Edward Hawkins, a short, shy, well scrubbed young man, exceedingly polite with his wan smile and quick handshake makes his way into the George Mason University cafeteria. After a little prodding, the 16-year-old from Matoaca, near Petersburg, Va., will say he'd like to be a concert pianist, sir, but that's an awful tough thing to do.

Hawkins sits down at a table across from Rebecca Wood of Harrisonburg, a bubbly 17-year-old with tortoise shell glasses who says she plans to be a chemical or metallurgical engineer, but without giving up her acting.

Steve Clark of Danville, also 17 and going on 45, declares seriously that he'd like to be president of the United States.

Dan Harasty of Herndon says solving a Rubik's Cube puzzle in four minutes -- maximum -- is a terrific way to meet girls.

Summer school? Summer camp? It's both of those and more -- an academic training camp called The Governor's School for the Gifted, a four week gathering of whiz kids, prodigies and would-be stars drawn to the Fairfax County campus from public schools across the state.

The session exposes 150 promising high school students not only to rigorous advanced study but to each other and -- for many of those from rural downstate Virginia -- to their first sight of the state's busy Washington suburbs. (But it's not overdone. Curfew is 11:30 p.m. and cars are not permitted.)

"You've got everything here," says Clark, a senior who lives near the North Carolina border in Virginia's textile belt, as he grins his presidential-aspirant grin. "You've got your lunatic fringe, your great lovers -- people just like you and me."

Founded eight years ago by a University of Virginia professor, the Governor's School -- patterned after North Carolina's program of the same name -- concentrates not on data but on teaching ways of thinking.

"I'm trying to tell these people to question what they believe," says history professor William H. Cohn. "The goal is to turn out kids who are skeptical. I'm not at all interested in telling them the facts."

A total of 450 students -- most of them entering their senior year -- enroll at three sites every summer. This is the first time the program has been held at George Mason, which joins Mary Washington and Randolf-Macon colleges as hosts for the program.

Admission standards are stiff. About half of the students at George Mason are first in their class at home, according to Jack Censer, director of the program at George Mason and an assistant professor of history there. The rest are near the top of their class.

Minimum criteria for nominees include ranking in the top 10 percent of their high school class and at least at the 95th percentile of standardized tests such as the college board exams. Teachers' recommendations are also important.

This year's participants were selected from among 700 applicants.

"These students are the kind that make up an Ivy League university," Censer says proudly. "These are the most elite kids and a lot of them will wind up at the most elite institutions."

Joseph White, who has overseen the program for the Virginia Department of Education, says, "many of them do go to the most elite universities, but they also go to other very fine institutions that are not as well known. The Governor's School is a resounding success."

It was Censer who assembled the program at George Mason, using a $150,000 budget of which some $90,000 comes directly from the state and the balance from the state-supported university and various private community groups.

The curriculm features a dozen academic subjects, including computer science, nursing, astronomy, music theory and psychology. Sciences are more popular than the humanities and social sciences; there are no literature courses. Most popular among the offerings is computer science, with some 50 students enrolled in three separate sections.

The 16-member faculty's focus on ways of thinking is illustrated in a recent American history class studying the first half of the 20th century. Not a date or place is mentioned. Cohn appears far more interested in the student's ideas -- often based on little or no factual knowledge -- about American history.

"What do you suppose most people thought about businessmen during the Depression?" he asks.

"People felt sorry for them, right?" says a student, missing the mark completely.

Cohm smiles. "Any other ideas?"

The curriculum is fleshed out by a number of field trips, athletic sessions and nighttime "performance work shops," in which students work on various projects, such as researching and writing their own play.

But Censer -- and the students -- agree that it is not the academics but the people that make the Governor's School work.

The students themselves seem to agree wholeheartedly.

"Everybody has a different talent," says Rebecca Wood. "But people don't really show off. They just do their own thing."