Some Pierce Middle School sixth-graders are scared when they first step inside Jim Della Sala's classroom.
Science can conjure fears of boring lectures, intimidating theories and endless note taking.
By the end of the school year, though, the students become the teachers, explaining complicated concepts like cell structure, kinetic energy and erosion.
"By the time they leave me,'' Della Sala says, "they are excited about science.''
The trick is keeping them excited.
It's a struggle in Florida and nationwide, evidenced by the growing number of students unable to keep up with their foreign counterparts in science, technology, engineering and math — better known as STEM education.
Florida education leaders tried to address the problem when they revised science standards in 2008, but a national report released earlier this year gave the state a "C'' for its curriculum.
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a national education think tank in Washington, D.C., found Florida's standards did a good job at the primary level. But they were weak in the higher grades as a result of "poor organization, ambiguous statements and basic errors,'' the report said.
More criticism has followed since the recent release of results on a national science test for eighth-graders that showed Florida lagging behind the national average.
The findings have some local education advocates calling for the state to join the national effort to develop Common Core State Standards in science.
Florida Department of Education officials, however, recommend sticking with plans to adopt the state's Next Generation Science Standards in 2013-14.
"A lot of assessments and curriculum are already built around it,'' said Gerry Meisels, director of the Coalition for Science Literacy at the University of South Florida.
It would be too costly, officials said, to rewrite instructional materials and retrain teachers — especially since the two standards are so similar.
"And, frankly,'' said Meisels, a chemistry professor who helped write Florida's standards, "teachers and students need some stability. You can't keep changing things every year.''
Instead, more time and effort should go toward providing teachers with the skills they need in the classroom, said Robert Potter, the coalition's associate director.
"Kids are naturally curious and they are natural scientists,'' he said. "If you teach science with that sense of discovery, then you keep them engaged.''
Middle school is an especially crucial time for students, educators say.
"Here, this is where they start to get the basics,'' said Pierce math teacher Brian Noce.
Then it's like a ladder, he said, where students build upon skills each year.
Getting them interested is the first step.
Della Sala tries to hook his sixth-graders on science with hands-on, interactive lessons that promote collaboration and critical thinking.
"I tell them science is all around us,'' he said. "A scientist is anyone who studies science.''
Once his students get comfortable, Della Sala gets their parents and other teachers on board, promoting how science incorporates arithmetic, writing and reading comprehension skills.
The sixth-graders released their inner scientist with an annual fair in May that spilled over with cross-curriculum in geography and language arts classes.
The event attracted other sixth-grade students and even other schools, including Leto High science department head Roohi Abidi and Principal Victor Fernandez.
Pierce is one of Leto's feeder schools.
"When you see some students enthusiastic about science, it's good,'' said Abidi, who will sponsor Leto's STEM Club in the coming school year.
But for some, she lamented, the interest will wane by the time they get into high school.
"It's very easy to lose focus,'' Abidi said. "There's so much going on in their lives — the phone, music, TV, computer.''
Luis Santos doesn't think that will be a problem for him. At 11, he already knows he wants to be a U.S. Marine.
Yet, Mr. Della Sala has opened up other possibilities.
"He has inspired me to study science and know all the world around me,'' Luis said.
Plus, there are the cool labs. Luis' favorite: looking at pond water under a microscope.
"You could see the cells moving around. They were alive!'' the sixth-grader said, before launching into a 15-minute explanation of cell structure.
It took Rachel Cardenas about a week to complete her science fair exhibit, a safari zoo that illustrates the classification of animals from domain and kingdom to genesis and species.
"I love this class,'' said the 11-year-old, who wants to be a pediatrician. "I've never been in a class where we've done so many projects.''
That didn't happen in elementary school, Rachel said. It took middle school to make science click for her.
"I'm amazed,'' she said.
Sherri Ackerman can be reached at [email protected]