Hammers and saws echoed in a cavernous space where students chiseled and honed large wooden frames for portable classrooms.
But here, in this din at the Center for Applied Technology-North, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick believes the students are building something else: Maryland's hope for a more skilled work force.
On Friday, Grasmick toured the warehouselike facility in Severn to call attention to the evolution of career-technology education.
The vocational programs of the 1970s that offered an alternative track for academically weak students are changing. Training for blue-collar work in auto shops and factory lines is being replaced by computer programming, graphic design and auto mechanics courses that rely more heavily on computers and high-level math than they did 30 years ago, Grasmick said.
"This is not the default program it once was," she said. "This is the future."
Such programs, Grasmick said, will play an increasingly prominent role by helping prepare a work force to fill high-paying technical jobs that will flood the area over the next five years through military base realignment.
Career-technology centers' role in this critical area became particularly clear in the wake of a Towson University study this spring that found the state appears to be headed for a shortage of qualified residents to fill the scores of science and engineering jobs that will flood the area.
"I feel like there's a lot of misinformation out there about these programs," Grasmick told a group of Anne Arundel County educators and business officials who partner with the Severn school. "People still think that students engaged in career-technology programs don't go on to higher education, when in fact this serves as a springboard to get them to college."
The new generation of career-technology students look like Troy Balonis, 16, who juggles Advanced Placement courses at North County High School with intensive computer networking and systems courses at the Center for Applied Technology-North.
He wants to go on to college and work as an administrator in an information technology department for a business.
"It's not about either-or anymore," Grasmick said. "Students are in advanced classes and getting this hands-on career preparation at once."
Across the state, 120,000 students are in career-technology programs. About a fifth of those who graduated from Maryland public high schools this year were enrolled in career-technology courses, Grasmick said, a sign that it is being more widely embraced.
In Anne Arundel County, Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell, who started as a career-technology teacher in horticulture in Prince George's County, is leading discussions on tweaking schedules in the system's technical schools in Severn and Edgewater to allow students from traditional schools the time to squeeze in career training.
The Severn facility that officials toured last week offers 23 programs ranging from welding to a recognized electronics program that recently had one of its students become the first in the nation to take back-to-back first-place prizes in a national competition. The student is headed to Loyola College in Baltimore to study electrical engineering.
"I don't think you can overstate the need to continue to offer these kinds of programs to as many students as possible," Maxwell said.