By redesigning boomerangs, world distance champion Peter Ruhf makes them fly further, hover in the air longer and return with greater accuracy.

Thousands of years ago in southern England, stones were laid to forge Stonehenge. Archeologist Richard Atkinson wonders why . . .

Why isn't all science and math as compelling as the flight of the boomerang and the mystery of Stonehenge?

That's the question the makers of "The Challenge of the Unknown" asked in producing the series of seven films about mathematics and problem solving that are designed to transform apathy into enthusiasm in elementary and secondary classrooms. Funded by a $6.7 million grant from the Phillips Petroleum Co. to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "Challenge," some educators say, represents the future of science and math education.

"They're not films about mathematics; they're films about using mathematics -- and that's the key," says William C. Douce, chairman of the Phillips Petroleum Co.

"They show . . . mathematics as a tool to help carry out an astonishing variety of tasks -- everything from calculating the running speed of a dinosaur to building a cathedral. This gives mathematics a dimension of reality that, sad to say, is missing in the typical American classroom."

The films are the product of three years of investigation into the problems of student motivation and learning in science and math. The segments document different aspects of problem-solving situations -- from ice climbing to diving in shark-infested waters to the new generation of lighter-than-air flying machines.

"We went to cognitive psychologists who map out how people think in solving problems," says Denny C. Crimmins, executive producer of "Challenge" and president of J.C. Crimmins & Co. "You look at a problem and ask questions like, 'What's the situation? Do I have enough information? Do I draw a picture in my mind? How do I restate it so I can understand it? Can I estimate the answer?'

"That led us to finding committed people with real-life problems who use math in strategies. Now you've got role models, untypical, interesting characters -- not the guys with sleeve garters and dull people kids usually associate with math. And we get out-of-doors in the film if we can -- because if you're stuck in a math class, you need a window to look out of . . . to see images you shouldn't forget soon."

The series is scheduled to be shown nationally next spring on PBS and, in September, Phillips Petroleum's Educational Programs office in Bartlesville, Okla., will make it, with workbooks and teacher's manuals, available at no charge to all U.S. schools.