Third-grader Kristen Chase learned on Friday that four robotic rovers have explored Mars, investigating the far-away planet and "taking pictures of cool things."

Then, the Springs Ranch Elementary School student and other classmates made their own rovers out of marshmallows, pretzels, graham crackers, frosting and candies.

What Kristen was most looking forward to, though, was eating her model, after lunch.

"I like how this class is so creative. You get to make stuff out of food," she said, smearing on a hefty amount of frosting to hold her sugary vehicle together.

Kristen was one of 108 students from 19 schools in Falcon School District 49 who spent last week at the first summer institute for gifted and talented kids.

First- through 10th-graders signed up for classes such as messy science, which in addition to the Mars rover project also challenged students to see who could build the highest pyramid out of spaghetti strands.

Along with keeping their brains busy, the weeklong program, held at Vista Ridge High School, introduced the intellectually advanced learners to like-minded peers from other schools.

"It's important for them to spend time together because they're typically one and a half to two years ahead (of other students) academically, and they need the opportunity to process things with more depth and complexity," said Tresha DiPasquale, who coordinates the gifted and talented program for the district's Sand Creek Zone.

"Fun" was the word of the week, as students made pinhole cameras out of Pringles chip cans in solar photography class, searched the school grounds with metal detectors in archaeology and whipped up homemade root beer and ice cream in edible science class, then had a float party. They also took part in team-building and leadership courses.

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"I didn't hear anybody complaining - they all liked it," said Heather Hutchinson, a teacher at Skyview Middle and Vista Ridge High schools who led a bottle rockets class and a Rubik's Cube challenge.

"It's nice seeing kids that are on the same ability level work together in areas they're passionate about," she said. "Things like this we can't cover during the school year."

The off-the-beaten-path lesson plans left memorable impressions.

Dominik Compton, entering sixth grade at Skyview Middle School, said he figured out that metal detectors "aren't always right."

Azilyn DiPasquale, a Horizon Middle School sixth-grader, theorized that the human mind can be tricked. An experiment mixing tonic water with purple food coloring led some students to think the liquid was grape flavored.

"Some even said it smelled like grape," she said, giggling.

Falcon middle-schooler Haley Apricio said everything was so interesting, "I honestly can't say what was my favorite because we did so many cool activities."

Daniel Fitzgerald, another Horizon Middle School student, said he liked solving crimes in the mystery and mayhem class the best.

"In school, you only get to study math. You actually get to do things here," he said. "I picked things I hadn't done before. It's a great way to keep learning over the summer."