RALEIGH, N.C. — Never mind that the noise level was well above a whisper and the students were out of their seats, happily playing with balloons, straws and feathers.

This was a science lesson, second-grade style. For 10 minutes, at least, teacher Nancy Woodward's main job as a professional educator was to inflate balloons with a small air pump for the delighted children who crowded around her.

Otherwise, the students were on their own. They were learning about air.

A week after the results of a national science test showed little progress among students in North Carolina and across the nation, these second-graders were learning science the way experts say is best: by doing.

"This makes it a lot easier for students to understand," said Woodward, who teaches at Fuller Elementary School in Raleigh. "It's much more concrete for children."

Education and business leaders have said that today's increasingly technology-driven economy requires that students receive a strong foundation not only in reading and math but also in science.

But results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress test administered in the spring of 2000 indicated little improvement in student science prowess in North Carolina and across the nation.

Utah students, unlike their peers in North Carolina, scored well above the national average on the tests. But the tests showed Utah students, like those nationally, are not improving over time and may be backsliding a bit.

John Penick, a professor at North Carolina State University who leads the department of math, science and technology education, said students will show more progress only after schools improve the teaching of science.

"We won't have educational reform until we have instructional reform," Penick said. "We need teacher education programs that focus more heavily on science."

Most elementary school teachers took only two science classes in college, along with one course about science education, he said.

"The real issue comes back to the small amount of money we put into instructional improvement," Penick said.

Much of that improvement, science educators say, depends on steering teachers away from a traditional textbook approach toward instruction that encourages students actively to think, investigate and question — like scientists.

Fuller Elementary, where Nancy Woodward teaches, is one of five elementary schools in Wake County that have virtually replaced their textbooks with "kits" of lessons and materials for teaching science through what educators call "inquiry-based" instruction.

To introduce her students last week to several weeks of study about air and weather, Woodward started her lesson with a series of questions: What does air look like? Where can you find air? How can you tell when air is in a container? What can you do with air?

Next, each student gets a small plastic bag containing a balloon, a Styrofoam ball, a feather, a straw, a cotton ball and a square of paper. For the 20 minutes that followed, Woodward's class became an impromptu science lab. Balloons were the favored instrument.

Later, she had her students share their observations:

"The force of air can blow things out of other things," said Sean Eliason, who shot a feather out of a straw.

"I didn't know that air was strong," Lauren Christian said, noting the only way she felt air was to move through it.

For Woodward, the hands-on approach helps her capitalize on the natural inquisitiveness that her students bring to class.

"Science develops the mind and piques the curiosity," she said. "It helps you to get the kids thinking."

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service