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Contest Extra
in the classroom

Contest Extra: Educators Talk About
Competitions in the Classroom

Many of you have written to tell us about your experiences in organizing contests and competitions in the classroom. For first-year teachers and veterans alike, contests are an effective learning strategy.

Ruth Settles, Physical Science -- Abbeville High School

Physical science teacher Ruth Settles at Abbeville H.S. in Abbeville, South Carolina, tried a contest last year for the first time and was surprised at the results. "We watched the MIT competition (Show 301) in class first. I thought the corresponding activity, 'Simply Marvelous Machines,' sounded pretty neat, so I made a demo machine and showed it to the kids before they started. They worked in groups of four and made the machines out of junk from home; they had two full class periods to experiment. I gave them two test grades for the project. Then I thought, "Let's compete." Each class held a contest, and the physics class judged the final winners. We got the yearbook staff to take candid shots. A lot of kids who did well on paper-and-pencil assignments didn't know what to do, but some kids who hadn't done well before did really great. Kids learn that some of their ideas don't work. They experience failure, but will try again. The contest turned out to be the most exciting activity we've ever done."

Frank Weisel, Earth Science -- Poolesville, MD

Earth science teacher Frank Weisel of Poolesville, Maryland, offers this suggestion: "Giving a grade for a competition can be too intimidating for many students, but prizes are great motivators -- anything from a free homework assignment to a gift certificate at a local fast food restaurant. One time we worked out a deal with the cafeteria to award free lunches for a week to the winner. It's important to let the students know that doing things and not having them work is part of the process."

Gary Bowman, Science Dept. Chair -- Round Valley Elementary School

Science department chair and teacher Gary Bowman, from Round Valley Elementary School in Covelo, California, suggests: "When you set up an engineering contest, recognize that no one fails. Any time the kids make an attempt to design a vehicle, they succeed. We set up teams of three to four students each. All students participate and are expected to prepare schematic drawings of their designs for approval before construction can begin."

Jacklyn Bonneau, Physics -- Shrewsbury High School

"I don't have any trouble getting everyone to participate in our competitions," says former GTE GIFT Fellow and physics teacher Jacklyn Bonneau, who teaches at Shrewsbury High in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. "Contests like 'King of the Hill' (Show 102) are good because freshmen and seniors have the same advantage. We hold a contest in each class; winning cars move ahead to compete in a school-wide contest that is taped by our school TV studio. Prizes are donated by local merchants. The competitions are a stimulating experience and a great morale builder. It demands an awful lot of risk-taking, but everybody gets extra credit for competing."

Jim Seyler, Life Science -- Lincoln Middle School

Jim Seyler, life science teacher at Lincoln Middle School in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, notes, "I appreciate MIT-type competitions because it's important to convince students that the applications of science are not just abstract theoretical textbook stuff. I make a special effort to point out the female engineering students as role models to the girls in my classes"


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
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