You could see the scientific process begin to dawn in Greg Horton's mind.
Horton, who is soon to enter eighth grade at Sitka, Alaska, was counting rice grains in a laboratory at University Hospital. The exercise was to teach students in the National Microbe World Youth Leadership Institute how to estimate numbers in large groups, such as microbes in a microbial colony.
He counted aloud as he added rice grains to a cup: "31, 32, 33, 34, 35. . . . There's an easier way to do this. I'm not counting out the whole thing."
That was exactly the conclusion that instructors were hoping he would make. They did not need to count each grain of a big bag of rice. They could count the number needed to fill a small measuring spoon, then see how many spoonfuls were in a cup, how many cups in a bag, and multiply.
The institute is funded by the National Science Foundation. Students came to Utah from locations as distant as Philadelphia and a remote island in Maine.
The Utah Museum of Natural History, located on the University of Utah campus, the U. School of Medicine and the National Association of Biology Teachers teamed up to bring the institute to the campus this week.
"I don't like counting out," he said. "I'm going to use a teaspoon so I don't need to count as much."
As an inventive kid, Horton immediately looked for a short cut. "How many grains of rice in an ounce? Maybe it says it on the bag."
One of his two partners — Sheila Dey, going into 11th grade, from Muskegon, Mich. — knew more about cooking. That wouldn't be on the bag, she said, nobody wants to know how many rice grains are in an ounce.
Dey noted that during the weeklong institute, "we've learned a lot about microbiology. We're going back to our hometowns to teach it to younger students.
"That's what we're doing these labs for."
The approach will be valuable to her in her profession, she says, since she hopes to become an elementary school teacher.
Jeremy Andrews, Salt Lake City, hopes to use the institute experience to build a profession. "Well, I like microbes and microbiology," he said, presiding over mounds of corn kernels that he and his group had counted and measured in their version of the exercise.
Later, he will teach other students in the Utah Museum of Natural History's program, Youth Teaching Youth. "We'll be holding a student workshop in the fall" at the museum, he said.
The youngsters also will share their new techniques with second-, third- and fourth-grade teachers. They will actually teach the teachers.
"That'll be a weird experience," he said.
"Sweet revenge," said Patrick Farrell of Brookfield, Ill., who will be a high school senior in the fall.
During another lab session, students learned principles of natural selection. They punched various-sized holes in a foam plastic bowl and put in beans of different shapes and sizes. Next, they would cover a bean bowl with another bowl, give them 15 vigorous shakes, and watch beans fall from the bottom.
The holes represented environmental pressures that would cause certain types to die out. The survivors, the beans left in the bowl, would reproduce. That is, the students would add two beans of the same type of each left in the bowl. Then they would give their artificial ecosystem another 15 strong shakes and see what fell out, and cycle through again.
Eventually, the beans that were left would be ideally suited for their niches.
But at one lab table, beans flew out wildly.
"My goodness, you got all kinds of stuff to come out," exclaimed the instructor, University of Utah medical student Paul Harkins. "Or did you forget to cover it?" Yes, the giggling teenagers did forget, and the experiment was repeated, this time with a cover.
Kathy France, the Youth Teaching Youth coordinator, said teachers tell her that they can tell students something 100 times — but if another student says it once, the message is more likely to sink in.
"If we can keep them interested, get them through the stuff they think is boring, get them into some high-level classes, we have a better shot of getting them to college," France added.
"It's a mentoring process."