests, and are chosen based on their scores. Roughly 50 students from all five Forest Park elementary and middle schools are admitted each year.

Andy Hershberger, who is administrator of student programs at the Field Museum, visited the school last week to give a brief presentation on mummification. He began by introducing some of Egypt’s famous pharaohs, including Osiris, King of the underworld, and Maat, goddess of truth and order. He then assigned the students two Egyptians, who they would later mummify.

“The great thing about programs like the Challenge Program is that they promote independent learning,” Hershberger said. “Students can explore all directions of a subject without getting bored.”

What normally takes up to 70 days to complete was done in a matter of minutes. Hershberger supplied the students with scraps of linen to wrap their mummies with. He then gave them sheets of gold-colored paper, on which the students drew amulets to place on the mummies’ hearts to ward off evil. A wailing ceremony followed, during which the students mourned the pharaohs’ deaths and recounted their good qualities.

Fourth-grader Zack Giers was especially excited about the task of mummification.

“I liked learning about what the Egyptians used to mummify the pharaohs, and how long it took them to do it,” Giers said.

Classmate Ethan Flanagan expressed the same interest, adding ancient Egyptian script to his list of favorites.

“Hieroglyphics are cool because the pictures are really sounds,” Flanagan said. “You have to listen to get the meaning.”

To Hershberger, the most rewarding part of his job is seeing the students get inspired by classroom activities. Whether mummifying an ancient Egyptian or saying a few kind words in their honor, the hands-on experience makes learning a lot more fun, for students, Hershberger said.