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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Are American children adequately prepared to compete in the global high-tech workforce? A recent international test called PISA showed that in science American students do not measure up, ranking 28th in the world. That has some parents worried about a science-skills gap, and that's underscored by a recent NPR poll on education and health. NPR's Eric Westervelt has our story.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Oh my god.

ERIC WESTERVELDT, BYLINE: Nine-year-olds from Paul Revere elementary in the Bernal Heights section of San Francisco are captivated by a large Van de Graaff electrostatic generator and the prospect of gently electrocuting a reporter. They implore me to put the metal part of my microphone on the machine. In the name of science, of course.

You want me to hold on to the metal part?

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Yeah.

WESTERVELDT: And then I'll get a shock.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZAPPING)

WESTERVELDT: It's semi-controlled chaos. Emphasis on semi. But that's the point: this is free-form explore time at the Mission Science Workshop. The program works with mainly low-income and under-served public elementary schools to get kids excited about science. They do this by mixing lots of hands-on work with specific experiments teachers can continue back in their classes. There are live reptiles and whole animal skeletons and half a dozen project stations in this former high school auto shop turned science lair.

Think Mad Scientist meets Willy Wonka with limited impulse controls. Fourth graders Matthew Rivera and Jamal Damon gently tussle over two pythons while teacher Sarah Jane Reilly stands by.

SARAH JANE REILLY: You guys have to remember that these guys are more afraid of you than you are to them. Because to them you are like a giant.

WESTERVELDT: But it's not all free-form play. After the pandemonium subsides, students semi-calmly work to build terrariums as they explore the life cycle of plants.

SAM HAYNOR: Two fingers like that and poke it on through.

WESTERVELDT: For teacher Sam Haynor, the Science Workshop is about using imaginative experimentation to spark learning and to counter the idea that science is a set of known facts that students should sit back quietly and receive from on high.

HAYNOR: The idea of this place is really to say that it's constructive, that you have to build, you have to try. You have to experiment, you have to fail and learn again. And that science really is just a quest to learn the truth.

WESTERVELDT: The unofficial motto here might be try it for yourself. Teacher Jessica Huang from Paul Revere Elementary takes her classes to the workshop regularly.

JESSICA HUANG: When they've explore they're excited, they find things that they're interested in. They want to go back to school and check out books about things that they've explored. So I see it as a way of really opening their eyes to things that they didn't know they would even be interested in.

WESTERVELDT: It is perhaps the kind of elementary school program that many parents in the education poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health believe is missing in their community when it comes to science.

In the survey, nearly a quarter of all parents said their child's school today doesn't put enough emphasis on science curricula and nearly 30 percent of parents with kids in kindergarten through fifth grade say there's too little emphasis on science.

ELIZABETH HALL: We want to see these kids get excited about science and math. We're lagging.

WESTERVELDT: Elizabeth Hall was one of our poll respondents. The mother of two lives north of Fresno, California. She says she's deeply concerned the state has created a culture of testing that's resulted in high rates of teacher burn-out and low expectations. She says her community has made peace with academic mediocrity in the sciences. One daughter in high school, she says, is so frustrated by her district's biology and chemistry classes, she's reconsidering a career in medicine.

HALL: There is no enthusiasm from the teachers. There is no love of science. There is no showing these young people that science is important in their lives. It's just another class.

WESTERVELDT: We asked her daughter, 15-year-old Grace Hall, what she'd like to see to improve science classes in her school. Her answer: help show me how science is relevant to my life, my future job prospects, and go deeper into how we arrive at answers.

GRACE HALL: Right now chemistry, it seems like why are we learning this. And I think if we were almost forced to really understand instead of just memorizing things, and just knowing kind of what the answer is, going more in-depth and knowing why the answer is that answer.

WESTERVELDT: State and federal statistics show that more than a third of all students entering higher education today need some kind of remedial or developmental course work. Mary Colson is an eighth grade Earth science teacher in Moorhead, Minnesota. She was part of a team that wrote the new National Science Standards, called Next Generation. They emphasize getting kids engaged in practicing science and trying to get more students to think like scientists.

MARY COLSON: Reduce the amount of information, reduce the number of facts that we ask kids to cram into their heads, so that there is time in the school day for students to explore, try things out. And then time to go back and revisit their ideas and add to their ideas.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: That's a chaotic kind of classroom to manage, she says. But it's key, she adds, to getting more students get out of the science boredom rut, to say: This is real, it makes sense, it's interesting.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, San Francisco.

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