The Future Is Now For 4th-Graders

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 4, 2008

The four Malcolm Elementary School fourth-graders have their sales pitch polished, just in case the Federal Emergency Management Agency is interested.

Forget trailers and temporary shelters in sporting arenas. The next time a natural disaster strikes, these video-game-playing, Harry-Potter-reading preteens want the government to hand out backpacks that expand into four-room houses.

"It's called THE Shelter," said C.J. Atkinson, 9. "The T stands for temporary. H is housing. E is emergency."

The team designed the shelter-providing gadget for the national ExploraVision competition, which challenges students to dream up technology that will help humanity in the future. The Charles County team's idea was one of 24 chosen as regional winners, beating more than 4,500 other entries. The program is sponsored by the National Science Teachers Association and Toshiba.

"They want us to take technology from the future and make it real," said Timothy "Timmy" Olsen, 9.

At first the team wanted to invent invisibility but decided that if such technology landed in the wrong hands, people could get hurt. "They could kill people or steal stuff," said Billy Burch, 10.

Another idea was miniature robots that could perform surgery, but team adviser Connie Mouton, a teacher at the Waldorf school, said such robots already exist. The students also considered a cellphone that plays video games, but some participants questioned how that would benefit humanity.

As they racked their brains for a way to save, or at least aid, humanity, the boys thought about all the people left homeless by Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Indonesia and the La Plata tornado. "Emergency shelters!" they quickly concluded.

They researched the disasters and decided that their shelter would have to be portable, able to last at least two years, large enough for a family and lightweight at first and then strong as concrete. Soon, ideas for THE Shelter emerged.

"They give it to you in a backpack-size, and you let it out of the backpack. Then it's a crumpled-up mess on the ground, like a moon bounce before it gets air in it," Billy said.

The shelter would then inflate into a four-room home. The thin walls would contain a plastic substance that would harden upon release, adding strength and form to the structure.

"It's like expanding foam; you just put a little bit in, and it gets really big," said Adam Sachsel, 10.

The boys created a model of the finished shelter, using cardboard, hot glue, house insulation, paint and dollhouse furniture they borrowed from Adam's sister. Now they are creating a Web site to explain the project, using a laptop computer they won.

One aim of the ExploraVision program is to get students interested in science and engineering at an early age.

The Malcolm Elementary team was already hooked, and each member plans to do something science-related when he grows up.

Adam wants to be a software engineer; C.J., a chemist; Timmy, an Air Force fighter pilot; and Billy, a Lego constructor.

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