For the first time in Maryland, engineering classes are moving into the high school.
This fall, 30 students from Carroll County's five high schools enrolled in a specially designed semester-long engineering course. It is the state's first and one of the few high school engineering classes in the nation, according to the National Science Foundation, which provided grants for a University of Maryland professor who helped design the course.
Educators say the class is a model of the kinds of breakthroughs schools must achieve as they prepare students for the 21st century. In contrast to a high school day divided into short courses on separate subjects, engineering forces students to take principles they have learned in physics, chemistry, biology and advanced math -- and apply them to the real world.
"A lot of teachers still think we should follow the layer-cake model, where you have biology in one layer, and that never
interacts with the next layer, which might be chemistry or physics," said Bradley Yohe, science supervisor for Carroll County schools.
"Engineering is all the layers," he said.
It also breaks down the walls at many high schools between classes that prepare students for the white-collar world and those that prepare them for the blue-collar world. The Carroll County class draws students from all five county high schools to the county's technology center, once the domain of students opting for the trades instead of college.
"I think it's just a product of our times," Mr. Yohe said. "Everything is becoming more sophisticated in technology. When you opened the hood of your car, it used to be pulleys and springs, and now there's a computer in there.
"It raises the expectations for all of us, and has naturally brought us together," he said.
While engineering isn't a piece of cake, it hasn't been as difficult for students as teachers once feared. Amy Hood, a 17-year-old senior at Westminster High, said the class has given her a chance to use the many science and math classes she has racked up.
"Anything you want to do, you can relate to engineering somehow," she said. "If you look at a wall, you think about how it will stand up to impact, or weather."
For instance, students might go from a physics formula on drag coefficients to sewing a parachute to test it, from measuring the viscosity of oil to designing a refinery pipe.
"They actually went out in the field and identified a wetlands by the plants -- that's biology -- and soils -- which is earth science," Mr. Yohe said. "Then they surveyed it, which is a technology piece, and then brought it back and put it on the computer and used a computer-aided design program and they drew the survey maps."
National science organizations have been urging schools to provide "authentic instruction" -- science as it is applied in the real world. Several years ago, Carroll schools had begun summer programs in which students spent a week or so with engineers at a local industry or the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
At the same time, University of Maryland engineering Professor Richard McCuen was developing high-school and middle-school programs in engineering, and training teachers all over the country. Since 1991, Dr. McCuen has received several grants for his work from the National Science Foundation and the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
As Mr. Yohe began to turn the summer program into a full-fledged class, he contacted Dr. McCuen, who offered training for the teachers and a variety of hands-on experiments and activities. Students design amusement park slides and subsonic wind tunnels, using inexpensive materials such as scrap lumber, ordinary hardware and rubber bands.
The course was originally to be called "pre-engineering," until Dr. McCuen looked it over and urged Mr. Yohe to change the name.
"There's nothing 'pre' about it," Dr. McCuen said. "This is engineering."
Dr. McCuen, who has taught at the College Park campus for 25 years, said his purpose is to demystify engineering for students like Amy who might choose it as a career, as well as for those who will not.
"I think it will make them more technologically literate, and that's important in our society," Dr. McCuen said.
Amy never wanted to sacrifice a strong academic schedule for the vocational track, in which she'd have had to spend a half-day at the center for two years.
"I'm taking every math and science class I can get my hands on," Amy said.
This engineering class, offered just in time for her senior year, was made to order.
The design is usually done on a computer; the technology center already had CAD -- computer-aided design -- terminals used in machining and other trades.
Dr. Evans said another reason engineering isn't usually taught in high schools is that the typical 45-minute class period isn't long enough for the kind of sustained concentration, building and practical work involved.
"I've taught physics at the high school level," Dr. Evans said. "You've set things up and just as you're ready to do an experiment, the bell rings."
Carroll County educators solved that problem by making the class two periods long, building on an existing trend toward fewer, longer classes in county high schools.
This course will end next month, at the end of the semester. But at least 10 of the students plan to spend the second semester doing an independent study, using the technology center's shops and instructors.