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Rockford high school students spend week at NIU

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Jefferson High School students from Rockford investigate a mock murder scene during last summer’s Project REAL camp. Project REAL is Northern Illinois University’s federally funded partnership with the Rockford Public Schools and Rock Valley College. Provided photo

DeKALB - Sixty students from Rockford's Jefferson High School will spend this week on the Northern Illinois University campus for a close-up look at where college degrees could take them. Camp organizers hope the students will leave understanding the personal changes and hard work required to enroll in college. Thirty sophomores and 30 juniors who are not necessarily college-bound are taking part in the second &#8220summer institute,” paid for partly by Project REAL, NIU's federally funded partnership with the Rockford Public Schools and Rock Valley College. Last year's debut of the camp proved popular, leading the participants (who are now the returning juniors) to form an NIU Club at Jefferson in the fall and to raise money to attend a second summer. &#8220These kids are a lot more focused now,” said Judy Cox-Henderson, coordinator of clinical experiences in the NIU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and adviser to the NIU Club. &#8220Being in the NIU Club was sort of a source of pride for them, and they needed to do well in their classes because of that, and those who took on leadership roles say it really changed them.” Students who take part in the camp will be immersed in activities with faculty from the NIU colleges of Education, Engineering and Engineering Technology, Liberal Arts and Sciences and Health and Human Sciences. Daytime activities for the sophomores will range from making cheese and mayonnaise and testing blood samples to building paper helicopters and bridges and even probing a murder &#8220CSI”-style. They'll also compete in a TV-like quiz show. Having taken part in the above activities last summer, the juniors will design roller coasters, program computer games, publish a camp newspaper and create ceramic masks and paintings. NIU and Rock Valley College faculty also will host a career exploration fair on June 21, helping the campers to identify their job interests and the paths to those positions. All campers will live in an NIU residence hall, and at night can enjoy arcade games, billiards, bowling, dances, movies or sports. NIU students will serve as counselors, allowing the high schoolers to develop informal friendships and relationships with college undergraduates. &#8220We want to expose the kids to college and what college is all about. It gives them goals in high school - things to strive for,” Cox-Henderson said. &#8220If you hang around high school kids much, you learn that they don't really understand why they need to do well in high school. But if kids have goals, there's a good chance they'll work harder.” Nearly all of the incoming juniors opted for honors English last fall, Cox-Henderson said. &#8220They think of themselves as more serious students,” she said. &#8220The camp had an impact on them.” Meanwhile, word of their experiences in DeKalb spread through their high school. &#8220I was so surprised last year,” Cox-Henderson said. &#8220This was an experiment. I just put this together not knowing what their reaction would be, and they just loved it. I had kids coming up to me in the hallway at Jefferson to ask, ‘Are you the lady who does the camp? Because I want to go.'”

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