Aisha L. Rawlinson, a 20-year-old college student, stands in a laboratory on Solomons Island and explains the fathead minnows.

In this tank, she says, are the larvae, dark green and so small that they're barely visible. The slightly bigger juveniles occupy another tank, while the adult fish -- each measuring about 1 inch -- swim in a third tank.

This summer, Rawlinson will raise the fish from eggs to adulthood and study how oceanic turbulence affects their feeding habits, with the ultimate goal of figuring out the best environment for their survival.

Rawlinson is participating in the University of Maryland Sea Grant Program, a 12-week summer fellowship that provides about a dozen college students with real-world research opportunities at marine labs around the state.

"Being a black woman from a low-income urban background, these kinds of opportunities are scarce in my community," said Rawlinson, who grew up in Philadelphia and just completed her sophomore year at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, where she is an honors student majoring in environmental science.

"This research program allows me to explore the problems that affect our environment," she added. "It also encourages me to continue to pursue a career in environmental science so I can ultimately help make a difference in my community."

Rawlinson is one of four students spending the summer at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons, as part of Sea Grant's "Research Experience for Undergraduates" program. Other students are working at Horn Point Laboratory on the Eastern Shore.

Each Sea Grant student is paired with a university scientist, who helps the student develop a research project and complete work on it. Students receive a stipend of $3,000, as well as a dorm room at the lab, travel expenses and funding to help publish the results of their research.

About 120 students from across the country have participated in the Maryland Sea Grant Program since its founding 10 years ago. The program is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Ken Tenore, director of the 150-person Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, said the program provides college students with valuable hands-on learning. "They're able to get a glimpse of the actual practice of science . . . beyond the book knowledge they learn as an undergraduate."

While Tenore said he obviously would like his summer students to pursue careers in science, he thinks their experience will prove beneficial no matter what profession they choose. "We hope they'll join our ranks, but even if they don't, they'll come away with an appreciation of science," he said.

Some of the Sea Grant students plan to work in science -- Rawlinson, for example, wants to become a water quality specialist -- while others, such as Chris Root, aren't so sure of their career path.

Root, who just finished his junior year at Dartmouth College, said he might want to become a marine biologist or maybe he'll do something else. Whatever he decides, for now he's enjoying his study of sea grass. Specifically, Root is examining why the bay's sea grass population has declined over the last two decades. On Friday, he spent all day out on a boat, collecting Patuxent River sediment samples as part of his research.

"This is great," he said. "Marine biology is the most exciting, diverse area of biology."

The other Sea Grant students spending the summer in Solomons are Elliott Hazen, from Duke University, and Rhonda Rumsey, from the State University of New York College at Oneonta.

CAPTION: Chris Root, a Sea Grant participant, watches as researchers Bob Stankelis, left, and Emily Loffredo, right, examine samples from the Patuxent River.

CAPTION: Chris Root, left, a senior at Dartmouth College, and Tom Shannon, a research assistant with St. Mary's College, haul in samples of sediment from the Patuxent River on Friday. Root is one of several grant students from around the country working and studying this summer at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons.

CAPTION: Rhonda Rumsey, above left, a Sea Grant participant from the State University of New York College at Oneonta, looks on as Audrey Barnett, from Millersville University of Pennsylvania, views an oyster under a microscope. Sea Grant student Chris Root, left, tends to the research vessel Aquarius.