ON a steamy midsummer day, 14 elementary school teachers from the metropolitan area gather at the Museum of Science in Boston to sort through garbage. The goal of the project - dubbed `garbology' - is to make hypotheses about whose garbage it is. ``This will be great in the classroom,'' says Ann Harney, a teacher from Beverly, Mass. ``If garbage and mess are involved, the kids will love it.'' As teachers sift through discarded panty hose, used envelopes, newspapers, batteries, and a cereal box, they draw conclusions from the evidence before them, and later learn how close their hypotheses came to fact. They are working like scientists, and learning to be better teachers in the process.
The project is part of the Museum Institute for Teaching Science (MITS), a two-week program now in its fourth year of helping local elementary school teachers become more science literate. The program's philosophy is that if teachers have a positive attitude toward science, then their students will reflect that attitude, whether or not they are ``scientifically inclined.''
Teachers are sent to one of eight participating area museums, including the New England Aquarium, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the Manomet Bird Observatory, and the Children's Museum. The museums are sponsored by the National Science Foundation and a number of science-related companies interested in the development of the future work force.
Teachers become students and spend their days ``doing science,'' rather than reading or teaching it from a textbook. They leave with notebooks full of ways to introduce science into the classroom, as well as a greater belief in themselves as science teachers.
Mary McClellen, a sixth-grade teacher from the East Somerville Community School in Somerville, Mass., enjoyed her first summer in the program so much that she returned for a second round this year. After being told last year that her school would departmentalize, Ms. McClellen decided science was one of the courses she wanted to continue teaching. ``I said I wanted to stick with science,'' she says. ``Two years ago, if anyone told me I would be saying that, I would have told them they were crazy.'
According to Beverly Perna, Museum of Science outreach program coordinator, the goal of the various museums is to get the teachers to realize the value of interdisciplinary teaching. Instead of sitting before a classroom of young children saying, ``Now it's time to read, now it's time to do math,'' teachers should let one course naturally flow from another, she says. Science does not have to be simply science in the traditional sense of the word; it can be integrated into the curriculum with any subject that an elementary school teacher normally teaches, says Ms. Perna.
An exercise in making cartouches (ancient Egyptian nameplates, which royalty wore as necklace ornaments) involves not only the scientific inquiry necessary to decipher unknown symbols and codes, but also leads the class to discussions and lessons in history, social studies, and language, with more than a little art thrown in.
Joan Wolman of Randolph, Mass., has always taught with a ``hands-on'' approach to science, but MITS has helped her integrate science with other subjects. ``In the past, I would have the kids do an experiment, or demonstrate an experiment, and that would be that. Now, I have them write about their experiences afterward and get them to use their language skills.''
``The importance of science is a sense of discovery,'' says Ms. Harney, who has spent parts of three summers with MITS. ``Young kids are at the stage where science is fun. They know if we see an unusual bird in the field, we are going to go out and look at it.'' Like most of the teachers in the program (90 percent of whom are women), Harney had very little science training.
``We're striving for a more science literate nation,'' says Amy Stevenson, director of public relations at the National Science Teachers Association in Washington.
The goal of the organization, according to Ms. Stevenson, is to promote the science profession. It sponsors several teacher workshops similar to MITS and certifies teachers who have limited science backgrounds, but who are competing in an environment that increasingly values a science education.
To become certified, a teacher must complete 12 semester hours of science courses, including labs, field work, and student teaching. ``Teachers are finally able to say with confidence, `Yes, I have a science background,''' says Stevenson.
``Elementary school kids are not afraid of science,'' says Ann Donofrio, a teacher from Randolph, Mass. It is often the teacher who does not feel experienced or smart enough to teach the subject, she says. One of the reasons MITS and programs like it work is that they become research centers for teachers to turn to throughout the year.
According to Frank Gardner, executive director of MITS, ``Science has become a hot topic'' in the 1980s, and MITS has extended invitations to other museums to visit the workshops and use them as a training program.
Other institutions have ventured out on their own on a quest to improve science teaching skills. One such program is SEA Experience, in which public school teachers nationwide board a 125-foot schooner in Woods Hole, Mass., for two weeks at sea. The ship becomes a floating laboratory, where teachers conduct ongoing research, including tracking pollution and migration patterns of marine life. More important, they learn new ways to make science exciting and accessible to their students.
The Federation for Unified Science Education in Columbus, Ohio, is also dedicated to the concept of ``hands-on'' science. The group's philosophy is that ``teachers use best that which they have a hand in shaping,'' according to executive director Victor Showalter. To encourage this, the organization provides a resource center on Capital University's Columbus campus, where teachers come to study and learn from more than 1,000 science units, covering such diverse topics as energy, botany, methodology, and ``persistent problems,'' including water pollution, hazardous waste, and land use. The center provides the materials for teachers to make their own models based on ones they've seen, as well as a resource library for further research.
``It is difficult to pinpoint the impact of these programs specifically,'' says Mr. Gardner, after studying formal evaluations and teacher journals, ``but we know that more science is going on and teachers' attitudes are definitely changing.''
And it should not stop with science, says teacher Harney. ``I take so much back with me to the classroom after MITS,'' she says. ``There should be something like this for every subject.''