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STEM students get a peek inside the ‘pod’

Northrop shows mapping technology

Friday, May 23, 2008


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Staff photo by JESSE YEATMAN
Lexington Park Elementary School fourth-graders, from left, Renee Absher, Jillian Aldrich, and Alyssa Anderson walk with Northrop Grumman software engineer Ryan Smawley while trying out a GPS receiver around the company’s Hollywood facility. The students were there on a field trip as part of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics academy at the school.

For a group of St. Mary’s students, visiting Northrop Grumman recently was like being in a science fiction movie – complete with an array of large monitors casting an eerie blue light.

The students from Lexington Park Elementary School’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics academy got an up-close look at advanced mapping technology inside the Mobile Maritime Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance Center, known on the grounds of Northrop Grumman’s Hollywood facility as the ‘‘pod.” The tent-like temporary building is home to some of the company’s research projects.

The engineers demonstrated new touch-screen technology that allows a user to quickly navigate around the world on a digital mapping system and plot points, paths and other information.

In conjunction with the maps, engineers demonstrated how GPS satellites can play an important role.

Maps have come a long way since early flat depictions of the Earth were first made.

‘‘You have to give up something. When you take a round ball and spread it into a flat map, you’ve got to give up something,” said John Arrigan, principal engineer at the facility.

He illustrated how different types of maps are geared toward different uses, depending on whether the distance or the direction is more accurate.

The students also learned about celestial navigation from Arrigan, who explained how ships’ captains used stars and planets to navigate across oceans.

With computer-generated maps, however, as a viewer zooms in the map can be displayed more accurately and loose some of the distortions common on a paper map. Such is the case with the maps from the Internet program Google Earth, which engineers are studying at Northrop Grumman to find real-world uses.

Arrigan said the company is looking at ways to add layers – or pieces of information linked to certain spots on the maps – that would allow soldiers or others to pull up Google Earth on a portable computer on the battlefield.

‘‘That may give the soldier an opportunity to have information they wouldn’t have otherwise,” he said.

After the lesson on maps and a quick look at a new touch screen navigation tool in the pod, the students, armed with handheld GPS units, ran outdoors to mark points around the facility. Engineer Butch Barton later downloaded the waypoints and paths that the GPS units recorded and the students were able to instantly view their travels superimposed over a satellite image of the building’s grounds.

There are 24 GPS satellites that orbit the planet. ‘‘The idea is to have at least 24 satellites usable at any given time at any point on the Earth,” Barton said.

The trip aimed to give the young STEM students a look at yet another type of engineering.

‘‘I’ve watched some of the kids who aren’t into electrical but they like the logic” of engineering, said Paula Perry, the school systems’ STEM coordinator. Projects like the mapping development open up the field of engineering to those students. ‘‘This is just a whole different level of engineering,” Perry said.

She praised the school system’s partnership with Northrop Grumman and other contractors in addition to the Navy base. The St. Mary’s County Board of Education honored the company this week for its sponsorship of the STEM program and accepted a donation of $10,000.

‘‘They’re going to develop something every year for us,” based on current projects, she said of Northrop Grumman.

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