When history teacher Gay Shepard of Mesa View Middle School toured an automobile parts factory recently, she arrived ready to weld new ideas into her eighth-grade lesson plans.
Geared with goggles and pen and pad in hand, the Huntington Beach teacher listened closely as the staff of Nippondenso Inc., the company that sponsored the tour, capped engine hoses with metal tops, and tested large and small auto parts with laser micrometers and other high-tech robotics.
Shepard walked away saying, "This is going to be perfect for my students."
Why would a history teacher visit a Long Beach auto parts plant?
"My students are learning about industrialization. I want them to understand how technology has evolved and get them involved in inventive thinking," Shepard said.
Joined by about 50 other Orange County teachers, Shepard attended a new, privately funded program called "What's Up in Factories," which links students with local manufacturing companies.
Launched two years ago in New York by WNET, a New York-based educational public broadcasting station, the project aims to target the growing concern of high school graduates unaware of and unprepared for the job market, organizer Ann Mauze said.
"Not all students are college bound. Some just don't have the interest, others don't have the financial means," said Mauze, WNET outreach director. "We want to show them they have other options in a number of fields."
In programs in New York and New Jersey, schools have begun to match students with apprenticeships at electronic, printing and pharmaceutical plants, where they take on jobs ranging from assembly work to management.
The Orange County project is one of five pilot programs throughout the country. It is coordinated by KOCE-TV in Huntington Beach and underwritten by the International Business Communications Council, a Japan-based business consortium.
After the tour last Thursday, teachers attended a training workshop at which videos, tapes and curriculum guides were distributed. Some left the four-hour meeting with plans to immediately pass the information on to students.
Others left with a willingness to revamp images of manufacturing, augment their tech courses and even help students find jobs with local manufacturers.
Faced with swelling classroom sizes and school district budget cuts, some teachers said that partnerships with Orange County businesses will provide state-of-the-art facilities and opportunities unavailable to students at school.
"Education is like a pendulum. It's now swinging back to the industrial age," said Jerry Ernest, assistant principal at Orangeview Junior High School in Anaheim. "We have been building relationships with local companies and rely a lot on these partnerships to supplement what we don't have in the classrooms."
Known for its pro-business climate, Orange County may not resemble industrial cities such as Detroit or Newark, N.J., but its manufacturing sector is diverse, program coordinators said.
With major aerospace and electronic plants such as McDonnell Douglas and Pioneer nearby, teachers and program organizers plan to merge students into the manufacturing workplace.
"Manufacturing has changed with more sophisticated techniques," said David Redden, plant manager of Nippondenso, before the teachers started their tour. "Many factories are often disappointed with their applicants who only bring a strong back to the table.
"There is also a need for strong math, computer and communication skills."
The next step in the program is to have students tour about a dozen other companies that have shown interest in the program, planners said. After that, school districts have the option of setting up student mentorships or apprenticeships with the factories.
While on the tour, enthusiastic teachers hailed the pilot program, saying it will serve as a vehicle to teach students the concepts of division of labor, work ethics, planning and problem solving.
"Kids take everything for granted," said Blanche Matulich, an industrial arts teacher at Rancho Santa Margarita Middle School. "They don't understand the amount of planning and work involved in producing their roller-blades, telephones and video games. They only know how to use them, not build or improve them."
"This helps make business more relevant to education, so students can apply science concepts to the real world," added ninth-grade science and technology teacher Darryl Killion from Santa Ana High School.
"I hope this will inspire them to develop their own business ideas, design their own products," Killion said. "They are our future, we need to get them to start thinking creatively and critically."