TAMPA — The students clustered around a DNA sequencer for an experiment called "Who's Your Daddy?" It was a paternity test, something you'd see in less academic terms on daytime TV if you got to stay home and eat Doritos all summer.
These teenagers did not stay home. They came to spend summer at the University of South Florida, immersing themselves in science, technology, engineering and math, or "STEM" — one of the hottest buzzwords in education as schools seek to boost the ranks of students in those fields. Saying it is one thing. Making students fall in love with an acronym is another.
The DNA shone neon through something like clear Jell-O. It was starting to separate.
"That is the coolest thing," said Megan Makela, 16. "Everything is the coolest thing."
Standing quietly observing the students was a 78-year-old professor in spectacles. Manoug Manougian knew bright kids don't flourish without true trial. He was one of them, too.
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The STEM Education Center has been at USF for decades. In years past, high school students in USF's summer program didn't stay overnight, and they came mostly from local districts. The term STEM didn't exist, but the point was the same.
This year, the STEM Research for Scholars program through USF's Pre-College has been fashioned into a select sleep-away camp for gifted high school kids from all over the country. Just 21 made the cut. They are in the top 10 percent, preferably top 5 percent of their classes. Each paid $3,800, some with scholarships, to spend four weeks at USF.
There's Makela, who at 16 has researched chemotherapy-induced cognitive changes. She was here from Destin, in part, to scope out USF for the future.
Dahlya Katz, 17, chose camp over a summer in Israel and Italy. When she blew curfew, she said, her parents threatened to withhold USF. She cried for four days.
Changseob Lim, 17, moved to New York from Korea five years ago and had no visa to get a summer job. Might as well go learn advanced 3-D visualization.
They'll examine mutated fruit flies, extract DNA from their own cheeks, visit the Kennedy Space Center. They'll write college-level research papers. Examples from last summer: "Theoretical Analysis of Mathematical Models on Electrospinning Mechanics"; "The Effect of the Force of Drag on Artificial Earth Satellites."
Manougian, director of the STEM Education Center and USF faculty since 1968, is passionate about all students, especially those poised for success. He knows they can't afford to get bored.
He was born in Jerusalem, an Armenian surrounded by fighting. To escape, his mother pulled him out of school and took him to Jericho. There, he read Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon. He became entranced with rockets, latitude, space.
Manougian formed the Lebanese Rocket Society at Haigazian University in the 1960s, sending projectiles into Middle Eastern skies. The educational club was disbanded and later rediscovered by a documentary filmmakers whose film about Manougian's club was shown at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival.
He regales students with stories of his youth. He relates math and science to everything. Want to be a ballerina? Learn geometry. A painter? Learn to calculate. Want to build a rocket? I did, and so you can you.
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By 10:30 a.m., the students were studying the spread of disease. They rolled a die to see who was healthy, sick or dead. There were four vaccines.
Who should get them? The elderly? The young? Adults?
"This program is so important to me," Manougian whispered, sitting in the back of class. "The future of this country is going to depend on these bright kids. If we don't pay attention to them, we're missing out on an important segment of our society."
Manougian slipped out of the room. Katz, in skinny jeans and a wrist band that said TAYLOR SWIFT, burst into a Swift song. Then, like a switch, she burst into scientific reason with a strategy for the vaccine.
"We should give it to the kids," she told the teacher. "Because they're going to live longer and they can repopulate."