A live earthworm crawling through child's fingers can generate more information and excitement than any "Wiggly Worm" storybook character.
In science camp, Carroll County's youngest students are getting a close-up look at living organisms. They discover if worms really see, talk and move. And teachers are learning how to turn 5-year-olds on to science.
"An animal with a human face leading a storybook life in a human dilemma is not as exciting to a child as the real thing," said Dean Wood, chemistry education professor at Hood College and consultant for Carroll County's second summer science camp.
During this year's camp at Carrolltowne Elementary School, part of a program supported by a $253,000 National Science Foundation grant, 17 county teachers are leading the kindergartners away from fiction and into a world of discovery.
"What the teachers learn in the morning, they teach the children in the afternoon," said Michael Perich, county supervisor of elementary schools who helped develop the grant proposal.
After their first week of training, the kindergarten teachers spend mornings in planning sessions and then meet 85 South Carroll children for the afternoon class. They weave math, art and language into the science lessons, said Paul Hummer, an instructor at Hood College in Frederick and a consultant for the innovative program, which he calls "the most well-organized" in the country.
"The children come up with good ideas in their own language," he said. "They might not use the words thorax and abdomen, but they get the idea of head and body."
For two weeks of daily 90-minute sessions, children handle worms, insects and snails. From their own observations, they decide what is real and what is imaginary.
Teacher Janet Parenti gave five children a look at caterpillars in a glass case. She asked how many, what color and shape, how they move and what they do.
"They have legs and they crawl," one child said.
Ms. Parenti spurred the student to take a closer look and asked how many legs the caterpillar had.
"The teacher won't jump in with the answers," Mr. Perich said. "The kids will explain through their observations."
Gabriel Rettaliata, 5, pointed to one caterpillar and shouted, "He's eating. I can tell that because his head is moving on the leaf."
While one group counts caterpillar appendages, another studies land snails.
"See if your snail has a nose or eyes," teacher Jean Weitzel said.
Christopher Horak, 5, said he found the snail's eyes on its antennae. "It's moving," he said.
"How does he move? Pick him up to see if he has legs," Ms. Weitzel said.
Christopher said the snail moved by "pulling himself through his slime."
Although Griffin Gaw, 5, said the snail exhibit "smelled like a mud puddle," he said studying animals was his favorite part of the camp.
Ms. Parenti said the kids "get so excited" as they talk, touch and learn. Sue Sanner, an instructor, said the children are so involved in the lessons that the teachers have no discipline problems.
The grant money will also pay for live materials for classes this fall.
"We are giving kids a chance to observe organisms and experience them first-hand," Mr. Hummer said. "They are working with living organisms, not glancing at an exhibit in the corner of their classroom."
Several aquariums and terrariums lined the walls of the classroom. During their two-week camp, which continues through Friday, the children will see baby guppies grow, snail eggs hatch and aquariums turn green with algae.
"We selected manageable organisms," Mr. Hummer said. "Teachers often don't want to deal with chameleons and crickets jumping out of containers."
Children also test their knowledge of physical science. Instead of swimming in wading pools, they dip their hands in from the sides and discuss the properties of water. While they pour liquid from one measuring device to another, they study size and quantity.
Susan Withnell, a teacher, said the camp has given her background knowledge that she will use in her classroom at Manchester Elementary in the fall.
"The children are enthused because we are," Ms. Withnell said. "The materials and sharing of ideas with other teachers are wonderful."
After two years of science camps, Mr. Perich said nearly all the county kindergarten teachers are trained in the program. Each camp -- with teachers' salaries, consultant fees and supplies -- costs about $90,000. Students pay no fee.
"Parents are asking for a camp next year and are willing to put their children on a waiting list, but this is the last year for a camp," he said. "It would be great to do again, if someone could pick up the tab."