TANEYTOWN -- Making fossils was fun and so was putting smelly garbage into a miniature landfill, but mud mountain won by a landslide as the favorite project of the fifth-graders in Debbie Suter's morning science class.
This class and five others at the Taneytown Elementary School have built small mountains of clay, soil, sand and stones in a courtyard at Northwest Middle School, which is serving as an annex for overflow classes from Taneytown.
Each student has chosen a homesite and marked it with a Popsicle stick, and now they are watching the effects of Mother Nature. Science teachers Linda Kulp and Ms. Suter say the erosion-and-weathering unit never before was this much fun before.
"This is funner than just talking about it," agreed Erin Stromberg, one of four 10-year-olds who led a tour of the mountains.
"They are so excited about it," Ms. Kulp said. "They can't wait to check their mountain and see what's happened to it, to see whether their house is still standing. The best thing is they come in and say, 'Oh good -- it's science! What are we going to do today?' "
Mud mountain is one of many popular lessons devised by Carroll County teachers for its award-winning "Hands-On Elementary Science." Still ahead for the fifth-graders are breeding and survival-of-the-fittest tests for fruit flies, and an observation of crayfish ecosystems to be capped by the ever-popular Crayfish Derby.
In 1986, the county's elementary science program was selected as a national model by the National Science Teachers Association, and the U.S. Department of Education soon followed with money to have it prepared and made available throughout the nation.
Since then, more than 500 public and private schools across the country have used the hands-on program, according to a spokeswoman for the Carroll County school system. Grants now total more than $180,000, and Hood College joined the dissemination effort last spring.
"Before, you had a book; you read everything. It wasn't the hands-on that we have now," said Ms. Suter, who has just returned to teaching after 12 years. "We were joking that it's like baking a cake: You can read about it, but it's more fun to do it."
The program is more work for the teachers -- and the noise level is much higher -- but she and Ms. Kulp agreed that the students' enthusiasm made the effort worthwhile.
Jeremy Montgomery said he was thinking about an avalanche when he placed his house at the top of his group's mountain, which they named Cricket Valley for the insects that were jumping all over the construction site two weeks ago.
"The rocks are to see if we have an avalanche," Jeremy explained, "the sand and dirt to see if it erodes."
"Yeah," said Mike Sandridge, "We put some rocks on the top to see if they'll fall down." He put his house halfway down Devil Mountain, which offered a choice of a rock, sand or dirt slope.
While Erin Stromberg also chose the top of Cricket Valley, Abby Brown put her house at the base of Devil Mountain. "I'm the only one at the very bottom," Abby said. "I'm not worried: Mine's dug into the ground . . . so it will stay in the ground."
The students also enthusiastically showed off some of the other projects they've done since school started last month.
First, it was the newest project: fossils cast in plaster. Then, a proud description of all the gunk and junk that went into their landfill -- eggshells, tomatoes and hamburger packaging layered with dirt -- all contained in a tightly covered plastic box.
Although the plastic wrap wasn't removed, Abby said, "It stinks!" Mike seconded enthusiastically, saying, "Yeah, we got to smell it the day after, and it was bad. I can imagine what it will smell like later!"