The concept behind this new science-technology curriculum - which was recognized recently as one of the top programs in the state by the Technology Education Association of New Jersey - is to teach students to apply what they have learned in their science classes to real-life problems.
"This is really a very logical approach," said Steve Scanlon, industrial arts teacher and program coordinator. "Traditionally we've had this grand canyon between science and technology. The two were taught as very distinct, separate subjects. My job now is to pull all of these things together and show kids how you use science."
The school's 24 best science students participate in the program, and they solve problems using anything from static electricity and battery circuits to systems as complex as computer controls and robotics. Students start with foundations in scientific process, problem-solving and documentation, and then cover chemistry, energy sources and simple machines that correspond to modern technology. Then they start applying their knowledge.
The students have created model planes with two rubber bands and wood that can fly 55 feet across the classroom; systems that can remove pollen from the air; devices to carry envelopes across the room, and machines that use robotics, gears and computers to pop balloons. They work out building schemes on computer-aided drafting equipment and set up conveyer-belt systems with computers and Lego pieces.
Scanlon also has been reaching out to industry professionals to lend some of their expertise to the new program. Engineers from companies like Fluor- Daniel Inc. in Marlton and GE Aerospace's Edison program in Moorestown have attended classes and offered suggestions and resources. Scanlon is hoping more professionals and teachers will contact him about visiting a class and contributing comments.
Compared with more conventional methods of learning in which students read, listen and memorize, a program that forces them to solve problems poses a unique challenge.
"Teachers have traditionally said, 'Sit quietly with your hands folded, and I'll do the thinking,' " Scanlon said. "Here they are asked to use what's between their ears to figure out answers for themselves. I just throw the problems at them and let them use me as needed as a resource. . . . Initially they stand back. But then they go crazy with it. They are free to think and try what they want, and it becomes very stimulating."
Scanlon's students agree it is a way of learning that is different, but one they meet with enthusiasm.
"There's a difference between difficult and challenging," said student Justin Harrison. "This is a challenge that gives you lots of hands-on experience instead of just a lot of busy work."
A program with such attributes may seem like perfect training for the challenges of the future, but many U.S. public educators have not given it serious consideration.
Most of the effort to institute programs like Marlton's has come through grass-roots efforts of teachers concerned about a lack of problem-solving curricula in their schools - at a time when the United States is beginning to lag behind nations like Japan and Germany in technological prowess.
Some science teachers suggest their efforts to promote problem-solving programs have been slowed by ego conflicts between scientists who feel superior to industrial arts teachers and shop teachers uncomfortable working with scientists.
But to professionals in the technology industry, who are increasingly supporting such programs, it is time to give priority to teaching students how to solve problems.
"We've got to start teaching more in high school than wood shop in this day and age," said John Mitchard, an engineer at Fluor-Daniel. "Anyone can follow an equation and plug in numbers, but sooner or later, you have to be able to use it or to choose the ones that will work. It's a way of thinking, and once you train yourself to think in a problem-solving manner, it will help you in other subjects and all parts of life."