A shortage of science teachers has the American Museum of Natural History stepping in to fill the void by providing free tuition to recent college grads who want a master's degree and can commit to teach in city high schools, where science is a luxury.

"Earth science and space are the worst taught areas where teachers are not certified," said museum president Ellen V. Futter. "This is a critical time for training the next generation."

The program, authorized by the New York State Department of Education, released a report saying 39 percent of the city's earth science teachers were not certified during the 2008-09 school year.

The museum and state said it's the only museum in the nation to offer doctorate and master's degree programs.

The museum's second graduating class of several dozen students received degrees Monday at the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life underneath the iconic blue whale exhibit. The museum awarded doctorates in comparative biology and a master's of arts in teaching. The programs are either partially funded by an endowment and a $5.3 million Teacher Quality Partnership grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Historically, the museum has worked alongside New York universities such as Stony Brook, Cornell, Columbia, New York University and the City University of New York to provide educational programs through its 200 scientists and researchers, who also serve as faculty at leading colleges.

"We have a full cadre of educators, scientists and a magnificent collection of 33 million specimens and beautiful labs. Now we have our own program for brilliant young scientists who will bring a fresh, creative approach to studying the natural world," Futter said.

Museum graduate Noah Kaminsky, 23, of Riverdale in the Bronx, who comes from a family of scientists and recently earned a bachelor of science degree from Cornell University, said applying for the museum's master's program made sense.

"When I was in high school I wanted to be a teacher. And now I want to study as much science as possible, so this was a good fit," Kaminsky said. The 15-month program offered Kaminsky and other graduates hands-on classroom experience as teaching assistants at some of the city's most impoverished neighborhood schools.

Kaminsky now is a full-time teacher of earth science at Murray Bergtraum High School in lower Manhattan, which has a 51.2 percent graduation rate.

"It's a tough school and the needs are high," said Kaminsky, who works at making science applicable to a student's life. "I talk about professions where they need science. For example, technical jobs, from being a logistical engineer in a rail yard to building science skills that can solve problems when managing a warehouse."

Ariel Goerl, 23, a graduate from the University of Wisconsin who was "ingrained" with science as a child, said she made the four-year commitment to teach because "I wanted to give students who don't have the opportunity to experience science to show them how it works in their everyday life."

She teaches at the South Bronx charter school New Visions Charter High School for the Humanities II.