After weeks of preparation, the teams finally face the test.
They must examine the prospects and pitfalls of using nanotechnology aboard the space station Athena in the year 2033. What could the tiny science do for surveillance and defense, the competitors asked themselves. Where would it fall short?
Now, chatting heatedly and scribbling furiously, they spend the next two hours applying themselves to the task.
Finally the time is up. Pencils are set down and a lively discussion of nano-technology ensues.
Not bad for a group of elementary school students.
Students at the Dutch Hill Elementary School in Snohomish, Wash., are among several hundred thousand students across the country who this year are devoting class time to nanotechnology - the science of manipulating structures from the atom up, or literally, the technology of one-billionth.
The tiny topic was handed to Dutch Hill and other schools by the Future Problem Solving Program, a Lexington, Ky., not-for-profit educational corporation. The program is designed to enrich honors curriculums with timely lessons and friendly competition. Winning teams will eventually advance to state contests in June.
Each year, student competitors vote for five topics from a list supplied by FPSP. This year choices included e-commerce, sports medicine, and DNA identification.
But nanotechnology has surprised some student participants with the breadth of its applications.
Part of the curriculum has required them to read articles such as "Taiwan sees US $8 billion nanotechnology market by 2008" and "A trillion-dollar market within a decade?" in magazines such as Scientific American and Small Times - Big News in Small Tech. And in preparing for the tests, teachers and guest speakers explored the notion of nanorobots and man-made materials stronger than diamonds.