For the past 25 years, I have used the Toshiba/National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) ExploraVision Awards to structure University Laboratory High School’s Extracurricular Research and Development (R&D) teams. The ExploraVision model encourages students to use their knowledge and creativity to solve real-world problems. It gives any student, at any grade level, the opportunity to participate in scientific collaboration. Every year, I coach between eight and fifteen teams comprised of two to four students each.
Throughout my time with ExploraVision, ten of my teams have placed first in the 10th through 12th-grade category of the regional competition. Of those ten teams, five went on to win first place in the final round of the competition (in 1996, 1997, 2009, 2010, and 2016), and one placed second (in 1998).
I’ve learned a lot over the past 25 years with this program, which is why I want to introduce an overview of the ExploraVision competition, share coaching strategies that have worked for me, and perspectives to keep in mind when incorporating this competition into your own classroom.
Two of my students hard at work on their ExploraVision project.
The ExploraVision competition requires teams to collaboratively develop a future technology prototype. Guided by a coach and an optional mentor, ExploraVision teams select an issue they think can be addressed using technology. They research this issue, its associated technologies, and its historical background. Then, students develop a vision of how the issue can be addressed within the next 20 years; and create an in-depth report detailing their research and vision. For more information about requirements, you can visit the ExploraVision website.
There are four grade-level divisions in the ExploraVision competition: grades K–3, 4–6, 7–9, and 10–12. In each grade-level division, the first-place winners in each of six regions across the United States and Canada advances to the final round. The final round of the competition requires teams to submit a website which includes a one to two-minute video explaining the workings of the team’s technology prototype.
Members of the top two teams in each division and their families, teacher–advisor, and optional mentor are awarded expense-paid trips to Washington, DC, to attend the Toshiba/NSTA ExploraVision Awards Ceremony and meet state and national government officials.
Starting a Team
I publicize the Extracurricular R&D teams in October by sending an e-mail inviting all students to attend an informational meeting. To begin the meeting, I introduce students to past ExploraVision projects, discuss how I work with individual teams in project development, review the competition rules and time requirements, and answer any questions that students may have.
During this meeting, I also make it clear that those who are interested need to form their own teams of
two to four students and schedule a weekly meeting with me — I play no role in team selection. Once teams are established, I meet with each team every week for an hour during lunch, a common free period, or after school. The first few meetings are dedicated to discussing potential topics, determining each team member’s areas of interest, and tracking individual and team progress since the last meeting.
As a coach, my role throughout the year is a combination of mentor, cheerleader, mediator, editor, and technical consultant. I think it is essential to keep in mind that students are involved in this activity voluntarily.
Interestingly enough, the students who choose to take part are often not the top students in the class academically. The reinforcement that students gain through participation is particularly important, with many developing newfound respect for themselves and their capabilities.
As a coach, I am not particularly focused on winning. The odds of any team advancing far in the competition are small, since only one team from each region advances to the final round. My goal is for the participants to collaboratively develop the team’s vision and for each student to significantly contribute to the final product.
Throughout the ExploraVision process, each student develops skills in research, presentation, negotiation, collaboration, organization, writing, editing, and storyboarding. Students who advance to the second level of the competition learn additional skills in website design and video production.
Because the activity involves competition, I intentionally minimize the involvement of parents. It is essential for students to develop their own vision and group work style internally — with minimal pressure and expectation from outside forces. Unlike standard classroom situations in which the same instructors assess student performance throughout the year, teams’ papers, web graphics, and prototypes are evaluated by other teams, professional scientists, and technology leaders involved in the competition judging.
I have found that the best way to jumpstart a successful project is to encourage students to browse science and technology magazines, such as Discover and Scientific American, to develop an appreciation of developing technologies. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and the Science Channel offer an array of series and specials dealing with various societal issues, technologies, and scientific endeavors that can also be helpful.
In my experience, much of our success in advancing to the competition’s second round is due to effectively melding technologies that are not currently integrated into existing technologies. For example, one of our past winning teams integrated smart hydrogels, amorphous silicon photoreceptors, tissue scaffolding, and neuromorphic vision chips into an artificial eye they called NIBEye.
Those who are interested in participating may want to browse the Toshiba/NSTA ExploraVision Awards website to look over the topics selected by past winners. Of course, the final topic should be decided based on student interest, not on whether certain topics appear to be consistent winners.
A Beneficial Experience
My students gain a lot from this experience. Participation has significantly improved student access to extracurricular science opportunities, and project preparation and experiences are a frequent focus of our students’ college admission essays and interviews.
As a coach and facilitator, I get as much out of this experience as my students do. It provides an opportunity for me to work with them on an informal basis and to get to know them individually in a non-classroom setting. I also learn new things from my students as they delve into societal issues and technologies through their own R&D activities. I have yet to encounter better professional development or more satisfying student interaction than I have experienced through incorporating the ExploraVision model into our school’s Extracurricular R&D program.
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About the Author
For the past twenty-five years, University Laboratory High School biology teacher David Stone has used the ExploraVision program in his classroom. Ten of his teams have placed first in the grade 10-12 division of the regional competition. He has an incredible amount of experience as an ExploraVision coach which he hopes to share with other educators who may be interested in the program.