The Rewards of STEM

Top five considerations for leading a student competition team.

GUEST COLUMN | by Sandeep Hiremath

CREDIT VEX WorldSTEM-related student competitions have proven to be powerful learning tools, enabling students to not only get up-close-and-personal with tangible applications of the math and science lessons taught in the classroom, but also to develop teamwork, communication and time management skills. Not to mention the students have a blast while working on the competition teams.

In a recent study of 300 VEX Robotics Competition participants, more than 75 percent said they were interested in taking additional math or science classes in high school or college after being part of a competition team, and nearly 83 percent said they were

Ultimately, a successful team is one in which every student has a chance to get their hands dirty, learn something cool, and feel inspired to pursue STEM education.

interested in taking engineering courses in college. These findings are in stark contrast to broader statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, which found that only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in math and interested in a STEM career. Considering the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 80 percent of the jobs available during the next decade will require math and science skills, the results from the VEX study are encouraging.

As part of my work, I’ve mentored a number of teachers and student teams for pre-university student competitions like BEST and VEX Robotics. I’ve found that while the benefits of participating in STEM competitions are indisputable, for a busy pre-university teacher with little to no technical background, the challenges of forming a competition team can be intimidating and can potentially deter teachers. Here are five common hurdles teachers face when forming a STEM competition team for the first time, and some recommendations for how to address these challenges.

1) Getting the School on Board

When getting active in student competitions, don’t let the benefits of STEM competitions speak for themselves. Teachers should point administrators in the direction of studies showing how participation not only improves students’ pre-university learning, but also sets them up for success in university and beyond. The Buck Institute for Education Resources and edutopia are two online resources teachers can initially turn to for articles demonstrating success of project-based learning in the classroom. And if a team has a strong showing in their competition, the school will certainly earn recognition for supporting STEM education. This will create added enthusiasm and support among faculty with the program.

2) “Finding the Fit”

Student competitions’ recent surge in popularity means project-based learning programs are numerous and diverse. For a teacher new to the competitions space, the number of options can lead to indecision. In order to find the competition that best fits the goals of their school and team, teachers should ask themselves several questions:

  • What topic is most interesting to my students/which practical skills should they develop?
  • What kind of resources do I have/could I feasibly get? (This includes all materials for building and programming the solution, as well as space for storage.)
  • What mentors can I find to assist with the competition? (Think parents, local STEM workers, university students, and other school faculty.)
  • What kind of time commitment would I/my students like to invest in the competition?
  • What is my budget, not only for competition sign-up and buying the materials for the solution, but also for travelling to/from the competition site? How much can I feasibly fundraise?

3) Overcoming Logistical Challenges

Once teachers are ready to build their competition team, there are a number of logistical considerations and questions they should ask themselves, including:

  • Is my classroom technology able to support the programs used for STEM competitions? If not, how much will it cost to acquire the right technology?
  • What software will I need and how can I ensure my team members have access to the software?
  • Can I rely on sponsors or the competition organizers to support my efforts?
  • What related professional development programs do I have access to?

It’s worth noting that many competitions offer training, like Jubilee BEST, but more is needed. In the meantime, a mentor can often fill technical gaps to help ensure the teacher knows how to support the development of her team.

4) Garnering Community Support

As I alluded to in challenge number two, it takes a village to support a successful student competition team. Hardware, software, transportation, storage, sign-up fees, hotel rooms, and team T-shirts all cost money, and while some schools have budgets for extra-curricular activities, most teams need to hold fundraisers in order to attend competitions. During the competition “off season,” teams often reach out to local businesses, universities, parents, families and even the competitions themselves for donations, partnerships or sponsorships. Some teams hold fundraising events like bake sales or talent nights, which come with their own set of logistical considerations. Teachers need to be prepared to work with parents and other groups to organize these fundraising activities that support the competition team.

5) Bringing Skills Back to the Classroom

After establishing a student competition team, schools often want to see teachers bring the skills and experience back into their classrooms, allowing more students to benefit from the program. It’s important for teachers to effectively integrate practical lessons from the competition into the course material of the classroom, and to do so for a wider audience than the students who have interest and time to participate in the competition team. Some competitions like VEX Robotics have created programming materials to help teachers bring skills back into the classroom. As a corporate sponsor of many student competitions like VEX, Formula Student and BEST, MathWorks is working with teachers to build related curriculum that can be transitioned into a classroom. I recommend teachers prioritize a hands-on, project-based learning experience as part of this effort. Teachers can find project-based learning courseware as well as other resources like webinars here to help them along on this path.

The key to navigating the hurdles of a new student competition team is to always be thinking about the bigger picture. It’s easy to get caught up in the drive to win a competition and to lose sight of the greater goal for participating in the competitions. Ultimately, a successful team is one in which every student has a chance to get their hands dirty, learn something cool, and feel inspired to pursue STEM education. For the teachers mentoring those teams, the reward is more meaningful than any trophy.

Sandeep Hiremath is an Education Technology Evangelist for MathWorks.

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