While Carroll kindergartners observe snails crawling up their arms and track the transformation of caterpillars into monarch butterflies, phones are ringing at the Board of Education headquarters.
School systems around the country are curious about Carroll County's new kindergarten science program, said Michael Perich, one of the supervisors who snared a National Science Foundation grant to pay for it two years ago.
The county already has a reputation nationwide for its science program in first through fifth grades. Trainer Helen Herlocker travels from Alaska to Florida and in between, showing teachers how to use it. A federal grant pays for most of that project, but the Carroll County school system gets some royalties for selling materials. Last year, that came to about $10,000, which was used for staff training.
"Helen has been letting people know about the kindergarten program on the way," Mr. Perich said. "Every week we get calls."
He told the school board about the program's success at the Dec. 12 meeting, taking the opportunity to plug for smaller classes in kindergarten.
"Kids are so interested that I think we need to take a second look at how many kids we're putting in those classrooms," he said. Some kindergarten classes have 28 children, he said.
The ideal the school board has chosen is 25, but enrollment trends and space problems often lead to larger classes in some schools and smaller ones in others.
The program is built around training kindergarten teachers to feel comfortable with science even if they aren't experts in it. The point is to be a "guide on the side instead of a sage on the stage," Mr. Perich said.
Piney Ridge Elementary School teacher Susan Sanner has taught for 20 years, the last 10 in Carroll County kindergartens.
"I always thought you had to know everything before you taught it," Mrs. Sanner said of her initial apprehension about teaching science. "I didn't feel like I had the background. I had the minimum science courses that were necessary."
But as she attended training sessions with experts, they told her not to worry so much.
"They said it's better for children to observe and learn and go along and not for you to feed them all the information," she said. "You don't have to have all the answers. Let the children discover them as they go along."
To get money to train teachers, Mr. Perich and Bo Ann Bohman, principal at Mount Airy Elementary School, wrote a grant application to the National Science Foundation two years ago.
At the time, Dr. Bohman was a supervisor for elementary education along with Mr. Perich.
They received a grant for $254,000 over three years, with one more year to go. So far, the schools have spent about $100,000 on materials and to train 37 teachers, Mr. Perich said. Another 13 will be trained by May.
The money also pays for substitutes so that throughout the year, teachers can observe and coach each other.
They integrate the science throughout the day with reading, writing and math.
For example, students keep a journal in Mrs. Sanner's room, with observations they make. They might draw a picture of a snail, with different parts they observed. They write a few words, such as about how the snails smelled.
"Some thought they smelled like roses, and others thought they were stinky," Mrs. Sanner said. Of course, there are no right or wrong answers on that one, she added.
Sharon Fischer, an instructional assistant at William Winchester Elementary School, said she has enjoyed working with the program.
"Even the students who do not want to be in school, when we do science, they forget where they are," Mrs. Fischer said.
Mrs. Sanner said science seems to put all students on equal footing.
"They may not be able to write as well as some children, but they're really good observers. You can see the detail in what they draw," she said.
The grant also pays for Mr. Perich's full-time assistant, Janet Remmel, who does the paperwork, budget and administrative work.
She also has the more colorful duties of driving passengers such as 350 monarch caterpillars and other live materials.
Mr. Perich said that although other school systems are calling, the kindergarten science program won't be ready for dissemination for another year or so.
He will apply for a grant and listing with the National Diffusion Network, part of the U.S. Department of Education.
The agency allots money for schools to market innovative programs around the country.
Both science programs were created with help from Hood College, especially Professors Dean Wood and Paul Hummer.