TAMPA — Elementary school students programmed an electronic mouse to make its way through a maze.
Middle school students directed an electronic vehicle to stop on a dime, then use its arms to locate and lift a tiny cube.
When the demonstration was done and the applause died down, a Hillsborough County School District official posed a question.
"Adults in this room, how many of you had the opportunity to do things like this during your kindergarten through 12th grade education?'' said Larry Plank, director of STEM Education for the district. "None, right? So the world is an ever-changing place.
"These kids are learning how to solve problems through iteration. They're solving code that doesn't exist. It's the same type of thing the U.S. government is doing, what banks and institutions are doing through cyber security. We're developing a very important skill set in these kids because that's the future.''
Last week, that future got even brighter.
The Brink Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has contributed to academic projects in the Town 'n' Country area for nearly a decade, donated $35,000 to advance the school district's STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum.
Four elementary schools (Dickenson, Morgan Woods, Town 'n' Country and Woodbridge), two middle schools (Pierce and Webb) and one high school (Leto) each received $5,000 checks to help establish a STEM Hub among the area schools.
Theoretically, students can follow a STEM continuum from kindergarten through their senior year of high school.
"This is a game-changer for us,'' said Marcos Murillo, a school district area superintendent. "This is a model that could apply to the entire county and state, if not the nation.''
"I can already see the benefits,'' said Frank Marcantoni, a robotics instructor at Webb Middle School. "Elementary school kids who have been exposed to STEM come in as sixth-graders and grasp something in six days that previously would've taken an entire quarter for the eighth-graders. They are learning critical thinking skills and how to overcome obstacles. They're doing better in math, better in science because they're learning how to think.''
And that's the aim of the Brink Foundation, which identifies and funds worthy projects.
"Our family goes back in this (Town 'n' Country) neighborhood some 50 years,'' said Chris Brink, who sits on the foundation's board of directors. "We're very focused on career and technical education. How can we end the poverty cycle? The best way to do that is get these kids employable.
"STEM is the obvious future. You put a kid with technology and I don't think they get left behind. Tampa has been good to us and we hope to be that good to Tampa. In our view, there's no better form of social justice than public education. That's why we do what we do.''
As principals from the seven area schools gathered at Leto to witness the STEM demonstration and receive their checks, they were excited about the possibilities.
"This will have a major impact at Webb Middle School,'' Webb principal Frank Diaz said. "It's going to raise the bar for our students and going to attract the students who belong to our school back to our community.''
"I see such potential and world of opportunity for our kids,'' Town 'n' Country Elementary School principal Melissa Babanats said. "It will allow for continuous progress from elementary to middle to high school and it has opened up a gateway for a very smooth transition.''
That transition will continue well beyond high school, officials said.
"The kids will have a greater level of sophistication,'' Marcantoni said. "What does that mean? We'll get them ready to do better in high school. They will easily transition to college or somewhere in the manufacturing or technical field. They'll be ready to work and earn more money. This is the future.''
Contact Joey Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org.