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A Magnet for Young Scientists : Education: High-tech program in Long Beach is the first of its kind in the nation.

Fourth-grader Vance Hardy, 10, would prefer to be building a space shuttle, but instead he is racing miniature wind-powered cars in his aerospace science class at Cleveland Elementary School in Lakewood.

He and 2,000 other students in the Long Beach Unified School District are part of the Aerospace Technology Magnet Program that held its first open house Wednesday. The high-tech program for fourth- through 12th-graders is the first of its kind in the United States.

“This will be a model program for schools across the country,” said Alicia Coro, the U.S. Department of Education representative who helped approve the $6.1-million two-year grant for Long Beach schools. “These are very costly programs.”

Coro was one of 100 observers touring some of Long Beach’s 21 labs in seven schools that will emphasize math and science geared to aerospace. Since February, students have worked in classrooms that look more like futuristic science laboratories with the latest computers, robotic machinery, wind tunnels and other electronic gadgets.

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Teachers’ enthusiasm and industry support helped acquire Long Beach’s share of the $113 million that went to 52 magnet programs throughout the country, Coro said. Most of the country’s magnet programs are emphasizing math and science in order to draw non-minority students and create a better racial balance in school. President Bush and leading educators have lamented over the poor scores of American students in math and science compared to the rest of the world.

Long Beach’s program is unique because it pushes aerospace and it has assistance from nearby businesses in the field, such as McDonnell Douglas, Northrop and Rockwell International. High school graduates will be trained so that they can move directly into an entry-level aerospace job at these companies.

“Many parents of these students work at these companies,” said William Marmion, director of the magnet program. “This is a great way to get our future technicians started early.”

The federal grants are offered to promote desegregation, and the program is expected to continue after the grants run out in two years. Gail Quinn, the magnet school’s assistant director and grant author, said the school district is unsure how it will pay for the estimated $1-million operating expenses after the federal money stops, but she plans to find funding from private industry and other grants. The schools also will need money to keep today’s state-of-the-art equipment as updated as possible.

“The fourth-graders and older students you’ll see on today’s tour will be out of school and on the job by the year 2000,” Long Beach School Supt. Tom Giugni said to visitors last week. “And I don’t know about you, but I want to fly on the next generation of commercial jets built by the best-trained, best-prepared employees in the industry, not someone who was shortchanged on skills because our schools lacked what they need.”

In a class at Bancroft Junior High School, students were growing tomato plants from seeds that were flying in space for six years. Across the hall, teacher Donna Hackner taught students how to scan photographs onto a computer screen.

“When I got my master’s in educational computing in 1984, this kind of equipment didn’t even exist,” said Hackner, who is one of 80 teachers in the district who took the magnet program training, which included a four-day seminar with National Aeronautics and Space Administration experts.

In another classroom, Rachel Sandles, 12, who hopes to be a doctor, sat at a computer and entered research information about AIDS vaccines. The seventh-grader chose to leave her friends at Hamilton Junior High and transferred to the intensive aerospace training. The courses are strictly voluntary and require a high grade-point average only at the high school level.

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“They told us we would be building things and programming things, so that’s why I joined,” said Pognarith Pich, 15, at Lakewood High School, where he was piecing together a mechanical arm in what looked like an advanced set of Leggos. “I want to be an engineer,” he added, showing how he programmed a crane to pick up a block and plop it down on a conveyor belt.

On the tour, Jim Hoover was delighted and surprised to see the extent of the programs at his alma maters of Bancroft Junior High and Lakewood High schools. Hoover, now Northrop’s vice president for manufacturing and operations, said the program teaches skills for students whether or not they go to college.

“This is a setting for those who will engineer programs and those who will be the technicians,” Hoover said. “No program I know of has both the workers and designers learning together. These kids will not grow up being afraid of technology.”

In fact, they catch on quickly. In one computer exercise, teachers allowed students 45 minutes to finish a lesson that took the teachers half an hour. The students took only 15 minutes.

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At the most basic lab, 9-year-olds were learning how to type on MacIntosh computers by following a cat walking across the screen. Some plodded away at seven words a minute and squealed with delight when they finished.

Parents interested in enrolling their children in such a program must contact guidance counselors to see if they qualify, but not all schools are eligible. This program is the largest of 36 magnet schools in Long Beach and includes Lakewood High School, Bancroft and DeMille middle schools and Alvarado, Buffum, Cleveland and Monroe elementary schools.

“I want to be a commercial pilot,” said Kenneth Persing, 14, working on an electronic rotating device with two other friends.

“I want to learn more about computers,” said Ken Van Mersbergen, 17, a junior who works as a salesman in an IBM computer store.

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“And I’m just here ‘cause it looks like fun,” said freshman Noemi Corona, 14.

Szymanski is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer.


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