Special Report

Science Competitions Integrated Into Curriculum

By Sean Cavanagh — April 01, 2011 7 min read
Bill Yucuis encourages his students at Lyman High School in Longwood, Fla., to participate in science competitions. Seniors, from left, Brandon Kaiser, Spencer Brint, and Robert Kagel work on a miniature rocket for an upcoming contest.

Competition has brought out the best in students at Lyman High School: Styrofoam gliders, designs for airplane wings, and miniature rockets built to soar hundreds of feet in the air.

For teacher Bill Yucuis, it’s about fun, creativity—and day-to-day classroom instruction.

Each year, students at the Longwood, Fla., school, outside Orlando, take part in science and engineering competitions, which have given rise to a wealth of air-and-space creations. They join thousands of their peers across the country who sign up for contests designed to inspire students and allow them to apply science skills in inventive and fun ways.

In many schools and districts, students prepare their scientific projects for competitions before or after school, or on weekends, often as extracurricular activities, sometimes as part of clubs.

But some teachers, such as Mr. Yucuis, have carried those activities a step further. The aerospace and engineering teacher is one of many educators who choose to fully integrate science competitions within their classes, curricula, and individual lessons, rather than treat them as one-shot events that are won or lost and then forgotten.

The teacher, who gives students a list of competitions to choose from, began weaving contests into his classes because he saw their potential to inspire teenagers and cultivate their scientific skills.

“The job of the teacher is to get students interested in something, where they can go out and do the research and find the answers,” explained Mr. Yucuis. Using competitions, he said, “meets the requirements of what I consider better teaching.”

Many other educators, as well as organizers of competitions, agree, and they hope that more school administrators and teachers will find ways to follow suit. Weaving competitions into classroom activities, they say, provides greater opportunities for students, including those of different ability levels, to delve into science and see how it is applied.

“The change, the transformation that happens in these students is amazing,” said George Blanks, the executive director of the BEST—for Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology—robotics competition, a nationwide contest serving middle and high school students. “They’ve learned how to problem-solve,” he said. “They’re discovering competencies that they had no idea they had until the competition.”

No Easy Task

Many science educators and advocates say schools are devoting less time to science, as opposed to reading and math, in the era of the No Child Left Behind Act. As a result, they say, blending competitions into the classroom, or doing anything beyond the required curriculum, can be difficult.

Even so, in some schools, competitions have helped shape lessons and curricula, and even entire programs. For instance, Mr. Blanks, who is also the director of K-12 outreach at the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering at Auburn University, in Alabama, says a number of schools in that state were at least partly influenced to establish academies or programs focused on STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—after seeing the effects of BEST participation.

Students’ positive experiences in the competition played a strong role in administrators’ and teachers’ decision to launch the Engineering Pathways Integrated Curriculum, an academy at Davidson High School in Mobile, Ala.

Lyman High School rocket team member Brian Pavelchak, 17, checks the inside integrity of one section of the rocket.

Seven years ago, teacher Mike Fletcher and school officials arranged to have a group of students take part in the competition, which that year challenged teams to design and build a miniature robot with a fixed base and a movable arm capable of picking up a series of balls. Mr. Fletcher ended up creating a new, semesterlong elective class structured around the competition.

That class had about a dozen students. Over the course of the semester, they spent time in class, as well as after school and on weekends, building the project. Mr. Fletcher graded students on a combination of their completion of individual assignments and projects related to building the robot.

Despite a few initial hiccups, Mr. Fletcher and school officials were sufficiently impressed with the impact of competition on students to structure more classes around it. Since then, he and other teachers at Davidson High have made the BEST competition a major part of several elective STEM-related classes.

Big Payoff

In one of the engineering-focused electives, Mr. Fletcher devotes several weeks to computer-aided design and various types of programming, topics that help students with their BEST projects. He and fellow teachers also weave in many STEM concepts, from lessons on mechanics and electricity to digital sound and imaging, that have nothing to do with the competition.

The challenge of competition gives students in his class the sense that they’re taking part in an enjoyable yet high-stakes event, and it emphasizes the importance of understanding each day’s lessons and how to apply them, Mr. Fletcher observed.

“They don’t realize at first how great the payoff is in what they’re learning,” he said. “There’s more at stake than just a grade.”

The integration of competitions into science classes is evident among participants in the Toshiba/National Science Teachers Association ExploraVision competition, now in its 19th year, says Arthur Eisenkraft, a founder of the contest who now chairs the judging panel. A recent survey of more than 700 teachers who took part showed that of about 290 respondents, more than three-fourths said they had helped teams work on their projects both inside and outside classroom settings, or only inside them.

Mr. Eisenkraft believes many of the teachers who had integrated competitions into their classroom work were elementary or middle school teachers, rather than high school teachers, who generally face more specific curricular demands.

Blending science competitions into the classroom has become easier with the growth of classes focused on intensive scientific research and project-based learning, said Mr. Eisenkraft, a professor of science education at the University of Massachusetts Boston. In many cases, teachers may allow or urge students to take part in competitions as independent projects.

When he speaks to former participants in the ExploraVision contest, Mr. Eisenkraft is often surprised at how many details about those projects they can remember years later. That recall, he said, is probably a sign of competitions’ power to motivate and shape learning.

“There’s a pride, a motivation, a commitment” among participants, he said, “and a level of retention.”

At Lyman High School, Mr. Yucuis’ students are motivated, and busy. One recent day, as the teacher answered a reporter’s questions, students in one of his senior-year classes worked in small groups on individual competition entries. The teacher excused himself periodically to help them. One group asked permission to head off to the carpentry shop to sand down a piece of wood they needed to design a miniature rocket.

Mr. Yucuis allows his students to choose from a number of competitions. They are taking part this year in the Internet Science and Technology Fair, the Team America Rocketry Challenge, and the Real World Design Challenge, among others. His freshmen also take part in the No Boundaries National Competition, directed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and USA Today Education, a developer of school programs owned by the national newspaper. The competition asks student teams to devise strategies for marketing STEM careers, such as those at the federal space agency, to teenagers.

Success by Failure

As the students work through various competitions, Mr. Yucuis gives them individual and team grades, and evaluates them on written and oral reports documenting their work. He does not grade them on how well they fare in the competitions. To do so, he says, would miss the point.

“I tell them, you probably learn more by failing than by succeeding,” the teacher said.

Senior Robert Kagel is working with a group of fellow students on a project for the Team America Rocketry Challenge. They’re charged with building a rocket capable of flying to a height of 750 feet and staying airborne for 40 to 45 seconds—while carrying a single raw egg. It’s supposed to return to the ground with the help of a parachute and the egg intact.

The team started the project at the beginning of the school year; it’s supposed to be completed by the end of April. The students have had to clear numerous hurdles. Designing the rocket on a computer was one thing, he said, but crafting its various components, from the nose cone to the motor, has required continuous readjustments.

Mr. Kagel, who plans to study computer engineering and software at the University of Florida next year, said students are motivated by factors that are stronger than the desire to get good grades. They want a rocket that can hold up to scrutiny in the competition. Members of his group don’t want to let each other down.

“I like winning,” he said. “It does make everybody want to do a lot more. It makes you realize you’re not going to be able to skate by on the work of others. You have to do it.”

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This story was underwritten by a grant from the Noyce Foundation, at www.noycefdn.org.
A version of this article appeared in the April 06, 2011 edition of Education Week as Science Competitions Integrated Into Classroom Curriculum

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