Last year, Johnny Brinson used colorful picture books and charts to teach his second-grade class at Richardson Elementary School in Northeast all about birds: what they look like, how they hatch, which ones can fly.

This fall, he says, he'll leave that mode of teaching behind and take the class to go bird-watching at the National Wildlife Federation preserve near Reston to let them hear the difference between a cardinal's and a mocking bird's song. Then he'll take them to the Baltimore Aquarium and the Environmental Resources Center in Edgewater.

"When you have science in books and {students} have to read it, they don't want to," Brinson said. "They want to see it, to touch it."

This summer Brinson and 14 other elementary, junior high and high school teachers from D.C. public schools participated in a three-week experiment at the Smithsonian Institution aimed at improving science education methods used in classrooms with largely inner-city minority students. The impact should be felt this year in schools from Richardson and Bunker Hill elementary to Hobson Middle School.

"This city is facing a crisis in education," said Carmel Ervin, the Smithsonian staff member who designed and led the program. "We have these teachers who really want to make a difference but aren't really sure how to go about it." She noted that most universities do not require education majors to study science.

Ervin, who is black, was hired by the Smithsonian a year ago as part of an effort to bring more minority professionals onto the institution's staff and to improve its services to the inner-city community.

First she held several school-year programs to acquaint more students with the Smithsonian. Then, with a $10,000 grant from the D.C. Board of Education, she created the experimental teachers workshop to help broaden teachers' understanding of science and get them to use more of the available learning resources in and around the city.

"Children who live in the inner city don't know anything about a farm because they've only seen them in books," said Brinson, who came to Richardson in 1987 after teaching for 12 years in Georgia. "This year, I'm going to take them to a real farm -- and I only found out that it existed through the institute."

That, Ervin said, is the purpose of her summer institute: giving city teachers new ideas for generating interest in biological, physical and chemical sciences, career fields that are still attracting few minority students, especially from cities.

The Smithsonian workshop took the 15 teachers on field trips they could duplicate later with their students to places where they could see migrating birds, collect fossils, discover life in the ocean, collect chicken eggs and pet a horse while hearing a lecture on its bone structure. In addition, some of the most noted Smithsonian experts spoke to the teachers about botany, physical anthropology, insect and fish life and coral reefs.

Each session focused on how best to teach the material to inner-city and minority children, who are often hard-pressed to reconcile lessons on wildlife and marine biology with the realities of urban life.

During their field trips, teachers collected fossils, jellyfish, horsehoe crabs and botanical samples to augment the resources they obtain through overstretched school budgets. The Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History also donated dozens of jars of unclassified biology specimens to them, and each program participant received a $200 mini-grant to buy more learning tools.

"These teachers are going back into their classrooms with lots and lots of materials," Ervin said.

Teachers who went through the program said it has given them a distinct advantage in planning lessons for the upcoming school year.

In fact, the response was so good that Ervin has applied for federal grants to continue the program and take it to other inner-city school districts.

"It was really hands-on experience, and you could speak to people who were experts in their fields," said Gerald Piper, a science resource teacher at Cleveland Elementary School in Northwest.

Sandra Jenkins, a 10-year veteran of D.C. schools who teaches seventh- and eight-grade science at Hobson Middle School in Northeast, praised the program for reminding her of the resources the Smithsonian has to offer.

"I got so much from the program," she said. "We ended up with boxes and boxes of resource materials and things we could use."