Take one leaf blower, add a pinch of imagination and a dash of engineering skill, and you have the makings of a hovercraft - and an innovative way to inspire middle school students.
"Studies have shown that kids would rather clean their rooms or eat broccoli than do math," said Dan Gurry, a systems engineer with
For the past year, Gurry has been volunteering his time at Doherty Middle School in Andover, helping students discover the power of math and science through hands-on experiments. The 42-year-old tech wiz is one of some 200 Raytheon employees who volunteer countless hours each year working with students in Boston's northwest suburbs, guiding them to victory in local math competitions and success on the MCAS exam. The ultimate goal, though, is to inspire youngsters to consider careers in engineering, in hopes of reversing the recent decline in interest in the field.
Helping children imagine themselves as great inventors is probably good for business, too. While some youngsters might fancy themselves robotics engineers or marine scientists, others might one day work for Raytheon, the defense giant that discovered microwave cooking in 1945 and was the first to develop a missile guidance system capable of hitting a flying target.
"As a defense company, Raytheon can only hire US citizens, so the decline in engineering degrees over the last 10 to 15 years was particularly alarming to us," said Kristin M. Hilf, vice president of community relations for Raytheon. She noted that although US students do well in math and science up until the fourth grade, their progress in math skills begins to slide by the time they enter ninth grade. "If kids don't maintain an interest in math and science in high school, they're pretty much going to opt out of STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] in college, so we decided to focus the majority of our efforts on the kids."
In hopes of keeping students interested in math throughout the crucial middle school years and on into high school, Raytheon has created MathMovesU, a program that encourages students to realize their math potential by showing them the connection between math, their passions and interests, and "cool" careers.
The focal point of the program is mathmovesu.com, an interactive website that features virtual worlds that pertain to students' interest in music, fashion, and sports. In Raytheon's online worlds, students can earn virtual points and digital prizes by playing games that illustrate math concepts.
The site also boasts an online resource center, called MathMovesUniversity, which offers math help to students and content for teachers and parents.
Through MathMovesU, Raytheon also rewards students and teachers for coming up with innovative ways to make math education more engaging. Since its inception in the fall of 2005, the program has awarded more than $2 million in grants and scholarships to students, teachers, and schools nationwide - including $4,500 to Doherty students and staff, and an additional $4,500 in matching funds for the school.
Doherty seventh-graders Emma Cammann, 13, and Michelle Gagnon, 12, entered the MathMovesU essay contest last year and each won $1,000 scholarships - Cammann for suggesting that teachers use interactive online games to give individualized math lessons, and Gagnon for promoting the use of high-tech smart boards. The boards are large computer-like screens that give teachers the ability to share PowerPoint presentations or download information from the Internet.
Such technology is now being embraced by Marcy Glinos, a sixth-grade math teacher at Doherty. Raytheon named Glinos a "math hero" last year, awarding her $2,500 in recognition of her effort to make her middle school math class fun.
Glinos recommended that the matching funds Doherty received be used to buy high-tech tools for her classroom, which is now outfitted with a technology cart that includes an LCD projector and an overhead document camera. A smart board will be added shortly, and plans call for Doherty to equip additional classrooms with technology carts and smart boards.
"Raytheon's support has been invaluable," said Glinos, 46, a former software engineer who began her teaching career at Doherty three years ago. "We've been able to acquire some pretty cool tech tools for our classrooms and access software packages that enable us to create differentiated instruction. And [Gurry] is just tremendous. He's able to help students who excel in math, as well as those who need a little extra help."
Just as importantly, Glinos said, he has made math seem exciting. For the past 19 years, Gurry has been working to develop various uber-secret projects for the Navy.
"Before, I didn't know too much about what engineers do," said Gagnon. "Now I think it's very interesting."
To learn more about MathMovesU and its scholarship and grants programs, visit mathmovesu.com. Raytheon is now accepting nominations for its "math heroes" program.
Brenda J. Buote can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.