They were sitting around the laboratory tables talking about electrons and cybernetics and rotary engines.

One student was doing a simple math problem: a silver wire, 1mm in diameter, carries a charge of 90c in 1 hour and 15 minutes.Silver contains 5.8 x 10 28 free electrons per M 3. What is the drift velocity of the electrons in the wire?

It sounds like the kind of work a physics major in college would be doing. It is. But the students in this classroom are 11th and 12th graders at Ballou Senior High School in Southeast Washington.

They are among 350 specially selected youths who are enrolled in Ballou's "School of Mathematics and Science." A mini-school within the regular school, the four-year program aims at preparing District of Columbia public school students for college.

It is also designed to steer students into science-related fields, particularly medicine and engineering, where blacks -- who constitute 95 percent of the city's public school enrollment -- are still severely underrepresented.

In a school system whose students consistently record the lowest test scores in the Washington area and many of whose graduates cannot read, the Ballou math-science program is an example of one that is succeeding.

At the end of last year, Ballou's ninth-grade students -- those who had spent one academic year in the program -- scored higher on the standard achievement test than any other public school ninth-graders in the city.

At the end of their senior year, Ballou's math-science students scored significantly higher than the average for all District students on both the verbal and mathematics parts of the test.

Graduates of the math-science program have entered Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, George Washington universities and the University of North Carolina.

More than half of the 100 students in the program's first graduating class in 1978 won some kind of college scholarship. Most of them are majoring in pre-medicine or some other science-related field.

A variety of factors are deemed responsible for the program's success. The course requirements are the most stringent in the city. The school day is longer, there is much more homework, the grading system is harsher, the teachers have been recruited through a special selection process, and the students seem to be strongly motivated to succeed.

"That program is successful for the simple reason that those students want to be there, their parents want them to be there . . . They are expected to be good students," said Superintendent Vincent E. Reed."They are students who want to be challenged and are willing to pay the price."

About 600 students participated in the program since it began in 1975. The program is open to students from all parts of the city, although it has attracted mostly black students who come from the neighborhoods around Ballou, at Fourth and Trenton streets in Anacostia.

The students are recruited in a number of ways. Often, teachers in the junior high schools channel their best mathematics and science students into Ballou's program.

But each year as well, recruiters from Ballou go into the junior highs to talk about the program. To gain acceptance, students must have a B average and be reading on at least a seventh-grade level when entering the ninth grade. They also must take an achievement test and be recommended by a counselor or a mathematics teacher.

The test results show that a large majority of those accepted for the program are "average" students. Some rank "below average" in some subjects.

Nevertheless, because the program's students are given special courses, have specially selected teachers and are primed to go on to college rather than to work, some political figures and community representatives have criticized it as elitist.

This criticism is disputed by the program's directors and supporters, who note among other factors that the selection process does not aim to accept only the city's most outstanding students. Students who formerly had only average records can achieve great success in the program, the supporters say.

"I still content the cream of the crop in this city -- those who score extremely high on (standardized) tests -- are going to the private schools," said Robert Royster, director of the math-science program. About 17,500 city students attend private and parochial schools. The enrollment in public schools is 113,050.

"Here at Ballou, I feel we've demonstrated you don't have to have the cream of the crop," Royster said.

Indeed, many of the students in the math-science program say they decided to enter that program as early as the ninth grade because they were bored in their junior high schools. They were the kind of students who would finish their work ahead of the rest of the class and then wait for everyone else to catch up.

Many of the students in the math-science program are like Pamela King, who is from Bolling Air Force Base. She was a straight A student at Francis Junior Higih School in Northwest Washington. At Ballou, she's taking pre-calculus, a college- level biology course, engineering concepts, English, government and law this year. She is active in Ballou extra-curricular activities and was selected homecoming queen.

She wants to be a civil engineer.

But the program is also for youngsters like Lamar Sanker -- who is what teachers call a "plugger."

He gets up at 6 each morning to deliver The Washington Post in his rough, depressed Southeast neighborhood, and is in school by 9.

Math and science have always been his strengths, but he does not do well in English. His grades sometimes fall below average. Still, he is motivated and gets his work in. He has never been a discipline problem. He wants to work with computers.

The course selection list reads like a college catalogue: architecture, engineering graphics, computer programming, cell physiology, genetics, microbiology and architecturall drafting.

Students in the program are required to take four years of math and science in addition to three years of a foreign language and social science.

They also are required to take advanced placement courses and they have a chance to participate in summer programs at various universities to receive college credits.

Whereas the normal school day is 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., most of these students go to class from 8 a.m. through 4 p.m., allowing them to take extra classes. Their grading system is stricter, and they have to have more credits to graduate than other high school students.

The teachers in the program were recruited from within the school system through a special selection process by which they were rated on such factors as commitment, expertise in their subject area and ability to communicate with students. Most of these teachers also teach classes of Ballou students not in the program. And occasionally, students in the regular curriculum at Ballou participate in the special math-science courses.

School board president Calvin Lockridge said the program requires no additional funds now, although initially some expenditures were necessary for laboratory supplies, such as microscopes.

The Ballou students sense the difference.

"Here, it's a do-or-die thing to learn," said Stephanie Carter, a senior, as she worked on a complicated algebra problem in her advanced physics class. At Shaw Junior High School, which she attended previously, she said, "If you just showed up every day [for class] you could get an A."

Carter remembers doing about an hour of homework when she was at Shaw; now she said she's doing five or six hours a night.

"You find kids [in the program] who are not interested in stiffing and jiving. They're there to learn," said Cheryl Joyner, a senior, who wants to be a civil engineer. ". . . The reason you feel you have to pull more is because you see everybody else pulling more."

In addition to the tougher workload, Joyner also noticed soon after she started in the program that teachers were stricter with the students.

"They wouldn't give extensions (for projects). They'd say, 'This is the real world,'" Joyner said.

Whether the math-science students will be able to complete college studies and then go on to successful careers in science-related fields remains to be seen. So far, the program has recieved encouraging comments from its graduates now in college.

Eric Butler, 19, is now a sophomore at Hampton Institute in Hampton, Va. He said his freshman college math courses "seemed like a repeat of what I had" at Ballou. "I never had a problem writing a paper; some kids couldn't even write a sentence."

If the math-science proram is succeeding in challenging District high schoolers and sending them on the path to college, why then can't the same situation exist in all the schools?

Dr. Reuben Pierce, assistant superintendent for schools in the city's Southeast region, who thought up the idea for the math-science program when he was principal at Ballou, said:

"If every school were to take the time to make a kid feel important -- and I don't mean a slight pat on the back -- I think we'd see some results . . . [We need to] say to a kid, I'm going to hold you to a standard of excellence."

Janie Reeder, an English teacher at Ballou, maintains that one advantage for the math-science program is that students are grouped by ability and interest. That makes it easier for the teacher to teach, she said.

Over the past 10 years, the public schools have shied away from any programs that could even give the appearance of "tracking," a system by which students were placed in a particular learning "track" or level based on their overall intellectual ability. Once in a track, it was difficult for the student to get out. Tracking in D.C. schools was outlawed by the courts in 1967.

But in recent years, there has been a push in the system to offer specialized programs to students of a certain ability and interest, thus giving them a chance to get out of the traditional high school setting. The Ellington School for the Arts is another example of a specialized program in which students can concentrate on a fine arts curriculum.

Most recently, Superintendent Reed has proposed opening a "model academic high school" that would mainly be a college preparatory school, requiring more courses in math, social sciences, science, and foreign languages than any other public school in the city.

Reed says he doesn't think the same standards as those at the math-science program and the proposed model academic high school would work in just any District school. "In a lot of high schools, unfortunately, we don't have a large number of students who merit bringing together that kind of program," Reed said.