Special Report

Competing for Competence

By Andrew Trotter — March 21, 2008 11 min read
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For students at an academic conference outside the nation’s capital last fall, a small but intensive robotics competition enlivened the standard fare of panels, lectures, and sightseeing with a jolt of competitive energy.

Teenagers crowded into a lab here at the host school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, and worked in teams to write a computer program that could steer a robot car—armed with a straight pin—to an explosive rendezvous with a balloon.

After several feverish hours spent working on computers and testing their robots in a large wooden maze, students put their programmed robots to a timed trial. The top finishers then faced another challenge: They had 15 minutes to direct their robots to skirt around an obstacle and park on a square at the opposite end of a large sheet of plywood.

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The three-day October conference was attended by about 300 students and teachers from STEM-focused high schools around the country. In addition to devoting an entire day to the robotics contest, the conference featured a second contest, sponsored by Google Inc., in computer-based design.

Academic contests for K-12 students in what are now often called the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—have been a fixture of the American educational landscape for decades. But as the push to improve U.S. performance in those subjects has intensified in recent years, such contests have increasingly been seen as a tool that schools should not overlook.

“Sometimes in competitions, we find that some students who have been told they are ‘the elite’ their entire lives are not the best—and students who never considered going to college invent something no one ever imagined they could invent,” says Arthur Eisenkraft, a professor of education at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “Competition programs … support STEM education by providing enhancements to the traditional curriculum.”

There appears to be no definitive clearinghouse of STEM-related contests for K-12 students. But more than 90 national competitions are listed in the mathematics, science, and technology categories of the 2008 edition of Academic Competitions for Gifted Students: A Resource Book for Teachers and Parents, published by Corwin Press (2008). And that number would go up sharply if regional and local contests were included.

The biggest events, such as the Intel Science Talent Search, the Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology, and international Olympiads in physics, chemistry, and mathematics, garner national media attention. But even primary education has plenty of science and math contests in specialties such as robotics and space.

Diluting the Quality?

Some educators see the proliferation of contests in the STEM disciplines as a mixed blessing.

“Frankly, it’s muddied the waters,” says Leann J. Yoder, the executive director of the Junior Engineering Technical Society, an Alexandria, Va.-based organization with a long tradition of offering student engineering contests. “The question is, with the groundswell of everybody talking about STEM, is this diluting the quality of contests?”

What’s more, students don’t always benefit from participating in contests, other experts warn.

Site Sifts Long List of Contests

The National Association of Secondary School Principals has for decades maintained a national advisory list of academic contests and “active participation” programs, which is available online for educators and families.

The list provides information about the contests’ objectives, as well as their costs, which can be consequential.

“Some of these student programs, you may pay out a couple of thousand dollars,” says Jeff R. Sherrill, an associate director of the nassp, which is based in Reston, Va. “Even doing some contests, there’s a cost to the schools, whether that’s providing equipment, or if it’s a team competition, you’re going to have to assign a faculty member, and pay that person.”

The list of contests and programs is drawn from their organizers’ voluntary submissions, which are reviewed annually by a committee of principals for their adherence to standards of quality, Sherrill says.

The review process provides “a level of assurance” about the contests’ quality, he says; still, “we strongly recommend to anybody to do their consumer homework, to ask for references.”

Among the features of the online resource are guidelines for considering different programs and information on scholarships, the protection of student names, and descriptions of marketing techniques.

The list, which includes information and Web links for more than 150 contests and programs, is available under the “Contests and Activities” heading at www.nasc.us, the Web site of the National Association of Student Councils, a branch of the principals’ group.

—Andrew Trotter

“Some children are more motivated than others by competitions,” says Jeff R. Sherrill, an associate director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, based in Reston, Va., which maintains a list of contests that are reviewed annually by a panel of principals.

Yet despite the possible drawbacks, many educators see the growth of STEM-related competition as offering benefits that go well beyond the laurels and scholarships that contests bestow on the winners and the bragging rights they confer on their schools.

High-profile national contests—often sponsored by distinguished organizations and well-known corporations—make a statement that science and math are important. The activities, travel, and prizes of contests can lure students to invest time and effort in STEM-related learning.

Well-crafted academic contests also entice students to push beyond the standard science and math curriculum to investigate specialized topics and practical applications. That can be a godsend to talented students with teachers who are weak or underqualified in science and math.

Eisenkraft, who has served as an organizer, designer, or consultant for several national science competitions, says contests can provide even students who never make it to the winner’s circle with experiences that foster abiding interest in math and science.

Top students, even in excellent math and science programs, benefit from performing for judges, who often are university academics or professionals, proponents of contests say.

“It forces you to excel for an authentic kind of audience,” says Mary K. Tallent-Runnels, a co-author of a guidebook to academic competitions and a professor of educational psychology at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, Texas.

A Motivational Tool

Some schools—notably science and technology magnets with selective admissions—use the big-name contests as goals to guide and motivate students to do independent research projects, which are developed into contest entries.

Charles dela Cuesta, the Thomas Jefferson High School technology teacher who ran the robot competition last fall for schools belonging to the National Consortium of Specialized Secondary Schools for Mathematics, Science, and Technology, says he uses contests regularly at the school to sharpen students’ focus and to gauge the level of their learning. Winning is secondary, says Dela Cuesta, who teaches a 9th grade design and technology course.

“It’s not students’ performance that matters,” he says.

Shane M. Torbert, who teaches computer science and math at Thomas Jefferson, adds that competitions are vital to the highly selective public school.

“The biggest thing for them is motivation—how do you keep so many students who are really talented in a particular area all motivated?” Torbert says. “We have so many [top students], I can’t possibly work one-on-one with each of them.”

In fact, Torbert says, Thomas Jefferson math students themselves run an annual math contest for local middle school students, with the latest one attracting about 200 students in early February. The contest not only serves as “a recruitment tool” for the school, Torbert says, but also challenges students who run it and “spend months coming up with creative problems that are accessible and interesting.”

Even the most local competition, if well designed and effective in engaging students with teachers or professionals, can provide fodder for STEM education, just as curriculum materials and textbooks do.

Consider how Jennifer Richard, a science teacher in the Los Angeles school district, has used the district’s annual Integrated Coordinated Science Challenge, named after the ICS curriculum that her school and most of the high schools in the 695,000-student district use. The contest asks students to invent a game in a particular area of science content.

Richard says she worked the competition into her classes at the 3,500-student Chatsworth High School, in the San Fernando Valley, by making it one of the performance tasks she assigns at the end of each unit.

Because teachers were allowed only one entry per class period, each class voted for the best entry to represent it in the contest. In spring 2007, when the challenge’s focus was on chemistry concepts and the organization of the periodic table of elements, one of her four-student teams beat out 6,000 entries to win the districtwide contest for 9th graders. The winners’ entry consisted of a video and write-up of a game modeled on Trivial Pursuit, which was judged by a committee of educators. After using a small portion of the $2,000 prize to throw a classroom party, the winning students donated the rest to their graduating class; the school’s science-bowl team, which Richard founded last year, and the academic-decathlon team, which she co-coaches.

As the teacher, Richard says she viewed the task as an effective chemistry review. It also gave her a better understanding of her students’ knowledge.

“I don’t believe all students show what they know by just taking a test,” she says.

Even small or one-off contests can add octane and academic value to broader events.

The contest sponsored by Google at the specialized-schools conference here in Alexandria challenged students to design an environmentally friendly school. Students had to use SketchUp, Google’s software program for creating three-dimensional graphic models, and had to place their theoretical 2,000-student school in a realistic location within their own school district.

The entries, submitted in the weeks leading up to the conference, were assessed by judges who included a teacher at the host school, the SketchUp development team at Google, and members of the American Architectural Foundation. The winner, Mack Meas of the Brooklyn Technical Institute in New York City, was crowned at the conference’s closing.

Running the Gamut

STEM-related contests run the gamut, starting at the most elite level, the International Olympiad competitions, which include math and various sciences in separate competitions. Run by different international host organizations, their affiliated national groups select from four to six students to face off against similar teams from 50 or 60 other nations.

“You’re looking for the best of the best,” says Eisenkraft. “That’s not the best students or the highest-achieving students; that’s students who can take a five-hour exam and not make any mistakes.”

By contrast, the similarly named Physics Olympics features “more-playful competitions,” he says, such as design challenges in which school teams compete to design and build a device that will, say, protect an egg when dropped from 100 feet, or build a car that can drive a given distance.

Other competitions are paper-and-pencil exercises, such as the national high school engineering contest run by the Alexandria-based National Society of Black Engineers. It consists of two parts; the first is a timed challenge in which a school team works out a mathematical problem with pencil and paper, said Franklin O. Moore, the NSBE’s education programs manager. The second part is a math assessment that is modeled on test items from the SAT and ACT; that serves the students well, because their participation in the contest may also help raise their scores on those college-entrance exams, Moore says.

The engineering society also offers one of the many national robotics contests, which provides applied challenges more similar to the actual work of an engineer than simply completing math problems, Moore says.

Some contests encourage independent inquiry, such as the Intel Science Talent Search and the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, both run by the nonprofit Society for Science & the Public, in Washington.

“All of our programs, they support and reward independent research. These students have done the classic science-fair project; this is inquiry-based learning,” says Michele C. Glidden, the director of science education programs at the group, formerly called Science Service. The organization administers and owns several high-profile contests, including the Intel Science Talent Search and the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

Glidden says that the movement to emphasize STEM disciplines has not been lost on the organizers of contests, including her own: “We used to call it critical thinking.”

Source of Exposure

Beyond their benefits to students, contests can also help the teachers who serve as coaches or guides, enriching their curricula and exposing them to advanced and applied content.

“This can be a learning and materials-acquisition opportunity for teachers,” says Ann C. Candler-Lotven, the co-author with Tallent-Runnels of Academic Competitions for Gifted Students and the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Texas A&M University-Texarkana. “Not every teacher working with students [on contests] has a strong math and science background.”

The Junior Engineering Technical Society, which has a tradition of offering student engineering contests, has been increasingly focused on making its contests less daunting and more useful to teachers, says Yoder, its executive director. “Engineering has scared teachers off,” she says.

The group has two contests: the Tests of Engineering Aptitude, Mathematics and Science, or TEAMS, a national academic competition that asks students to apply math and science to solve real-world engineering scenarios, and the National Engineering Design Challenge, a competition that allows students to research, design, and build a working prototype of a device to empower individuals with disabilities to succeed in the workforce.

“We are getting ready to relaunch our TEAMS competition in 2010, more in the direction of exploring engineering and learning about it,” Yoder says. “That’s going to be very beneficial to teachers.”

Experts say that competitions potentially can help minority students, girls, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds overcome inequities in educational opportunity in STEM disciplines. In December, for the first time ever, girls won the top awards in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology, one of the nation’s top student science awards. Girls swept both the team and individual categories.

At schools that do not have a contest-oriented culture, however, students might not hear about competitions, Tallent-Runnels says. Sometimes teachers don’t pass along the announcements because they aren’t qualified to mentor students to the level the contests require.

Aside from the merits of particular contests, Eisenkraft of the University of Massachusetts urges schools to make all students aware of competitions that are available to them and to incorporate “the creative aspects of these competition programs in their classes.”

“Everybody knows about basketball, tries it out, and sees if they’re any good,” he says. “There’s a parallel to thinking about science competitions.”


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