Can We Use Competitions to Create Academic Heroes?

Everyone loves a good hero. We love to learn about them. We love to talk about them. We love to be like them. Nearly every story we’re told in history class includes the tale of a daring hero overcoming great odds. From Hercules to Charles Lindbergh, we craft our stories around feats of strength, bravery, and cunning. Heroes help provide the confidence and courage we need to persevere in our own challenges and help us think that the impossible just might be possible. Heroes can be powerful tools of change, but what happens if you don’t have strong heroes to guide and motivate people? Or rather, what happens when an entire industry doesn’t create those heroes? Industries that don’t nurture the development of heroes lose much of their ability to motivate and inspire the public to achieve greatness within their field. Unfortunately, we know how this works through direct observation. We can see it in practice in our formal education industry. Rather than nurturing academic heroes, we’ve nurtured students who would rather be doing anything other than what is actually best for them. In education, we’ve limited our hero generation to attempts to raise the profile of long dead scientists and engineers. Galileo, Newton, Einstein, today we all know these names and can recognize them as academic heroes of their own age. Brilliant minds of the long-ago. Unfortunately, these heroes aren’t the type that will inspire the unrestrained passion for learning that our society so desperately needs. What we need is the Lebron James, Peyton Manning, or Serena Williams of physics, biology, or computer science. What we need are the “active heroes” of the upcoming generations. It isn’t that we can’t create these heroes. We know how to do it. Our athletic programs have been doing it since the dawn of sports. So why are Lebron James, Michael Jordan, Serena Williams and their like more acceptable as Heroes for our youth than Albert Einstein, Nicola Tesla, or Thomas Edison? The full answer to this question is very complex, but we’ve broken it down into just three overarching reasons:
  1. Athletic performance is quantified, academic performance is qualified.
  2. Athletic statistics are public knowledge, academic statistics are closely guarded.
  3. Athletic heroes are recognized in the early stages of their careers, academic heroes are only noted at the end stages of their careers.
In this post, we explore how these key differences create athletic heroes who are incredibly inspirational for our youth while academic heroes are barely recognized by an entire generation. We hope that by sharing this information we can learn a lesson or two from our colleagues in the coaches office and lay the groundwork to start changing the face of Academic Heroes across the country.   lebron-james-statistics QUANTIFIED ATHLETICS vs. QUALIFIED ACADEMICS Despite the fact that our educational institutions have long attempted to lift up academic heroes, on the whole, students remain uninspired by today’s all-stars of academics. Ask any high school student to name a scientist they would consider to be hero and they will struggle, or grudgingly say “Thomas Edison” or “Albert Einstein” or a handful of others. Ask them to name a LIVING scientists and you will get nothing but blank stares coming back at you. Then ask your students to name an athletic hero and the hands will shoot into the air. “Serena Williams! I want to be just like her,” “Lebron James, he can shoot better than anyone!” “Peyton Manning! He’s the best!” “Michael Phelps!” The list will go on and on. There is a subtle but very important difference between how we identify athletic heroes and how we identify academic heroes. We quantify our athletic heroes, but we qualify our academic ones. This changes everything. In 2003, a struggling team in the National Basketball Association picked up a lanky 19 year old from Akron, Ohio in the draft. The young man was drafted straight out of high school, but had been talked about as an up and coming NBA star for years thanks to his electrifying play on his local high school team. Before the end of his rookie year, everyone knew the name of Lebron James. He was quickly vaulted into the upper echelon of basketball stars shared by greats such as Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’neal, Kobe Bryant, and many others. In his rookie year, Lebron racked up some powerful stats. He scored 25 points on his first game in the NBA, setting a record for most points scored by a prep-to-pro player in his debut game. Over the course of the entire season he averaged 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game. At the time, this put him on par with just two other players in the history of the NBA who had achieved these numbers – Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan. Lebron James continued to put up unbelievable statistics year after year. He was awarded the 2004 Rookie of the year award, won three NBA Championships, was recognized as the NBA’s Most Valuable Player 4 times, and was awarded two Olympic medals. Lebron James quickly became recognized as one of the greatest athletic heroes of the modern age! The same year that Lebron was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers, 1500 young scientists, engineers, and academics graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Many of these brilliant minds went on to found revolutionary new technology startups, to become award winning scientists, and achieve world renown in their fields for their great accolades. Just like Thomas Edison or Albert Einstein these students were the top of the top and were looked up to for their great intellect and ability to produce revolutionary new technologies and ideas. However, with no quantified metrics to clearly identify their exceptional performances, their names have been limited to select academic journals and industry specific periodicals. There has been no debate among high school students about which of these MIT graduates was the best scientist, the smartest engineer, or the most skilled doctor. Without the comparative metrics to evaluate their performance, how were the high students supposed to know that any of the exceptional MIT graduates were actually heroes in their field? The information on how academic heroes got to their vaulted position of recognition and prestige is far less clear than that of a sports star because we have no regular, real-world quantification of performance within an academic field. What is the % of shots made for biology? What is the number of blocks for Physics? How do you know if one MIT graduate performed better than 99% of her peers? Was Albert Einstein better than Richard Feynman? What about Thomas Edison versus Alexander Graham Bell? Or Neil DeGrasse Tyson versus Bill Nye? Without specific stats and criteria its hard to define exceptional performance. Only through defined, structured competitions with standard evaluation metrics can we identify common traits that can be used to lift up heroes in their field. Without these metrics we’re stuck comparing apples to oranges. This subjectivity without firm comparative statistics makes it hard for our youth to know that any individual scientist, engineer, or doctor actually is someone to emulate. A more direct method of identifying and quantifying academic heroes is needed.   Scan-tron-test PUBLIC STATISTICS vs. PRIVATE METRICS In the NBA, statistics are tracked for all competitions and they become public knowledge as soon as they’re identified. In fact every major professional sports industry publishes detailed statistics on their players. They are tracked on everything from the number of passes to the number of free throws made, to number of fouls, and on and on. By evaluating all the players on the same quantitative metrics it becomes very clear that Lebron James’s performance is exceptional among his peers. We can see immediately that his ability to put up more than 20 points per game in his rookie season was an incredible feat that virtually no one else in the NBA had achieved. America’s youth were given explicit information that identified Lebron James as an incredible basketball player. He was a hero that students could aspire to not just because someone said he was good, but because there was clear, publicly available information that demonstrated exactly how good he was relative to others. Students could watch Lebron James and talk about his amazing performances using quantified metrics. They could show off their knowledge of Lebron’s skills by noting the outstanding statistics of his career. The detailed performance numbers from his games allowed for a clear cut comparison to others in the league. They said to us, this is someone to be emulated! Lebron James was a hero, clean and simple. And everyone knew it. In academic industries, where our heroes come from abilities of the mind, we have no such public knowledge of performance metrics. We do have one system setup to evaluate performance in academic settings and to some extent grades can help inspire students do better; however, for the most part, grades are seen as very poor, uninspired, evaluation criteria. Its easy to see that grades don’t create the same hero-generating effect that sports statistics do. There are three key differences that make it hard for students to use grades to identify academic heroes: (1) Grades are not made publicly available, (2) Grades are not directly correlated to real-world performance, (3) grades are not normalized, an “A” from one school, could be very different from an “A” from another. There are no organizing bodies to post grades from college exams, nor are there other ways to compare the performances of top scientists in their field. The ability to quickly see statistics from all performers and compare them to one another is a key factor in being able to define a hero. This simply does not exist in academics the way it does in athletics.   einstein EARLY CAREER vs. END CAREER In 1895, a young patent clerk failed to achieve entrance to the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School due to poor performance on the entrance exam. Contrary to the popular story, Albert Einstein was not a dumb child, but was rather a youth who was not concerned with the structured, formal system of schooling, and preferred to conduct his own self-study. Many in the educational circles exposed to Einstein in his youth noted his exceptional performance and critical thinking abilities, and throughout his formal schooling he continued to get exceptional marks on his work. Einstein was regularly recognized as a prodigy, but because of his failure to follow traditional educational pathways, his family and friends worried about his future prospects throughout his youth. It wasn’t until late in his career that he became widely accepted as the prodigy that he was. Today we know Einstein as one of the most influential scientists in all of history. He is the equivalent of Lebron James for the physics community of his time. He is an academic hero by all accounts. So why do so few of our youth aspire to the same level of excellence as Einstein or others like him? Part of the reason is that today’s youth need today’s heroes. Even in athletics, students in middle and high school today don’t aspire to be like Oscar Robertson, or Joe Namath. They aspire to be like Lebron James and Peyton Manning. Finding heroes in the early stages of their careers, where there are still years of upcoming performances, helps students identify with them. It helps students realize that these heroes might not be so different from them after all. There are ways we recognize heroes in academic fields; however, most of these are in the form of recognition awards given at the end-stages of an academic’s career. Lebron James was 19 when he was drafted to the NBA and began putting up amazing statistics. The average age of Nobel Laureates is 59. These recognition awards are often given based upon a subjective private review of performance where the criteria are not well defined nor provided to the public. This fact makes it even harder for students to look at an academic and see without a doubt that there performance is exceptional above and beyond others in their field. Identifying and recognizing “active heroes” at the early stages of their careers is critical to motivating and inspiring youth to want to emulate the heroes.   First-finals-long CHANGING THE GAME FOR ACADEMIC HEROES We know how to create good heroes for our younger generations to look up to. We’ve seen it done to great effect in athletics. We know what it takes. Educational competitions already exist that can provide the framework upon which we evaluate our academic heroes and define their exceptionalism, just like we do with athletics. Strong educational competitions, designed with best practices in mind, can help us overcome the 3 challenges noted in this post. By quantifying real-world performance metrics, publishing statistics on the competitors, and identifying “active heroes,” educational competitions can create the academic heroes we need. In this matter, Athletics provides us with a great role model for our educational system. Our sports leagues are great at creating heroes. In the education world, sometimes we scoff at the attention our colleagues down the hall in the coach’s office get, but maybe our educational system should actually take a page from our friends in the athletics department. Maybe its time we learned from sports how to create heroes. With more than 450 educational competitions available to our students, the foundation is already laid.
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  1. I’ve judged science fairs for forty years, from the local, elementary, level to state science fairs and several times at the International. I have seen so many students that are worthy of a “hero” status. The science fairs can create heroes, in that they provide a forum for a competition, but its not near enough. The “heroes” are known to a very limited audience, and very little to their peers. I have examples of a some notable exceptions, in that I am on the board of several multi-county school competitions, and at the Saturday afternoon award ceremonies, some schools bring many people that stand and cheer when someone from their school receives an award. Moreover, at those same schools, science fairs are an institution. Elementary students know they will someday be doing science projects; and more importantly, so do the parents who rally around the teachers to support the program. The same is true of a variety of schools – public, urban, rural, parochial, etc – but these are few, with one common factor. They have a science teacher supports science fairs, even when, for the most part, he or she must do much of the extracurricular work on their own, without increased compensation. The successful schools are successful because they have that teacher.
    I used to chair a committee that selected the Buckeye Science Scholar winner – ostensibly, the best project in Ohio. Everyone we judged should truly have been a hero in the state, as much “Mr. Football” and “Mr. Basketball” was. Their work was amazing for a high school student, yet very few knew about it. In some ways, it may be impossible, since few people can understand what they accomplished, as compared to the guy who gained 200 yards in a game, and everybody understood it.
    One major thing that makes it difficult to create heroes in academia, is that so many of our youth feel hopelessness in achieving academic heights, so a hero means little to them. On the other hand, they see LeBron James score, and they think “I can do that!”, without thinking about the incredible work even a super-hero has to put in to achieve it. I don’t know how to change that.
    The bad news is that it will take a cultural change to make it happen. The good news is that I think it is very possible, and you people are on the way to doing just that.

    • Thank you for this very thoughtful note Robert. I love hearing your story of what some of your science fair students have done. It is also a universal theme that, under the weight of the current educational structures, it takes a very unique and caring teacher to really move these competitions forward. We should all thank those teachers every day, and also those who volunteer their time to support the competitions, like yourself! We will continue our work to help you and all those like you improve how we can highlight and recognize these great academic heroes.

      Thank you!

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