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Summer camp exercises the mind

The Scholars Summer Academy for seventh-graders models itself on a Duke program.

Published June 10, 2007


TAMPA - Mitchell Rybak has a friction problem. He has rigged a mouse trap to a model car, with a string connecting the lever to the wheels.

Snap. The vehicle sputters for a foot or two. A University of Tampa professor spins the wheels to help diagnose the problem.

"I'm not really smart with cars," Mitchell says, "but I know friction does cause things to stop."

Not bad for a Rodgers Middle School kid still three years away from his driver's license, much less a high school physics class.

He's hardly in a class of his own. Hillsborough school officials invited their brightest seventh-graders to participate in summer brain-building sessions.

While Mitchell learns to build a mousetrap car and a trebuchet -- an erudite way to say catapult -- classmates use calipers to determine the gender of a skeleton. Courses, which include drama and art, touch on topics they might not see again until college.

These students are up for the challenge.

"Some of them are better than my university students in some ways," says Wasif Alam, an assistant professor of global health issues at UT, teaching a class based on CSI.

"Maybe not so mature," he is quick to add. "But intelligence-wise, they are very smart."

Until recently, Hillsborough didn't have anything like this camp to push them. Superintendent MaryEllen Elia modeled the summer program after the nationally known Duke University Talent Identification Program, which recognizes seventh-graders with outstanding scores on college entrance exams.

The Hillsborough Scholars Summer Academy targets seventh-graders whose state standardized test scores place them in the top 15 percent of students in the nation.

The district offers a week of instruction co-taught by teachers and UT professors. At a cost of $325, with scholarships available, the program tries to be affordable to families that can't send a child to Duke for summer enrichment.

"We didn't have anything that was a local opportunity," Elia says, adding that the camp setting "underscores that learning and doing things differently can be fun."

The program is seeing steady growth in its second year. About 125 students attended last week's session, representing middle schools around the county. Another 85 have signed up for the second session beginning Monday, and the district continues to accept applications.

Students say the classes are more fun than traditional school. In "couch potato math," they deconstruct math problems solved in minutes on CBS' NUMB3RS. Girls in black caps learn to synchronize kicks on the university's stage, while classmates practice drawing techniques using photographs of School Board members.

"If it was actual school, instead of building cars, you would probably watch a two-hour documentary," says Matthew Afonso, 12, an eighth-grader at Davidsen Middle, who is taking the course titled "phun with physics."

In another setting, eyes might roll during the daily sessions on what the students can start doing next year as eighth-graders to get ready for college.

But these adolescents shush each other to pay attention when a teacher follows up on a question from the previous day: What is the Ivy League?

Letitia Stein can be reached at or 813 226-3400.

Fast Facts:


Session signup

It is still possible to apply for the Hillsborough Scholars Summer Academy session beginning Monday. To learn more, visit or call Chanda Moore at 233-3408.


[Last modified June 9, 2007, 23:36:14]

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