Go Team! Competitive Strategies Enhance Collaboration among Students

In life, problems are frequently solved by groups. Helen Keller once said, "Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much." It is not unusual for a group to yield greater output than an individual can produce. More ideas and more solutions emerge when people of different talents and backgrounds join together. When students begin sharing their ideas, the process creates new ideas. Students learn to be innovative; they learn to go beyond their biases, accepting different points of view. As this happens, students learn to take greater risks for the sake of the group's endeavor; likewise, they learn to deal with consequences when the risk's outcome is a failure.

Students collaborate in group settings to address a specific task or problem while learning a new skill or demonstrating the mastery of a standard. When executed with proven classroom management skills, teachers encourage critical thinking, focused communication, and creativity among group members. Individuals' talents and specialized skills shine. Besides technical training, students train in the art of working with people.

Not every lesson incorporating groups succeeds, though. Poorly-crafted or weakly-executed lessons create a multitude of problems. Behavior issues may develop if an unforeseen obstacle presents itself after beginning the lesson. Planning difficulties also arise with estimating the time it will take to complete a task since class dynamics influence progress. Worse yet, some teachers avoid group work altogether for fear of an impending disaster, thus depriving a youth of what might have been the day the spark ignited, beginning one's quest in the training for a desired career.

Educators can leave these fears behind. Quality plans for successful group work with real-world applications are more accessible than one may think. To make this an even more desirable learning experience for teachers and students, the element of competition is added, turning groups into teams, teams whose solutions lead to better lives for themselves and those around the world.

Odyssey of the Mind

Think science fair meets theater. Add the enthusiasm of a sports fan and you get creative solutions from an unstoppable team. As members of Odyssey of the Mind, teams are presented long-term problems, problems that can take up to months to solve. Problems fall into these categories: mechanical/vehicle, classics, performance, structure, and technical performance. Commonly, problems require students to build or create a product of some sort. This could range from a machine to a skit. In the end, teams present an audience their solution.

Each year, five long-term problems are crafted for competition. In 2015, Michigan State University hosted the Odyssey of the Mind World Competition. Here is an example of one of the five problems teams had worked on solving since the previous fall:

Runaway "Train"

The team's problem is to design, build and operate one or more vehicles that will travel on tracks and make stops at different stations without touching the floor. While traveling between stations, the vehicles must overcome obstacles – moving uphill, towing something, and more. The theme of the performance will explain the vehicle's difficulties on the track and will include a "conductor" character. Once the vehicle reaches its final destination it will display a flag or banner during a victory lap! (from www.odysseyofthemind.com)

Students must follow set rules and work within predetermined parameters to solve their problem. Since problems come with spending limits, teams must adhere to a strict monetary budget when purchasing supplies. When teams perform at the competition, judges score specific components of each team's solution to the problem. Components may include craftsmanship, creativity, quality, conduct, and style. Penalties are given to teams who exceed their monetary budget or their time limit. (Members receive detailed information regarding the problem. On the webpage of Odyssey of the Mind, past years' problems and practice problems are available to the public.)

Odyssey of the Mind is an international program serving students in kindergarten through college. Age determines in which of the four program divisions a student may be placed. Schools, community groups, colleges, and universities can become members of Odyssey of the Mind for a fee of $135. The membership includes helpful coaching information, newsletters, and various educational opportunities. Most importantly, membership includes the problems teams must solve.

For more information including how to sign up for membership, visit www.odysseyofthemind.com. A simple search for Odyssey of the Mind on YouTube provides access to countless videos of teams in action at past competitions.


Using education experts and field specialists, this team creates elementary and secondary curricula that introduce students to careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the disciplines that make up STEM education). Lessons are designed with the real world in mind. Ten80 incorporates project-based learning activities for students to complete in cooperative teams. Those at Ten80 believe their programs' strong relevancy leads students in finding success both academically and mentally. Implementing the programs are easy since Ten80 provides teachers guides, handouts, assessments, rubrics, webinars, and other resources. Subscribers of Ten80 find flexibility in how frequently the program can be used, especially with elementary-aged children. Flexibility exists in the curricula for secondary students, too. For example, those who schedule the Student Racing Challenge may choose to run the program over a span of one to three semesters.

In the Student Racing Challenge program, students first learn about the major concepts in race engineering. Students study the mechanics of a small electric radio-controlled race car. After earning certification in the mechanical system within the car, students practice rebuilding parts of the car to achieve optimal performance. This is one of Ten80's programs that ties directly to competition.

To compete, teams can join the National STEM League, which helps prepare students by providing teams with a web-based platform to share, improve, and rate each other's projects. Open invitationals and the National Finals are the physical venues where teams compete. STEM Expos are another way for students to extend their education. These events last a single day and are sponsored, in part, by the U.S. Army.

Contact the Ten80 Education team in Saratoga Springs, New York, at 855.Ten80Ed (ext.1) or visit www.ten80education.com for other details.

For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST)

In 1989, inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen founded FIRST, a not-for-profit charity based in Manchester, New Hampshire. The charity develops student programs that inspire careers in science and technology while improving upon students' life skills, knowledge, and self-esteem. This season, more than 400,000 students are participating in FIRST worldwide. Not only is FIRST project-based, but it is also mentor-based. Coaches guide students with their own expertise. In addition to having a coach, teams invite mentors to visit them for the enrichment of their learning experience.

FIRST offers four different programs that progress in the degree of skills; age will determine for which program a student is eligible. Lego leagues are for students aged six through 14. Students apply their math and science skills to complete various tasks with contraptions made of Legos. Older children will build Lego robots that must perform specific tasks.

High school students are eligible to participate in the FIRST Tech Challenge. In this, students build their own robot based on their own plans and their ability to use computer programming. Another program that includes building a robot is the FIRST Robotics Competition. This competition limits time and resources available to students.

The challenges and games within each program change yearly; therefore, students may participate in the same program for consecutive years.

Go to www.usfirst.org to visit the United States' chapter of FIRST. There, you will find information about mentoring and coaching a team as well as information on how to become a sponsor.