Students Take to Program Hook, Line and Sinker

By Susan DeFord
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 3, 2003

The fish tanks are everywhere -- in the hallway outside the main office, along the walls of classrooms, in the computer labs at Columbia's Wilde Lake Middle School. Inside are rock-dwelling fish native to African lakes, a miniature ray and shark from the Pacific coral reef, a lobster with taped claws from a nearby Giant supermarket.

The fish are actually bait for Wilde Lake students, who're lured to clean the 28 tanks, conduct science experiments and produce digital images, according to Bob Keddell, who heads Aqua Havens, an academic enrichment program. Launched two years ago, Aqua Havens is part of an innovative, technology-driven venture at Wilde Lake that focuses on underachieving students but also attracts a number of gifted and talented kids.

Although the fish tanks are a focal point of the program, Aqua Havens also has spawned other learning strategies, including a Web site production company. Aqua Havens operates alongside another program, known as Shared Summits, where students follow the exploits of mountaineers online. But from the start, Keddell has remained focused on a single mission: "When you have integrated classroom instruction and computer learning systems, all kids . . . go further."

The after-school activities, involving about 60 youngsters, are supported by grants and corporate involvement and by scientists who donate their time. The program is expected to grow significantly because of a recent $400,000-a-year federal grant to the Wilde Lake community being awarded under the No Child Left Behind Act. That means more children, especially those who don't speak English well, will be able to participate in the school's enrichment program.

Aqua Havens is "totally different from what they do in class," said Valerie Chase, recently retired director of conservation education for the National Aquarium in Baltimore and author of a science curriculum. "For somebody to say, 'What if,' and go off in some direction, it's the best possible way to experience science."

The National Aquarium typically targets Baltimore city schools in its educational outreach program. But it has made an exception for Wilde Lake, providing grant money, arranging field trips and donating a truckload of fish tanks and supplies.

For eight to 10 hours a week after school, 13-year-old Amber Madore straps on a lab apron and conducts science experiments with the fish. This summer she'll spend a week at a research laboratory on the Chesapeake Bay, courtesy of a scholarship offered through Aqua Havens. She's also a member of the eighth-grade executive board that runs the Aqua Havens program.

"We make most of the decisions," Madore said.

Larry Massey-Hall, a sixth-grader who's new to Aqua Havens this year, oversees a tank that harbors a foot-and-a-half-long freshwater eel. Aqua Havens is "cool," he said, and has taught him how to care for a living creature.

"I'm real proud I have the eel to take care of and nobody else does," he said.

Rebecca C. Jordan, a biology research fellow and lecturer at Princeton University, is an online mentor to the Aqua Havens program and helps students design experiments. Their approach to science, said Jordan, 27, is far different than what she encountered in middle and high school.

"We barely did experiments. We were taught what a hypothesis was, but we really didn't know."

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