A week ago, 12-year-old Michael Green was just another youngster who loved computers. Now he's an entrepreneur with his first paying customer, a restaurant owner who wants to hire Michael's upstart graphic design firm to create fliers.

For Michael and 18 other gifted and talented Maryland students participating in a week-long program -- the Center for Business and Economics -- at Thomas Stone High School, the learning curve has risen steeply. In just the last day and a half of the program, each student had to design his or her own business and create posters and business cards to present to family members at an expo Friday.

Michael, from Fort Washington, still hadn't worked out all the details by the time the expo opened. When asked how he would find customers for Michael's Graphics 'N Web Design, he did a startled hop into the air.

"Oh, gosh. I have no idea!" he said.

But within a few minutes Michael had learned the power of networking -- or maybe it was the value of being in the right place at the right time.

George Mitchell, owner of Prime Sirloin Family Restaurant in Waldorf and father of another hopeful entrepreneur, Travis, 9, was ready to make a deal. Mitchell pledged to reward Michael for his computer know-how with some cold, hard cash. Travis did another little hop of excitement.

At the Center for Business and Economics, open to students entering grades 5 through 7, Charles County teachers offered lessons in the basics of business, brought entrepreneurs to speak to the group and took students to the Baltimore Museum of Industry.

Pre-teenagers are old enough to start thinking about the future and to learn about money management and responsibility, the teachers said.

"The true entrepreneurs always say that the spark [of interest in business] lights in childhood," said Margaret Ridgell of the Charles County Community College Small Business Development Center, which co-sponsored the program. "We refer to it as the fire in the belly, and you have to have that. This is just the age kids are starting to think [about business], and I want to fan the flames."

Youngsters ages 10, 11 and 12 are capable of devising realistic ventures to fill their summer months, according to gifted education teacher Barbara Campbell. Many students designed lawn mowing, pet sitting or car washing businesses, and some plan to implement their ideas.

One of the participants already has. Danny McGeehan, 12, of Fort Washington, has been getting paid to do magic shows for the last two years, after studying the art of magic since he was 5.

"I've done about 15 paying shows," said Danny, as he dropped two sugar packets into a magic pouch, waved his hand and produced a pile of Hershey's Kisses. "But before I came here I had no idea how to make a business plan."

The program brought 10 girls and nine boys from near and far -- Charles and St. Mary's counties, as well as Prince George's, Anne Arundel, Howard, Frederick and Baltimore counties. Students were accepted to the program on the basis of test scores, a teacher evaluation and an essay.

The Center for Business and Economics, which cost $75 for one week of six-hour days, is one of many residential and non-residential gifted and talented programs throughout the state sponsored this summer by the Maryland Department of Education. This was the second year Charles County ran the business program, which was designed by county educators.