Engineers have some of the most exciting jobs in the world. They were involved in designing the Apollo moon rocket, building the Bay Bridge and developing Nintendo video games.
But the vast majority of middle-school students in metropolitan Baltimore have little, if any, awareness of the things engineers do unless one of their parents, a relative or a neighbor is in the profession. If they think about engineers at all, it is usually to classify them as the nerds of the American work force.
The Westinghouse Electric Corp. division at Baltimore-Washington International Airport is out to change all that. The company's Electronic Systems Group is the country's most active participant in a student-outreach program called Discover E.
The E stands for engineering, and several hundred engineers from Westinghouse take time off from their jobs each year to visit central Maryland middle schools as part of a program to teach sixth- , seventh- and eighth-graders about the interesting job opportunities available to them as engineers.
It's a twofold program, according to Earl S. King, Westinghouse's manager of human resources and coordinator of the company's Discover E program. Besides seeking to stir interest in the profession, it also encourages students to begin taking the science and mathematics courses needed to prepare for such careers.
Westinghouse engineers have visited 75 schools in the metropolitan area, and with each visit they take along an oversized $1,000 check for the school's math and science study programs.
Discover E was the brainchild of Steve D. Bechtel, chairman emeritus of Bechtel Group Inc., the giant West Coast-based engineering company, according to Leslie Collins, the La Plata businesswoman who helped establish the program in cooperation with the National Society of Professional Engineers.
"He came up with the idea to interest students in engineering and to show them how math and science relate to real world technology," said Mrs. Collins, who heads her own public relations and consulting company.
Mrs. Collins said Westinghouse's Baltimore operation is "the largest single participant" in the national program.
Based on two years of experience, Mr. King said company engineers learned a great deal themselves about the teaching profession. "Lectures don't work," he said. "Students respond to hands-on demonstrations. They need to be able to feel and touch things."
Engineers visiting the Chesapeake Bay Middle School in Anne Arundel County in March carried this lesson with them. They held the attention of the 12- and 13-year-olds by constructing a bridge of cardboard. Then they added weights until it collapsed. The object was to teach them about stress and vector analysis, said Mr. King.
Sharon Kramer, a software engineer at Westinghouse, was involved in setting up a "flying star ship" (flying disc) factory in the cafeteria at Dunloggin Middle School in Ellicott City earlier this year to introduce the eighth-graders to the engineering principles of material handling, production and quality control.
"They put all of their energy and enthusiasm into it," she said.
Ms. Kramer said the students were divided into production teams with 25 students in each group. "We made it competitive to see what team could produce the most star ships of the best quality."
"It was a great program," said teacher Jeannette Botterill. "The kids got a lot out of it. They got more out of it than the $1,000 that we used to buy calculators."
Schools wishing to participate in the Westinghouse program should contact Jack Martin, manager of public affairs, at 765-4441.