Prince George's County Public Schools won a $60,000 grant from the state to test a science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, program in first- and second-grade classrooms at 10 schools.

The idea, simply put, is to start younger.

In Prince George's, fifth-graders are less likely to pass the math and science Maryland School Assessment, or MSA, exams than their peers across the state, or in neighboring Montgomery County. Though these scores have been inching up, just 58 percent of Prince George's students passed the fifth-grade science test this spring, behind fifth-graders statewide at 69 percent and Montgomery's at 73 percent.

Now, focusing on 10 schools where scores are in the lower range, Prince George's is divvying up $60,000 to expand the STEM program it began for third- and fourth-graders to even younger students.

"Young kids are born engineers -- by the time they socialize with their physical, biological and social world, they love to explore," said Godfrey Rangasammy, the science supervisor for the school system.

The students are testing the Engineering is Elementary model, which combines their usual science lessons with technology and engineering projects. They'll also work in groups more. In early October, schools will receive student workbooks and kits with project ideas.

"You start off with a question. For example, how can we produce alternate forms of energy from wind?" Rangasammy said. "They plan to solve a challenge, they create a product and they improve after reflecting with team members."

Rangasammy said there was a push to improve MSA scores by focusing on early grades when the school system revisited its guiding plan last year. And Kimberly Lockett, president of the PTA at Vansville Elementary School in Beltsville, says she sees an appetite for STEM education in both her first-grade son and fourth-grade daughter.

"My son just got a science kit for his birthday, and the box is open," Lockett said. "And my daughter is constantly mixing things -- safely, with supervision -- to see how they work together."

Rockledge Elementary in Bowie was one of the schools chosen to test the program in the third and fourth grades last year, and it will try it with the first and second grades for the new school year, Principal Kimberly Seidel said.

Trish Kerner, a fifth-grade teacher who leads STEM education at Rockledge, said it's too soon to know if her students are showing more prowess after participating in last year's program.

"But our kids are getting good at collaborating and talking together in a respectful manner, working together," Kerner said.