If it's Wednesday, it must be Hands on Science day for 7-year-old Gregory Moe -- and another chance for him to learn about vision. Peering through a set of homemade binoculars, the second-grader at Columbia's Longfellow Elementary School carefully studies the classroom and exclaims: "Everything looks so big. This is neat!"
Hands on Science Outreach Inc. -- a Montgomery County-based nonprofit education group -- runs after-school science programs for 217 pupils at Longfellow and six other Howard County elementary schools and hopes to expand to more schools by next fall.
"We think this is a great, inexpensive enrichment opportunity for elementary students," said Rebecca Mason Simmons, the coordinator for Howard's programs. "The kids learn in a series of interactive lessons that are pretty fun."
Hands On Science was begun in 1981 by Montgomery County's PTA as a way to run after-school enrichment programs in the county public schools. Science teachers and professionals collaborated to create a curriculum and lesson plan.
Three years later, Montgomery's PTA set up a nonprofit corporation to offer Hands On Science programs in other school systems. Howard's program is 7 years old and is offered at Atholton, Bollman Bridge, Forest Ridge, Hammond, Longfellow, Waterloo and Worthington elementary schools.
At Longfellow on a recent Wednesday afternoon, three separate classes were being taught for different age groups.
As kindergartners and first-graders studied vision with magnifying glasses and water droplets, second- and third-graders made their own binoculars and learned how lenses work. Meanwhile, fourth- and fifth-graders were doing their own experiments with optics.
"It's fun because we get to do cool science stuff," said kindergartner Jessica Lynn Rizzo, 5. "I want to learn more."
The program's instructors are a mix of teachers, parent volunteers and retirees, who are paid $12 an hour. They're required to have a bachelor's degree and must complete orientation sessions.
"I really like getting the kids out of the classroom setting and helping them learn in a casual atmosphere," said Bonnie Engelman, a substitute teacher who is a Hands On Science instructor. "The best thing is that it's really interactive, and the kids do the learning. It's less dictatorial than the normal school day."
A typical lesson begins with questions focusing on the scientific concept of the day, Ms. Simmons said. Activities designed to enable the students to understand that concept then are done.
Hands On Science teachers all use the same manual with recommended activities and lesson plans, ensuring that the lessons are nearly identical. The curriculum rotates on a three-year cycle to allow students to enroll in Hands On Science for several years.
For parents, Hands on Science offers an inexpensive way for their children to receive extra science instruction. One course consisting of eight one-hour classes costs $40 a student, and student-teacher ratios are limited to 11-to-1.
"It's a great way for my son to spend more time on science," said Daniel Wardell, whose 6-year-old son, Jacob, is enrolled in Longfellow's program. "Jacob really likes science, so it seemed like a great activity for him."
Ms. Simmons said she hopes to expand the program to more Howard schools, but needs more adults to teach classes and local PTAs to run registration and collect money.
The winter session of Hands On Science begins Jan. 16 and registration runs until Nov. 30. For more information on registration or to become an adult volunteer, call 776-8926.