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A flight path to success

Albrea Crowell, 10, pushed the eraser end of a pencil through the half-inch gap in the bottom of the thick paper, then taped the pencil into place.

She made a vertical cut in the top of the paper and folded the two sides down and away from each other to form flaps resembling helicopter blades.

The fifth-grader then moved to the center of the room, held the whirlybird high above her head, and let it drop to the ground. The paper blades twirled around as the whirlybird floated to the ground.

"The higher you bend it, the more it will spin and the higher it will float. The flaps keep it up. If you just had a regular pencil and dropped it, it would fall straight down," Albrea said.

Albrea was one of 160 students and volunteer chaperones from Douglas L. Jamerson Elementary School in St. Petersburg who attended the 33rd annual Engineering EXPO 2006 at the University of South Florida on Friday and Saturday. This was the third year Jamerson students have attended the EXPO.

Albrea and her classmates performed demonstrations on whirlybirds and hoop gliders, helped staff an information booth and toured some of the other exhibits in between duties. Fourth-graders spent most of Friday viewing the exhibits. The idea is to give younger students the opportunity to become familiar with the EXPO in hopes of preparing them for the following year, when they will be responsible for giving demonstrations on their experiments, said engineering curriculum coach Robin Little.

Volunteer chaperone Amanda Trotman, 19, Albrea's older sister, said she was impressed by her sister's understanding of the design concept. "I was surprised. She was like, "Here, let me show you how to do it.' And, she knew what to do," Trotman said.

Michelle Bianco, whose two sons attend Jamerson, said that her sons love the hands-on teaching style used at Jamerson, which opened in 2003 as a math and science magnet school. Bianco said the school's faculty helps instill confidence in the children by helping establish their identities as young engineers.

"They have a feeling they can do anything. They do it, they don't just talk about it," she said.

After testing the whirlybirds, Albrea and some of her classmates moved on to the hoop gliders. The students were given four designs to choose from. They used drinking straws, scissors, paper and tape to construct whichever model they believed would glide the longest distance. Next, the students tested their creations by throwing them to see where they landed on a large grid taped to the floor. The final step was to record the results, in order to determine which glider worked the best.

The exercise was a perfect example of the design process used at Jamerson: plan, design, check and share. "It doesn't do you any good to know all the neat things that happen at Jamerson if you don't share," Little said she tells her students.

Principal Bob Poth said that the EXPO gave the children a chance, not just to view, but also to actively participate in engineering experiments. "We're giving something to the EXPO, instead of just being absorbers of the great knowledge and technology they have there," Poth said.

Little said that attending the EXPO produced another benefit: exposing the kids to a college atmosphere. "They get to see all the different types of engineering. Plus, just being on a college campus is a big deal for some of these kids," Little said.