SAN JOSE -- The best teachers know that the world is their classroom -- or at least that their neighborhood is.
That's pretty much how Independence High School teacher Stuart Briber found himself leading two dozen students across King Road last week to the massive Therma manufacturing plant about a mile from the school. The idea was to help his engineering students answer that oldest of student questions: Why do we have to know this stuff?
"I think mostly it's to give them some vision, so they realize the importance of what they're doing, to see the application, so they maybe work a little harder, care a little more," Briber says while munching on a sandwich in Therma's cafeteria, which is an elaborate rendering of a French village.
Brilliant. I've written before about the little ways schools, teachers and valley companies have worked to get or keep kids interested in careers in science, technology engineering and math -- the so-called STEM subjects. Sometimes it doesn't take much. Just a spark, a two-second epiphany, an experience that might mean nothing today, but years from now produces that "aha" moment.
Engineering is hard. It's three parts math and 10 parts perseverance. It takes dedication and the willingness to study long and hard. If engineering is your thing, though, there is nothing quite like it: tackling huge -- and sometimes microscopic -- problems; building things that have never been built; trying and failing over and over again until one day you don't fail.
"I remember when I was a student, you'd get these dumb math things of putting squares and circles together and all that junk," says Joe Parisi, an engineer and president of Therma. All of which, he says, has kids saying, "I'll never use this stuff. What am I learning it for?"
A chance meeting at a red light between Briber, who bikes to school, and a biking engineer from Therma led to the tour of the plant. "We had a 30-second conversation," Briber says.
Engineer: What do you do?
Briber: Engineering and physics teacher.
Engineer: You should come see our place.
And that's pretty much how Parisi, 79, ended up shepherding the engineering students through his 300,000-square-foot sheet metal factory, past welders and laser cutters and machines that could crush a car if they had to.
"The liability of having all those kids," Parisi says, momentarily questioning his own sanity. "You know what? Once in awhile you have to step outside the box and do what you believe in and not worry about it, because really, those kids need it."
It was worth the risk. Therma is a happening place. While the company specializes in designing and making heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems, if you can make it out of sheet metal, they make it. The kids started in the engineering department, a bright, open room dominated by a scale replica of Michelangelo's "David," where engineers and designers translate a customer's needs into a set of digital plans laid out on high-power computers.
"They've got tons of RAM memory," James King, a piping expert tells the students. "They've got dual solid state hard drives. I'd rather they steal my car than steal my laptop. The laptop is probably worth more than the car."
The students asked questions: Is it hard to keep projects on schedule? Don't you get stuck?
"As a student you develop the mindset that I have to find my own answer," Soniya Chopada, Therma's engineering manager, tells the kids. "And that's not always the most efficient way."
Adds Parisi: "It's important, if you don't know something, ask -- and get somebody to help you out once in awhile. Don't be afraid, is what I'm telling you."
And they weren't. As the students moved out to the factory floor with its soaring ceiling and space-age machines, the questions persisted. What do you need to know to do this work?
"Geometry. Trigonometry. Five years of trade school," says Scott Carstairs, vice president of manufacturing. Some college courses would help. "Then push yourselves to continue to learn," he adds. "You should continue to learn forever."
The morning tour is a crash course in careers. Not many high school students get the chance to see the ways math leads to engineering leads to manufacturing -- and to jobs that in some cases come with six-figure salaries.
"Through this you see a lot of how engineering works," says Independence senior Kevin Chang, who is on a team in Briber's class that is designing a rain shield for bicyclists. "It's nice to see something tangible. It adds to the insight of what engineering is."
Deney Martinez-Rivera was taken by the way engineers at Therma transform an idea into a product, but she added that she's more of a hands-on person.
"Welding seems interesting," says Martinez-Rivera, 18, who added that she's interested in seeing more women in the trades. "They said there are a lot of skills involved."
Oh, and one more thing about welding, Martinez-Rivera said.
"You can't be afraid of fire."
Yet another lesson from the field trip to the factory down the street.