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Tunnel visions

It's anything but "senior slump" time for the high-schoolers who've been prepping this science experiment for the past three years. They've had to be as patient as the ants they're studying - because it can take a while to literally launch an experiment.

Three seniors and one sophomore from Fowler High School in Syracuse, N.Y., were in Florida last week for the launch of the space shuttle Columbia. On board, among about 80 plant and animal research projects, are the students' 15 ants.

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During the 16-day mission, the ants are tunneling and eating their way through a small container of gel (which the students concocted out of seaweed extract, sugar, and fungicide). Images downloaded to a NASA website and television channel provide the young scientists with data on ant behavior in a zero-gravity environment. For comparison, one group of ants had to forgo the excitement and stay grounded here on Earth.

"I can't even explain what I felt. All the hard work came together in, like, three minutes," says senior Rachel Poppe, who witnessed the launch and met fellow student scientists from China, Japan, Liechtenstein, Israel, and Australia.

Many of the 30 students who took part in the ants-in-space project - originally scheduled to launch in 2001 - have since graduated. Those who remain will write a report on their findings for Space Media Inc., a sponsor of their after-school science program.

Two of the Fowler seniors plan to continue their science studies in college. Rachel, on the other hand, wants to be a broadcast journalist. So it's probably fair to say her science career is tunneling its way to its zenith right about now.