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Hughes Woos Young Science Whizzes : Education: Displays on nuclear reactors, kinetic energy and dinosaur bones are among the exhibits by 26 elementary school students.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jesse Odatey is not the first person to illustrate the interior of a nuclear reactor, and his knowledge of uranium is occasionally sketchy. But Hawthorne School District officials might want to keep a close eye on the test tubes Odatey handles in science class.

After all, if a 10-year-old can describe how nuclear power is generated, there’s no telling what kind of mischief he could do with a few stray chemicals.

“I told our director of personnel to give him an employee application,” quipped Charles H. Wilcox, engineering director of Hughes Aircraft Co.'s Electro-Optical & Data Systems Group. “He does know what he’s talking about.”

The fifth-grader at Eucalyptus School was one of 26 budding engineers, chemists and nuclear physicists who showed off their award-winning science projects at Hughes in El Segundo Wednesday afternoon.

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The students, all between the ages of 6 and 13, were honored by Hughes last month, receiving ribbons and pocket calculators. Their displays, which focused on everything from kinetic energy to dinosaur bones, were chosen from nearly 200 science projects districtwide.

Although it was the first time Hughes has offered awards for the district’s annual Science Fair, the company has increasingly strengthened its ties to the district’s elementary schools. Last year, Hughes established four $500 stipends to honor the district’s most outstanding math and science teachers. And Hughes currently is trying to recruit its retirees to become tutors.

Although the company has long fostered cooperation with high schools and colleges, often in an effort to recruit young talent, it only recently began extending its resources to younger students, said Harland Celestine, manager of human resources at Hughes.

“We’re trying to get in there as early as we can,” Celestine said. “While we’ve been working with people at the university level, those people have already made up their minds (about careers in science and math). At the high school level, sometimes it’s too late. So one of the things we’ve been looking at is how we can help young people . . . be more receptive to math and science.”

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The evolving partnership comes in the midst of a mushrooming crisis in American education.

Dozens of studies show that American students aren’t keeping up with their counterparts abroad, especially in math and science. National business leaders complain that schools are churning out graduates who are ill-prepared for the demands of a modern labor force. And the National Science Foundation predicts a huge shortage of scientists and engineers by the year 2010.

In an attempt to reverse those trends, large corporations such as Hughes have begun to take a more active role in promoting education. About 18 months ago, Hughes developed flagship partnerships at Humphreys Avenue Elementary in East Los Angeles and William Mulholland Junior High in Van Nuys to develop programs that would be meaningful for both the company and the schools.

Although Hughes and the Hawthorne School District now have informal ties, school board President Buddy Takata said he is hopeful that a formal partnership will emerge by early next year.

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“It’s a two-way street as far as I’m concerned,” said Takata, who retired from Hughes two years ago. “From the school district’s point of view, our instruction has to be realistic, and the more practical we make it, the better off we are. From businesses’ perspective, they are looking for a high-quality work force and . . . (this will help ensure) they will get a better product.”

The students who displayed their science projects in a room next to Hughes’ cafeteria were largely unaware of the adult concerns that brought them there. Nevertheless, many of them seemed genuinely enthusiastic about science.

York School fourth-grader Kelly Tucker said she wants to be a paleontologist. Her project “Where are Dinosaur Bones Found?” included pictures of a family vacation at the Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and Colorado, as well as a letter of encouragement from a paleontologist who has become a pen pal of hers. Third-grader Minhtam Vu was one of several children who said they wanted to become doctors. She said her project “Seeing Sound” stemmed from her interest in finding out why thunder makes her mother’s perfume bottles rattle.

And Odatey said he is considering a career as “either a jet or nuclear physicist.” His project “The Nuclear Reactor” included a model of the “Red October” submarine and a detailed drawing of the steps involved in making nuclear power.

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As Hughes employees scanned the science projects Wednesday, several expressed surprise at the children’s creativity and sophistication.

But noting recent cutbacks in the aerospace and defense industries, Hughes design engineer Bill Patterson said he would advise the aspiring scientists to consider training for more than one career. “Whether they have a future in the industry, it’s hard to say,” Patterson said.

Ten-year-old Patrick Presley is taking the advice to heart. Even though he was among the science award winners, the Eucalyptus School fifth-grader has already decided to broaden his horizons.

“I want to be a writer, and if my books don’t sell, a part-time entertainer,” he said.

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