At Moorestown Friends School, second graders use chutes, levers, pulleys, buckets and wagons to move a toy truck along a Rube Goldberg-like course. "Yes!" they cry in unison, with high fives all around, when the truck gets back to square one.
In West Chester, first graders at Fern Hill Elementary School study the life cycle of insects, writing down what they see. And third graders examine the effect of cabbage juice on sugar, baking soda and cornstarch, using their hands to "waft" the air so any noxious odor doesn't overwhelm their sense of smell.
"I like investigations and finding things out," said Michael Bonsall, 9, goggles covering half his small face.
In the new science classroom, teachers still offer instruction, but in smaller doses. Lab work and treks outdoors are now integral to elementary and middle school instruction.
"We're engaging kids more in the process of science, not just the content," said Paul Joyce, science supervisor in the West Chester district.
This is learning science by doing science, a change in instruction that is costing schools time and money, yet is fast gaining traction as educators heed warnings that the economic health of the region - and the nation - demands a science- and tech-savvy workforce.
Surveying and interviews conducted by The Inquirer in recent months for this Report Card on the Schools show that schools are making concerted efforts to attract students to science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the so-called STEM fields.
This year's Report Card, which focuses on science, also shows that math education continues as a priority for the region's schools.
Inside this report, you'll find that:
16 percent of districts in Philadelphia and the four Pennsylvania suburban counties say their fourth graders now spend more than four hours a week on science, a subject not long ago taught as seldom as once a week. Fewer districts in South Jersey reach the four-hour mark, but 41 percent report that their fourth graders spend at least three hours a week on science.
At the high school level, nearly a third of the 160 public high schools in South Jersey and suburban Philadelphia now require four years of college-prep science or math - or both - for graduation. That's one year more than the states mandate.
And large percentages of students in many schools are entering ninth grade already having taken Algebra I.
While there is progress, there is far to go: Results of the 2009 science assessments in Pennsylvania and New Jersey show high achievement in fourth grade but numerous low scorers in eighth and 11th grades, even in some of the region's top-performing schools.
The push for science has help in a pertinent corner: children's own innate curiosity.
"Kids want to understand the physical world," said Barbara Kreider, chair of the science department at Moorestown Friends School. "Our job is to explain that world to them."
The goal for students not interested in pursuing a career in the sciences, Kreider said, is a lofty one: "to give them critical thinking skills . . . to be an educated citizen."
Multiple industry, business and postsecondary initiatives in the Philadelphia region have stepped up to promote math and science teaching and learning. Temple, Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania all have programs to train scientists and engineers as teachers or to upgrade teachers' skills.
The Math + Science Coalition of the Philadelphia Education Fund has a new initiative to alert parents to the value of math and science coursework.
And over the last two years, about 100 area companies and institutions have endorsed STEM goals in an initiative called the Greater Philadelphia Compact for STEM Education. Many compact signers have long awarded grants and promoted outreach, especially to girls and minorities, two groups chronically underrepresented in the sciences.
The impact of corporate support can be significant.
For instance, in the early 1990s, Bayer Corp. of Pittsburgh launched ASSET Inc. - Achieving Student Success Through Excellence in Teaching - to raise student achievement in science by improving instruction.
Impressed with its success in Western Pennsylvania, Gov. Rendell in 2007 tapped ASSET to manage his $50 million hands-on elementary science initiative called Science: It's Elementary.
According to Rendell, the program is in 134 Pennsylvania schools, including about two dozen public and charter schools in the Philadelphia area, reaching 72,000 students and 2,900 teachers.
One measure of its effectiveness is PSSA assessment results. An evaluation by an independent group, Horizon Research Inc., showed students in ASSET schools scoring higher than students in demographically similar schools that don't have it. And they scored higher not only on the science but also on math and reading PSSAs.
Even high-poverty schools using the approach benefited. In nearly a third of schools using the ASSET approach, with extensive teacher training, 90 percent or more students scored proficient or better on the new science PSSA.
One such success story is to be found in the Upper Perkiomen School District in Montgomery County, where the pressures of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, combined with grant money ($27,500) prompted the district to rethink its elementary science program.
"We knew we needed a major overhaul" said Fran Leskowicz, assistant superintendent in the district, where about one in five students qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch.
"We went from a textbook approach to a hands-on approach," he said. "We increased the number of minutes we teach science."
But with districts facing budget pressures, Leskowicz is acutely aware of the downside of a robust science program: funding.
"There's no obstacle with parents; they're supportive. But with science, you have a lot of equipment, a lot of supplies. That's the barrier. It's an extremely expensive proposition, but it's well worth it," he said.
In Philadelphia, even with the district's focus on the basics - reading and math - there's room for a science component, said district science director Ambra Hook. Teachers are getting training, and the districtwide curriculum gives teachers no choice but to teach all kinds of science - a big change from the days when teachers would teach inside their "comfort zone" on those science topics they knew or cared about, according to Hook.
There's also a push in both the city and suburban districts to include nonfiction books on science, engineering and nature as options for students during independent reading periods.
City public schools have added Advanced Placement courses and transformed a number of high schools to focus on science, especially those areas that will prepare students for regional jobs in health care and technology.
And most of the region's 22 technical schools, including the city's new Communication Technology Academy, show signs of ramping up academics and drawing students interested in combining academics with hands-on training.
Schools across the region are offering such nontraditional courses as:
Innovation & Invention, at Lower Merion High School, which also offers more than a dozen science electives, including electromagnetism and organic chemistry.
Independent study at the Science Leadership Academy in Center City, a public high school where students spend Wednesday afternoons at 100 sites across the city, studying the impact of construction on the environment, among other issues.
Marine science at Camden High and advanced chemical techniques at Haddon Township.
Anatomy and physiology at Roman Catholic High School for Boys, taught in the gross-anatomy lab at Hahnemann University Hospital in Center City.
Courses comprising a Medical Careers Pathway at Palisades High School in Bucks County.
Particularly popular across the region - in courses, clubs and competitions - is robotics,
Among the many places it is popular is Roberto Clemente Middle School in North Philadelphia, where classes fill up with young people enthusiastic about constructing robots and performing basic programming to control their movements.
"I like to build stuff," said Carlos Garcia, 13, a seventh grader. "And I also like challenges."
That's music to the ears of Evelyn Cruz, robotics technology teacher, who is convinced that the hands-on course is a great way to introduce students to math and science concepts and to raise their expectations for high school, college and careers.
Building robots, said Cruz, "gets them used to team work, problem-solving, the kinds of skills engineers need. Overall, there's a huge deficit of engineers and scientists in this country, and we can get them thinking about pursuing careers in these fields."
Plus, "it's a very subliminal way of teaching math and science."
One issue raised by Rendell and others is how to draw more girls into the sciences. One place that's figured it out is the private Springside School in Chestnut Hill, where girls are taking science courses with such success that in recent years as many as half of graduates express plans to pursue science or engineering in college.
Walk along the hallway in the elementary wing, and you'll see that each girl's cubby has a colorful pair of galoshes sitting on top of the shelving - de rigueur wear for treks into Wissahickon woods behind the school. The school has a new engineering and physics playroom, and teachers use scientific terms from kindergarten forward.
In the upper school, Kim Eberle-Wang teaches a forensics course that has students studying how long it takes for maggots to hatch on meat left hanging in the woods, among other provoking facts.
"Success for girls is a given. Why wouldn't she succeed," said Scott Stein, the school's science department chair, whose office adjoins an oversize classroom/lab that would be the envy of many a college professor.
The school also promotes training for the region's science teachers on such topics as molecular biology (partnering with Princeton University), taste and smell, DNA technologies, computer probes and solar energy. The school installed solar panels last fall and now students, as in several other schools in the region, track energy use and seek to identify ways to cut usage.
The school wants its girls - and boys, too (Chestnut Hill Academy boys take upper-level science courses at Springside) - "to synthesize what they learn into their lives," said Stein.
"It's not just hands-on, it's minds-on. . . . We try to have kids be creators of their own knowledge and problem solvers, instead of getting known results." An example would be having students measure the rate of cell respiration, with students designing their own experiments and learning how to use the equipment.
"It's obvious when kids are actually learning science," said teacher Ellen Kruger, overseeing a ninth-grade physics class. "They ask all the right questions."
Contact Connie Langland at email@example.com.