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By Linda L. Creighton

Students at Georgia's two-year-old Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology discuss  project plans.
Fifty-eight outstanding students from across Georgia's Rockdale County are pioneers in an unprecedented partnership between a local public school and nearby Georgia Tech University that provides world-class high tech training in high school. The Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology, envisioned by the Rockdale County Board of Education in 1998, enables students drawn from six schools across the county outside Atlanta to take part in a custom-made, four-year high-tech curriculum while fulfilling traditional requirements for graduation.

Underway since August, the program has on loan professors in engineering and computer science from Georgia Tech to develop research courses that bring physical sciences and mathematics theory down to earth for young students in projects focusing on telecommunications and information technology. County officials hope it will help satisfy the state's voracious appetite for high-tech graduates. The number of high-tech enterprises in Georgia has more than doubled since 1990 and the number of engineering jobs is expected to double over the next ten years. The high school-university-corporate partnership advances Georgia's Yamacraw Mission a state-wide economic development crusade to increase the number of graduates prepared for the electronic design and telecommunications fields. That is important because Georgia has the fastest population growth of any state east of the Rocky Mountains, and by 2005, the population is expected to hit 8.2 million.

The county school board and Rockdale County's forward looking Chamber of Commerce, which helped spearhead the program, enlisted the support of technology-dependent firms such as Lithonia Lighting and AT&T to craft research projects and classroom curriculum that prepare seniors for real-world internships in the student's final year of high school. The two firms and Georgia Tech are providing money, advice, facilities and internships.

Dean Alford, head of Allied Utility Network and vice chair of Partners for Tomorrow, the economic development effort for Rockdale County, says inspiration for the program came from seeing a magnet high school located in a high tech industrial park in Metz, France last spring. "For the first time it seemed to click,'" said Alford, who returned to Georgia to help mobilize the effort. The goal of the program is to make sure that students are "fully engaged in personal research" during their years in high school so that by their senior year they will be shadowing a high-tech job at a local enterprise during one class period each day.

In the first year, 40 freshmen and 18 sophomores met the tough requirements for admission. Of the 81 students who applied for the program, 58 were admitted and all 58 accepted, including 23 girls and 35 boys—seven of whom are from racial or ethnic minorities. Students in the program often carry a heavier load than others, with some days starting with a tutorial at 7:30 a.m. and going until dinnertime to include extracurricular activities like band or sports. Of the seven classes students take each day, three of the courses are part of the magnet program math, research and science. Students' first research project, due for completion by March, will be drawn from microbiology, physics, pure math research, engineering, computer science or consumer health-medicine. Two students have expressed interest in carrying out research on weather and bugs— meteorology and entomology.

In addition to the research-oriented courses offered by the program, students also can enroll in advanced placement courses in mathematics, including calculus, computer science and statistics, and the sciences, including biology, chemistry and physics. Some students can take part in special experiments underway at Georgia Tech. April Brown, the associate dean of Georgia Tech's College of Engineering, says the partnership helps teachers design experiments for students "that couple the course fundamentals with telecommunications and technology." "We have not created this program to serve as a direct pipeline to Georgia Tech,'" Brown says. "But we are preparing good students if they do choose to go to Georgia Tech."

Linda Creighton is a freelance writer living in suburban Washington, D.C.

By Paul Gordy and Norm Doyle

Tidewater Community College sophomore Norm Doyle puts the finishing touches on a battery-powered car.
It is one month before the competition, and students at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach, Va.., have hit another roadblock. Who knew that the transistor would overheat? Scott Smith, a sophomore computer engineering student, suggests "We could heat-sink the transistor to the chassis." Teammates Dave Gary and Robyn Walker fear that plan may cause a ground problem. The textbooks never seem to deal with practical problems like motor noise, current limitations, and overheating. What these engineering students are sweating over is the design and building of a tiny race car they hope will leave their competitors in the dust. They are also getting hands-on design experience, which doesn't always happen at the community college level. Many engineering students at two-year schools are studying part-time and have busy schedules, and faculty members often feel that they lack the time and resources to get them involved in significant design projects. But one of the ways that community colleges can provide this vitally important experience is through national competitions.

Tidewater's engineering department considered several design projects before settling on the battery-powered car competition, which is sponsored by the American Society for Engineering Education. The specifications for the competition are just right—difficult enough to pique interest, but not too difficult to be discouraging. The competition is held each June during ASEE's annual convention. The rules call for building a battery-powered vehicle of a certain size that can navigate a plywood track, which includes features such as inclined surfaces and a line of black 3/4" electrical tape that aids optical sensing. Although the fastest car earns the most points during the speed test, teams also earn points based upon written reports, CAD drawings, and oral presentations before a panel of judges.

However, finding the time for extra activities can be particularly difficult for community college students, who are often older and have more commitments than students at a typical university. Robyn Walker, 36, balances a full-time secretarial job with a heavy load of courses as she seeks to pursue a new career in engineering. "I was really interested in getting involved, but engineering was so new to me that I didn't think that I would have anything to offer," she says. "I was pleasantly surprised at how willing the other students were to explain things to me and how open they were to hearing my suggestions."

The time investment is huge for both faculty members and students, but both sides agree it is time well spent. Engineering faculty member Steve Ezzell says that giving students an exciting taste of real-world experience makes it worthwhile for him. Dave Gary, a 29-year-old sophomore electrical engineering student who spent six years in the Navy as an electrician, says he learned much more from the practical design experience than he ever did in classroom lectures. Projects like this can also teach students to solve problems creatively. TCC, like many community colleges, doesn't have the resources that larger schools do, so team members brought tools from home, shopped for parts locally, and learned to implement designs without expensive equipment.

After seven months of meeting two to three times per week, team members Walker, Gary, and Doyle, along with two engineering faculty advisors, packed up their gear and headed to St. Louis. The competition began with the design presentations, followed by the speed trials. Walker's confidence showed as she gave a presentation to the judges that included design details, electrical schematics, CAD drawings, a parts cost analysis, and more. But none of the students felt too confident at the speed trials.

Team members held their breath for the 28 seconds it took TCC's winning car to cross the finish line—and then pandemonium broke out. The TCC team—the defending champions from the 1999 competition in Charlotte, N.C.—had won again in St. Louis. As these victories clearly show, even small community colleges can create challenging and rewarding design experiences that get students excited about engineering. To see race videos, pictures, presentations, and rules, see www.tc.cc.va.us/studorgs/vbeng/asee2000.

Paul Gordy is an associate professor of engineering and Norm Doyle is a sophomore computer engineering student at Tidewater Community College.

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