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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. There's been a big push lately to improve the teaching of science in American schools and focus more on STEM education. That stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. WBEZ's Linda Lutton reports on what one Chicago museum is doing to promote that. And the answer is not just field trips.

LINDA LUTTON, BYLINE: In a classroom across from the coal mine exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry, students are peering into petri dishes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Well, the agar is a light pale yellow, the bacteria, the darker yellow...

LUTTON: The students here are all teachers. All are responsible for imparting science to upper-elementary or middle-school students. And that is a job many here, and many teachers in grammar schools feel unprepared for.

JOEL SPEARS: Definitely, that's why I'm here. I teach 5th grade, so I teach all the subjects. I went in not knowing how to teach science, really. I didn't have the materials or the know-how to even teach it properly.

LUTTON: Once a month, Joel Spears and dozens of other teachers come to the museum for a day of lessons and materials they can take back to their classrooms across the Chicago metro region.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: So, you guys ready for this?

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHERS: Sure.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: OK, come around with the Glo Germ.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Rub it on both hands like lotion.

LUTTON: Teacher Jonathan Fisher, a philosophy major who avoided life science in college but now teaches it to fourth-graders, taught genetics with an activity he learned here.

JONATHAN FISHER: The students used Styrofoam blocks and different body parts, so limbs and dowel rods and different-sized eyes, flipping the coins to figure out which genes would be passed on to their kids. The classroom couldn't have been more excited.

LUTTON: Today, teachers here will be given bottles of Glo Germ, diagrams of cells, petri dishes, even instructions on how to make a simple incubator where students can grow bacteria from their own dirty hands. Andrea Ingram oversees education at the Museum of Science and Industry.

ANDREA INGRAM: One of the challenges in the U.S. in getting kids engaged in science is that we don't have enough really high-quality science teachers in the middle grades. And that's kind of like the early childhood of science. We either capture kids' enthusiasm there, get them committed to science, or we don't.

LUTTON: Ingram says museums can be important partners in improving science education, especially given tight school budgets. Museums are popular with business and civic leaders, and where else can you find tornadoes, lightning and real cow eyeballs to dissect? But the real test of this teacher training program is in schools like Sawyer Elementary on Chicago's Southwest Side.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: About 20, 20.4 centimeters.

GRACIELA OLMOS: You get to keep the ruler there. Keep this height. It's just for you measure where you're going to read the marbles.

LUTTON: Teacher Graciela Olmos first saw this lesson about mechanical energy at the museum. Now her 8th graders are rolling marbles down incline planes, measuring how far the marbles push a little Styrofoam cup. Olmos says she's used to being told to teach to higher standards. The museum has shown her how.

OLMOS: They model for us, this is how it's going to look. And that's something that we lack.

LUTTON: Though she won't say that's the only thing she lacks.

OLMOS: We need so many things. We need to have science labs with gas lines and sinks. And if my specialty is science, well, let it be science. Don't give me so many other things to do aside of that.

JOANNE OLSON: This has been a perpetual challenge for us in science education, particularly at the elementary grades.

LUTTON: Joanne Olson is a professor of science education at Iowa State University and the president of the Association for Science Teacher Education. She's been advocating for years for schools to have science specialists.

OLSON: It's like the P.E. teacher. You know, you have one teacher who's dedicated to that particular subject area, and that way the teacher can be very well-prepared in that area and doesn't have to take on literacy instruction, math and these other areas.

LUTTON: Olson says a majority of elementary teachers have gotten fewer than six total hours of science training in the last three years.

OLSON: So anything that can be done to help is a good thing.

LUTTON: The Museum of Science and Industry is promising to train a thousand Chicago-area teachers in the next five years. Michigan State University recently released a study of the museum's teacher training program. It finds the teachers trained by the museum know more science, and significantly so do their students. For NPR News I'm Linda Lutton.

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