The sign inside Howard Community College's Hickory Ridge Building pointed to a summer camp class called "Oooo, Goo and Stinky Too: Gross Science." Inside the classroom, elementary school kids discovered how inventive they could be with household products, mixing corn starch, cocoa and red dye to make fake blood and fueling toy rockets with Alka Seltzer.

The hands-on class is among dozens offered during HCC's Kids on Campus, a summer education enrichment program for youths ages 7 to 17 that is celebrating its 25th year.

Like many local summer programs, Kids on Campus offers students alternatives to endless hours of video game playing and shopping mall visits, and keeps a classroom instruction environment going at a time of year when students are said to often lose information learned during the previous school year.

HCC uses its resources, then draws from the community to give kids experiences they likely won't get in normal classroom settings. In "Gross Science," they are encouraged to make concoctions that some folks might consider, well, gross.

"I like the disgusting things because they're interesting," said Zachary Huston, 9, ofEllicott City.

The HCC summer program was an offshoot from an activity that the school once offered to local kids during a holiday break from school. The summer program subsequently began with typing, creative writing, computer programming and a history course for about 40 youngsters.

"We didn't have a lot of knowledge about publicizing it. We probably just put out a flier, probably an insert in a brochure that goes to every home," said Sara Baum, program founder and director.

This year, Kids on Campus has about 1,600 students taking about 120 courses. Local school teachers and college instructors lead the courses.

Those classes include "Art Through a Time Machine," which includes exploring the art of prehistoric cave paintings; "Crime Scene Investigators," where students learn to study a crime scene for clues, analyze fingerprints and identify substances; and "Practical Preparation for PSAT/NMSQT," where students prepare for the standardized exam by reviewing basic math concepts and enhancing reading and writing skills.

There are also courses on religion, psychology and languages. The school takes input from local politicians on what courses to offer and has added about 50 courses over the past few years. Three financial courses, including one for 7- to 10-year-olds called Money Magic, were launched at the request of a County Council member who wanted to see improvement in kids' financial literacy.

"A majority of our classes are what we call 'home-grown'; teachers come to us with ideas and we let them build and put on the class," said summer program administrator Paula Wolkowitz, who said the college hires three instructional companies to teach courses.

Students in the "Gross Science" class spent much of Wednesday testing how high each could fly paper-made hollow rockets that contained water and Alka Seltzer tablets. They covered their arms with fake blood to resemble wounds.

Earlier they had made fake snow and later in the week they were slated to make rockets launch with mints and carbonated drinks.

"I enjoy doing the rockets. I like making the snow; you use powder and water," said Rena Bi, 7, of Woodstock, who said her mother chose the summer camp for her.

Chase Pisone, 10, of Laurel explained that the class made objects that were polymers, which "soak up water and expand." He said that he learned the term during the HCC summer camp and said that he would share many of the experiments he took part in with his teachers at school this fall.

"When it's hands-on, they love science," said "Gross Science" class instructor Pam Benya, a fifth-grade teacher at Lisbon Elementary in Woodbine who is in her third year of teaching at the camp. "I like teaching science, and I especially like teaching camp. The kids are learning, but we're having so much more fun, too."

Benya said that in summer camp, students can perform tasks in a classroom that they wouldn't during a regular school year — in part because of fewer concerns about messiness, time constraints and curriculum.

"With school, it's mostly learning, a little bit of fun. With camp, it's the opposite: It's mostly fun, a little bit of learning," she said. "It's a huge dose of fun, and when it's hands-on, kids love science."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com