PORTLAND - Cracking the books on science is easier for some 4th and 5th graders in Portland's public school system, thanks to a science curriculum developed by Oregon State University's Extension Service.

In three weeks - the time it takes for an egg to become a fluffy chick - students are hatching new ideas about embryology, math, cell development and chemistry.

The program was developed in Ohio and significantly modified by OSU Extension 4-H specialist Brad Jeffreys and OSU Extension poultry specialist Jim Hermes. It is offered through the Multnomah County Extension Office to interested schools.

The curriculum is provided at no cost to participating teachers through a grant from The Meyer Memorial Trust, which also provides the incubators that are essential for the project.

So far, more than 75 classrooms have participated in the Portland area, and teachers are demanding more, said Sheri Taylor, one of the Extension 4-H program assistants who brings the program to the classroom.

Taylor said the Multnomah County Extension Office is scrambling to meet the demand for the egg course because teachers see how involved children become in seeing science happen before their eyes. Although the course can be taught without the payoff of having chicks hatch at the end, that feature adds student interest and suspense.

More important, she says, it helps the children see the tangible results of the lessons they are learning about cell and embryo development.

So far, the availability of incubators has been the limiting factor in the spread of the program to other areas. The incubators are essential for keeping temperature and relative humidity at the required levels in classrooms where teachers opt to hatch the chicks.

Students learn that the eggs must be turned at regular intervals each day during most of the 21-day incubation.

When a power failure or an oversight has caused problems during incubation in the past, Taylor, Jeffrey and Hermes have taken the opportunity to teach the students what went wrong with the hatch, turning even a disappointing event into a learning experience.

The egg-based learning program is so successful that Jeffreys and Hermes now are working to develop a program for 7th and 8th grade students at the middle school level - a key learning period.

"Eighth grade is a progress checkpoint for teachers to assess a student's progress toward developing mastery in a variety of subject matter areas," Jeffreys said.

The four lessons for the middle school will be written to continue using the common chicken egg to familiarize students with the basics of biology, development and chemistry.

The middle school egg curriculum will offer more insights into the development during the incubation and hatching phase. In addition, at least one lesson in egg science will be taught on the students' classroom computers over the World Wide Web.

The middle school egg program is expected to hatch in the fall of 2000.

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Brad Jeffreys, 541-737-1314