"This class is mad!"
That's eighth-grader Michelle Morris's high praise for her science teacher. As she and her classmates hover over tables creating models of our solar system using plastic buttons, glue, and paper - a quick exercise to think about the size and distance of the planets - Darren Wells watches his brood make predictable mistakes. But he's relaxed, trusting that the follow-up lessons will stick later because the students are having fun trying to figure things out for themselves now.
"This is a class you can't fall asleep in," Michelle insists. Anthony Rivers, a fellow student at the Timilty Middle School in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood, agrees: "It makes us use our brains.... He even teaches us math," he says with a touch of awe.
Creating such buzz in middle school classrooms is an urgent challenge, many observers say. Without more home-grown scientists, they warn, the United States is in danger of losing its edge in the global competition for innovation. Increasingly, efforts are targeting a younger, more diverse pool of students - aiming to both inspire them and prepare them for the demanding coursework that can lead to a science career.
Just as the US produces top basketball players because such a big pool of children play the game, "everyone needs a positive experience with math and science so you have the richest field of kids who are interested in it," says Dennis Bartels, president of TERC, a nonprofit in Cambridge, Mass., which has spent 40 years working to improve the teaching of these subjects.
There's still a long way to go, according to a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences. Among the concerns it highlights:
• 93 percent of public school students in Grades 5 through 8 learn physical science from teachers who do not have a college major or certification in the subject (based on data from the year 2000).
• For math students, that figure is 69 percent.
• Most K through 6 classrooms have science education for about 16 minutes a day.
Teaching in the younger grades needs to improve, the report says, in order to fulfill the goal of increasing the number of students who take advanced science and math courses in high school. Although educators are divided on how much the federal No Child Left Behind law will help, it is spurring more teachers to take science- and math-certification courses.
The need for home-grown scientists is nothing new to American universities, where a growing portion of science degrees are granted to foreign-born students. Columbia University announced in October that it is working with New York City to create a public school focused on science, math, and engineering for Grades 6 through 12.
A buzzword in the drive to enhance science education is "inquiry-based learning" - giving kids hands-on experiences that tap into their natural curiosity about how the world works.
"The best middle-school teachers present mysteries," Mr. Bartels says. Rather than simply memorizing answers, students learn to ask questions and test ideas - in other words, to think like scientists. He's not touting hands-on experience just for the fun of it. Teachers have to bring the lessons back around to the tools of scientific vocabulary and math formulas, Bartels says. But "the reading assignments make a whole lot more sense when [students'] relationship to science is in the first person."
As a follow-up to the Timilty eighth-graders' recent activity trying to line up the planets, Mr. Wells will have to break the news that their models are wrong: Because the distances between the planets are so large, they can't all fit to scale on a small sheet of paper. But such exercises help his students see that it's OK to learn as they go, he says, and for the next exercise, they'll be armed with new knowledge.
A mentor to other teachers and the recipient of a 2004 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, Wells constantly steers students back to their own process of discovery. "My mantra is, 'What do you know, and how do you know it?' " he said recently at a symposium for educators, policymakers, and industry representatives hosted by TERC at Boston's Museum of Science.
The Internet is making it easier for teachers to give assignments that are fresh and relevant to the preteen set. Help on that front comes through the curriculum- and teacher-development work at The Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education, run by the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.
In one project, kids imagine they've stowed away on a ship, and they track real-time online data from the ship to predict which port it's headed for. "They're using algebraic formulas for a real assignment where they have a stake in the outcome," says Beth McGrath, the center's director. "The teacher doesn't know the right answer; they have to wait and see if the ship does in fact go into that port."
About 100,000 students from 35 nations participate in these online lessons each year, some of them collaborating across borders, Ms. McGrath says (see examples at www.ciese.org/realtimeproj. html). The Newark, N.J., school system integrated real-time data projects into classrooms after putting teachers through the center's Savvy Cyber Teacher professional-development program.
They found a 10 percent increase in eighth-grade science scores, above the gains the district made overall, McGrath says.
Students also need to be shown inspiring examples of scientific entrepreneurship so they realize science isn't just about sitting in a lab, says Hal Raveché, president of Stevens. And he urges schools and businesses to do more to develop the talents of African-Americans, Latinos, and new immigrants in urban districts.
"We need to engage these people," Mr. Raveché says "the creative energy that you see in music, that you see in clothing, we've got to tap that for science and engineering."
If more American kids don't latch onto dreams of math and science careers, Raytheon is going to have a hard time hiring enough qualified people to work on its massive defense projects.
So the company is sending a few substitute teachers into classrooms - people like soccer star Mia Hamm, skateboarder Tony Hawk, and David Ellison, the guy who manages Avril Lavigne's concert tours.
Through activities posted at www.mathmovesu.com and surprise celebrity visits, the company hopes kids will see a link between math and all kinds of "cool" careers - whether it's understanding the physics of a skateboard trick or planning a budget for a rock show.
Raytheon, headquartered in Waltham, Mass., has long promoted college scholarships. But "If we don't have them by high school," says spokeswoman Pam Wickham, "there's less chance of them going into an engineering program."
Thirty-four percent of sixth- to eighth-graders say math is boring; 43 percent say it's hard to understand, a Raytheon telephone survey found.
Now they can do math problems online offered by a roller-coaster designer, a videogame creator, and an ER doctor. Recently, BMX star Dave Mirra did bike tricks for students in New York City, wowing them with calculations of speeds, distances, and angles - the work it takes to make tricks look effortless.