At Christ United Methodist Church in East Baltimore nearly 30 children are dropping by on Saturdays not to learn more about God, but to learn how science touches their everyday lives.
The children do simple chemistry experiments, such as testing acids and bases using red cabbage and bicarbonate of soda, and making a plastic-like substance from heavy cream and vinegar.
Under a program coordinated by Baltimore City Community College and the Christopher Columbus Center, 11 city churches provide field trips and hands-on science experiments to youngsters ages 7 to 12.
Called "Science is For Everyone," the 2-year-old program aims to encourage children to participate in math and science activities.
"One of our goals is to develop a positive attitude toward science and encourage them to try [science experiments] without fear of failure," said project director Barbara Faw.
This year's program, which ended yesterday, involved most of the participating churches conducting six two-hour Saturday sessions during which children conducted experiments involving typical household products. They also visited institutions such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Greenbelt and the IMAX Theatre at the Maryland Science Center. The program hopes to expand next year.
City school officials say the program supplements what children learn in the classroom and exposes them to positive role models.
"It's important they have a variety of experiences" in math and science, said Andrea Bowden, coordinator for the city schools' Office of Sciences and Mathematics. "It's important that they see people from college campuses. It also helps set children's sights for the future."
The city school curriculum calls for first- through fifth-graders to learn scientific concepts through hands-on science experiments and discussion. By the time children graduate from elementary school, they should know how to predict and draw conclusions from their experiments.
During the "Science is for Everyone" program, organizers use everyday items in the experiments to emphasize how integral science is to children's lives and to encourage them to try the experiments at home.
"It's fun and you get to learn a lot about science and different kinds of chemicals," said Erick Ehirim, 9, during a March session at Christ United Methodist Church in East Baltimore.
A $28,000 grant from the Jacob and Annita France Foundation and the Robert G. and Anne M. Merrick Foundation subsidizes program materials, transportation and field trip costs.
Since the program began in 1993, it has grown from 240 children and eight churches to about 400 youngsters and 11 churches. By next year, organizers hope to have 19 churches and 800 children.
College officials said they chose churches to conduct the science program because they often are seen as sources of stability in communities torn apart by drugs and violence.
"If there was any group that could get it off the ground, it was the church," Ms. Faw said.
While many youngsters see only the fun in the experiments, Herbert W. Watson Jr., pastor of Christ United Methodist Church, sees a choice between graduating from high school and life on the streets.
"We have found out from studies that young people in African-American communities have not been interested in science as if it was too difficult or hard for them," said Mr. Watson, who wants to reverse that trend.
"In a community where the drop-out rates have been very high and the lure of drug activity [has been strong]," he said, "we're interested in getting them early on so we can generate that interest."
The program also boosts children's self-esteem by allowing them to fail without fear, organizers said.
"It's really good for our children," said Lenora Terrell, program coordinator at Christ Church. "It takes them away from that school pressure. Kids say, 'I can do this, I can have fun and I can learn this.' "
At one of the sessions last month, the children learned about chemical properties by identifying salt grains, flour and other foods through touch, taste and smell. They also studied how fast salt grains dissolve in hot and cold water and how to mix water and oil with the help of liquid dish detergent.
One experiment, which involved dipping a soap bar into a dish of pepper-covered water, elicited surprised shrieks from some youngsters.
"It's ice-skating," said Kenard Farabee, 10, as he held a bar in the water, breaking the surface tension and sending pepper grains rushing to the edge of the dish.
The children said science experiments in church are more fun than in school.
"It was boring" at school, said Charles Harris, 8. At church, "you can go to different stations and you can make different things."
For some, at least, the classes have made an impression.
"I learned science is good," said Tia Joyner, 8. "I want to be a scientist."