Applying New Research to Improve Science Education by Carl Wieman: Value of Competitions?

December 31, 2012 at 10:40 am 4 comments

(Thanks to Beth Simon for pointing this out to me!)  A new paper from Carl Wieman reviewing the literature on science education is always worth reading, but the one linked below is particularly useful to us in computer science.  One of the issues that Carl addresses in this paper is whether competitions and other informal science learning efforts really do help with student learning.  We do have a lot of different kind of competitions in computing education, from the First Robotics league to the USA Computing Olympiad.  His finding (quoted below): “there is little evidence that such programs ultimately succeed, and some limited evidence to the contrary.”

We use competitions in “Georgia Computes!” but for a very different purpose, not considered in Carl’s analysis below.  As he points out later in the article, most efforts at improving teacher quality through in-service workshops fail because the teachers don’t have enough STEM knowledge to begin with, and content knowledge precedes pedagogical content knowledge.  What Barbara Ericson has found is that competitions inspire the teachers to learn more.  Competitions inspire students, but even more, teachers are inspired to learn in order to support their students.  When we have Alice or Scratch competitions, teachers start showing up for our Alice and Scratch professional development, because they want to learn in order to help their students.  While the impact of the competitions on the students might be short-lived, I would love to see some measure of the longer-term impact on the teachers.

Competitions and other informal science programs: Attempting to separate the inspiration from the learning. Motivation in its entirety, including the elements of inspiration, is such fundamental requirement for learning that any approach that separates it from any aspect the learning process is doomed to be ineffective. Unfortunately, a large number of government and private programs that support the many science and engineering competitions and out-of-school programs assume that they are separable. The assumption of such programs is that by inspiring children through competitions or other enrichment experiences, they will then thrive in formal school experiences that provide little motivation or inspiration and still go on to achieve STEM success. Given the questionable assumptions about the learning process that underlie these programs, we should not be surprised that there is little evidence that such programs ultimately succeed, and some limited evidence to the contrary. The past 20 years have seen an explosion in the number of participants in engineering-oriented competitions such as First Robotics and others, while the fraction of the population getting college degrees in engineering has remained constant. A study by Rena Subotnik and colleagues that tracked high-school Westinghouse (now Intel) talent search winners, an extraordinarily elite group already deeply immersed in science, found that a substantial fraction, including nearly half of the women, had switched out of science within a few years, largely because of their experiences in the formal education system. It is not that such enrichment experiences are bad, just that they are inherently limited in their effectiveness. Programs that introduce these motivational elements as an integral part of every aspect of the STEM learning process, particularly in formal schooling, would probably be more effective.

via Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2012, Applying New Research to Improve Science Education.

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2012 in review How many programmers are there? From The Computer Boys Take Over

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Baker  |  December 31, 2012 at 11:23 am

    One quote (which I want to attribute Deepak Kumar and Doug Blank as part of their Scribbler robot literature/program) especially vis-a-vis women and their engagement is to: “Do exhibition not competition.” That has lived with me for some time, and I would anecdotally say it has paid off.

    Exhibiting student work has all of the motivational benefits of competition without some of the ugly side effects that can happen when someone can “win.” Competition, especially if it’s just something you’re trying to run yourself at the scale of one classroom, can breed cheating, unwillingness to share, and the fact that in a class of say 25 students, 24 will be losers. Obviously, it’s possible to set up healthy and happy competition that the students enjoy and don’t find threatening, but I just avoid it all together.

    Example: in my AP Java programming class, I often have in-class turn-in events where we watch everyone’s program run. One of my favorites is a simulation of a Roomba vacuum cleaner (done with Karel the Robot) in which on “exhibition day” I reveal a new world that the students’ robots have to work in. Students fire up their robot in the world and then people tour the room and watch everyone’s “karoomba” attempt to complete the task. It’s great fun. Some student’s programs fail horribly and some succeed, and students are genuinely interested in each others solutions and problems rather than (potentially) jealous of them. My point is that I USED to run this as a competition – whose robot could complete the task most thoroughly/efficiently – and since I switched it an exhibition I have the same or better results and overall much happier students. Note: I do the EXACT SAME THING I did for the competition, I just swapped out the word “competition” for “exhibition” in the assignment.

    But of course the big win for me as a teacher is that when there’s an exhibition, it’s rare that a student doesn’t put forth an effort. For some assignments (you know it’s high school) there’s always the kid(s) who don’t turn things in on time, or doesn’t do it in the first place, but EVERYONE always writes the programs for which there is an in-class turn-in event. The motivation is there because they know everyone will be watching. The only people branded “losers” in my class are the one’s who bring nothing to the exhibition – who don’t even show up, as it were. And I’m ok with that.

  • 2. Baker  |  December 31, 2012 at 11:30 am

    Also want to remark on the thought-provoking idea of student competitions breeding better teachers, or motivating teachers to learn content more deeply. I would FURTHER add my suspicion that teachers more focused on PD due to the common experience of a looming competition might breed much stronger and more robust communities of practice.

    Made me wonder if (cough cough) someone who’s attempting to run a largish-scale CS PD might try to do such a thing (cough cough).

  • 3. Doug Blank  |  January 1, 2013 at 10:28 am

    Interesting results! As Baker mentioned, Deepak and I have had this gut feeling for quite some time. Excellent to see it tested.

    The next question might be: how do you convince those running the competitions to do it differently? Here is an exchange on a related topic (violent competitions):

    In brief, one of the organizers wrote in to note that my objections were objectionable and that it was worth doing some good for a few. But I have always wanted to measure the harm to the others that you don’t see… those that get turned off and leave the field. It will be great to have data to point to.

  • […] — and not about speed of programming, not quality of games.  As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve had some good luck with competitions in terms of teacher professional development.  Getting teachers to learn about modeling is even […]


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