Seventh-grader Cochise Jerome, 13, bent over the circuit board and tried to figure out why the light on the robot-shaped toy wouldn't flash.

"The resistor controls the power. It stores up power until you have what you need to make it light," he explained, tracing the path of the electric current until he found an improperly soldered wire that had broken the circuit. "The energy won't go the right way."

Although Cochise wasn't using the big words the professors spout in college engineering classes, he had as clear an understanding of electricity as do most adults, thanks to a NASA-sponsored program to increase the number of minority students studying for careers in science.

For 10 weeks, 213 Washington area fourth- through eighth-graders have spent their Saturday mornings at this math and engineering program run by the University of the District of Columbia.

Drawn from 91 schools from Burke to Baltimore, Saturday Academy students tackle theoretical mathematics and get hands-on experience in computer programming and engineering. They build projects ranging from simple noisemakers to small robots and boost their self-confidence while they're at it.

Program director Winson Coleman explained, "We can create some interest {in math and science}. That way we can get them to go back and take algebra" in school.

Joshua Isaac, 12, of Mitchellville, said that when he joined the program, "I didn't know what an engineer was." Now he wants to be one. A self-described "average" student at Kettering Middle School, he said he is "much better at this" program.

Maikeyza Brown, 11, of the District, said she enrolled in the program because it "helps me learn things about what I want to be."

A study that tracked the progress of Saturday Academy students against a similar group of students found that 84 percent of the program graduates went on to enroll in college, compared with 46 percent of the nonparticipants. Forty-five percent of the academy students majored in math or science in college, compared with 17 percent of the other group.

The free program, started in 1982, costs the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and private sponsors $250 to $800 for each student. Students often return session after session, and some come back to teach in the program.

"My mother signed me up the first time, and then I got hooked on this class. I'm good at it, and I like it," said Cochise, who lives near Georgia Avenue and has been attending academy sessions for three years.

UDC finance major Ali Basir, 21, a former academy student, decided to come back and teach a beginning math class -- students learn to add and multiply without using numbers -- because he thought the program was a big help to him. "It's thinking math, not just sit there and memorize things," Basir said.

Based at UDC's Van Ness campus, the Saturday Academy concentrates on students who have been nominated by their teachers for the potential they show and their good attendance record. But program organizers became concerned that many of the area's neediest children were missing out.

So three years ago, Coleman began sending recruiters to area schools where test scores were lowest. The academy recently opened two auxiliary sites at schools east of the Anacostia River where children had "some apprehension about leaving Southeast," Coleman said. "It's the only environment they have ever known."

At yesterday's graduation ceremony, he urged the students to return for the January session. "If you're willing to come back, we're willing to be here. We encourage you to reapply and bring a friend with you," he said. "You are our future scientists and engineers."