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Some talented Nebraska middle schoolers had a chance to push their limits this week during Central Community College-Columbus’ Central Honors Institute.

The camp, in its 17th year, ran Sunday, July 6, through Thursday, and was designed for gifted students in seventh and eighth grades to do various scientific tasks that were both engaging and fun. They chose from four different tracks: the Stream Team, a biology-based course that provided students with the opportunity to explore aquatic ecosystems; FLY, a STEM-inspired course that allowed students to design model rockets and explore the science behind archery; CSI at CHI, which allowed students to explore criminology; and the Creativity Track, which combined art with math and science to provided students with the opportunity to explore the world around them.

It’s a selective camp, and only students who scored in the 65th percentile on their placement tests or in the 80th percentile in reading, language skills, math and science attended the camp. These students are some of the very best in Nebraska, and as camp instructor Mark Bathke explains, they deserve the opportunity to be challenged.

“These are the gifted students in northeast Nebraska or central Nebraska,” Bathke said. “We’re doing activities that they would normally not get to do in their schools because they test, they design, get to actually build some things and go test it. In some of the science classrooms, that is not happening like it should be.”

Bathke is a high school science teacher from Allen, and he said that the students this week proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they can do more than what they've been doing in their middle school science classes.

“The students are ready for the challenge,” Bathke said. “It’s good for them to be in a group of students that are all gifted so they can challenge each other, because most of these students are used to being the top students in their class. Most of these kids could sit in a ninth-grade physical science class and they would do well.”

Bathke worked with the FLY track, which had the week objective of building a model rocket for various tests. The rockets worked like this: students placed some water in a 2-liter bottle and then placed said bottle on a miniature rocket launcher. Two different tests were held; one to see how high the rockets would go and another to see how far it would go. The distance test was held on Thursday and was the culmination of five days of building and testing.

“This is actually the repair of their first flight,” said Ed Brogie, a former science teacher from Wayne and an instructor at the camp. “Their first flights all went and they crashed upon landing. Now, they’re going to see if they can repair those (rockets) and shoot them again, this time for distance.”

Erica Leffler is in her first year as director of the camp, and she noted that it was a place where independent thinking was encouraged. It’s also a promotion for their futures, as they get to experience life on their own, away from their parents and teachers - some for the very first time.

“It’s one of our ways that we can expose them to Central Community College,” Leffler said. “These are our future college kids and we’re hoping that they have a great experience at CCC and later on become our early college students, taking dual-credit classes and preparing them for tomorrow’s world and what skills are needed out there.”

Bathke knows all about how to make sure that students are on the right path to receive a college education. Having worked at the camp for 13 years, he thinks that it provides younger students with a goal to shoot for, not to mention the opportunity to make life-long memories.

“This camp gives them a chance to come on campus, stay in the dorms for a few days and be away from the parents,” Bathke said. “I think it’s just important for them to learn social skills, the importance of working with other kids, working as a team and being responsible for themselves and what you learn in school and taking charge of your education. We hope that we teach that to them and help develop independent learners.”

Zach Roth is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at zachary.roth@lee.net.

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