On a recent afternoon, most of the halls and classrooms at Westminster's East Middle School were quiet. But in a kitchen on the building's bottom floor, there was a flurry of activity.
Students monitored a pot of basmati rice bubbling on the stove.
Another bunch of students mixed and scooped cranberry muffin batter into a pan.
And seventh-grader Keith Malone, 12, measured cheese and cracked eggs for the cheesy rice and corn casserole on the day's menu.
"Ew," said Jeb Bath, 11, as he passed by and glimpsed the bowl.
"Wait until you try it," Keith said.
"Sometimes, food doesn't look good, but it tastes good," said Suvarna Shah, a permanent substitute teacher at East Middle who runs the school's cooking club.
That is a lesson that students at East Middle and other schools in Carroll County, Harford County and other areas have been learning as they mince and mix, boil and bake their own food in after-school cooking clubs.
In Carroll, such clubs are typically offered through the district's after-school community learning centers. The sessions also help instructors reinforce other skills, such as reading and math, as students work their way through recipes.
"The kids love it so much, I think we'd have a mutiny on our hands if we got rid of it," Melissa Meyer, East Middle's learning center site coordinator, said of the cooking club.
"They're trying all different, new things," said Shah, whose passion for cooking inspires her work with the students. Shah also uses the club to expose the members to foods from various cultures. Students have made roti and fried rice, among other international dishes, she said.
Food they might resist at home usually gets a taste, maybe even approval, at school, Shah said. "They're willing to try ... [and] they don't mind making anything."
The promise of getting to eat for their efforts is a draw for students. But many said they want to learn their way around the kitchen, too.
For Jeb, the club has provided new recipes - such as a "dirt pudding" the students once made - that he can share with his father, "the cook in the house," he said.
Jeb said he likes "the satisfaction of making a meal and eating it," and seeing what it takes to create the final product.
Juvaan Waight, 14, who has returned to the club for a third time, said he shares that feeling. Although he still has things to learn, Juvaan said, "if you give me a recipe ... I can probably work it out." The eighth-grader said he is thinking about trying culinary arts in high school.
Shelby Dannenfeldt, 11, is new to the cooking crew this year, but she said she feels comfortable in the kitchen.
As she and several others made a seven-layer bean dip one afternoon, the sixth-grader said she enjoys "making new things and trying new stuff."
Pam Harlacker, a family and consumer science teacher at Southampton Middle School in Harford County, started a monthly cooking club a few years ago because her students had expressed a similar enthusiasm for their kitchen experiences.
"I found that often there was an interest to pursue cooking more involved," Harlacker said. In their hour and a half after-school meetings, the students have made such dishes as farfalle pasta, peas and turkey, and rotini with zucchini, she said.
They also have learned culinary tricks, Harlacker said, such as using herbs and other ingredients to mimic the flavor of sausage without using the meat itself.
The lessons equip youths for life, said Dori Young, founder of Kids Cooking, a California-based company that offers classes for children ages 5 to 17 and a curriculum that educators and others can use for their sessions with young chefs.
Research shows that if kids "don't learn some of the [cooking] basics at home and don't start doing it at home, then they will not start doing this later," Young said. Early cooking lessons give children skills they can draw on when they are older, she said.
At East Middle, Keith Malone had finished with the cheeses and eggs, and had moved aside for Miracle Williams, 12, to add the freshly cooked rice. Miracle poured the mixture into a 13-by-9-inch pan.
"Looks a little better now," Keith said. He washed the empty bowl they had used in a nearby sink.
"Well, Keith," Miracle said as she evened out the casserole in the dish, "if your career as a chef doesn't work out, you can at least be a busboy."