Students at Butler Middle School step into the future each day when they walk into their industrial arts class.

Teacher Kim Durfee said the technology laboratory, the first of its kind in the country, was set up in the fall of 1987 to replace the traditional metal shop classes.About 520 seventh-graders work in teams of two for 12 weeks on various projects that teach the students about how things like cars, boats, buildings and television sets are made in today's modern factories and how electronics and computer technology help people in today's society.

In addition, Durfee said, he has 30 eighth-graders and 80 ninth-graders who are spending half a year working in the technology laboratory.

Durfee said computers are at the heart of his technology laboratory, "just as they are at the heart of today's industrial complex."

In his introduction to technology classes, students are given hands-on experiences in areas such as pneumatic structures, monorail transportation, wind energy, computer-aided manufacturing, aerodynamic testing, hydroponics, holography, robotics and satellite technology.

"Students spend about a week at islandlike workstations in the laboratory working with various kinds of electronic equipment. Each student keeps a journal and records what he has learned and the results of projects he undertakes with the laboratory's equipment."

The program received some added attention Thursday when Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, visited the school.

Durfee said he hopes the experiences the students have working in the laboratory will not only teach them about modern technology but will help them when they decide on careers to pursue.

Owens said he is excited about educational programs like the technology laboratory but that he is disappointed that President Bush has not assigned greater financial support to education in his new budget.

"I'd like to see the federal government pay a third of the cost of education in America. Right now, the federal government pays only 7 to 8 percent of the total cost."

He said he is sobered by thinking about how American youths rank, in terms of their interest in science and mathematics and their progress in these fields, in relation to Japan, for instance.

"We're not keeping up with the Japanese, that's for sure," he said.

Owens' trip to the school was part of the weeklong observance at Butler and many other Utah schools of National Vocational Education Week.