The value of competitions in STEM

28 Jan 2021

Gordon Taylor, a STEM Technician at Walton Priory Middle School, has kindly shared with us why he thinks all schools should take part in STEM competitions, as well as some of his top tips, including how to make the best of them during remote learning

What do schools and students get out of STEM competitions?

We have been entering STEM competitions for just four years, with whole cohorts of students taking part at the initial stages and around forty making it through to national finals. We’ve seen great success and as a school have won over £28,000, but the real impact of these programmes can be seen far beyond the financial award.

Throughout the process, we have seen students thrive and build their confidence, team working and communication skills – alongside their STEM skills. These sorts of activities can help give your STEM clubs focus with a common goal to work towards, while encouraging independent learning amongst students. Parents often like to see their children involved in extracurricular activities and recognised for their achievements.

Through challenges and competitions students will have the opportunity to apply key STEM skills to real life problems and to build soft skills like teamwork, communication etc. – developing the essential skills for future careers. 

These challenges and competitions also provide a range of additional benefits such as certifications such as the CREST awards (UCAS points!), events and trips to new places, awards, trophies and individual recognition – plus cash! Engaging with challenges and competitions can in fact be quite lucrative for schools, with most having some kind of cash prizes. Some also provide tangible support outside the prizes at the end. The Amazon Longitude Explorer Prize, for example, provides benefits throughout the prize such as hardware, access to technology for digitally excluded students, and covering costs to events so all can participate. 

And finally, it can be fantastic publicity for the schools that part. With the media always looking for some good news stories, especially at the moment, this can mean free publicity and credit to the school helping to attract new pupils.

What does a winning idea look like?

 Many of our winning ideas were actually quite low tech but the team’s teamwork and problem solving skills have really helped them to secure the top places! 

Some of the winning ideas have included:

  • Self-contained hydro electric unit
  • Dancing shoes for deaf people
  • Solar powered bicycle lift
  • Waterwheel
  • Upcycling gas cylinders to make flood defenses
  • Ocean Plastic Collection and upcycling system

Something surprising but good to know is that winning ideas don’t all have to be super high tech.

Coming up with an idea can be difficult, but we find that starting more broadly with lots of ideas and then narrowing down can help bring more focus. Once the students have agreed on the direction they want to go in, they get a lot of enjoyment and pride in bringing it to life. 

The Ocean Plastic Collection and upcycling system which won runner-up in the 2019 Longitude Explorer Prize!

A purple and yellow illustration titled Ocean Cleanup shows a sailboat, surrounded by symbols, including the recycling sign

What’s the secret to success? 

The secret to success will be different for every team; but if the students are working on something they really believe in then the motivation and enthusiasm they have for the project can be a powerful tool. 

A few of the top tips we’ve found work for us are:

  • Make as much use of timetabled time available: Fitting the project into the timetable can help bring a whole year group or bubble into the programme. If this isn’t possible, making use of lunch breaks or after school clubs for extra-curricular activities can work too.
  • Get staff buy-in: Securing a teacher and technicians to get behind the initiative can be a huge support for keeping the team on track.
  • Importantly, make a record of your activities: We encourage every team to make a video about their entry to the challenge or competition as it’s always good fun, but it is also an important record for the young people and their parents!

We’ve found recently that having a challenge or competition to work on in a school bubble has worked really well for students needing a project to focus on.

Despite the upheaval of remote working, bubbles and lockdown, over the last year we have found that working towards competitions has given our students structure, the motivation to work towards something that excites them, and a consistent and engaging distraction from the surrounding uncertainty.

Gordon Taylor is a STEM Technician at Walton Priory Middle School, he is also the ERA Foundation 2020 Engineering Teacher of the Year. Gordon and his colleagues have successfully supported numerous students to win STEM competitions and challenges. Their school once won five national awards in one year!

Feeling inspired to take part in a STEM competition?

The Amazon Longitude Explorer Prize is open for entries until 12 February 2021. With lots of time left to apply and tons of resources at your fingertips, don’t miss out on this opportunity. All you need to have to apply is an idea! 

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