The teacher wanted his summer school students to apply the math he taught them. So he gave them homework: Think of someplace far from home. Then, calculate the number of tire rotations it takes to get there.
Come on. We're on vacation.
Thank goodness for the robots.
While many kids are vegging in front of TVs this summer, 120 Pinellas County students are at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School, building Lego robots that look like little moon buggies. Most of them are incoming sixth-graders. More than half of them are black.
For five straight weeks, 5 1/2 hours a day, they're learning serious math and science. Fractions and integers. Ohm's law and g-forces. How to figure the circumference of a circle.
Through the robots and other gizmos, students learn why those things matter.
"When I grow up, I want to build things … war planes, fighter jets," said Kristopher Passley, a soft-spoken, 13-year-old who's going into eighth grade. "Now I have a little experience in how to build."
Sponsored by the Tampa-based Florida Education Fund, the voluntary summer camp at Thurgood is one of several around the state designed to make low-income and minority students more successful in math, science and engineering.
In the short term, it aims to keep kids engaged in academics so they don't regress over a long, lazy summer.
In the long run, it hopes those students become physicists and bridge builders.
"Some of them have in their mind that they're going to be the next Michael Jordan," said James Scott, the robot teacher. "I tell them … you may be the one who designs the engines that are going to fly us to Mars."
Achievement gaps between white and minority students are staggering in math and science. That's especially true in Pinellas, which trails the state average, and it's especially striking in middle and high schools.
In 2008, 86 percent of white Pinellas third-graders were doing math at grade level, compared to 53 percent of black third-graders — a gap of 33 percentile points. Meanwhile, 77 percent of white 10th-graders and 31 percent of black 10th-graders were on grade level — a chasm of 46 percentile points.
Scott, 42, knows one big reason why.
"Me growing up in south St. Pete, I didn't know any engineers," said Scott, who is black and graduated from Howard University with a degree in electrical engineering. "There's a stigma that minorities don't like math and science."
The students at camp spend two hours each day learning math and two hours putting it to good use. They learn test-taking skills. They use state-of-the-art software. They spend an hour and a half on college and career planning.
In the abstract, they wrap their brains around equations and slopes, scales and proportions.
In practice, they build solar-powered cars the size of matchboxes and install electrical wiring in "houses" made from planks of polystyrene.
"Where I think this camp really kicks in is in the application," said Thurgood principal Dallas Jackson. "I don't see a student that's off task, that's not hands-on in some capacity."
The robots are the main attraction.
Working in teams of four, the students build and program their robots so they can accomplish tasks, like sweeping Lego blocks across a table. Then they compete against each other in two-minute matchups to see whose design and programming — and math skills — are the best.
"The first day, it was running into stuff … lunch boxes, people's feet," said Z'kera Kirnes, 11, who's going into seventh grade. "Our predictions were off. Way off. But we finally got the hang of it."
On competition day last week, she and 40 other kids gathered around an obstacle course as 10 teams went head to head. The Hot Tamales vs. the Volcano Tacos. T. Rex vs. the Exploding Bunnies.
"Five, four, three, two, one. Go!" Scott yelled to start a round.
The kids yelled with him. Thurgood Marshall morphed into the Coliseum.
The Sub Smacking Dinosaurs got off to a fast start. But then their robot turned into a wall.
"Oohhh," a team member groaned.
"We suck," said another.
Their competitors, the Annihilators, only made it worse. Their robot flawlessly puttered several paces before pivoting just so. It rolled to a stop in the middle of a bull's-eye. Perfect.
To make that happen, the Annihilators had to program the correct angle for the robot's turn.
And figure out the exact number of tire rotations.
Ron Matus can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8873.