As the space shuttle Columbia orbited the earth last month, a group of sixth graders here at Columbia Community School fingered small square samples of the heat-resistant white tile that would keep the shuttle from burning up on reentry. ``That's the real thing,'' said one of the young women in the front of the classroom.
``Wow,'' said a boy in the back row with a look of admiration that clearly embraced both the tile sample and the three adults standing before him.
They were the ``real thing'' too, real engineers from Lockheed Missiles & Space Co. Inc. on the other side of the freeway. The session on aeronautical engineering is one of seven visits these sixth graders will have this year from Lockheed engineers participating in a program to encourage local youngsters to study science and consider careers in engineering.
Although the school is smack in the middle of Silicon Valley with its concentration of high technology industries, programs like Lockheed's are far from common. According to those involved, it is an example of what can happen when industry and schools cooperate.
``We have to work together,'' said Patricia Bubenik, principal at the school. ``This is a sign of what has to happen in the future. Industry has the resources, both human and financial, and they have a need for intelligent, enthusiastic employees. They have to look ahead.''
The program started at Lockheed after a senior executive challenged the women in a new group of engineers to go out and get girls interested in science and engineering, according to Philip C. Schneider, manager of the Missiles Systems Division.
Support for the group's work has grown at Lockheed. Some of the engineers are now given time off for the hours they spend in the schools and the company is supplying instructional materials.
The group, called the Engineering Careers Council, came up with a plan to go directly to an elementary school to try to capture the interest of youngsters, both male and female.
Sixth graders are the perfect audience, said Ms. Bubenik, because they will begin to choose electives in junior high school and are still open minded.
``They can still take joy in learning and not be embarrassed by it,'' she added.
One of the women who helped start the program credits her interest in science to one teacher who was fired up about the subject; another recalls a fourth grade visit from a Lockheed engineer.
``To this day that sticks in my mind,'' said Gail Waid-Giltz, who directed the program last year.
She and others point out that students, especially girls, often close the door to careers in science because they decide they aren't smart enough, or because they don't know what kind of work the field demands.
``We just don't want them to block anything out,'' said Donna K. Potter, this year's director.
Although the program got its start with a challenge to bring women into engineering, the program is not just for young girls, said Ms. Potter. About half of the 20 engineers involved are men and the group is just as interested in encouraging boys, she said.
It is important for students, both male and female, to see that there are women engineers, said Mitsi Andrews, an engineer active in the group. Engineering is teamwork, and boys and girls benefit from understanding that men and women work together professionally, she added.
The goal is simply to give all students an understanding of some basic scientific principles and to demonstrate how engineers use those principles in their work.
``If they have some idea of what the possibilites are . . . they will not be afraid to take math or science or chemistry,'' said Ms. Waid-Giltz.
The program began last year at Columbia with an introductory session of exhibits demonstrating different areas of engineering and science. Included were a doorbell, to demonstrate principles of electricity, and a Plexiglas box full of iron filings with a magnet to demonstrate patterns in magnetic fields.
About half of the exhibits were borrowed from the San Francisco Exploritorium, a science museum that encourages its visitors to touch and experiment with exhibits. The other half were constructed by members of the council.
There is little structure to the demonstration part of the program. Students are allowed to wander and fiddle and explore.
``We might ask, `Do you know how that works?' '' explains Ms. Andrews.
The kickoff session was repeated this year and is being followed by five seminars, each dealing with a different area, and a wrap-up session at the end of the year.
The classroom sessions are more about science as a broad field than about specific careers in engineering, although the engineers talk about how they go about trying to solve problems and answer questions.
Next year the council will add another school and hopes to expand slowly as more members are recruited. They would like to start doing more with teacher training. That's a definite need, they said.
The group has been swamped with calls since a local newspaper wrote about the program.
``We could do it full time,'' said Potter. ``The schools want any kind of help they can get.''
Schools in the area are trying to build stronger science programs, said school principal Bubenik, but are hampered by lack of funds and of training for teachers.
The public has become very aware of science and technology, but education has not kept pace, she said, and it has to catch up. The program at her school could easily serve as a model for programs anywhere, she said.
The key to success is for educators to work closely with people from local industries in planning and evaluation. And the way to get started is to work through the parents, let parents know the school needs help and ask them to get their own companies involved.
Columbia's involvement with Lockheed's program began through a parent in the PTA who works at the company.
``Principal to president -- I'm not sure that is the most effective way,'' says Bubenik. ``Look for the human connection, the child.''
The program is working at her school, she added. The students are enthusiastic about attending the sessions and are more and more willing to ask questions.
``I've never heard so many kids want to be engineers,'' she said. There is one youngster, she reported, who has given up his goal of being a truck driver. Now he wants to go into aeronautics.