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Teaching the ABCs of Technology

Computerized manufacturing equipment helps introduce junior-high students to engineering. EDUCATION

MIKE SEELEY has a key chain with his initials carved into a block of aluminum. He made it himself with a robot and a computer-controlled milling machine in his eighth-grade technology class. Mike's class here at Gowana Junior High School is part of a pilot project that is putting computerized manufacturing equipment into junior-high shop classes. To make his key chain, Mike had to learn a little about computers, a little about robotics, and a little about industrial automation - which all adds up to a lot of interest that might push Mike into a technical career.

First, Mike designed the placement of his initials on the block with a program called ``Autocad.'' Next he ran a program that caused the robot arm to pick up a 2-by-3-inch slab of aluminum and place it in the chuck of a milling machine. The output from Autocad was then sent to the milling machine, which carved the letters. Finally, the arm picked up the slab again and dropped it in a box. The whole process took about a minute. The whole system fits on a table top.

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``I want you to make sure this chute has parts in it because if it runs out of parts the arm will try to pick the bench up, and we don't want that to happen,'' cautioned Mike's teacher, Steve Smith, at the start of the class. Learning about technology also means learning about what can go wrong.

The robot arm, the milling machine, and the computer that runs the show make up the Technology Awareness Module, a project of the nearby Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y. The $30,000 system's sole purpose is to get junior-high-school students interested in engineering.

``If you want to be an engineer and graduate from an institution like RPI or MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], decisions have to be made about what math courses you are going to take in elementary school,'' says Raymond H. Puffer Jr., associate director for RPI's Center for Advanced Technology.

Many students lock themselves out of possible careers in engineering when they are in high school, Mr. Puffer says, because they didn't even know that the careers exist.

``A lot of young people's perceptions are molded by the media - primarily television,'' says Puffer. ``I've never seen a show that presents any information about engineering and technical fields, except in a bad light.''

TV shows like ``L.A. Law'' convince young people to become lawyers, doctors, and businessmen, says Puffer. Already, indifference to science is hurting RPI, he adds.

This year RPI experienced a 13 percent drop in the number of entering students - and a 20 percent drop in the number of freshmen choosing majors in science. ``All the demographics and statistics show that we are faced with a critical shortage of people entering [the engineering] professions,'' Puffer says.

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Last spring, he decided that the way to turn students onto technology was to put it in their classrooms - real robots doing real things.

He contracted with the Hudson Valley Community College, which has a reputation for transferring new technologies into the community, to build the module. Over the summer Associate Professor Frank Raymond put the system together.

The module fits in perfectly with a four-year-old curriculum overhaul by the New York State Department of Education that established Gowana's technology classroom in the first place.

The classroom looks like a typical junior-high shop, with woodworking tools hanging from pegboards on the wall, but the purpose of ``Technology 8'' is to teach hands-on, problem-solving skills.

The room has a set of encyclopedias on shelves next to a row of face shields and protective goggles. Thinking is as important as building under the new curriculum.

``I felt that it was a loss when we went to this new curriculum,'' says Mr. Smith, who has taught shop for 17 years. Before the change, shop was little more than students building projects that Smith assigned.

Today's projects have students building simple machines of their own design to solve problems presented by the teacher - the sort of thing the students would have to do in an engineering or manufacturing career.

``The kids really like the new course more than the old. I wonder if we have been torturing the kids all these years by making those projects,'' says Smith, referring to the old curriculum.

Even with the new technology curriculum, limited funding prevents New York's schools from presenting a realistic view of modern manufacturing.

``When industry moved away from smokestack kind of technology and put in computer systems, school [shops] didn't follow,'' says Richard R. Bials, who oversees the occupational education program for Shenendehowa Central School, which runs Gowana.

ALTHOUGH the equipment in the shops of New York's public schools is expensive, the machines were paid for out of the original construction bonds, says Michael Hacker, associate state supervisor for technology education in the state's Department of Education.

``The hard part is to retrofit these facilities,'' says Mr. Hacker. ``Districts are hard pressed to spend $30,000 on a particular piece of equipment. That's part of the frustration that our teachers are feeling.''

Right now, says Professor Raymond, students and teachers haven't even begun to tap his machine's potential. Besides key chains, it could make lead molds, bottle-cap openers, and other small machinable tools.

The real problem is time - since there is only one machine, each school in the Albany area is only going to get a month of time to work with it.

RPI's Puffer is hoping for enough corporate funding to let the school construct 10 more machines before next school year begins.

``The kids really like it,'' says Smith, whose only complaint was that he didn't have enough training to use the machine properly. A course that had been planned for him and other teachers during the summer was canceled because the module wasn't completed in time.

JAMES DOE, 13, says that it was fun to use the machine, but doesn't think that using it was a valuable learning experience. ``I'm going to be a chef,'' he says confidently.

Other students, like Mike Seeley, were enchanted by it.

``It was not in a book - it was a robot actually in our room,'' says Mike. Although he wants to own a business when he grows up, he says, ``I might do something with robots.... I haven't been really into computers before this.''

Teachers outside the school are also excited.

``This is high-class stuff - computer-operated equipment - [but] scaled back so that it is meaningful to young people. This is going to open up their eyes to possible future vocations,'' says Rocco Lapenta, who teaches electronics at the Saunders Trades and Technical High School in Yonkers, N.Y.

The most exciting thing about the system, says Mr. Lapenta, who saw it demonstrated at a show in New York City, is that it exposes students to a high-tech process that they can quickly master.

``They are able to achieve a result, and that's very meaningful. I think from a point of view of being job-exploratory - offering these kids an opportunity to explore fields that they may never have thought of - it may ultimately be a great motivator for these young people. I was impressed. I just hope that I can talk some of our people down here into doing something about it.''

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