Do contests draw students into majors?

November 12, 2010 at 12:37 pm 6 comments

This is an honest question: Do contests help draw students into majors?  DARPA is betting big money that TopCoder can draw more students into computer science.  Does that work?  Do contests draw in more students, in terms of raw numbers and/or in terms of a broader diversity of students than are otherwise finding themselves in the major?  The question is broader than CS, since other fields use contests to engage students.  Do they work?  Do cooking contests draw more students into cooking schools?  Do engineering contests (like “build a bridge with toothpicks” or “build an egg support system”) draw more students into engineering?

I’ve done work in collaborative learning, but not in competition as a motivator.  I’m wondering what the research basis is for hoping that this is $5.57M well spent.

To boost computer science education and help middle and high school students strengthen their science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills before they enter college and the workforce, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded TopCoder a $5.57 million contract to develop a new virtual community featuring competitions and educational resources.

TopCoder is a worldwide software development community known for its computer coding contests. DARPA representatives said they hope TopCoder’s new virtual community, focusing on computer science education, will entice students in grades 6-12 to pursue a computer science degree or other STEM-related fields.

There has been a significant decline in the number of students graduating with a computer science degree, said DARPA program manager Melanie Dumas—including a 70-percent reduction in students pursuing the field since its 2001 peak.

“We’re not graduating enough people to fill these spots,” said Dumas. “We’re graduating on the order of 15,000 students a year, and we need 45,000 students a year.”

via DARPA-funded project to spark computer science education | Curriculum |

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Erik Engbrecht  |  November 12, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    I have strong doubts that programming contests help enrollment. If someone already has enough programming skills to enter a programming contest, they are already likely to pursue a career involving programming. If anything I bet the contests would scare off some of the less inclined or less intense. More approachable contents like “build a bridge” might win people over to engineering.

    I think programming contests likely to increase the intensity of interest in those already strongly inclined towards CS. So while I think the contests are unlikely to increase the size of the pool, I think they may increase the quality of the pool, especially towards the top. Perhaps more importantly, they will introduce people early on to defense related work, and the fact that it can be much more interesting than traditional business applications. Thus increasing the share of the pool that are likely to pursue the types of careers that DARPA wants to encourage.

    So will the contests help the objectives you listed? Probably not. Will they help DARPA? Quite possibly.

    • 2. Owen Astrachan  |  November 12, 2010 at 10:18 pm

      The article indicates that the contest will *not* be a programming contest. Topcoder currently has many different types of contest, not all of which are traditional programming contests in the style of IOI, Usaco, ACM/ICPC. They have other software-related contests that are pretty interesting.

      The article indicates that the new contests will be about logic puzzles and (though this phrase isn’t used) computational thinking.

      I enjoy programming contests, but they certainly won’t attract more folks to our field. Contests may, I think that the Intel Science contest (formerly the ….) is a big draw to ‘science’

  • 3. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  November 13, 2010 at 10:47 am

    I think that contests motivate some people. I think that the Lego Robotics contests inspire many kids to go into engineering (including programming). I’ve not looked at the TopCoder contests yet, but will soon.

    Science fairs (including the Intel one) do inspire a lot of kids to put in the time to learn subjects (including programming, though that remains a small category in most science fairs, often merged with math) that they would not have time for in the usual school schedule.

  • […] Guzdial discussed the DARPA-TopCoder effort, wondering if middle-school and high-school contests would draw more […]

  • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  November 15, 2010 at 10:52 pm

    I don’t disagree with any of your arguments, but I note that none of us have found any studies. I find that people are pretty good at out-smarting my rationalizations, and most good empirical studies surprise me in at least some way. So while the rationalizations make sense, it would be interesting to see data, e.g., what were students thinking of majoring in before they discovered the contest? how many contest participants (vs. winners) actually study the contest topic in formal schooling (or take a career in that area)?

  • 6. Gail  |  November 17, 2010 at 10:20 am

    Hmm, this is an interesting question! Looking at it from the perspective of minorities in CS (which is not their focus, but that’s where my experience is), I tend to wonder if it would help or hinder. I was never really all that interested in actually participating in Top Coder despite liking the concept, and that was while I was already in the major. I definitely wouldn’t have taken part before deciding to pursue CS. Is it because as a female I am not as interested in competition? No idea, but if that’s the case I suppose the idea of contests may not appeal to many other women considering CS.


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