Jim Arnett typically spends his days working on designs for military radar systems, aircraft navigation equipment, precision weapons and other Defense Department electronics.
But the electrical engineer with Northrop Grumman came to Friendship Valley Elementary School on a far different mission: Helping fourth-graders design and build towers from marshmallows and uncooked spaghetti.
In 50-minute intervals, children at the Westminster-area elementary school were transformed Friday from quiet pupils, sitting attentively at their desks, into a giggling mass of sticky-fingered inventors running around the classroom with fists full of pasta.
Sophie Hamilton, 9, and Samuel Brklich, 10, captured the attention of their classmates -- and perhaps the national spaghetti-tower building award, if there is such a distinction -- with a soaring structure that more resembled a Ferris wheel than the squat, geometric tower Arnett had sketched on the blackboard as an example.
"This one's going to set a new record," Arnett said when it came time to measure their masterpiece.
"It's so artistic," he said of Sophie and Samuel's 73-centimeter-tall project. "Has anyone heard of Picasso?"
The engineering primer -- offered this year by more than 175 engineers from Northrop Grumman's Baltimore-area plants and offices at 102 schools across the region during the past month -- is designed to introduce youngsters to a field that has a somewhat geeky reputation and show them just how cool it can be.
The effort is part of a larger program, called Discover'E' (as in engineering), sponsored by the National Society of Professional Engineers and aimed at encouraging students to consider pursuing engineering or other science-related careers. An estimated 35,000 engineers across the United States will visit more than 3 million students this year.
"As an engineer myself, it's a wonderful feeling to be working on something on a computer or on paper for months and months and then be there on the wonderful day when it's actually made," said Arnett, who lives in Westminster and works for Northrop Grumman's electronics systems division in Linthicum.
"If they can get even a little piece of that -- if they see what they can use their brains and imaginations to make, even if it's just a silly little tower -- it might catch fire."
And catch fire it did at Friendship Valley Elementary.
Before Arnett had even finished describing the challenge to Mary Ann Summers' fourth-graders, the room was abuzz with whispered strategies.
"All you need to do is make a square and keep going up and up and up," Justin Linfield, 9, suggested to a trio of classmates at one table.
"Then, don't touch it," advised 10-year-old Kala Allen.
Circulating the room, Arnett drew on his years of experience as an engineer to help the children.
"Keep the big marshmallows on the bottom," he suggested to one group. "When you make a human pyramid, you know you want your big people on the bottom."
At another table, where 9-year-old Leah Smith's mouth was so stuffed with marshmallows that she could barely speak, Arnett offered this high-tech suggestion: "Just try to end up with more marshmallows in your tower than in your mouth."
As her tower began to teeter, Kala warned, "It's going down, it's going down."
Rallying her team of fellow marshmallow engineers, Leah sputtered, "If it's going down, you're going down with it."
And dropping his otherwise chirpy voice a few octaves, Justin intoned, "A captain must always go down with the ship."
By the end of the day, after more than 100 fourth-graders had traipsed through Ann Mock's classroom, scattered shards of raw pasta across the floor and gummed up their fingers with marshmallow, Sophie and Samuel's tower record had not been toppled. It stood firmly at 73 centimeters.
Sophie, who came into class Friday morning with plans to be a veterinarian when she grows up, allowed by the end of the lesson that engineering just might be the career for her.
"I might want to build bridges. Or make marshmallows," she added, dissolving into giggles.