BUCKHANNON -- While some youth prefer to spend their summer at the edge of the pool, others are spending theirs at the bottom of the sea.
"Eeeeewwww," said a cluster of fifth and sixth graders, peering through a microscope at squirming bacteria.
Learning about the aquatic bacteria, drawn from a local stream, is just a small part of "A Journey to the Bottom of the Sea," a marine biology-centered camp for gifted children going on at West Virginia Wesleyan College this month.
"We have three programs -- marine biology, astronomy and geology, that the fifth and sixth graders rotate through from year to year," said Laurie McCormick, administrative assistant for the Summer Gifted Program.
Students must score in the 97th percentile on a nationally standardized test to attend.
"They're from all over -- West Virginia, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio," McCormick said. "We even have one from L.A."
One Virginia student, Payton Wang, said she and her mother discovered the camp on the Internet.
Her favorite parts in the first of two weeks were comparing flame colors in a chemistry class and debating the merits of Captain Nemo's actions in a literature class devoted to "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."
Elkins student Erin Gibson said she became interested in marine biology after going whale watching with her aunt on the Maine coast.
While theme-based studies extend to everything from math to composition, fun is built into the program as well, McCormick said.
Group activities include the occasional journey to a pizza parlor or community pool, for example.
Summer Gifted Program, which also offers camps for gifted students through 12th grade, was founded by Dr. Joseph Wiest a Wesleyan physics professor, and his wife, Dr. Jeanie Wiest, nearly 20 years ago.
"We had two gifted children ourselves and there wasn't any program of this kind closer than North Carolina," Joseph Wiest said. "We felt that there was a real need in West Virginia."
He sees the camps as a way to teach directly toward top students, who are generally in classrooms where instruction is aimed toward middle-ability students. For example, 11-year-old campers are studying physics.
Students and their parents have certainly responded. Starting with only 12 students, the grade five-12 enrollment is now about 130, Joseph Wiest said.
McCormick believes a part of the program's charm to students of all ages and genders is environmental, as well as intellectual.
"They're getting a two-week taste of college," McCormick said. "They're staying in the dorms. They're eating in the dining hall."
Regional Editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403.