CHICAGO -- Here at Prescott Elementary School, science is not a subject of adventure and discovery, but a dull grind through a textbook. Math is not something real people use, but a problem a student sees on a quiz.

At Prescott, the teachers teach science and math by the book. There are no microscopes in the classroom, no models of cells, no mobiles of the solar system, no fish tanks, no chemistry kits, no insect collections, no measuring sticks, no scales -- nothing. The students are bored, and they are failing.

So it is here that a Nobel prize-winning physicist named Leon Lederman is launching one of the nation's most ambitious battles against illiteracy in science and mathematics. Over the next seven years, Lederman and a group of educators plan to take every single math and science teacher in Chicago and show each one how to teach math and science in a way that does not leave their students staring blankly into space.

"It is a Herculean task he has taken on," said Luther Williams, head of education and human resources at the National Science Foundation in Washington. Williams said that if Lederman and his associates can make it work in Chicago, which former education secretary William J. Bennett once called the country's worst school district, the program could work almost anywhere. "They have picked a tough site for their experiment."

The program is based on two ideas. One is that many science and math teachers have a poor understanding of their subject and, sometimes, an outright fear of it. As a result, they force-feed textbooks into their students, drowning them in a boring compendium of facts.

The second idea is that children have a natural enthusiasm for science and math but not for the way the subjects are usually presented. In the new method, students will be allowed to do experiments and to experience hands-on science, even if their experimental tools are only a rubber ball or a simple set of spheres and shapes. General principles will be stressed over memorization of facts. For example, the new system considers it more important for students to see how vertebrates share the same skeletal plan than to memorize the names of all the bones. Math that is used to solve real problems, supporters of the new method say, is better than math that appears to have no relevance to the student's life.

To teach students math, the academy will stress solving problems of immediate interest to students. For example, if pupils are collecting information on how fast a toy car rolls down a ramp, they will take measurements and plot their data on a graph. The graph, and the math it represents, can help teach children about relationships between math, force and time -- and what Lederman calls the most exciting thing of all: the ability to predict the future, or at least how far a toy car will roll down a longer ramp.

The teachers will be taught to teach the new way at a newly created Academy for Mathematics and Science Teachers, where they will spend two or three days a week, every other week, for 20 weeks. In addition to the new curriculum, teachers will be taught to hold the students' interest and to get away from textbooks and into experiments and hands-on teaching.

While the regular teachers are away, substitutes, already prepared to teach the new way, will be sent into classrooms.

How much change realistically can be expected in this poverty-besieged environment?

"People say, 'What about the families? What about the streets, and what about the drugs, and what about schools that are falling apart?' Well, we can't do anything about the families and the drugs and the buildings. But we can teach teachers how to stop wasting the students' time," Lederman said. "People say, 'It's too ambitious! It's too much!' I say that's the problem. We're not ambitious enough."

The first group of retooled instructors will enter classrooms next month. Over the next seven years, Lederman hopes to give intensive training to 17,000 math and science teachers in Chicago.

If the program is successful, the physicist hopes to see it used in other cities and other school districts as part of a major effort to reform American science and math education, which has been lambasted as dismal in one report after another. A constant theme in these reports, expressed in recent studies by the National Academy of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is that learning science should not be an exercise in rote memorization but an exploration of how the world works.

Lederman does not look like someone who would survive for very long in the highly politicized brawl of Chicago school reform. Academic and snowy-haired, dressed in jeans and running shoes, Lederman has lived most of his life in the heady world of high-energy physics, first at Columbia University, then as director of the country's most powerful atom-smasher, the Fermilab near Chicago, and now at the University of Chicago. Even as a 10-year-old, Lederman remembers, he read a big-print book, "Einstein for Children."

As director of Fermilab, Lederman began a program to teach teachers science during the summer. The experience was illuminating. "I realized how ignorant they were," Lederman said. "How intimidated they were by their own subject."

A year ago, Lederman got a call from Energy Secretary James D. Watkins, who wanted to know what the national laboratories could do for science education.

"I said, 'Have I got a deal for you.' Chicago is probably the worst school district in America. If that's not true, it's close enough," Lederman said. "We got 87 percent minority enrollment. We got a 40 percent dropout rate. We got 60 percent of the kids at or below the poverty line. We have 24,000 teaching teachers and 400,000 kids. We got big problems."

The children of wealth and privilege have largely abandoned the Chicago School District for the suburbs or private institutions. The 500 pupils at Prescott Elementary come from working-class families. Mostly Hispanic, some of the youngest do not speak English. More than three-quarters of them are poor. They get a free school lunch. Because there are gangs in the neighborhood, Prescott operates as a "closed campus," meaning the students come at 8:30 a.m. and do not leave the building or grounds until 2:30 p.m.

In Helen Hogan's math class, the seventh- and eighth-graders work in their workbooks. Hogan is a disciplinarian. There is no cutting up in her class. The children grind through their exercises, back and forth to the blackboard, learning their fractions. On their last report cards, half of Hogan's students failed.

"They do math in a vacuum. It has no relevance to their lives. Why should they care?" said Gordon Berry, the acting director of the teacher's academy.

In Emma French's seventh- and eighth-grade science classes, the students also work from a textbook. There are no calipers, no balances, no measuring sticks, no spheres, no graduated cyclinders. The students do science without ever touching anything but the textbook.

Jerry Hayes, program director at the academy, compared the experience to learning physical education by memorizing the great baseball and football games of the past but never picking up a ball.

"We're failing our kids," said Karen Carlson, Prescott's new principal. "We are not even meeting them halfway."

"I went to school here. They haven't done anything here since I was a student 20 years ago," said Jim Gruber, a locksmith in the neighborhood and member of the Local School Council, which hired the new principal.

"Our problem is our students don't dream {beyond} . . . what they see right in front of them," said Delia Barajas, mother of three Prescott students and chairman of the Local School Council.

Berry and his colleagues from the academy were impressed when they visited Prescott to see if the teachers and community were truly interested in what they had to offer. "The halls are clean. You wouldn't believe what some of the halls look like," Berry said. "The principal is inspiring. The community is ready for change."

"I want to believe in this," Carlson said. "I want our kids to succeed. I hope that it works. Not everyone will change, but enough of the teachers might."

To start the academy, Lederman last summer raised several million dollars from federal, state and private sources. He says he needs $35 million a year to do the job right. "I was so desperate for money, I even went to the Department of Education," Lederman said in an only half-joking allusion to the lack of imagination shown by the traditional education establishment.

The academy will work something like this: It will hire and train several hundred teachers. They will be sent into the schools to substitute for teachers who come to the academy for science and math training several days a week for three or four months. Then both the academy teacher and the school teacher will teach together, giving the school teachers the time and encouragement to use what they have learned.

NSF's Williams said he is impressed by the plans to follow up on the teacher training. Lack of such follow-up has been a failing of previous efforts. He is pleased that Lederman and his colleagues are attempting to retrain the entire Chicago school district instead of a few "magnet" schools. "There's no reason to get excited if we have a few great programs in a few schools," Williams said. "We need good programs in every school."

Williams said it is too early to tell whether Lederman will succeed. Lederman agreed.

"But I think we have a better chance of succeeding than people think," Lederman said. "Kids want to learn science. They're naturally curious. Until now, we've just been doing our best to spoil it for them."