What do missiles think about as they're flying through the air?
That may sound like a silly question, but on Monday more than 100 high school students found out the answer to that - and maybe got some career ideas - at "Engineering Is Awesome" at Raytheon Missile Systems' airport plant.
The daylong event, part of National Engineers Week, is one of Raytheon's latest efforts to get kids excited about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
STEM education is vital to Raytheon, Southern Arizona's biggest private employer, as experts bemoan low U.S. student test scores and wonder where the next generation of engineers will come from.
"We want students to meet real-life engineers and see firsthand what engineers do at Raytheon," said Colleen Niccum, director of community and government relations for Raytheon. "Hopefully we will inspire these young people to become the next generation of innovators."
Seniors and juniors from about a dozen schools in the region took part in a variety of hands-on demonstrations of engineering principles at work behind the walls of Raytheon's sprawling plant adjacent to Tucson International Airport.
Unlike some of Raytheon's other STEM programs, including its "MathMovesU" program for middle-schoolers, participants in Monday's event are on the cusp of their careers.
And they've already got a foot in the door to college: Most of the participating students are in the University of Arizona's Engineering 102 HS class, a senior-year high school course that provides college credit.
During the day, participants moved around in teams, listening to Raytheon engineers talk about their careers and hopping from one high-tech demo to another.
In a session on heat transfer, students were asked to feel rods of different materials set in cups of ice water, to compare the conductivity of plastic, wood and metals. That was pretty low-tech but next, the group got to view images through a pricey infrared camera.
Raytheon thermal analyst Chuck Bersbach showed how he could leave handprints from his body heat on a wall. An image of a student's chair showed a yellow heat imprint, except for where his wallet insulated the chair.
In another session, students were treated to "concept of operations," or CONOPS - images and videos created to convey how a system works. Raytheon has a whole department that creates such multimedia simulations, to demonstrate its technology and in some cases to create training tools.
Students got to "fire" a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher using a laser range finder and video simulator similar to an actual training setup.
Other sessions included a workshop on contamination, including a look at a corrosion problem via a scanning electron microscope; and a robotics session that had students answer a set of mathematical problems to prompt a robot to precisely engrave key chains (awarded as prizes for solving the problems).
And just what does a missile think about in midflight? Turns out, quite a lot.
Students learned about "real-time embedded image processing," which helps missiles find and discern their targets, and were able to work with actual missile hardware to observe the effect of changing various parameters.
Devin Thomas, a University High School senior, had fun firing the rocket launcher and was fascinated by the range-finding calculations built into the weapon, which lacks precision guidance.
"It was really interesting to see how there's so much mathematics behind it," Thomas said.
Sabino High School senior Andrew Getman liked the contamination lab, where failed components are analyzed.
"I thought it was pretty cool. I especially liked the electron microscope, because not only could you see what was there, but you could take a spectrograph and actually find out what elements are present," said Getman, who tentatively plans to pursue a mechanical engineering degree at the UA.
Charlotte Mitchell, a Mountain View High School senior, who enjoyed the sessions on missile imaging and robotics, said the event was a great opportunity to quiz engineers on their college paths and how that translated into careers.
"You get a really good idea of what you're looking forward to," she said.
Mitchell also was pleasantly surprised to see so many girls at the event.
"So many of the girls who are good in math don't go on to the higher maths in high school, just because of what they think their friends will think," said Mitchell, who hopes to study chemical engineering at the University of Washington.
"It was really interesting to see how there's so much mathematics behind it."
Devin Thomas, University High School senior
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