Using Innovation Competitions to Motivate Students


Using Innovation Competitions to Motivate Students

Over the past 20 years, advancements in science, technology, and communication have transformed our world. If you trace any one of these advancements back to their roots, you are likely to uncover the story of a person or team who dared to break from traditional thinking and approach a common problem in a new way.

Whether it’s a billionaire visionary like Bill Gates who transformed the way the world uses computers, a team of innovative mathematicians like the women featured in the hit film Hidden Figures who revolutionized space travel, or a student inventor like Alexis Lewis who transformed how first-responders save lives, this is what innovation is all about.

In today’s world, the demand for innovation continues to grow. As a result, the focus of traditional learning paradigms needs to shift.

In the 21st century, simply finding creative ways to expose students to curricular content isn’t enough. Educators, whether teachers or tutors, have a responsibility to include opportunities for students to apply knowledge in innovative ways. One great way to bring this type of opportunity to your students is through participation in innovation competitions.

What are Innovation Competitions?

Innovation competitions are nothing new. The basic premise is that individuals or teams are given a problem to ponder; these participants attempt to address the problem through an invention or a new idea.

Businesses have long used these types of competitions to promote collaboration and innovation within their own companies. The value comes from the fact that competition has the potential to bring a wide array of perspectives to the table to help address a problem or generate the next big idea.

On the student level, these types of contests are often used to accomplish similar goals. Students are given a problem to address and are then challenged to create a solution. There are numerous examples of student innovation challenges, both sponsored by corporations and non-profits, that have sprung up all over the world. There are over 600 that take place annually in the United States alone!

One example, the Smithsonian Invent-It Challenge, offers participants the opportunity to learn about a particular issue (the 2017 competition challenges students with finding solutions to an environmental problem). Similar to other student-focused competitions, the event sponsors provide a teacher kit to help educators scaffold students’ engagement with both the relevant issues and the steps in the invention process. Among the prizes, competition winners get access to free legal consultations to help with the patent process for their inventions.

Similarly, the Paradigm Challenge, which attracted more than 50,000 registered student participants from all over the world in last year’s competition, invites students to tackle this year’s challenge of reducing waste. This year, students have until May 1st to submit an entry either as a team or an individual for an opportunity to earn cash prizes to put towards developing their idea or saving for college.

These competitions are exciting opportunities for students to engage with pressing, real world issues and join the conversations about solving them. They also help prepare the next generation of innovative minds for a workforce that shown increased demand for innovative thinkers.

It’s About More Than Winning

If your first reaction is that 1 out of 50,000 seems like a long-shot for winning an international innovation competition like the Paradigm Challenge, you may be missing the real value of this type of event.

One of the hardest things for teachers to do is find ways to create a felt need for learning within their students. That being said, studies show that finding the inroads to motivate students is well worth the effort. Offering the opportunity to participate in authentic, problem-based learning activities like innovation competitions is a great way to inspire your students to learn.

For many students, whether it is during a class period or a designated portion of a tutoring session, having a designated time to dive into a real-world concept on their own terms is empowering. It shows them that expanding their knowledge and cultivating their ideas can produce not only meaningful results, but that those results are sought after by competition sponsors that could include their government, prospective employers, or simply society at large.

Even at their base level, innovation competitions motivate students to learn and develop their understandings in order to accomplish something real. Try achieving that with a workbook!

When all is said and done, by involving your students in the authentic learning experiences that innovation competitions can provide, you not only increase motivation and engagement, but you might just be helping foster the world’s next Bill Gates or Alexis Lewis!

How have you utilized the concepts of innovation and invention with your students? Share your experiences with our readers in the comments below!

About Sheldon S

Sheldon Soper is a ten year veteran of the teaching profession and currently serves as a junior high school teacher in southern New Jersey. His primary focus is building reading, writing, and research skills in his students. He holds two degrees from Rutgers University: a B.A. in History as well as a M.Ed. in Elementary Education. He holds teaching certifications in English Language Arts, Social Studies, and Elementary Education. Sheldon has also worked as a tutor for grades ranging from second through high school in a wide variety of subjects including reading, writing, calculus, chemistry, algebra, and test prep. In addition to his teaching career, Sheldon is also a content writer for a variety of education, technology, and parenting websites.

  1. Dene Gainey 03/23/2017, 8:29 am Reply

    Sheldon, great insights on the value of teachers equipping students to be problem solvers and real-world thinkers. I also particularly agree that the process of being involved, outside of winning, is immeasurable. I tend to integrate problem-based learning throughout the school day, even in ELA (through writing), my gifted classes as well as in technology (through creation of some product using tech that solves a problem). I also am in charge of Odyssey of the Mind which engages students in critical thinking, creative thinking, problem solving and synthesis. I appreciate your post!

    • Jared R 03/23/2017, 8:49 pm Reply

      I did Odyssey of the Mind when I was in elementary school, such a great program! Glad to see it’s still alive and well.

  2. Melissa Chouinard-Jahant 05/22/2017, 10:04 am Reply

    Being a science teacher myself, I loved this post. Such great insight into innovation and how to get students interested in science.