In the past few weeks, those of us who have been out of school for a while got a glimpse of some of the interesting things going on in area classrooms. As the school year wound down, student projects were coming together and being put to the test.

Colleen Griffin's fifth-grade students at Our Lady Star of the Sea School in Atlantic City got a chance to see if their math and science skills could hold water when they launched and rowed skiffs they had built with the help of retired Millville principal Bill Sheridan and the Bayshore Discovery Center in Commercial Township, Cumberland County.

At Oakcrest High School in Hamilton Township, David Jungblut's Research Science class allows students to explore different projects. Some of those ideas came together this year in an experiment in which cattails are being grown behind the school to see if they can prevent land erosion and provide nutrients for fish and animals.

George Quinn's Atlantic City High School students have constructed their own Physics House, a solar-power-equipped laboratory they built from a storage container. Students worked on weekends to complete the small structure, which future students will use as a place to conduct experiments of their own.

Ocean City High School juniors in Catherine Georges' class have designed an experiment that will be carried by rocket to the International Space Station in the fall. It will measure the effect of zero gravity on E. coli bacteria.

The students had originally wanted to work with a more dangerous, pathogenic form of the bacteria, but high school, like life, is full of compromises.

Behind each of these projects and others like them is a dedicated, creative teacher, showing again that a good teacher - one who can find ways to spark student interest - is the single most important factor in education.

Our schools are coming to rely more and more on a seemingly endless barrage of standardized tests to measure, compare and shape student and teacher performance.

We share the concern of many that students can be numbed by this and that educators are being forced to spend too much time "teaching to the test."

But these projects show that good teachers are still finding ways to take the curriculum less traveled, with impressive results.

As school reforms proceed - and people are never going to run out of theories on how to "fix" our schools - we should make sure that there's always room in the school day for an inspiring teacher to jump-start the curiosity and confidence that lead to a lifetime of learning.