Corkran Middle School teacher George Messmore found himself yesterday trying to suspend a pingpong ball in the hot air stream of a hairdryer. The day before, he had learned the quickest and best way to build free-standing towers using uncooked spaghetti and marshmallows.
The seemingly odd experiments had a purpose: to get the seventh-graders and eighth-graders who sometimes groan through his math classes interested in engineering careers.
The hairdryer activity could help them learn an oft-confusing physics principle that illustrates the relationship between velocity and air pressure - and explains how airplanes fly or how racecars keep their rear wheels on the ground while traveling at high speeds.
"I think it's important when you can show the kids that an equation in math, or an experiment in science, has a real application," said Messmore, who will begin his 37th year of teaching when classes resume this month.
Messmore was one of 15 middle school teachers who participated in a four-day workshop in Linthicum hosted by Northrop Grumman, at which engineering concepts were shared with teachers so that they will expose their students to the field.
Teachers came from around the Baltimore region, including five from Anne Arundel County. The company also held a workshop last month with 17 teachers.
The teacher seminars, in their second year, are part of the defense contractor's initiative to expand the dwindling number of American scientists and engineers.
Studies over the past three years have come up with conflicting data, but all have suggested America's weakening competitiveness in a global marketplace where the number of engineers and scientists from Indian and Chinese universities far outpaces the U.S. total.
A study from the National Academies pegged America's engineering graduates at 70,000 a year compared with 600,000 in China and 350,000 in India.
A subsequent report from Duke University in December 2005, the most recent available, suggested the disparity was not as stark, with 350,000 trained engineers emerging from China compared with 140,000 from the United States.
Concerned by such data, Northrop Grumman developed the teacher workshops in 2005 to bolster the company's outreach, which includes school visits, summer internships and scholarships to encourage engineering.
Their efforts come in tandem with national programs such as Project Lead the Way, offered across the state, and in two Anne Arundel County high schools to place students on a pre-engineering track.
"We were doing school visits, but that was one day a year, with probably 15 minutes of face time with 30 or 60 kids," said Steve Smalley, an advisory engineer with Northrop Grumman who has been heavily involved with the teacher workshops. "It wasn't enough to sustain our message. Teachers get thousands of hours of face time with a much larger group of students. So it made sense for us to reach out to them and help them find ways to integrate engineering into their curriculum."
The company focused its workshops on middle school teachers rather than high school because they could reach students just as they are beginning to think about what classes interest them and what kinds of careers would suit those interests, said Debbie Edwards, Northrop's human resources manager for strategic initiatives and workforce engagement.
Over the week, Messmore and other teachers said they were surprised to hear from engineers who told them that students don't have to be strong at math and science to be good engineers. Students who excel in either subject and with a natural interest in solving problems could be good candidates for the field.
"We wanted them to move away from saying, 'Yes, that geek in the back of the classroom would make a good engineer,'" Smalley said. "Many of us struggled with math in school. The key was we persevered, stuck through the math, because we had an end goal in mind: to become an engineer."
Teachers also got a crash course in engineering specialties. They learned how they see the work of engineers daily - through the clean water they drink or the bridges they drive across. And in this era of high-stakes testing, where teachers are pressed for time to cover the materials to appear on state tests, teachers said they were happy to see how engineering concepts could be introduced seamlessly into their daily math and science lessons.
Building a free-standing spaghetti and marshmallow tower, for instance, would fit into Messmore's geometry unit, he said. He could use the tower to illustrate how triangles are the strongest multisided shapes, and the tower could be used to measure angles and height.
"I could see it being a cross-curricular thing, too, where the experiment could be done in science. And then the students come to math and I could show them the mathematical principle behind it. And then they could go into language arts and write a paragraph about the principles and how they're applied in daily life," Messmore said, bursting with ideas. "Kids step into math class and think all they can do is math. But it's all connected. Nothing we teach them is in a vacuum. These activities will really help them see that."