Lorol Brackx laid out a tricky task for a group of Maximo Elementary students and gave them a tub with odds and ends such as balloons, cardboard, tape and paper clips.
She asked them to create, and then improve on, a "flinker," something that doesn't quite float or sink, it "flinks."
"They had a great time; we even had a competition on who can do it quickest," Brackx said of her third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students.
The buoyancy lesson was not part of a science class, but an after-school program called Let's Go STEM.
As part of a federal Race to the Top grant, Pinellas school officials are working to get younger students — mainly minority and female students — interested in STEM, science, technology, engineering and math.
"We are deliberate about seeking those students out," said Andrew Oyer, the district's science specialist for grades 6-12. "A lot of people talk about career readiness and college, but Let's Go seeks out children who may not know they have this talent."
Pinellas school officials recently launched a Let's Go pilot program in six elementary and four middle schools, in the last few weeks of the 2012-13 academic year.
The plan is to implement the program in 24 schools by next school year, and in all elementary and middle schools by 2014-15.
"One of our long-term goals in the district is to create interest (about STEM) in a very young age . . . and a way to do that is through extracurricular activities," said Bill Lawrence, the district's former associate superintendent for teaching and learning and now a director in charge of student demographics.
Let's Go is not new. Several school districts and organizations such as the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Clubs in other cities use it, said Corky Graham, founder and chief executive of Let's Go STEM. The program aims to spark interest in science and technology and to encourage students to pursue STEM classes and careers.
"Compared to formal classrooms, they are unstructured," Graham said of the after-school sessions. "Students are standing around a table with all sorts of objects, and the teacher will explain a phenomenon."
Then, students tackle an assigned problem in small groups with the teacher playing an advisory role.
Researchers have been enlisted to evaluate the program, Graham said.
A University of Maryland professor, Mario Domingo, has been evaluating Let's Go programs in the Northeast since 2010 by surveying students, teachers and parents before and after the program.
"What we found is that, overall, there is a significant shift in STEM career aspiration," he said.
Students who participated in the program know more about STEM careers and expressed interest in them, he said.
In Pinellas, getting students to take part in the after-school pilot program was challenging at first. At Maximo Elementary and Largo Middle schools, for example, teachers recruited between 12 to 22 students by asking for referrals from other teachers and by making short presentations in class.
However, getting those students home after their regular buses had left for the day was a problem, said Mark Rotunno, technology coordinator at Largo Middle.
"A lot of kids are interested in the program but they can't get transportation," he said. "So we try to get their parents or relatives or friends to pick them up."
And Brackx had to find fuel for her hungry elementary school students in the beginning.
"Kids get hungry at the end of the day," she said, "so I actually got the food services department to provide snacks," such as juice, crackers and fruit.
But, students are having fun, Brackx said. The hands-on activities hook students.
"In the past, I have done extended learning programs and you get fewer and fewer children. And by the end, you don't have many," she said. But with Let's Go, "the kids are excited about it, and I am too."