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Eleven little cars chugged up a hill and down a miniature speedway Friday in Olean, carrying with them the hopes of twice as many kids whose brush with summer school was a little less than traditional.

Middle school pupils from Cattaraugus and Allegany counties also had their summer-school grades riding on the results, as their final exams took on a decidedly practical look.

"This is sort of the antithesis of 'grill and drill' summer school," said teacher Tony Kozlowski, as a television learning net linked BOCES classrooms in Olean and Belmont.

"It's an alternative summer school," he added. "The districts on the cutting edge realize that there might be a different way for kids to learn."

The Cattaraugus-Allegany BOCES program taught by a four-teacher team for the past three weeks took 22 middle school kids who "for various reasons, didn't succeed" during the regular school year, and posed a challenge more commonly faced by high schoolers or advanced placement students.

Using both the RealNet television link and Internet computer links, the pupils spent their class time researching and building toy cars for a fictitious toy company.

"It was kind of heavy in math and sciences," Kozlowski said. "But they also did research, conducted interviews and did polls to determine consumer needs."

The final Friday involved the finished proposals, supposedly for toy company executives who had written a goal-setting letter, from the two-person student teams -- five from the Allegany-Limestone district at the Olean center, and six from the Fillmore district at the Belmont BOCES site.

"We asked them to build a car, basically," Kozlowski said. "And we told them it had to be a girl kind of toy -- there are a lot of toy cars out there, but they're mostly for boys."

Barbie cars proved popular, based on polling of their peers done by the 12- to 14-year-old seventh- and eighth-grade pupils. But it was the process that was important.

Interactive lectures provided guidance and background, tying the experience into state learning goals as each teacher -- Kozlowski and Cheryl Burns from Erie County BOCES 2, Matt Finn from Wellsville Central and Peter Johnson from Genesee Valley -- brought their specialties to bear on the problem.

Laptop computers also provided Internet links, including some looks at a famous robot vehicle built by NASA.

"We would go to the Martian surface and look at the Rover, and how they built that," said Kozlowski, whose cousin at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory also "talked" to the kids via computer.

The work was "hands-on from day one," he added. "Each kid went through 10 to 15 design models. Some of them got discouraged, and then we would talk about what it takes to get what you want."

Spurred by some competition between the sites joined by RealNet's distance learning lab, the teams used parts kits and curriculum materials provided by the Society of Automotive Engineers to complete their designs and show them off to teachers and parents at Friday's session.

"We set goals, build knowledge, design something, build it, test it and present a proposal," Kozlowski said.

"We have a philosophy here -- taking responsibility for your work."

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