Lesley Wu is spending a lot of time this summer inside a lab at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, creating medical device and high-tech baseball bats with fiber resin, semiconductors and other materials that cover the tables.
Engineering has been her passion since she was an eighth-grader, when heard the sound coming from a speaker she designed and built herself in Design Camp, the university's summer engineering program for teens.
In addition to manufacturing gadgets in a high-tech course this summer, she is also working for the Design Camp program as an intern, helping fifth- and sixth-graders in a basic course get excited about the subject.
But, learning and sharing aren't all the benefits Wu expects from these summer activities. The Billerica Memorial High School senior is well aware her impressive resume can make her stand out in a crowded pool of applicants for competitive colleges. Her teammate from last year's Design Camp was accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after wowing the admission officials with a computer drawing of an electric push button the team created with a private company for sick children at a Boston hospital.
Applicants all tell college officials how talented and motivated they are, Wu said. But, "It's more convincing if you have a proof," she said.
Wu is one of many high-school students spending this summer building up their academic portfolio by participating in special college programs and courses designed just for them.
Academic summer camps often provide students with college credits while giving them a glimpse at campus life. Universities across the country are launching or expanding such programs as the demands grow.
Harvard University Summer School, for example, has 1,300 high-school students studying variety of subjects from psychology to astronomy its Secondary School Program this summer. Without financial aid, the eight-week program costs $8,000 including room and board, but it hasn't stopped teens from all over the world from flocking to the Cambridge campus to earn credits and experience education at the prestigious institution. The enrollment has increased 10 to 15 percent annually during the past three years, according to Director William Holinger.
Northeastern University has 175 teens in the four-week Summer Discover program, which provides courses for college credits, co-op internships, a leadership program and college visits for a price tag of $5,449. The enrollment rose about 20 percent during the past two years.
UMass Lowell's Design Camp had just 55 students in its inaugural year in 2000, and now boasts the enrollment of 460. For $340, a student gets to pick one out of a selection of engineering sessions and enjoy hands-on learning experience. An advanced, two-week high-tech course -- which Wu is taking this year -- costs $600. Scholarships are available for qualified students.
The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education also coordinates the federally funded Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs to help low-income students. There are students preparing for their future in local summer schools as well, taking SAT-prep and other enrichment courses.
Chelmsford Community Education has run the summer school for hundreds of area students for decades, and those who participate for enrichment purposes now make up about 20 percent of the enrollment, according to Director Scott Johnson. The number of enrichment students includes some adults taking science and other courses in preparation for making career changes.
Experts say there are different theories for the growing trend. Johnson believes working parents are increasingly looking for educational programs to send their children to during summer. Some experts also speculate the "bubble" in student populations may be causing the enrollment increase in academic summer programs on college campuses, Holinger said. Universities are interested in building the future generations of scientists as well by launching programs like Design Camp.
But, educators agree the competitive college admissions are pushing students to achieve more -- and earlier -- academically. And the teens know doing extra work in summer pays off.
"I do think that coming here (for summer school) and doing well does sort of improve your overall admission to any college," Holinger said.
And that is because students who participate in such programs tend to be more academically prepared and aware of what it takes to succeed in college, said David Hautanen, director of undergraduate admissions and recruitment at Northeastern University.
Like many other college-admission officers, Hautanen said any extracurricular work -- such as volunteer and internship experience -- can help students with college admissions just as much because it demonstrates the quality universities look for in applicants. In addition to strong interest and creativity in certain fields, leadership skills and contributions to the community are important. The majority of college applicants succeed without having to do extraordinary pre-college work, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
But, Nassirian said, it's a different story when it comes to Ivy League schools, which has one seat open for every 10 applicants who equally excel in academics. From learning foreign languages to making interesting summer trips, many applicants try something "off-beat" with hopes to capture the attention of admission officers, he said.
And that leaves admission officials somewhat worried.
"Interesting experience is not free," Nassirian said. "It can be bought."
Ian Anderson, admission offer at Harvard University, said seeing applicants with a list of impressive extracurricular activities is nothing new, but something that worked for one student may not work for others.
"There is no one thing we look at," Anderson said. "Every student's situation is different."
Colleges are wanting to know how deep applicants' knowledge and interest in subjects are, not how wide their experiences may