Peering at a flask of bubbling pink liquid suspended above the thin blue flame of a Bunsen burner, eighth-grade teacher Sharon Lanham was concerned.
Was the heat high enough, or perhaps too high? And why wasn't anything happening? The pink chemical was supposed to boil, forcing vapor through a narrow tube, where it would cool and then drip into another flask hanging nearby. But nothing had appeared there yet.
So she asked Thomas Frielle, an assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, to check her procedure. Reassured, she was rewarded moments later with the proper result. "Hey there!" she said. "I see a drop!"
Lanham is one of 34 Loudoun County middle school science teachers taking part in an intense science boot camp at Belmont Ridge Middle School in Leesburg that began last week and will continue this week. It is the first tangible product of the school system's new partnership with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the world-renowned research organization building a $500 million campus in the county.
The institute, based in Chevy Chase, funds scientific work at colleges and universities across the country through a $1 billion endowment. Its new 281-acre facility in Loudoun, scheduled to open in 2006, will be home to more than 200 scientists. This week's teacher workshop is just one piece of a commitment to spend at least $1 million annually in the county's schools, including scholarships for seniors and money to help found a biomedical academy for 250 high school students in the next few years.
Institute officials hope that the sophisticated experiments the teachers learn here -- designed to reinforce basic scientific concepts taught in sixth, seventh and eighth grades -- could one day be exported to middle school classrooms across the nation.
First, however, they will be introduced in Loudoun, where administrators are eager for the chance to reshape their curriculum, guided by scientists with years of professional laboratory experience and funded generously by the Hughes institute. "This is institutional change," said Odette D. Scovel, science supervisor for the school system.
On its own, the district would have needed 10 to 15 years to implement something similar, she said. Instead, the new hands-on approach will be used by some teachers at each of the county's middle schools next year and, Scovel hopes, in every classroom within three years.
"The Loudoun County system will become a model that nationally people will look at for the best in science education," said Keith Verner, executive director of Cognitive Learning Institute, a not-for-profit group of interdisciplinary scientists from Pennsylvania who are running the workshop.
Educators say young children are naturally curious about science, but by high school, many students have been turned off -- in part, Verner said, because middle school students are not always encouraged to use their natural inquisitiveness while getting dirty in the lab. Also, they can be frustrated by lesson plans that too often fail to track ideas coherently from one grade to the next and by teachers who are sometimes ill-equipped to answer questions whose answers are not in the textbook.
"Science becomes this artificial thing rather than an exciting process. It becomes a set of facts that don't make sense," said Peter Bruns, the Hughes institute's vice president for grants and special programs.
Hughes officials paired Loudoun schools with Verner's researchers, who are studying how children learn and using that information to design classroom activities. Verner has worked with the Hughes institute for years. An elementary school program he pioneered in Pennsylvania is used in hundreds of classrooms in several states.
The institute is also funding stipends for the teachers. And perhaps the best part, they said, is that Hughes will buy any piece of equipment that is used in the workshops but not available in the school system's classrooms.
That could include some expensive devices students might not otherwise see until high school or even college -- oil immersion microscopes more than twice as powerful as the ones they now use and digital spectrophotometers that measure how much light can pass through substances. It also includes smaller but significant items designed to make them feel more like real scientists, such as glass stir rods instead of spoons and better test tube racks.
"It now becomes much more authentic. It's not just make-believe. They're not playing games," Bruns said.
The teachers said the promise of the new equipment is almost more than they can believe. Take the new microscopes, for instance. Students often complain that what they see under their microscopes does not resemble the sharp pictures in their textbooks, said Bob Hobbs, a seventh-grade teacher.
"This looks like the textbook," he said, gesturing to a slide smeared with cow's blood and positioned under one of the new, more powerful devices. "And it's not like we get just one. We get a classroom set."
Teachers spend each morning of the workshop in the classroom, first in lectures on the latest research into the way students' brains work. Next comes a class on the scientific principals relevant to their lab work, designed to strengthen or expand their knowledge. Each teacher is receiving six graduate credits from George Mason University for the work.
Afternoons are spent in the laboratory, practicing with the new equipment, working through the experiments and debating the best way to introduce them to students. At the end of the summer, these teachers will come back for two days of booster activities to refresh their memories. Scientists from Verner's group then will visit once a week for the next year, again courtesy of the Hughes institute, to ensure that teachers don't go astray when they try the activities in their classrooms.
"It's one thing to provide us with equipment, but it can sit in the closet if we're not taught how to use it," Lanham said.
Verner said that if the program works, Loudoun students will become better problem solvers and critical thinkers. And, he said, they might just stick around the lab to become the researchers of tomorrow.
"We want brilliant scientists coming up to figure out what we didn't," he said.