NEW YORK (AP) -- Growing up on Long Island, Katie Warner used to visit New York City's American Museum of Natural History and remembers being frightened of the 94-foot-long blue whale model that's suspended from the ceiling in the Hall of Ocean Life.
So it was "surreal" for Warner to return to the museum in summer 2012 to start a 15-month master's program in teaching — the only freestanding master's program at a museum in the U.S.
"To be there for school was really, really exciting," said Warner, who like other graduates of the program is now a certified earth science teacher working at a New York public school.
Funded by $2.6 million in federal Race to the Top dollars as well as money from the National Science Foundation and philanthropist Kathryn Davis, the master's program is a paid fellowship for students, who must commit to teaching at a high-needs public school for at least four years.
"We are incredibly excited about it and very pleased with what we've seen so far about the program and from their candidates," said Stephanie Wood-Garnett, an assistant commissioner at the New York State Education Department.
The master's program consists of two summers of study sandwiched around a single school year when candidates work as student teachers Monday through Thursday and attend classes at the museum on Fridays.
"I feel like it's a privilege being on the inside, really learning both science content and pedagogy from the museum's staff," said Wanda Vargas, one of 17 current students.
Vargas said the museum helped spark her interest in science when she was growing up in the Bronx and Manhattan, and she has returned the favor by bringing students from the Bronx school where she was a student teacher last semester on a museum field trip.
Last year's graduates are in the first year of their teaching commitment.
Warner said the seventh-graders she's teaching now get the benefit of her museum training. "They see that I'm in love with science," she said. "I'm not just a teacher. I'm a science lover, and I'm still learning."
The museum's permanent exhibits include the planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space and the fossil halls with their massive dinosaur skeletons. But only a tiny fraction of its 33 million specimens and objects are on display, and the museum boasts the largest natural history library in the Western Hemisphere, museum President Ellen Futter said.
"We have a broad array of assets that we have felt increasingly that we have a responsibility to bring to bear on what is in this country a crisis in science education," Futter said, citing figures that show American students lag behind those in many other nations in science and math.
She said museum officials were encouraged to create the master's program when Race to the Top funds became available, and they will decide after the three-year pilot program whether to extend it.
On a Friday last month, the master's students listened as Mordecai-Mark Mac Low, the curator of astrophysics, talked about using mathematical models to calculate the structure of a star. A star is at hydrostatic equilibrium, Mac Low said, when gravity pushing in balances pressure pushing out.
The students formed two concentric circles that pushed against each other to demonstrate the forces of gravity and pressure, an exercise they can replicate in their own classrooms.
The program stretches its students as a medical residency would, Mac Low said during a break between lessons.
"If we want our teachers to be highly trained and competent, we have to devote that kind of intensity to their education," he said.