TRINITY — Two groups of 22 Mitchell High School Advanced Placement students stared at "spider webs" of PVC piping and bungee cords as teacher Andrea Berry-Guth gave them directions.
The goal: Get every person through the web, with the faster team winning. The hitch: Touching the cord would tack on extra time.
Only two people could use each hole in the web, some low to the ground and others near the ceiling. Once they made it to the other side, there was no going back to help teammates.
More than 400 Mitchell students attempted to solve this challenge and several others Thursday as part of the school's first AP Boot Camp. The event, assistant principal Angie Murphy said, aimed to help students focus on five key skills — teamwork, organization, critical reading, problem solving and communication — that will help them succeed in their advanced coursework, and in life generally.
"AP is not surface thought," Murphy advised the students as they gathered in the gym to begin the six-hour day. "What we're going to do is push beyond."
To make it fun, the teachers — all in camo colors — also turned the boot camp into a contest with lots of prizes. And those who attended got out of a lengthy writing assignment that counted for up to 10 percent of their summer AP preparation grade.
That was enough to lure many of the students who otherwise would have preferred to spend the sunny vacation day away from school.
"I don't want to do a huge project," said sophomore John Schwindt, 15, who will take his first AP course this year in world history.
Most made the best of it, actively participating in the games and hands-on activities, and keeping in mind the important lessons that bolstered each.
"I think it's going to prepare me pretty well for AP," said sophomore Katie Selby, 16, after her team hoisted her through one of the top holes of its spider web. "You see how much work it's going to be and how serious you have to get."
Plus, she added, "It's good to see everyone again after the summer."
Before starting the web challenge, Selby's team plotted strategy. They would send two tall people first, keeping two other tall members on the opposite side so they could lift and pass some of the smaller teammates through the highest holes.
They thought about keeping at least one of the lowest holes unused for the final members to get through easily, though it didn't work out that way.
Senior Taylor Breuning, 16, was one of the last ones through, lifted and "speared" through the middle by fellow senior Tyler Smith. He said he understood that solving problems like this would help when taking AP exams next spring.
"Everybody is working together," said Breuning, who took two AP courses last year and will take one this year. "And we all had to be organized to figure out which holes are closed, who goes when."
Throughout the day, teams spent time looking at time management strategies, talking about careful reading and even discussing the temptation to cheat.
Smith said she hoped that the students would come together as a community, learn how to network and how to use their learning skills throughout life. Passing an AP exam is only part of the picture, she said, though quickly noting that Mitchell's participation and passing rates were tops in Pasco County last year.
"It's enough to take AP because it does push them," Smith said. "Even kids that don't pass are going to be better off in the end."
Cristina Crane, who graduated from Mitchell in 2010, shared that view. Crane, who came back to help out at boot camp, finished Mitchell with 57 college credits from AP and dual enrollment courses.
"Yes, if you pass the test, you get the college credit," she acknowledged. "But even if you don't pass the test you still get skills you can use. It's still worth it."
The school will continue to offer AP strategy lessons throughout the year, including monthly support seminars.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.