Mobile Labs Give Students Taste of Factories of Future : Education: Youngsters from Garden Grove school operate high-tech machinery with aid of calculators they build themselves.


A group of Garden Grove students got a chance to be high-tech factory workers for a few hours Monday--but they didn't have to travel to a manufacturing plant or even put on a hard hat.

The youngsters, all from a private Catholic school, built a calculator and operated such light machinery as a robotic arm and precision, metal-cutting drills simply by using computers.

The computers were in two small red, white and blue trailers that were filled with high-tech equipment.

Called mobile technology labs, the trailers are owned and operated by the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, a consortium based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The trailers rolled into Anaheim for a two-day conference held by the center. The group is trying to increase interest in America's manufacturing industry.

These labs on wheels, which cost up to $175,000 and were funded by donations and federal grants, are designed to give America's future workers an idea of what a job in the increasingly high-tech manufacturing industry would entail.

While other states such as Texas and Michigan are using the mobile manufacturing labs in local school systems, California does not have them.

"The students walk out of here with a product, like a calculator, that they've made from scratch and they can say, 'Hey, mom, I made this,' and then tell her how they made it," said Tom Hackley, a mobile lab teacher. "It teaches them how to be successful using very sophisticated equipment."

In the lab Monday, Ken Johnson, founder of R.J. Associates design company in San Jose, showed a group of six students how to make a calculator. Waving a tiny plastic board in his hand, he asked them, "Know what this is?"

"A microchip board?" asked a tall, brown-haired boy.

"Nope, it's a circuit board," said Johnson. "Now, you guys know what a hard drive on your computer is, right? Well, this is a calculator's hard drive."

The teens--all students at St. Columbans and members of Future Scientists and Engineers of America--nodded and watched closely as he showed them how to operate a computer-driven machine and solder the calculator together.

Peter Drainville, 13, said he thought the experience was "pretty interesting."

Over in the trailer where teens were operating a robotic arm and using a computer to drill into brass, Kristen Pass, 11, said she was interested in operating high-tech machinery for a living one day.

"I think it's neat. You work with things you know will help in the future," she said.

Her mother, Janice Pass, questioned why the labs weren't being offered to California's schoolchildren so they could have a chance for hands-on work experience.

"These kids are so excited. It gives them a chance to take their computer and math skills and use them in real life," she said. "I could see in the future maybe some local businesses taking the initiative and helping to fund these."

Helen Dorsey, a spokeswoman for the manufacturers' group, agreed: "We sincerely hope that one day they will be in California schools."

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