They stood on carbon fiber parts and measured the width of a human hair.
Last week, students from Arlington High School got an up-close look at math in action. The geometry students visited one of two local aerospace companies -- C&D Zodiac in Marysville or AMT in Arlington.
Mark Nelson, head of the math department at Arlington High, sees the field trips as a way to help answer one of the questions he hears often: "Where am I going to use this?"
Nelson pointed to a recent piece in the school newspaper in which a student opined that "homework is a waste of life."
Students "don't want to spend their time reading boring books and solving math problems that will relate to their career(s) in no way whatsoever," wrote Sierra DeCota, a student reporter.
For Nelson and other teachers, the challenge is to make math relate to students' potential careers.
Barry Grall explained how he uses math in his role as a tool designer for C&D Zodiac. He walked the students through the process of building a tool mold via computer-assisted design. Grall showed how he added triangle shapes to the build-up of an aircraft ramp door to add strength to the primarily flat object.
"You don't have to know all the math formulas for doing this," he said. "But you need to have exposure to the mathematical tools to be able to use them."
At another stop on the tour at C&D Zodiac, students learned about non-destructive testing, in which ultrasonic waves are used to see whether a slab of composite material has internal flaws. Using a different machine nearby, sophomore Colin Henry got to try out a long, tube-shaped instrument, tracing it along a metal part. The tool helps C&D Zodiac workers measure complex shapes that would be difficult, if not impossible, to measure with hand tools.
Henry said he found the tour of C&D Zodiac interesting. Although he enjoys math, Henry said he isn't sure what type of career he'll pursue.
The students, who were mostly sophomores, will need to a make a decision about which math classes to take next year, based on their anticipated career path, Nelson said. If they plan to go to college, they'll likely take advanced algebra or pre-calculus. If they plan to pursue a skilled trade, they could take computer assisted design.
The field trip "gets them out of the classroom and gives them an idea of the opportunities out there," he said.
Gene Moomey, production operations manager at C&D Zodiac, showed the students the landing gear panels the company builds for C-17 military transport aircraft. When originally designed, the panels didn't allow room for landing gear struts, which punched a hole through the panel on their first use.
"This is why math is so important," Moomey said.
The Boeing Co. and other aerospace companies in the state have stressed the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in schools. With thousands of workers expected to retire shortly, the aerospace industry anticipates a shortage of both engineers and skilled machinists in the coming decade. Recently, Gov. Chris Gregoire announced a plan to enhance STEM courses at 10 high schools, as well as increase university capacity for engineering students.
Trips like the one taken by Arlington High School math students fit in with the push for more attention to STEM education, Nelson said.
Freshmen students Michaela Bonine and Grace Matson are taking some advanced placement courses and went along on the field trip.
"I thought it was very interesting," Matson said.
Matson wants to pursue a career as a writer but says she feels like she should have some other skills. She's also interested in computer science.
Bonine envisions a career in life sciences but noted "math is supposed to be the language of the universe."