Some came to argue the existence of God and others to discuss the role of the witches in Macbeth.

They belong to the youngest batch of visiting scholars at the University of Maryland this summer, 300 junior high school students from around the state who are attending the Summer Center for the Humanities for Gifted and Talented Students. Each of the two-week sessions accommodates 150 youths.

In a class called Fantasy, taught by Fairfax County high school teacher Walter Sheay, students examine the legends of King Arthur and then each writes an essay discussing how he or she believes Arthur would perform as president of the United States.

"I tell the students to trust themselves," said Sheay, who added that many students are not used to thinking for themselves during the regular school year. He said he is frustrated at how dependent students have become on their teachers for answers.

If it weren't for the challenges of the gifted students' program, said Sheay, who has taught in it since its inception three years ago, he might have given up teaching altogether.

Selected from about 800 applicants by a state Department of Education committee, participants choose two courses from a list of 10, including architecture, romantic poetry and musical composition. They spend four hours a day in class during the two-week program held on the sprawling College Park campus.

The students, who live in the compus dormitories, go swimming and participate in other recreational activities during the rest of the day. But the youngsters are quick to point out that the center is not like other summer camps.

"I work so hard during the rest of the year. I don't want to let it all go to pot," said Danny Levin, 13, a Rockville eighth grader, explaining why he is taking a course this summer called "How People Build a World."

He admits he didn't tell many of his friends at home that he planned to attend a program for gifted students because "it would be asking for trouble.... I don't like to show off that I'm gifted."

"When you're called cognitively gifted, it sounds like you're an obscure person. It just doesn't sound right," said Cynthia Weiss of Gaithersburg, a frizzy-haired 13-year-old who is studying music composition.

Weiss said being labeled "gifted" causes many of her acquaintances to stereotype her. "They think you're interested in schoolwork and nothing else," she complained, noting that she plays the flute, jogs and is addicted to a soap opera.

In the university program, the youthful scholars "are finally among peers where they don't stand out,... [where they're not] considered a little different," said David Newell, a Washington College philosophy professor.

Newell is so enthusiastic about the program that he has put off work on his own research to return for a second year to serve as the director.

State funds cover about half of the program costs per student; families are asked to contribute $250 per child. Ten percent of the 2,600 students attending the College Park center and 11 others like it around the state receive full scholarships based on financial need.

Karen Davison, the state specialist for gifted and talented education, said no qualified students have been turned away because they could not pay.

Summer programs are available for gifted and talented students in the fifth grade through senior high school, although seven are just for junior high school students in subjects including music, science and computers. The College Park campus offers the only humanities program at the junior high level.

Many of the students in this year's program admit they are there because they was no room for them in the computer course at Western Maryland College in Westminster, which has skyrocketed in popularity.

"Computer science is hard to contend with," Newell said, explaining that its vocational prospects make it appealing to many students.

Although there were complaints about the lack of air conditioning in the dormitories and the quality of the cafeteria food, none of those questioned three days into the second session of the program expressed disappointment with the humanities instruction.

"They let you think for yourself. The teachers want us to defend ourselves. Nobody's really right or wrong," said Serena Lin, 11, of Potomac, who chose to study art after she could not get into the computer course at Western Maryland.

Bob Danner, the philosophy instructor, asked a roomful of wideeyed youngsters to list the differences between the body and the soul. A number of hands immediately shot up. Several groaned in the hope of attracting the teacher's attention.

"Your soul is undefined," suggested dark-haired Janel Pearlman, 13, of Randallstown, looking relieved to have been given a chance to respond.

"Your soul is what gives you personality," offered Terry Nason, 14, of Sykesville.

Danner had trouble finding room on the blackboard for all of the students' ideas.

Topics of other debates planned for the philosophy students include creationism versus evolution and whether computers can think, based on the readings assigned by Danner.

Danny Levin is particularly pleased that no grades are given in the summer program, in contrast to the pressure to excel that he feels from his parents during the school year. "Everybody bombs a test sometimes... But I get a really big lecture about not living up to your potential."

Chrestos Pyrros, a round-cheeked 11-year-old from Germantown who hopes to become a scientist, enjoys his course in musical composition, but adds that "if you study all day you'll be just a plain bore. I like to have an even balance."

He admits, though, to being a bit worried about his future. "They don't care at the unemployment office if you know how to play Pac-Man," he said, explaining that he'd prefer to develop practical skills in contrast to many of his friends who are preoccupied with video games.