Building a bridge to engineering

Mentors: A Northrop Grumman project that shows Carroll County pupils how to apply math and science to engineering tasks also tries to inspire them to consider the profession.

March 19, 2000|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Northrop Grumman engineers design defense systems, precision weapons and aerospace equipment, but this month they are also building bridges with 13-year-olds.

Construction is by way of a computer exercise that tests the pupils' math and science skills. The process might set some of the children on an engineering career track, the engineers hope.

"We want to take the nerdiness out of the engineering stereotype," said Jim Arnett, an electronics engineer with the company's Baltimore-Washington International Airport division.

He and co-worker Meg Solomon spent Friday in the eighth- grade science lab at West Middle School in Westminster.

They introduced the pupils to an engineering design program. With a blueprint for a bridge laid out for them, the children went to work on its construction.

"We want to expose children to their options," Solomon said. "Not everybody is going to be an engineer, but it is good to get into schools and let everybody know they can and what they have to do to get there."

About 100 others from the company's local engineering departments are visiting 55 schools in the metropolitan area to share their expertise and involve children in scientific activities.

Every school visited receives $1,000 for its science and math curriculum from Northrop Grumman, which has participated in the Discover"E" program for nearly 10 years.

"The students see engineers in the real world, not just people sitting at desks like Dilbert," said Jack Hathaway, an eighth-grade science teacher at West Middle, referring to a popular cartoon character. "They really see how things work and people having fun at their jobs."

Interest in engineering is not lagging, but neither is it booming.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in the field declined in the late 1980s and has remained fairly constant since.

Marjorie Lohnes, supervisor of career and technology education for Carroll schools, said students can become intimidated by engineering when thinking about what to major in during college.

"Engineering is a tremendously rigorous program," she said. "It is a field that is so demanding and technical in some senses that it is hard for people to grasp."

On Friday, the children tackled a typical problem: build a sturdy bridge and save money doing it. Working in pairs with advice from the engineering team, they tested materials, component strengths and beam sizes using West Point Bridge Designer, a program developed at the U.S. Military Academy.

"These guys build satellites and radar and they are going to show you what it takes to build a bridge," Hathaway told each of his five classes.

The blueprint on the computer screen offered pupils options.

"The object is to find out if your bridge really works by subjecting it to stress," said Arnett.

Tommy Jones and Joey Serio discarded the blueprint and tried building on their own.

"We want something strong enough to hold, but cheap," said Tommy.

Their design did not work, so they returned to the program. But they earned plaudits for ingenuity.

"You guys are breaking away from the design and coming up with great ideas," said Solomon, who suggested testing configurations later on the company's Web site for students at www.discoverengineering.org.

Even a virtual bridge has to be functional. The test was whether it could handle the weight of a large truck. Most initial designs failed their first encounter with a tractor-trailer -- some collapsed before the truck's front tires touched the bridge's surface.

"Ours is just sagging, but the truck gets over," said Amanda Blaugher. "But I don't think I would want to drive on it. I might want to swim across instead."

Despite the setbacks, Amanda called bridge-building an interesting activity that could be a good field for women.

"Any field is good for women," said her computer partner, Amanda Diehl. "There are not man fields and woman fields any more."

Solomon reinforced that idea. An industrial engineer for 20 years, she said her salary supports a husband and three children.

"I am working full time, and my husband is a stay-at-home dad," she said. "Living on one salary is not so easy these days, but an engineer's salary allows you that flexibility. And it's not necessarily the man who is the engineer."

The two girls strengthened the appropriate components and finally established a smooth passage for their truck.

"Kids see how things work when they are doing this activity," said Hathaway. "They see how one piece relates to the whole."

Engineers have to make things work and try to stay within a budget, said Arnett. The record cost to beat: $2,762, set early by Andrew Aldrich and Nick Stevens, who built with carbon steel. The program's true test came at the end of each class, as Arnett and Solomon passed out complimentary flashlights and brochures.

"Can I skip Spanish?" asked Gary Simonette. "I could build bridges all day."

Arnett could not issue Gary a pass, but he figured he had sparked an interest.

"We must be doing something right, if they are asking to skip the next class and stay here," Arnett said. "It can't just be for free flashlights."

Staff writer David L. Greene contributed to this article.

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