Bronx, N.Y. — With schoolbooks and spiral binders tucked under one arm, 15-year-old Steven Siega catches a bus on a Queens street corner at 6:30 a.m. for the half-hour ride to the subway station.
He spends another hour - with two transfers - underground, swept along with the early morning wave of briefcase-clutching commuters.
Once off the subway, it's a few blocks' walk to the red brick and white tile of the Bronx High School of Science. He plunks himself down at a table in the cafeteria just after 8 - the first period bell less than 20 minutes away.
While it seems a long trek on this icy gray morning, Steven says it's worth the time and trouble. That's because his high school offers one of the most rigorous - and richly praised - science and math programs in the country. Admission is by examination and is extremely competitive.
Bronx Science, as it's called, is a specialty school, drawing students from the far-flung corners of New York City. Three of its students, including the first-prize winner, were among the 10 finalists in this year's Westinghouse Science Talent Search competition. The school holds the record for the number of students given Science Talent Search awards - 89. (Second place is held by another New York specialty school, Stuyvesant, with 44 winners.) In addition, the school boasts three Nobel prize laureates among its graduates - all in physics.
With national attention now focused on improving science and math instruction in public schools, education experts say the Bronx example may hold ideas others can use.
''The key ingredient in the Bronx Science formula is the competitive admission of students,'' says Alphonse Buccino, deputy director of the National Science Foundation's Office for Science and Engineering Education. Each high school, he says, needs to devise its own approach for improving instruction.
Creating high schools that specialize in science education is one tactic. At the same time, however, it's not the only approach. In some areas, for instance, schools are depending more on science centers and museums to buttress science taught in the classroom.
''Everyone agrees we have a problem with science education,'' says Dr. Buccino. ''But beyond that, there's very little agreement about what the nature of the problem is and how to go about solving it.''
A basic division exists, for instance, between those who want to increase the overall standards of high school science education and those favoring special programs for the gifted.
In a school such as Bronx Science, students are pre-selected and high academic standards are a given. Some school districts, however, resist the notion of sifting out the talented for special treatment.
''In an average high school, football has the greatest recognition factor - with all the banquets and trophies which go with it,'' says Tom Phares, a spokesman for the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. ''In Bronx, the same attention is focused on math and science.''
But despite differences of opinion, Bronx Science principal Milton Kopelman says certain aspects of his program could be useful in promoting science education in nearly any school:
Research journals: The school puts out more than 10 different publications, including journals of biology, physical science, and math. These journals publish selected papers by students, giving an outlet for work, while recognizing excellence in scholarship.
Atmosphere: A less tangible - yet just as important - factor at Bronx Science is the ''ambiance'' attached to math and science. The school does all it can to make independent research seem exciting.
Research program: In 1976, the US Department of Education designated Bronx Science's biology program as a national model for stimulating creativity in the sciences. Since then, the school has developed parallel programs in physics and chemistry.
The three-year research cycle, portions of which have been duplicated in a number of schools, begins in the freshman year, when students take introductory science. Of 800 freshmen, about 200 are culled for honors classes in biology, chemistry, or physics the second year. Second-year classes focus on research methods.
During the junior year, about 150 students are assigned to classes in which they design their own research problems to work on the entire year.
''Whether or not these kids become research scientists, the process they learn in these classes is more important than knowing a lot of facts,'' says Mr. Kopelman. Each student produces a scientific paper at the end of the three years.
Kopelman says this cycle could be established in a traditional high school at minimum cost. Most schools already have basic science courses that could be used to screen a small pool of students for advanced programs. The key, says Kopelman , is designing a schedule that allows students to spend 10 class periods a week in their research classes.
The major expense is providing the equipment and teaching staff needed. And with the growing shortage of skilled math and science teachers, finding instructors for such a program is becoming increasingly difficult.
Vincent Galasso, biology department chairman at Bronx Science, says there are actually advantages to working with a smaller group of students. ''It can get hectic when you have 80 students all doing independent projects - all wanting into one lab,'' says Mr. Galasso.
Besides giving students a way to learn research skills, the research cycle also allows them to prepare for various science competitions, such as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. In addition, the school offers a well-rounded liberal arts program, including stringent English, foreign language , and social science requirements.
As for the teachers, there are challenges as well as rewards in teaching in a specialized school. Many teachers at Bronx Science transfer in from other schools in the New York City system.
''You have to be prepared for the questions you don't know the answer to - without being embarrassed,'' says Carole Greene, a biology teacher who has been at Bronx Science since 1962. ''And sometimes you just have to realize the students know more than you do.''
Ms. Greene gives the example of a sophomore girl she taught in an honors biology class last year. The girl was a math whiz and frequently offered mathematical interpretations for biology problems as a sort of ''class consultant.''