ARCHIVED—Challenging kids with competition
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G. A. Wheable Centre for Adult Education
n his 28 years of teaching, Daniel Thorsley has developed a special touch for contests. He believes they are excellent tools for extending the curriculum, a point that is crucial for him. His contests are not extracurricular activities, although they may take place outside the classroom.
Mr. Thorsley doesn't confine his efforts to his own students. Over the years, he has developed a wide variety of competitions covering different science subjects and age groups for students from all over London, Ontario, and thanks to the Internet, in schools elsewhere with similar science curricula. He believes that teachers should make more use of contests and that anyone can learn how to create effective and inexpensive contests to enhance the science curriculum.
Below he shares some of his ideas for creating successful competitions, along with examples from two of his best efforts.
I have always loved contests and, more importantly, so have my students. Some teachers and parents have reservations about competition between students but kids don't; they enjoy contests because they can do something with what they have learned.
People who have reservations about competition worry about the negative effects on those who do not win. My response? Competition is a normal part of life. We all compete constantly throughout our lives and we have to learn how to win and lose. Competing is one of the generic skills that we must master to "compete" successfully in our society. A badly designed contest can have negative effects but a well-planned one teaches kids how to deal with life's challenges and how to learn from the experience so they can improve their performance next time.
Opportunities to create contests arise regularly; I have never had to go looking for them, and once you get known as someone who is capable of putting an effective competition together, other enthusiasts will come looking for you. One of my competitions (more about this below) came about after our local power company, London Hydro, and the school board combined forces to produce a new curriculum about the use of electricity in the home. The utility expressed interest in having a competition to cap off the program.
At the risk of being repetitive, I believe that effective contests must be connected to the curriculum. I can't stress this enough. A contest is simply normal curriculum activities taken a step further so that two (or more) groups can compare how well they have learned the content. (The advantages of setting up the competition so that just two teams compete at a time is that no one gets beaten by more than one team.)
I try to incorporate more than one kind of skill into my competitions. Some contests, such as spelling bees, require only one skill. Contests that use a whole variety of skills are more challenging and give students a number of opportunities to shine.
As I create and improve a contest, I try to avoid getting sidetracked by peripheral issues. For example, with science fairs it is easy to get too concerned about whether a student has done the work on his or her own or has gotten help from a parent. The real issue is not whether the student had help but whether he or she understands the material involved. An interview will quickly establish whether the student knows what he or she is talking about.
(The issue of getting help or not is a red herring in my opinion. It is common, after all, for teachers and university professors to help students with the design of their research and the methodology of their experiments. What is so different about a parent giving similar assistance? The positive benefits of parents and students working together on a project of mutual interest can be extremely valuable to the students' education.)
I pilot test each contest I create with a small group, often my own classes, and then improve it before launching it officially. I find that I have to improve contests continuously as students keep changing. Today's students have a completely different set of abilities and knowledge from that of students just five years ago.
The major barrier for teachers thinking of involving their classes in competitions is expense, and the biggest expense is having to take students outside the class. There are two ways to overcome this. In the past, I have usually timed my contests so that they coincided with other events such as science fairs. Lately, I have also been making extensive use of the Internet. In principle, an Internet-based contest can be open to anybody with access to the World Wide Web and email for very little cost to the organizer or the participants. Best of all, a teacher can have students do the contest right in class.
Timing is another important issue for teachers. If the competition only takes one period, it can run any time, but longer contests have to be timed to fit into a teacher's other responsibilities. Longer contests are best done in the spring because that allows teachers and students more time to prepare. If a school is on the semester system, the end of October or the end of April are the best contest times.
I like to see everyone who participates get something for their efforts, and with computers and printers it is easy and inexpensive to create nice certificates for all.
For the winners, I favour cash prizes that go to the school or class. Sometimes, especially when you have corporate sponsorship, you can offer larger prizes, such as scholarships, but these can create a different, and less desirable, feeling than smaller prizes that are shared. Many teachers are opposed to larger prizes for their classes because they change the emphasis from having fun with the knowledge and skills being used to winning the prize.
Trophies are also a good idea and they have the advantage of being reusable.
One recent contest that went very well was the Cyber Challenge. It is especially easy to set up, and for students to participate in, because it uses the Internet. You simply advertise that you will put a set of science questions on the World Wide Web at a particular time and day. The participating classes put together teams with expertise in a number of scientific fields and answer the questions as quickly as possible. I send an answer form out by email on request, and also ask the teacher to verify that the class did everything by the rules. (That said, in a simple contest like this, the chief pleasure comes from doing it right, so there is little incentive to cheat.)
I create three levels of competition, each of which has a separate set of questions. The junior level is for grades 4 to 6, intermediate for grades 7 to 10, and senior for grades 11 and above.
In addition to answering the questions, I ask each team to write, within 24 hours, an essay about some point of interaction between science and society. The team members may either work together or have one person produce the essay. Last year, the junior, intermediate and senior essays were about conservation, a specific pollution problem and the ethics of cloning, respectively.
If you are interested, I have posted all the recent questions, answers and essays on the London District Science and Technology Fair website. (This web page also includes lots of information about the local science fair, Science Olympics and the Canada-wide Science Fair.) All teachers and students are welcome to participate next year or they can adapt the idea to suit their own purposes and subject areas.
A variation on this contest is the Technology Cyber Challenge. I give teams of students a set of parameters that they have to respect while creating a machine to do a certain task. This year's machine had to propel a golf ball through the air. I also supply a list of the materials the students can use. (To be fair, I post this list at least a week before the actual contest so the teams can get everything they need.) I pick up the machines and a set of instructions the students have prepared on a specified day and test them. I later post the names of the winners on the web.
A special challenge of this contest for the students is writing the instructions for the machine. For anyone who has struggled to follow the instructions that come with a new appliance, this is a chance to see the problem from the other side. It is a very important part of the contest because the machine cannot compete if the judge cannot figure out how to make it work.
The machines are judged not only on performance but also according to how well the students followed the rules. For example, a number of this year's machines were disqualified because the judge had to hold the mechanism in a particular way, making him or her part of the machine.
The Technology Cyber Challenge is more limited than the Cyber Challenge because the participating schools must be close enough for the judges to pick up the machines.
Current Capers* is the contest I mentioned earlier that I designed to extend a unit about electricity use in the home. The unit was for junior grades and, in it, students looked at how electricity is used at home, learned to read meters and built a motor.
I designed the four-part contest to run at the completion of the unit in conjunction with a local science fair. In the first part, the teams received pictures of hydro meters and had to read them quickly and accurately. In the second part, they had to estimate the cost of providing power for a particular home. Next, they were asked to build a working motor out of a D battery, a couple of paper clips, a foam cup and a coil of copper wire. Finally, they took part in a game of tick-tack-toe on a special electric board created for the contest.
The teams for this contest have an equal number of boys and girls and the competition is structured so the whole team has to contribute. For example, each team member has to build an individual motor. During the tick-tack-toe game, each team member receives a light bulb. When a player answers a question correctly, he or she gets to insert the bulb into a socket and turn it on. After that, the player cannot answer any more questions.
It's amazing how big a kick the kids get out of screwing in their light bulb and flipping the switch to turn it on. The tick-tack-toe board is 1.2 m2 and has three rows of sockets with a switch for each socket. Each team has bulbs of a particular colour. The rules of the game are the same as for the paper version, except that students have to answer a question correctly to get their turn, which makes it much more challenging.
The effectiveness of a contest boils down to one key factor. The best competitions allow students to make the connection between knowledge and action. Many students get to be good at science without understanding technology, while others become experts in technology without understanding the science involved. Contests are a powerful incentive for students to make those connections.
* The curriculum unit Power of Electricity is the property of the Thames Valley District School Board, the London District Catholic School Board and London Hydro, which welcome any inquiries about it. You can reach London Hydro at 519-661-5503. The name of the game and the game itself can be used as described or can be easily adapted in whole or part for other subject areas.