SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF.—Teenager Alisa Pura excitedly runs toward a cluttered lab bench at the University of California, San Francisco, where her friends and high school teacher are taking turns peering through a microscope at a Drosophila larva.

“How many years of school does it take to do what you do?” “Do you really use all the calculus, physics, and chemistry you learned in college?” “Why is that larva wriggling so fast?” The questions, posed rapid-fire to the lab’s researchers, range wide and show curiosity both intellectual an practical. It’s a rare opportunity for tomorrow’s adults to find out how—and why—scientists actually do science. And it’s an equally rare chance for a major research university to do something about what many scientists see as the deplorable state of science education in the nation’s schools.

“Science education is crucial to the future of these kids’ lives,” says research biochemist Art Sussman as...

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