A Grand Challenge: Reimagining Competitions for the Broader Benefit

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  • Co-authored by Simil Raghavan

Competitions can ignite passions and turn kids on to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), but the question remains whether competitions are the best way to get youth involved in STEM activities. There is an abundance of competitions including For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology (FIRST) Robotics, EngineerGirl Essay Contest, and Technovation that serve youth across the country and around the world. Many of these competitions are based on the idea that competing can inspire students to excellence and provide valuable real-life experience. FIRST Robotics describes the experience of competing “as close to ‘real-world engineering’ as a student can get.” This perspective shared by FIRST and other organizers suggests that competitions offer participants a positive experience that can impact interests, attitudes, and skills. A study of FIRST documents that its participants were more than three times as likely to major in engineering and more than twice as likely to pursue a career in science and technology. Dean Kamen started FIRST Robotics because he wanted more youth to be inspired by STEM, particularly those underrepresented in the fields. FIRST aims to promote coopertition with teams cooperating and competing at the same time. But do competitions or coopertitions provide equal opportunities for all kids in all communities?


Competitions leave some youth out in the cold, often those already underrepresented in STEM like girls and students of color. The Intel Science Talent Search reports that it’s cracked the gender gap (with more female finalists than males for the first time) but admits that it hasn’t been as successful engaging students of color and other underserved groups. The organizers are trying to change this by providing teachers a stipend to work with these students on research projects over the summer. FIRST has had a history of under-delivering to girls. Not only have fewer girls overall participated in FIRST Robotics, girls have also been more involved in marketing, fundraising, and making presentations than in the technical aspects of projects. While these experiences are valuable they don’t give girls the full range of opportunities to master tech and engineering skills. FIRST is working to address this and some groups have tackled this gender disparity by forming all-girls FIRST teams. For example, Girl Scouts launched its first FIRST team, Space Cookies, in 2006 in a partnership between the NASA Ames Research Center and the Girl Scouts of Northern California, and Space Cookies has continued and expanded to other councils with support from Girl Scouts of the USA.

What We Know from Research and Practice

There is a body of research that documents gender differences in youth’s willingness to compete across STEM and non-STEM related domains. For example, girls were less likely to participate in math and running competitions from three years through 18 years when they had the chance to opt out in an experimental study by Sutter and Glatzle-Rutzler. Of interest, policy interventions like quotas and preferential treatment can help to close the gender gap without leading to losses in efficiency. In fact, a slightly better pool of candidates resulted from an intervention by Sutter and team by drawing in more high-ability girls. Perhaps, we need to consider two ideas: 1) that competitions, as they are, aren’t the best way for girls to get inspired and connected with STEM and 2) that early interventions or social engineering can help close the gender gap.

In my years at Techbridge Girls as the founder and former CEO, I (Linda) I saw up close how competitions may not appeal to some girls. Techbridge afterschool programs offer design challenges that introduce girls to the engineering design process. I saw girls lose interest and momentum when the challenges got competitive. For instance, in the “Radioactive Golf Ball Challenge” girls work in pairs to design a device that can safely transport a golf ball from one location to another. During a visit to a middle school, I observed that while all the groups were engaged during the design process as soon as time came to test their work some groups quickly gave up in defeat. One group “won” the competition when their design beat the others in the time test. Some girls expressed their disappointment. It didn’t matter what they learned or the innovativeness of their design. For those outside the winner’s circle the competition made them feel like failures. Some explained they didn’t like the activity after the public display and timed-competition between groups, while others tried to bend the rules to “win.” The experience didn’t empower or inspire, and it motivated me to reconsider the benefits of competitions. In response to these observations our team realized that we needed to do more upfront to support girls with a growth mindset and to embrace the engineering design process. Also, we reframed challenges so they were less about beating other groups and more about improving their own designs over time. We don’t want girls to be turned off or turned away from STEM due to participation in competitions, particularly those girls who are most unsure of themselves and with the least reservoirs and resources.

Competitions Designed for Girls

While competitions have the potential to discourage girls and other underrepresented groups, they are popular because they incentivize learning and involvement in a way that is difficult to achieve with other activities, and when done well they have the potential to completely change a student’s perception of a given field. Unfortunately, many competitions are designed without careful thought to how they may disadvantage certain groups, and those competitions may later discover a gender gap or other lack of diversity in their participants. Some groups however, have used a competitive model to specifically address underrepresentation in technology and engineering. Two examples of competitions designed to motivate girls are Technovation and EngineerGirl. Both competitions implement messaging shown to appeal to girls through studies such as the National Academy of Engineering’s Changing the Conversation report.

Supported by Iridescent, Technovation is a global technology challenge for girls ages 10-18. Girls work in teams and with guidance from mentors, and learn technology to address a need in their community. They conduct user research, create a business plan, build an app, and learn how to communicate these ideas. Finalists present their projects at regional and world pitches. In 2017, Technovation is partnering with Google’s Made with Code and U.N. Women. Building off the U.N.’s Global Sustainable Development Goals, girls will design their apps to address one of the following topics—poverty, environment, peace, equality, education, and health. Technovation offers girls first-hand experience on how technology and engineering can make the world a better place and how girls can be part of this work. Since 2000, 10,000 girls from over 78 countries have participated in the challenge. Technovation is scaling and supporting girls around the world, reaching girls in some very under-resourced communities. The project conduced a five-year look back study and found that while most of the girls had little or no experience with Computer Science, after participating 78% were more interested in Computer Science. Also, 58% of Technovation alumnae enrolled in a Computer Science course and 26% of Technovation alumnae in college are majoring in Computer Science.

The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) sponsors the EngineerGirl Essay Contest on the EngineerGirl website each year. While the contest has always been open to both boys and girls, the NAE reports that roughly 80% of contest participants are female. This is likely due to factors including the contest name and the female focus of the EngineerGirl website. The EngineerGirl contest also focuses on an essay rather than hands-on design, which is an unusual focus for engineering competitions. Given generally earlier language development, writing is an area where girls often feel more confident, and because writing an essay is something students regularly do in school it can be less intimidating than an entirely unknown project like building a new device. The EngineerGirl Contest is designed to be a first step or introduction to the engineering world and seeks to involve girls who may not consider entering a more complicated robotics or design competition. It aims to inspire girls by getting them to learn and write about how engineers can change the world. After participating in the EngineerGirl Contest over 40% of girls say the experience caused them to consider an engineering career while 90% say they learned something about or changed their views about engineering.

The results from competitions like Technovation and EngineerGirl are encouraging, but even when competitions are designed to improve diversity, they don’t always achieve parity. The organizers of EngineerGirl, for instance have noted that contest winners may often attend private or STEM-focused magnet schools. This suggests that they may have access to resources including wealth and social capital that are not available to most students. Parents with resources and advanced degrees can help open doors to opportunities like mentors and access to advanced research projects. They may also review student applications and offer input and support through a competition that can make students more competitive in an already competitive landscape. To really make competitions inclusive we must not forget about the student whose parents haven’t completed high school or even middle school, who aren’t fluent in English, or who work multiple jobs and don’t have the time or resources to help create a design project or edit an essay.

Stepping Back to Reflect on Access and Stepping Up to Promote Equity

While competitions are not a bad thing, there is a need to think about whom they serve and how we might make them more equitable and helpful for more girls and other underrepresented groups. Some students have built-in mentors within their families who can support the process of participating in competitions; many do not. As we allocate resources to competitions and create even more competitions will we further increase the divide and advantage those students who are already advantaged? Or, will we think outside the box and design competitions that don’t benefit privilege and that offer life-changing opportunities for students with the most to gain from the experience?

We encourage taking a moment—a collective pause—from competitions to think about the following questions. Who participates in competitions? Who’s left out? Do access to and outcomes of competitions depend on resources like mentors, Internet access, transportation, parental engagement, and fees for materials? How can we create competitions that help level the playing field and support more youth, particularly those underrepresented in STEM and from under-resourced communities?

We can learn lessons from the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). NCWIT offers strategies to support girls in competitions, and many are applicable to other underrepresented groups as well. They include making sure that mentors understand how minorities may feel in a competition and how they can support their participation, creating marketing strategies that are accessible to all youth, and putting together all girl teams.

Here are more strategies to support diverse students and design more effective competitions:

  • Bring girls and other underrepresented youth to the table and learn from them. Students can often tell you what they want in competitions and what they need to be successful. A middle school girl in Flint, MI or a high school girl in Billings, MT might have an innovative way to engage girls in STEM competitions with greater impact, and it is always important to involve your target audience when developing a new program or resource.
  • Promote competitions and personally encourage students who could most benefit from the experience. Some students may think that they aren’t smart enough to participate or don’t have a chance, and encouragement can help them get over their lack of confidence and try.
  • Be selective in making recommendations. Don’t just give students a list of all possible competitions. Rather, recommend competitions that are hosted by organizations that build upon effective practices and research and are keenly committed to diversity in STEM. Even better, highlight competitions that commit resources to support students’ successful engagement in STEM during and after the competition.
  • Create a space for mentoring. If you are designing a new competition it is especially important to set up a system of support so that students with fewer resources are paired with a mentor early in the process. And if you are promoting participation in existing competitions adding a place for mentors can make a big difference. Mentors can review the guidelines and discuss plans, read application drafts, and help students prep for their presentations. Mentors can also be a student’s champion and offer encouragement to help her persevere through the process. You may wish to step up and be a mentor yourself, and you can also encourage friends and colleagues at work to get involved.
  • Debrief, reflect, and provide feedback. Some competitions build feedback into the process, while others are too large to provide a response to all contestants. If you are designing a competition look for ways to provide all participants with constructive feedback on their work, and don’t forget to ask for responses from students that will help you pinpoint unexpected problems and improve the contest in future iterations. Feedback is a gift that can promote a growth mindset, and it should not be reserved only for the finalists or those who reach a certain level. If you are supporting a group of students through a competition you may find ways to provide feedback outside of the contest structure including meeting with other contestants to review the process or merely having a group conversation following the event. Making sure that reflection and feedback are a part of the process can ensure that all students take away lessons from the competition that will support them in their studies and future events.
  • Consider more equitable ways to level competitions. While contests often group students by age or grade-level to ensure they are competing against peers, this may not be the most appropriate method. Students who have had years of training in programming or robotics are not at the same level as students just starting out, and a competition between the two is bound to discourage the newcomer. Finding a way to level competitions based on skill rather than age (much like in gymnastics or other sporting events) may help to encourage healthy competition while supporting students as they move through the ranks.
  • Advocate for competitions that are trying to promote equity. Give shout outs to organizations and funders that are increasing access for girls and other underrepresented groups through STEM competitions. Make the case to those that have room to grow and help them do more and better. Offer to be an advisor to help organizations think about how to better recruit and support more diverse students and measure their progress.

Imagine if we had a Grand Challenge to make competitions equitable. Instead of a one-time, stand-alone experience, can we reimagine competitions so that all participants benefit by gaining valuable experience and resources that serve them on their path to a technical career? How might we design competitions so that every student has the experience of working with a skilled mentor on a challenging project and learns how to seek resources, ask for and find help, engage in interactions with adults, accept and learn from feedback, and express appreciation? Whether they “win” a competition or not, all participants could walk away with new skills that will help them when applying for internships, scholarships, colleges, and other competitions and programs.

Have you had successes in encouraging girls and other underrepresented youth in your community to engage and flourish through STEM competitions? Please share your lessons learned so that we can all learn to reimagine challenges for the broader benefit.

Linda Kekelis, Ph.D., is a consultant for education, research, and policy, promoting girls’ inclusion in STEM and empowering the influencers in their lives.

Follow Linda Kekelis on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LindaKekelis

Simil Raghavan, Ph.D., is a program officer at the National Academy of Engineering where she manages both EngineerGirl and the Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science.

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