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Competition tests kids' mental capital

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[Times photo: Ken Helle]
This intense Westchase Elementary School team came out on top Thursday in the E-Team 2000 Economics Bowl, which plumbed their knowledge of money and economics. They are, from the left, Jasmin Beckwith, Kip Hoppe, Michelle Younahof, and Matthew Weston. 

By SARAH SCHWEITZER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2000


TAMPA -- From the sidelines, Kalie Wells tried to will the answer into the minds of her teammates, the Gibsonton Elementary School Monopolists, seated just feet away at a hardwood table in a sumptuous conference room.

Alas, it was her turn to sit out a round and the correct answer -- competition -- would be offered by the competition. A bummer for her team in the third round of the economics contest that pitted eight elementary schools against one another Thursday morning at the University of South Florida's Stavros Center.

"We should have gotten that one," said the wispy 10-year-old with brown eyes as she clasped her hands with the disappointment of a stock speculator watching a bull market turn bearish.

Economics is not a topic known for revving spirits among 10- and 11-year-olds. The abstractions of a market economy in which they have little personal stake isn't easy to convey to young minds.

But competition, as Adam Smith divined long ago, is a wonderful motivator.

With a kind of maniacal focus, the nearly four dozen fifth graders dove for buzzers, leapt for calculators and performed a whirl of mathematic acrobatics, all in the name of winning Hillsborough County's contest of elementary school economics knowledge.

They blurted out the difference between quantity and quality. They offered the names of two types of taxes. They calculated how much money an educator earning $4,150 a month would have to spend for housing, food, transportation and other costs. They distilled the analogy: Ben Franklin is to a $100 bill as Abraham Lincoln is to what? (a $5 bill).

They attempted to figure out how much money an electrician making $42,000 would have after taxes with a tax rate of 26 percent, but missed both of the allowed tries. In perhaps the most vivid sign that the budding economic players had not yet arrived, neither knowing groans nor sighs could be heard as the master of ceremonies gave the answer: $31,080.

Economics is not a foreign subject to elementary school students. State curriculum requirements mandate that basic economic principles be taught as part of social studies. But contest questions went well beyond that core knowledge.

"The level we're asking them to perform at far exceeds what they are taught in the classroom," said Daryl Saunders, the organizer of the event.

The eight schools in the competition, sponsored by Cargill Fertilizer Inc. and known formally as the E-Team 2000 Economics Bowl, were the first eight Hillsborough County schools to submit applications. They were given great latitude in choosing students and training them.

So at Robinson Elementary School, students were selected by interest level and test scores. Preparation included hour-and-a-half sessions two days a week for three weeks. At Westchase, teachers in each fifth-grade class chose one student, and practice was spread out over three hours a week along with at-home study sessions.

"Every day on weekends, I would sit down and study," said Matt Weston, a Westchase competitor.

First place in the competition beckoned, he said. Although, he added, winning was not everything.

"Winning was not what we came here to do," he said.

But true to the marketplace rules, winners and losers must emerge.

After the nearly an hour and half of grueling questions, Gibsonton snagged third place, Brooker won second and Westchase took home first place.

"I liked the competition," said Kip Hoppe, of the Westchase team. But seemingly taken aback by his competitive zeal, he added, "But I also liked how we all came together and worked together."

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