STEM Competitions Turn Science Into a Sport

High school competitions help lead students toward careers in engineering and technology.

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Dean Kamen, inventor and founder of FIRST, autographs a custom-built robot designed by students.

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Peter Diamandis, an entrepreneur who founded the X Prize, which awarded $10 million to the first commercial team to send a reusable passenger craft into space, says that "we are genetically bred as humans to compete."

"I've seen how ideas can materialize and change the world, and that's addicting," he says. Science competitions give high schoolers "the notion that ideas have power. … It's teaching people to not be afraid to dream, to not be afraid to have an idea."

In 2002, the Aerospace Industries Association started the Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC), specifically because the aerospace engineering workforce is growing old, with nearly a quarter of such workers expected to retire within five years. In this year's competition, teams from around the country are being asked to build a rocket weighing about 1½ pounds that carry two raw eggs up to 800 feet and return them safely to Earth.

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That specific challenge takes science off the chalkboard and puts it in a practical context. "We say they have to return an egg, but really, that egg is their astronaut," says Anne Ward, TARC's manager. "They're using the formulas for thrust, the formulas for propulsion, to solve a real-world problem."

Yes, it is rocket science, but it's also fun and a good team-building exercise, Ward says. About half of the 7,000 students who participate in the program had a prior interest in rocket science, while the others were "dragged there by their friends," she says. But after learning that yes, you can actually use this stuff again, kids become engaged. According to a survey by TARC, more than 95 percent of students who participate in the program go on to college and nine in 10 say they would encourage a friend to study STEM in college. So far, TARC alumni have gone on to work at Raytheon, Virgin Galactic, and other aerospace engineering companies.

The ability to involve women and minorities, groups that are severely underrepresented in STEM careers, is another factor in these competitions. Women make up just a quarter of the STEM workforce; only 5 percent of engineers are black and 6 percent are Latino. Irving Pressley McPhail, CEO of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, says experts are "now beginning to zero in on the evidence for what works" for minorities and women in STEM—engaging, exciting content. Competitions fit that bill.

The FIRST team at the Foshay Learning Center, a majority-minority school in Los Angeles, has grown from seven students to more than 40 over the course of 12 years. Darryl Newhouse, a math teacher and mentor of the team, says he has students who come to school only for robotics. "A lot of these kids can't learn just by watching a teacher lecture. I wanted a way to excite them," he says. "I've had the counselor bring a kid who wasn't doing so well to my classroom and said, 'He wants to be in robotics.' He ended up being one of my team captains."

Because FIRST is a team-based competition, there's space for people who haven't always been interested in STEM. Jessica Rod­riguez, student administrator of the Foshay team, says everyone starts off with a specific job suited to his or her interests, but the responsibilities quickly shift. Jazmin Navarro initially got involved as the team's public relations lead, taking pictures of the robots and helping out with press inquiries. While she still does that, she also got involved in designing and building the team's robot after realizing it wasn't something just for math geeks. "Just being in the machine shop changed everything," Navarro says. "I learned to use all the tools, and now I help out with different parts of the robot." Both Navarro and Rodriguez will go after degrees in STEM fields at the University of Southern California this fall.

For the first time, the Foshay team went to the FIRST National Championships in St. Louis. Even if the students don't win, says Walt Havenstein, chairman of the FIRST board, science competitions are among those contests where winning isn't everything. "This is the only sport I know where everyone can turn pro," he says.