To show seventh-graders that science and math affect their everyday lives, NASCAR team racing engineer Keith Rodden gives an example he figures a group too young to get behind a steering wheel would understand.
"So you've made a paper airplane, right?" he asks the middle schoolers as they sit on the floor of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, surrounded by a timeline of retired race cars. After a collective nod of young heads, he then explains how physics and engineering work together to turn an ordinary sheet of paper into an aerodynamic wonder.
It's not everyday students get to talk paper airplanes with a NASCAR engineer, but that's what happened last month when Rodden, engineer for driver Kasey Kahne's No. 4 Toyota, was joined by Kahne's crew chief, Kenny Francis, and NASCAR historian Buz McKim, to speak with more than a hundred Cabarrus County middle school students during a field trip.
The excursion was funded through the Kasey Kahne Foundation in conjunction with N.C. STEM Community Collaborative, a group that works within communities to arrange experiences in science, technology, engineering, and math for students.
The timing of the trip provided a perfect introduction as Cabarrus County School District prepares to launch its first-ever STEM programs in the fall of 2011. Students who applied to either the elementary or middle school STEM programs will find out this week whether they have been accepted.
Dr. Cheryl Milam, CCS middle school director, said STEM subjects exist in the regular curriculums, but the STEM magnet programs are geared toward students with a strong interest in them.
That works for students like Miles Swann, a seventh-grader at J.N. Fries Middle School, who went on the field trip to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
"I was fascinated by how you use engineering to calculate the gas, the mileage, how much fuel to put in," he said. Swann said he hopes to someday design space shuttles and aircrafts as an aerospace engineer.
His teacher, Frank Parrish, sees possibilities for other local field trips to show kids how science, technology, engineering, and math are put to work everyday.
"In Raleigh, there's a solar house at the N.C. State campus," he said. "There's a biodiesel plant in Rowan County." Closer to home is the Kannapolis Biotech campus, he adds.
Each field trip is an opportunity to demonstrate how their favorite subjects can lead to careers later, with some of those opportunities, like NASCAR, existing in their own backyard.
After Rodden's speech, Julie Vanvoorhis, a seventh-grader at C.C. Griffin Middle School, chats with her friends about future professions during lunch. Munching on chicken tenders and french fries in the downstairs restaurant, she begins to ponder the possibility of a new career path. "I've always thought engineering was interesting."
Those are words Rodden would be pleased to hear. "Engineering is a lot more than just this stuff. This is the entertainment side," he said. "We've got to get more people interested in stuff like that, so when I'm old, one of these seventh-graders is deciding how to figure out cancer, or open heart surgery, and using robots."