Raytheon frets as much as any U.S. technology company about where its future engineers will come from. It wants to hire in the U.S. but fears kids nearing college age lack the interest in math and science to fuel its demand for talent.
To counter their indifference, the aerospace and weapons company decided to pair math with something pretty much any middle schooler can get with: roller coasters. It created an installation at Disney's Epcot theme park two years ago, letting adolescents and young teens use math to design their own rides - then experience them visually and viscerally with help from a simulator mounted on a huge robotic arm. More recently it enhanced the ride, called "The Sum of all Thrills," with mobile, online and social components. The latter two were added last week.
Raytheon worked with Arc Worldwide, the marketing services arm of creative agency Leo Burnett, and the Imagineers at Disney to create the original ride in 2009. Arc and Raytheon conceived the idea, while Disney created the simulator, animation and other aspects of the experience, including the touchscreen kiosks (pictured) students use to work with math concepts and design their rides. The idea was to reward difficult problem solving. Hence, the more complicated the math performed, the more loops, barrel rolls, and so on.
"The way in is not to say 'math is cool,'" said Arc Worldwide President and Chief Creative Officer William Rosen. "The way in is to talk about things the teen is already passionate about."
In November 2010, one year after the ride had its debut, Arc created a mobile extension. After experiencing their ride in the simulator, teens receive a card with a code printed on the back. They can send this code to an SMS short code and receive a first-person view animation showing the ride they created on their phones. Arc says Raytheon has had about 9,000 SMS video requests since the mobile component launched.
Also late last year, Raytheon offered an online game at the company's mathmovesu.com site. In it, players answer a series of math and science problems to create simple rides, with more difficult problems linked to wilder coasters.
Fast-forward another year, and Raytheon has enhanced the experience yet again. Last week it added visually rich components to the website that more closely imitate the Epcot experience - sans simulator. After creating their ride using a special 3D browser plugin, students can view the resulting animation and receive a shareable link. The goal once more is to get young people excited about math, though oddly students are not asked to use math as part of this latest extension.
As corporate sponsorships go, The Sum of All Thrills is extraordinarily, almost bizarrely, patient. Any return Raytheon sees on the investment will only come years down the line, as a fraction of the young people inspired by its ride opt to pursue careers in engineering.
"No kid's going to buy a missile," Rosen said. "But Raytheon will gain if more kids pursue math and science."
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March 19, 2014