It is mid-morning in the seventh grade class taught by Janet Bruns at Walker Mill Junior High School in Capitol Heights. Working on instructions from the state department of education, Bruns has set out on a table in front of the class about a dozen such common household objects as a hair dryer, an electrical extension cord, a smoke detector and a fire extinguisher.
For the next several minutes, Bruns leads her students in a discussion of the safety aspects -- or lack of them -- of each product. You do not, for example, use a hair dryer in the bathtub or connect an electrical extension cord to too many appliances, she tells the students.
"You could electrocute yourself or cause a short circuit if you did," Bruns says.
But you do look for the letters UL when buying a fire extinguisher.
"They stand for Underwriter's Laboratory, and they mean the product has been tested," Bruns says.
It is routine stuff, but those discussions on product safety by the seventh graders at Walker Mill are being carefully monitored by state education officials. They are part of a wide ranging program to make certain that when Maryland students graduate from high school they will have acquired certain basic skills.
Walker Mill is one of 32 schools in Maryland where the proposed competency requirements of Project Basic are being taught and pilot tested this year. An ambitious program approved initially in the summer of 1978, Project Basic will require all Maryland students to demonstrate minimum competencies in five broad areas as a condition of high school graduation, beginning with the class that enters ninth grade in the fall of 1982.
Already, the graduating class of 1982 has to demonstrate minimum competencies in reading; by the spring of 1986 these requirements will also include writing, mathematics, citizenship and such survivial skills as knowing how to use a checkbook, being able to fill out an employment application and being familiar with the safety aspects of certain common household objects.
The pilot program will also determine whether or not the schools are teaching what the state proposes as prerequisites for high school graduation.
"It's important not to hold the kids accountable for what they're not being taught," said Gus Crenson, a spokesman for the State Department of Education. "And it's important to hold the schools accountable for what the kids are being held accountable."
Officials at the education department are careful to describe Project Basic as "an educational and instructional program, not a testing program." But it will require all ninth graders to take a battery of tests in the broad competency areas. Those who pass will not have to be tested again.
Those who fail will get remedial work and have at least three more shots at the tests in the 10th, 11th and 12th grades. But they will not graduate without passing the examinations. Of the ninth graders taking the reading test in the fall of 1978, 78 percent passed.
To prepare for the program, state of ficials have drawn up a list of 230 specific areas of competence that include the ability to read and understand pedestrian signs or signs located in or on buildings, the demonstration of comparison shopping skills, the writing of a note or a friendly letter, the ability to identify the three branches of government and the writing of a paragraph in response to a question.
To help the teachers teach the proposed competencies, state officials have suggested a variety of instructional activities for the students.
To gain competency in writing messages and reports, students in Elizabeth Eny's eighth grade classes at Walker Mill practice writing minutes of a fictitious meeting. Reading exercises also include the reading of grocery advertisements, menus, telephone books and television guides.
At Rockville's Wootton High School, another of the pilot schools, suggested exercises range from the proper completion of a driver's permit application to the written description of an abstract diagram or a complicated process.
"We're working in all 24 local school systems to make sure they do have all of these minimum skills as part of the instructional program," said Richard Petre, assistant deputy state school superintendent.
"If all goes well by the end of next year, we will be working with 100 cent of the schools in developing their programs."
In both Montgomery and Prince George's counties, school officials say they do not expect massive curriculum changes as a result of Project Basic. Most of the proposed requirements are already covered in the curriculum, they said.
"A lot of people welcome some kind of competency testing. They feel we're graduating students who don't measure up to high enough standards," said Patricia Williams, the Project Basic coordinator at Walker Mill.
"There are always people who are reluctant to have more emphasis on testing, but this program is being run very sensibly. Nobody has gone off the deep end."