Team competition can foster a strong interest in learning

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Egg Drop? Alarm Clock Missile Launcher? Ping Pong Plunk? These are just three examples of design contests offered by JETS (Junior Engineering Technical Society) to teach young people the basics of engineering design - and to encourage team competition that will challenge them to continue studying math and science.

The premise: that students can work together as an academic team the same way they do in athletics. The gain from the contests is not so much trophies as the teamwork and satisfaction experienced by all participants - students, teachers, parents, and school administrators.

The math and science abilities of high school students today are generally weak. National Assessment of Educational Progress statistics indicate that such skills slipped significantly during the 1970s. There is a great need, therefore, to present math and science courses to potential college students as exciting subjects worthy of pursuit. This could contribute in the future to meeting the growing need for more scientists and engineers.

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Mathcounts, a contest sponsored by the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, CNA Insurance Companies, and the National Science Foundation, is designed to improve math curricula as well as increase awareness of the importance of mathematics. The competition is directed primarily at seventh- and eighth-graders, based on the assumption that children of this age need to be convinced that math can actually be a stimulating subject.

Mathcounts is conducted on a three-level format (chapter, state society, national society) that has proved successful for similar programs. Each school is provided with the descriptive materials, but the format for competition between schools is left up to the schools' discretion.

Students on a team should be from the same school, but several schools by mutual agreement may field a joint team. Questions on the test cover 14 topic categories, including statistics, geometry, scientific notation, and algebra. National Mathcounts chapters supply schools with a standardized format for these. There are five sections to the competition: written examination, individual solutions, team solutions, topic written, and topic oral. Chapters select a winning team and a minimum of three place winners; they also select a winning individual and four individual place winners. Trophies are presented to the members, coach, and school of the winning team and place winners, as well as to the individuals. All chapter-level participants receive a Certificate of Merit in recognition of their efforts.

There are also state and national qualifications for the contest, details of which are available from the NSPE Information Center, 2029 K Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20006. There is no fee for the schools or students; all materials are provided free. Calculators, slide rules, books, and computers are not allowed during competition sessions.

Another competition is TEAMS, an acronym for Test of Engineering Aptitude, Mathematics, and Science, sponsored by JETS, which is also affiliated with NSPE. In its fifth year, TEAMS is directed at 11th- and 12th-graders heading for college. TEAMS questions cover biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering, graphics, and English. There are from 40 to 100 questions in the six test categories. All of the questions are multiple choice; calculators, even programmable ones, are allowed. Any approved nonprofit organization, institution , or school may support a TEAMS competition; JETS serves as the national sponsor and supplies all testing materials.

TEAMS has flexible rules to allow sponsors to design the competition to best meet their students' needs, although definitive rules for conducting a competition are available from JETS. After an organization has committed itself to sponsoring a TEAMS event, the group is totally responsible for the competition at the local level.

JETS provides testing booklets and answer keys, as well as answer sheets. The cost is $1 a test, along with a participation fee of $2 a student. Complimentary membership in JETS is included in the participation fee if students want it. This entitles them to the JETS newsletter, the JETS Report.

A TEAMS Planning Guide, suggesting various ways to manage a competition, is available from JETS along with other information and application materials. Write to: JETS, United Engineering Center, 345 East 47 th Street, New York, N.Y. 10017. Or you can telephone JETS at (212) 705-7690.

JETS is also sponsoring an Engineering Design Contest to give students hands-on experience in simple engineering design.

The projects are short (completed in one to six weeks), involve inexpensive materials that are readily available, and also help create a feeling of unity and team effort among students. The emphasis is on function and design, not aesthetics. Students must utilize a number of engineering principles; designs are judged on the basis of one or more physical measurements, such as distance, weight, or time.

Advisers from the school act as coaches for the school teams, although individual competition is also possible. Ideally a school will enter three or four teams in a competition.

A complete listing and description of the design projects is available in JETS Program Aids, including such projects as Egg Drop, Mousetrap Car, Toothpick Bridge, Alarm Clock Missile Launcher, and Ping Pong Plunk. Write to JETS Inc. (address above). The cost for members is $7.50, plus a $2 handling charge; nonmembers pay $9, plus a $2 handling charge.

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