Academically talented youngsters from around the region are getting a taste of college this week at the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County.

The Middle School University program, part of the university’s continuing education efforts, offers students the opportunity to explore a variety of disciplines with local professors.

From hands-on geology field trips to putting on a production of the musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” the students are immersed in areas that interest them.

UW-Baraboo senior lecturer Stephen Swallen is teaching a course called Chemistry in the Limelight this week.

“It’s really fun because the kids really get into it. And hey, who doesn’t like blowing stuff up?” said Swallen, in his fourth year of working with the middle school program.

His group of 12 students will conduct a series of experiments that relate to light this week.

“Today we did combustion,” Swallen said Tuesday.

The group made fireworks, worked with Bunsen burners and studied thermite reactions outdoors.

“It got hot enough that it actually completely melted the brass sleeve and left behind just a sleeve of pure iron,” Swallen said of one of the thermite reactions studied by the group.

Another thermite reaction with a larger volume cracked the ceramic of its flowerpot container, much to the delight of the youngsters.

Swallen said he enjoys working with the middle school-age group, which is “smart, energetic and enthusiastic.”

“They’re just so excited about everything,” he said, adding that the class provides first exposure to real chemistry and working in a laboratory for many students.

Melissa Hage, an assistant professor of geology and geography, is leading field trips to area landmarks such as Parfrey’s Glen State Natural Area, Rock Springs and Devil’s Lake State Park.

“The class I’m doing is just to help them understand the geology of Baraboo,” she said. “What kind of rocks they find here, how they form, the kind of environments they used to form in.”

Hage said she encourages the youngsters in her group to keep a field journal and make notes of what they see around them each day in an effort to better understand the natural history of the area.

“They see all the same rocks when they bum around,” she said. “It would be nice for them to understand what they are and how they formed.”

Hage said it’s her first time working with the age group, and she’s found the young students to be energetic and always ready to ask questions.

“They ask questions that you don’t expect, which is always fun,” she said.

Kaelyn Kurtenbach-Winch, 12, Madilyn Vetter, 14, and Kim Martinez, 11, are a few of the students in Hage’s group.

“It was really fun,” said Kaelyn. “We got to see all kinds of rock formations.”

“It was totally awesome, and we learned a lot,” said Madilyn.

The girls said they’ve enjoyed learning more about the landscape around them. Kaelyn and Madilyn are studying biology in the afternoons.

Kaelyn is in her second year in the summer program.

“It was really fun and a great experience,” she said of her first time last year. “Otherwise you just do nothing.”

The Middle School University program, which began in 2009, serves academically talented students from throughout the area. Many of them come to the program through a teacher’s recommendation, said UW-Baraboo continuing education director Cindy McVenes.

“There are quite a few different schools represented,” said McVenes.

This year’s group has 50 students who are learning about literature, biology, history, politics and other topics in courses designed by UW-Baraboo professors.

“They’re all motivated to be here,” McVenes said, adding that with cuts to education in districts statewide, there’s a great need for programming to serve academically talented students.

Students who attend the morning and afternoon sessions pay $150 for the whole week of courses and get the added benefit of learning about college life, student involvement and preparing for their high school careers and beyond, she said.

“I think it’s important that kids learn every year,” McVenes said.

  • Reporter for Capital Newspapers

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