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Are Academic Competitions Right for Your Child?

Here's everything parents need to know about the realm of bees, fairs, and bowls.

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On the stage sat my 11-year-old son, a first-time finalist in The Denver Post Colorado State Spelling Bee. My heart thudded against my ribs while my hands jittered in my lap. My son’s hands were both engaged in a hearty wave at his friend in the audience.

It was his turn to spell.

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He remained anchored to his seat, waving. The microphone stood empty. The auditorium fell silent, save for the squeak of the next speller’s chair as he began to rise. Our family exchanged agonized looks. Will Bryson be disqualified if he misses his turn? I thought. Come on! Get up!

A disembodied voice that matched my own sailed over the crowd and echoed off the auditorium walls: “Bryson! Go!”

Many parents of young competitors, performers, and athletes have experienced nerve-jangling emotions within the cheering section. Because film audiences crave such drama and wonder what motivates student competitors, academic competitions have proven a rich subject for documentaries including the 2002 Oscar-nominated portrayal of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Spellbound. This fall’s documentary buzz surrounds Science Fair, which spotlights the Olympics of science competitions, The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF).

Colorado offers all flavors of academic competitions. Many provide a path from school, regional, and state competitions to national and international contests including those chronicled in Spellbound and Science Fair. Kindergartners through undergraduates can find individual or team competitions to suit interests such as math, physics, aeronautics, computers, robotics, geography, history, languages, poetry, writing, and problem solving.

Does your teen pontificate over the dinner table? Suggest he try an oratorical contest. Can your fourth-grader solve a puzzle cube with her feet? There’s a tournament for her.

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Academic competition proponents believe “mathletes” and the like deserve as much recognition as student athletes. They too compete for scholarships and prizes, experience wins and losses, and commit personal and sometimes financial capital.

“Academic competitions can be for anyone interested in putting in the time and effort,” says Courtney Butler, executive director of the Colorado Science & Engineering Fair (CSEF).

Is the realm of bees, fairs, and bowls for your child?

Friendly Competition

Whether the goal is personal achievement or the grand prize, competition energizes the kids participating. As a sixth-grader at Denver School of the Arts (DSA), Colorado state spelling champion Angelina Holm placed 42nd out of 517 spellers who bested 11 million others to get to the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. Next year she’s aiming for the finals and ESPN’s broadcast.

“Angelina sees spelling bees as a mental sport,” says her mother Vanessa Tran. “She sets goals for herself every year, but she’s realistic in her pursuit, knowing there may be a word she doesn’t know. I think it’s healthy for my daughter to experience the ups and downs of competition. I’ve seen her accept winning and losing with equal maturity.”

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Angelina, whose teacher joked that he used the dictionary to understand her essays, believes her love of words will also propel her to do well academically for years to come.

“A former Scripps national winner told the audience in D.C. that spellers compete against the dictionary, not other spellers,” Angelina says. “This message really stayed with me because it encourages me to beat the formidable book and focus less on who’s on stage. In a way, it encourages fellow spellers to show support for one another.”

Curiosity about the subject matter further unites competitors. Butler likens science fairs to professional scientific conferences: Students wander around, discuss projects, and share ideas.

“The atmosphere at competitions is very congenial,” says Jenny Nehring whose daughters, Monte Vista High School students Molly and Sara, also have attended Intel ISEF. “There’s a lot of mutual respect between students and it’s not unnecessarily competitive.”

Personal Potential

Beyond competition, academic fairs, bees, and bowls can unlock an individual student’s potential and nurture their development into global citizens. Butler believes science fairs “help students think critically, which can help them as citizens, even if they don’t end up going into a scientific field.”

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“Intel ISEF was truly a life-changing experience,” Cherry Creek High School (CCHS) junior Evelyn Bodoni recalls of her trip to the international competition last spring. “Most of the projects presented by the finalists had the potential to change the world.”

CCHS senior, Edwin Bodoni created one of this year’s top 22 high school science projects on the planet. “My experience at Intel ISEF…made me understand the transformational power of science in society and the role research has played in human progress,” he says. “Our generation will be faced more and more with resource scarcity and environmental concerns that we will have to address. We are the leading voice capable of taking these most pressing scientific issues across international borders in pursuit of global solutions.”

Organizations and corporations also recognize the potential of the young competitors. CO-LABS, a consortium including Colorado’s leading federally-funded scientific research labs, invites CSEF winners to its research awards program to inspire students to keep their talents—and future innovations, along with their economic value—in Colorado.

Pluses and Minuses

Classroom competitions have long spurred research and debate among child development professionals. Does competition motivate or deflate students? Does it enhance or diminish learning and social interaction? These questions likewise can apply to academic competitions.

Scholastic competition can be healthy or unhealthy depending on its implementation. In healthy competitions, students enjoy supportive environments focused on effort, participate enthusiastically and repeatedly, and want to improve. Unwilling participation, overvaluing the outcome, working far beyond one’s abilities, pervasive anxiety, and loss of sleep, appetite, or self-esteem can signal unhealthy competition.

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Most competitors won’t achieve top honors. In contests with quotas or selection criteria, some won’t compete at all, risking feelings of inadequacy. Kids whose families pay for coaching and travel might sense undue pressure to perform in the face of high external stakes. Top competitors might forgo other interests and responsibilities.

“Former national winners all expressed how they’ve had to sacrifice other activities in order to become better,” reports Tran. “As a parent, I have to monitor Angelina and ensure there’s balance in her life even if she insists she’s okay with it.”

To help children maintain perspective, emphasize the experience over collecting trophies.

“Parents need to stress that while winning an academic competition is nice, it shouldn’t be the main reason for participating,” says Butler. “The learning and knowledge gained should be the focus.”

Amy Silvesky, helped steer her children’s teams to multiple global finals for Destination Imagination (DI), an organization focused on creative team challenges and problem solving. “It was never about winning in the end,” she says. “It was always about being proud of what they created and appreciating all the hard work and dedication it took to get there.” Her kids, Ivy and Walter, began DI in kindergarten and first grade. DI’s team approach continues to serve them as DSA theater students.

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“We worked on having the kids understand their strengths and appreciate that in each other,” Silvesky shares. “This, and to love and appreciate the camaraderie of a cast or team, has stuck with my kids. They know that the show wouldn’t work without everyone playing and being appreciated for their part.”

Beyond teamwork, academic competitions can promote positive character traits such as perseverance, confidence, sportsmanship, creativity, troubleshooting, and learning from failures. They can hone speaking, writing, presentation, study, research, organizational, time management, and social skills.

Academic competitions also can fulfill elective requirements, offer scholarships, and boost college readiness.

Robin Litt’s son, Sam, now a college freshman, competed on Battle Mountain High School’s speech and debate team. “I think writing speeches is just like writing essays for college and performing speeches definitely helped with interviewing,” she says. “Debate includes a lot of research in preparation for competitions, so that is really good for college prep.”

Butler points out that most high school science fair participants are ready to step right into a college lab and do undergraduate research with no trouble.

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“Science fair participation is an outstanding way to prepare for the rigors of college as well as setting students apart from other prospective college students when it comes to college requirements or scholarship opportunities,” says Jenny Nehring.

Be Your Child’s Biggest Cheerleader

Nehring believes that academic competitions require as much or more parental support than athletic competitions, particularly for younger kids.

“Parents have to commit to the competition first and foremost themselves,” says Elena Bodoni. “They are responsible for providing unconditional support and working as a team with their child. Science fair is not for everyone. If it feels like the modern version of medieval torture for both the student and the parent, stop and look for another activity. For sure, there is something else out there that you’ll both enjoy.”

Also, monitor the fun factor. “Definitely give academic competitions a try and go into it with an attitude of having fun and enjoying the process,” says Amy Silvesky “If you have a group that is willing to give it all they’ve got, then foster an environment that will let them do that. The key is to keep tabs on whether everyone is enjoying themselves. I believe it is what led to all of my DI teams’ success in getting to Globals.”

Tran adds, “When my daughter first started spelling, I knew she enjoyed it. Even after missing a word, she shook it off and was excited to compete again. With any competition, your child must enjoy the experience of competition.”

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Parents of academic competitors play various supporting roles: carpool driver, snack maker, team manager, study partner, safety monitor, and expertise provider, to name a few. But above all, as your child’s biggest cheerleader, you’ll celebrate the determination and courage it takes your child to compete.

At a recent bee, I again squirmed in my seat. Three spellers remained: Bryson, Angelina, and eighth-grader Katie Acosta. Angelina stepped forward for her word. She paused in thought, her fingers typing possibilities on an imaginary keyboard. She guessed—incorrectly. As befits a champion, Angelina graciously stepped off the stage into a cloud of applause, leaving Bryson and Katie to share their first blue ribbons. In academic competitions, it’s anyone’s game.

Picking Teams

To find the right academic competition for your child, first identify their interests. Edwin and Evelyn Bodoni tried several competitions before choosing their favorite.

“My advice to those wanting to pursue science fair is to follow their hearts and pursue something they’re passionate about,” says Evelyn. “By doing so, they’ll challenge themselves and also enjoy their work.”

Valuable advice no matter the competition. Use the list below to help narrow the choices. Ask teachers about competitions that they already sponsor. Investigate school clubs, or start one. Check with gifted and talented (GT) educators or your school district’s GT office about which organizations are active in your area.

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If your child…

Is a creative problem solver
Programs the computer like a young Bill Gates
Is a loyal fan of Jeopardy
Shows an interest in math, or needs motivation to improve in math
Is a wordsmith
Experiments with everything
For even more ideas, visit:

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