TAMPA —The clock was ticking at Lawton Chiles Elementary School.
Seven students were building a bridge out of the flimsiest materials imaginable — a thin strip of construction paper, string, tape, labels, rubber bands and a few paper clips. And they had just five minutes to make it as long as possible.
"Don't make it tight yet," warned fifth-grader Austin Repp, as the bridge took shape.
"Holy cow, that's long," said Mackenzie Elam.
At the final buzzer, their bridge measured 144 inches, and it was none too strong.
But next week, such teamwork will carry them all the way to Iowa to compete in the Odyssey of the Mind world championships, which encourages students to use creativity and teamwork to solve problems.
In their first year as a team, the Chiles fifth-graders have won both regional and state titles. On May 27 they'll go to the University of Iowa to compete against elementary school teams from across Europe, Asia and the Americas.
All of the students are enrolled in the school's gifted program. But their success boils down to hard work, including weekly practices and special sessions over vacations, said teacher Michelle Carmen.
Each team must be prepared to solve on-the-spot challenges that draw on creativity, teamwork and problem-solving skills. And they must present a technical, artistic or performance-oriented project to a panel of judges.
"They had to start with research," said teacher Sharon Cutler. "This takes a phenomenal amount of work."
During a recent visit, the Chiles students were putting the finishing touches on a performance about superstitions — in this case, the belief that it's a bad idea to tear down a spiderweb. They took the bug's point of view.
"Here is our plan of attack," chanted the students, wearing costumes from the insect world. "These humans, we have to get them back."
Then it was on to spontaneous problems. In one, students had two minutes to think of words containing the sound "bi."
Out came a rapid-fire sequence: biography, biceps, lullaby, gigabyte, bison, bystander. They kept on going, bright-eyed but casual, until Cutler called time.
"I was going to say biochemistry," said Eric Chen.
None of the kids are sure how all of this will help them reach their goals. Austin wants to be an astronomer. Kunal Kaushal wants to be an actor.
But all said they like being in a place where it's cool to be clever.
"We all like to think together," said Maya Patel. "We're all as one mind. That's what I like."
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.