Kids work like crazy when they have a purpose


What does motivation look like? I saw it in the faces of about 40 kids at Irondale High School (MN) on Saturday morning. They were the KnightKrawler robotics team members, gathered in the library at 9:30 a.m., waiting for the “big reveal.”

Saturday was the day when organizers of the global FIRST Robotics competition announced this year’s challenge, and there was a lot of nervous anticipation — not just at Irondale but at schools around the world.

Thousands of teenagers will devote the next six weeks to designing and building robots that can accurately throw wiffle balls, deliver gears to a lever, and climb ropes — among other challenges. Then they’ll be going to competitions, hoping for a shot at nationals.

“I’m nervous,” one of the students, Neely, told me. “The next 12 weeks of my life are going to be so busy.”

Why are students so eager to work extra hours on robotics — like, 30 hours a week — when we have so much trouble motivating students in our classrooms, especially in STEM fields?

There’s something magical about competition — and about robots.

In 2012, the Baltimore City Public Schools created a summer school robotics competition for middle school students and studied it to see if it impacted student engagement during the school year. They found the students — mostly boys — were “thoroughly engrossed” in building robots and had significantly higher school attendance the following year.

The effect was even larger for students who were low-achieving in mathematics.

In short, low-income, low-achieving boys in an urban setting were deeply engaged in STEM learning, and it carried over to the rest of their classes. That sounds exactly like the kind of program we need. How can we use this information to improve engagement in our classrooms every day?

Given that we live in a competitive society, it’s not hard to find ways to incorporate positive competition in the classroom — or what the robotics kids called “coopertition.” These are competitions that require deep content understanding, team collaboration and creativity — and are focused on team success but not overly focused on winning.

One lesson I’ve used in my economics classes is “Differentiation in the Bottled Water Market.” To learn differentiation and the characteristics of monopolistic competition, students work in teams (for about 10 minutes) to develop their own “brand” of bottled water. Each team gets a plain bottle, with labels removed, as well as paper, glue and markers. At the end of that time, they pitch their brands, and an outside judge (usually another teacher) picks the brand that he or she would buy.

It’s quick, fun and motivating, and the students learn teamwork and presentation skills along with the economic concepts.

So why not just use a creative activity? Why add the element of competition?

There’s just something about competition, the robotics kids said. It’s the secret sauce.

“I think adding the competition part really pushes people to try their hardest,” Neely said. “It’s a lot of stress, but a good stress.”

Give kids a purpose — and a fun, collaborative, competitive way to achieve it — and they’ll devote themselves to it. They’ll probably even surprise themselves.