TOWNSEND -- Students in Judy Brown's fifth-grade class pored over their desks last Thursday morning, connecting pencils and rubber bands to batteries and wires to see if a small bulb would light.

This lesson, however, wasn't being taught by their teacher, but rather by Neil Clark, a Unitil consultant who came to Hawthorne Brook Middle School to help prepare students for their MCAS science exams.

"They get hands-on activity. It's a review, but mainly it's about having them hands-on doing it, and not just drawing pictures," Clark said.

Unitil began the classroom program in 2004, and this year also taught classes at Lunenburg's Turkey Hill Middle School and Fitchburg's Memorial Middle School and Arthur S. Longsjo Jr. Middle School.

The purpose of the class, said Unitil spokesman Bill White, is to prepare students for their standardized tests, teach them about safety and, hopefully, ignite a passion for science.

"It provides a refresher for students on circuits and other items that are on the MCAS test, but also it hopefully gets the students excited about science," said White. "Unitil hires a lot of engineers, so we want to make sure we're encouraging students to pursue engineering and science."

Over the years, he said, he's seen hundreds of students get excited about what they're learning.

"Because it's hands-on, I think the kids really seem to hold onto it. It really helps them to retain information," White said.

Brown, the classroom teacher, said the refresher course benefits her students, who learned about electricity back in January. With the MCAS exams coming up next month, the time was right for a review.

Although Brown tries to incorporate at least one or two hands-on labs into her lesson plans each week, she said having an outside group like Unitil come in helps to hold the students' attention.

"This is the best way for them to learn -- hands-on, making predictions and solving problems," Brown said.

Stephanye Schuyler, another Unitil employee, said the first students who participated in the program 11 years ago are now old enough to be graduating from college.

"There's got to be some kids who are engineers now," she said.

Student Chris Cummings enjoyed the activities they were doing in class that day.

"I think it's interesting how it all comes together," he said of the battery and lightbulb project.

Ethan Amadon, also a student, said the project was helping him learn about what sorts of material conduct electricity.

"It's kind of different because we don't always get to do this," Amadon said.