Connor Neal was just a baby when the first Model United Nations Conference came to Tampa. Last week, the 11-year-old from Lee Magnet Elementary in Tampa not only participated in the event, he had the privilege of questioning the keynote speaker during opening ceremonies. "What can we as a country do to help other countries come together to work as one group instead of separate groups?'' Connor asked Gillian Sorensen, one-time assistant to former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Not bad for a fifth-grader.
Connor and his classmates were the only elementary students at Tuesday's conference at the University of South Florida's Marshall Center in Tampa.
They also are among the youngest in the state to take part in the United Nations Association of the USA program known as Global Classrooms.
In Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, about 3,500 middle and high school students at 89 schools study the U.N. curriculum designed to challenge them and help them discover other cultures and views on issues such as malnutrition, women and development, and sustainable energy.
Teachers assign students a country and a topic. They have to work together to research and write a resolution that addresses the issue, then convince other nations to support it.
In middle school, the lessons are part of civics class.
"It really opens their eyes,'' said social studies teacher Stan Harbaugh of Carwise Middle School in Palm Harbor. "Some didn't even know where some of these countries were on a map.''
In high school, the Model United Nations is a club.
"It's probably the most relevant thing they could do as an activity,'' said Kelly Miliziano, a teacher at Steinbrenner High in Lutz.
At both levels, students strive to serve as delegates at the annual conference and compete with their peers to solve real-world problems.
During Tuesday's event, Shaleah Lee, a seventh-grader at John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg, looked forward to discussing the illegal trade of guns in Kenya.
"It has caused many deaths around the world,'' the 14-year-old said solemnly.
Her classmate, 13-year-old Ja'Rione "J.T.'' Turner, focused on something else: "Winning, winning.''
Others planned to use the opportunity to their advantage.
"It's a good public speaking experience,'' said 17-year-old Cory Puppa, a senior at Steinbrenner High.
It also looks good on a college resume, Miliziano added.
"Colleges today look for students to distinguish themselves,'' the world history teacher said. "This is definitely an extracurricular activity.''
The Model United Nations can prepare any student for success, said Amy Ruggiero, director of education programs for the United Nations Association.
"They're learning how to research, debate, articulate their thoughts and how to communicate with people who might not share the same ideas,'' she said.
At the elementary level, the program is more of an introduction to global literacy, said Lara Barone, lead teacher at Lee Elementary in Tampa, a magnet school for technology and world studies that started using the curriculum this year in its "enrichment clusters.''
So far, her fourth- and fifth-graders are soaking up the knowledge.
"I like it because it's invigorating,'' said 9-year-old Francis McRae, a fourth-grader who loves science and math. "It allows for a bigger range of thinking.''
His mother, Danielle, is a fan, too.
"I like it because . . . it makes them see outside their own little circle,'' she said.
Her son and the other students from Lee served as pages at the Tampa conference, but they also were scoping out the scene.
Next month, Francis and five of his classmates will travel to Texas for a two-day Global Elementary Model United Nations.
They're on their way to answering the U.N. call to become leaders and make change happen.