Defense contractors Northrop Grumman Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp. are joining forces in an innovative partnership to develop high-tech simulations to boost STEM—or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—education in Maryland’s Baltimore County schools.
And experts see the partnership as something districts around the country may follow as they, too, seek better ways to improve STEM education.
“If students are to be ready to compete in the global economy, this kind of program is exactly the kind of experience they need,” says Lydia M. Logan, the executive director of the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, an arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington. She says other high-tech companies in the defense industry, such as Boeing, Siemens, Intel, and IBM, are also supporting stem education in schools.
The Baltimore County partnership includes the local operations of two major military contractors—Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin—as well as researchers at Johns Hopkins University, an institution that also does work for the military.
Baltimore County Superintendent Joe A. Hairston brought together the partners, which had independent initiatives in the 105,000-student suburban district’s schools, in 2007, to get a jump on technology that his students and teachers otherwise might not see for decades.
“Technology goes to the military first,” Hairston told education publishers at a meeting in Arlington, Va., last fall that was addressing the need for better digital curricula. “They hang on to it for 20 years, then give it to the commercial sector when they are done with it.” Only then do the technologies filter into products for education, he says.
“I want to cut out the middleman,” he said at the Oct. 2 technology summit of the school division of the Association of American Publishers.
Plans are for the two defense contractors to develop virtual-reality simulations or other software tools that bring to the classroom real-world activities involving stem subjects and that connect company employees to science and engineering students and teachers in the Baltimore County schools.
Groundwork activities include teacher “externships,” visits to four participating schools, and joint planning sessions. Educators are now deciding on curriculum areas that could be addressed using the technology. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Technology in Education have nearly completed a prototype digital environment for teaching science and math by having students conduct a search-and-rescue mission to find a child lost on Mount St. Helens.
It is unusual for Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman and Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin to be working jointly, because the companies are fierce competitors for defense contracts and for the technically qualified workers near their facilities.
But the defense contractors have a common need to maintain the quality and quantity of those talent pools.
“Having technology and engineering students not just interested, but excited about majoring in engineering and science and technology is incredibly important to our industry and incredibly important to the nation,” says Stephanie C. Hill, a director of technical operations with Lockheed Martin’s Maritime Systems and Sensors division, which is based in Middle River, Md., and produces the Littoral Combat Ship, which the U.S. Navy calls its first “next generation” combat vessel.
“Lockheed Martin has been committed for some time to increasing the number of students who have sustained interest in technical careers,” she says. “We think you have to start early.”
Northrop Grumman, which develops advanced radar systems and rocket launchers at its Electronic Systems division in Baltimore, has for a decade sent volunteer employees to local schools for STEM-related activities, but has noticed limits to that approach.
“We’re a productive company, and one of the problems [with school involvement] is it takes engineers away from the workplace,” says Ted E. Imes Sr., the director of community and education outreach for the Northrop Grumman plant in Baltimore.
“This is a proof-of-concept of a way to place engineers and students together and to minimize the amount of time they have to be away from the facility,” Imes says.
Several teachers from Baltimore Countyâ€™s Chesapeake High STEM Academy, for instance, spent two weeks last summer on externships at the Lockheed Martin Maritime Systems and Sensors plant.
Thomas Bullerman, an engineering teacher at Chesapeake who did an externship, helped employees design a ballast system for a boat using software to model the performance of the design.
“We could do that in my design class, and send it to Lockheed Martin engineers” to create a computer model of the design that could be tested, Bullerman says. “We would also build a physical model to test.”
Demeterice Smith, who teaches AP biology and AP environmental science to 10th and 11th graders at Chesapeake, did her externship in the environmental safety and health office at the same plant. She aims to have her students develop safety and health procedures for the school’s science and engineering labs that are modeled after the ones she observed.
One of Northrop Grumman’s goals for the partnership, still at a conceptual stage, is to give Baltimore County classrooms involved in STEM activities remote access to some of its scientists, Imes says.
The virtual Mount St. Helens project that the Johns Hopkins researchers are developing is an example of using virtual environments to create realistic narratives that will interest students in applying their knowledge and skills, according to David Peloff, the program director of the Center for Technology in Education.
The center joined the partnership when the school district offered to provide a school as a pilot site for testing its simulation. To succeed in challenges such as finding the child lost on the mountain, students will have to understand concepts such as latitude and longitude, vector, speed, and altitude—which are presented on a console on the students’ virtual search vehicles—and use them in authentic strategies of search and rescue.
The game, which will be tested at Deep Creek Middle School, is not as polished as commercial games.
“Keep in mind that most commercial 3-D video games cost millions to produce, and our budget was a small fraction of that,” Peloff says, noting that the game has been developed under a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education to look at how emerging technologies from the military and corporate worlds might be harnessed for classroom uses.
A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2009 edition of Digital Directions as The Military Connection