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Students and Teachers Competing to Win, Problem Solving Together!

Host: Jon Fiorella
Presenter: Arthur Eisenkraft, Ph.D.

Presenter: Dr. Arthur Eisenkraft

Background Paper

As teachers we are constantly striving for ways in which to excite, motivate and reward our students. The competition programs are one resource that we should consider introducing to our students.

The competition programs provide an opportunity for all students to stretch themselves as individuals and/or as members of a team. They require students to go beyond the daily lessons of the science class and to take responsibility for a project of their choosing. Competition programs also provide a benchmark by which students can compare their work to those of other students across the country. Different programs have different areas of focus and different appeals. And the best part is that all students can be winners in a good competition program and some students can earn substantial scholarship money.

My involvement with competitions has included a wide range of diverse programs all providing opportunities of growth for students and teachers. I briefly describe some of these programs below. I do know that some teachers shy away from competition programs because of some of the negative aspects that they attribute to competitions. In one sense, every endeavor is a competition of sorts. Occasionally, the competition is with oneself and involves achieving one's personal best. I encourage you to provide the opportunity for your students to "play the game." The benefits of competing far outweigh the costs.

In my involvement with the Duracell/NSTA Invention Challenge over the past 17 years, I have been impressed with the wave of new ideas every year as students design and build battery operated devices that can entertain, educate or make life easier. In this time, we have awarded prizes to students about to enter the most highly selective schools and to those entering the workforce. Recently we expanded the competition to include middle school students and students working in teams. All students who enter the competition receive a small prize and a certificate. Some students win $10,000 and $20,000 bonds.

The International Physics Olympiad is quite different. In this competition, we seek to identify the top 25 physics students in the United States. These students then attend a training program where the top 5 students go on to represent the U.S. in a competition involving over 40 nations. Many of our top academic students have never worked with or competed against students their age with similar abilities. The Olympiad demonstrates how high the bar can be set and alerts us to how proficient some students can be during their high school years. The opportunity to interact with other students of extraordinary ability is the major prize of making the Olympiad team.

The Toshiba/ExploraVisions Competition requires student teams to write essays describing a technology and how that technology will evolve in the next 20 years. The competition requires all students in all grades (K-3, 4-6, 7-9, 10-12) to follow the same rules. It seems that the K-3 group has cornered creativity and the 10-12 group has defined rigor. One of my favorite entries was from a 2nd grade group that described the refrigerator of the future. It keeps a running survey about what's in the refrigerator and generates meal possibilities based on this food. It also notes what food each person has requested. The refrigerator may even suggest that you consider carrots as a snack before taking cupcakes. Each team must describe both the positive and negative consequences of the new technology. The refrigerator's negative attributes included the number of dials and displays and the inability to post art work and report cards on the door.

There are also competition programs for teachers - grant programs - where a good idea can be provided with a $10,000 award to implement that idea in the classroom. The Toyota TAPESTRY Grants program have been helping 50 teachers a year to improve science education in their schools. Administered by the NSTA, this program is a way in which teachers can participate in a grants program at a scale that corresponds to their needs.

I have found that competition programs enhance the educational experience of students and provide a challenge that many find engaging. I have heard that some teachers believe that competitions require too much time, are contrary to some of the values we should be promoting or that the large competition programs do not provide enough feedback for students to students who have worked diligently on their project. I have also heard that some teachers are fearful of exposing their own lack of knowledge when it comes to some research topics and that others do not know how to get their students involved. I look forward to discussing the many facets of competition programs and hope that we can grow through the interchange.

Post your question for Dr. Eisenkraft.


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