YOUNGSTOWN -- Their faces smeared in deep gray cream, metallic powder dusted on their upper bodies, the four girls peering into the restroom mirror in DeBartolo Hall wouldn't exactly consider themselves geniuses -- let alone "mecha geniuses" from the year 3000.
They're more like really smart high school kids, persuaded to don all-black attire and promoted to mecha genius status by a zealous drama instructor inspired by the futuristic movie "A.I."
"We are scared, so scared," says Marlana LaCivita, a Liberty sophomore, touching the border of grayness and skin on her face. "We just don't want anyone to laugh at us."
Her fellow dancers nod, smiling and shaking their heads. They're in this together, showcasing the latest in gifted education, whether they want to or not.
Interaction: At the Youngstown State University Summer Honors Institute, as well as across the country, the buzzword for talented adolescents is "interaction." It's a concept perfected over time with hands-on creativity and an infusion of pop culture.
"You don't want to lose gifted students because they are bored," said Donna Downie, an adjunct instructor in YSU's Department of Communication and Theater and the brain behind the gray-faced dancers. "They want to broaden, to search, to research. ... But it's got to be consistently changing and challenging."
YSU's program, formerly known as the Governor's Institute, is one of 16 at Ohio universities promoting summer learning for children identified by the state as gifted. For three one-week sessions, about 70 sophomores and juniors each week delve into two topics of choice, offering their findings at week's end.
Activities: This year's Session One crop included a mock Mars newscast from the astronomy group, where an "on-scene" reporter was asphyxiated by the planet's lack of oxygen, and the multimedia authoring class's "The Chic Hunter," a parody of Animal Planet's "The Crocodile Hunter."
Research for the Reston, Va.-based Council for Exceptional Children suggests that such activities can unleash the curiosity of gifted children, ridding them of pressures to dumb down their intelligence.
As Downie put it, "It's popular to be a nerd here."
Therefore, today's topic in mythology is the Greek Olympic Family -- Hera, Aphrodite and the gang -- complete with brain-teasers and a kick.
Joe Marino, whose instructing style resembles Robin Williams cranked up a notch, is pacing from table to table, listening as the 13 students -- some bespectacled, some with blue hair -- pair gods and goddesses with their modern-day counterparts.
Womanizing Zeus? Bill Clinton, they say.
Zeus' jealous queen, Hera? Lorena Bobbitt, of course.
"They're so quick, " Marino says. "We cover in four days what we do in three weeks at Fitch," where he teaches mythology to seniors.
The challenge: Although these kids have razor-sharp intellects, they're still teen-agers emotionally. Experts cite this deviation in academic know-how and maturity as one of the biggest challenges for educators of the gifted.
Here in Hidden History, Drs. Donna DeBlasio and Thomas Leary of YSU are daring their students to tackle the past in the abstract: architecture, public records and interviews. The group is planning its presentation for the next day's show-and-tell in DeBartolo Auditorium. All they have agreed on is that the word "bungalow," referring to a style of building, must be used.
"We need a game plan so we don't look like idiots," urges Aaron Allison, a junior at East Palestine.
"I mean, geez," says James Becker, a junior at John F. Kennedy, "we're only in an honors program."
More debate ensues. Mike Gallow, a Liberty sophomore who has thus far remained silent, interrupts.
"Hey," he says, "history doesn't have to be what date something is on. It can be much more humane, on a personal scale."
The room momentarily hushes, and all eyes turn toward Gallow, waiting to hear more.
The professors nod, impressed.
After four days and 12 hours with these kids, that's exactly the response they were hoping for.

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