Aaron Richardson spends Tuesday mornings fiddling with hammers, nails and paint inside a church with a team of students who are making history.
The five students, from various cities in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, are the first group of homeschoolers from Florida to advance to the international level in the Odyssey of the Mind academic competition.
Next week, they head to the world competition in Michigan where they'll go up against kids from public and private schools from as far away as Japan.
Their achievement is a big step in tearing down the stigma that comes with homeschooling, said coach Kelli Peightel, whose 15-year-old son Austin is also on the team. Homeschooling isn't "just a bunch of hippies sitting around the kitchen table, schooling your kids," she said.
During the 2008-2009 school year, 60,913 kids were homeschooled in Florida, according to the state Department of Education's website.
Odyssey of the Mind is a program that challenges students from kindergarten to college to complete projects for competition. The students build contraptions, act out scenes or get artistic, and then present their projects at each level of competition.
Sam Micklus, executive director of Odyssey of the Mind, said the local team had stiff competition. "Florida is one of our largest associations. Approximately 350 schools are involved and only a select few make it to finals."
Aaron, 14, signed up for Odyssey of the Mind last fall, after noticing a booth that Peightel had set up during an orientation event for homeschooled kids. She wanted to start a team, and he and four fellow homeschoolers signed up: Austin, of Tampa; Tiffani MacMillan, 13 of Palm Harbor; Ariel Lewis, 12 of Tarpon Springs; and Leah Conrad, 13 of Holiday.
He was surprised that the team took first place at the regional level in its first year competing and second place at state last month. Teams in first and second place at state head to the world competition.
"I didn't think we had a chance," said Aaron, who lives in Lutz. "I'm completely surprised how far we've gotten."
Getting there took work.
The group decided to create a set of aircraft —not necessarily airplanes — and mechanisms with which to launch them. The team also prepared for an intellectual challenge presented at the various levels of competition.
In recent weeks, the team has met inside a Tarpon Springs church to tweak the project and correct flaws that led to point deductions in the last two competitions.
They have also tried to raise money for the $15,000 trip. As of last week, thanks to donors and bake sales, the team had raised $4,000. Their parents will pick up the tab for whatever they don't get through donations. After the competition, the team will do more fundraisers to try to reimburse their parents.
But, Peightel said, putting up some money will be worth it.
At world, members on the ranking teams are eligible for scholarships when they go to college. The competition also looks great on a college application, said Tamara Richardson, Aaron's mom. Just going, she said, can be a learning experience.
From what Richardson hears, it's "kind of like a real life Epcot."
Teams from every state and all over the world will meet at Michigan State University from Wednesday through Saturday. When they aren't facing off in front of the judges, the students will get to meet and greet each other.
"Maybe (Aaron) will make a friend in Japan," Richardson said. "What kind of opportunity is that?"
The experience teaches creative problem solving, Richardson said. Aaron has "learned to work with people he didn't know in a group. Project management skills that you use in life all the time."
And being good at that proves that homeschooled teens can tackle life's challenges, too.
"You know these kids have been through the rigors of a difficult situation and emerged victoriously," Peightel said.
Next week, they hope for another victory.
"It's a privilege," Aaron said. "I can't wait."
Arleen Spenceley can be reached at (813) 909-4617 or [email protected]