Ask any football player, and he’ll tell you that he had sat in his locker before a game and imagined himself making the big play. There isn’t a pitcher alive that hasn’t imagined himself striking out the big home run hitter in the bottom of the ninth with bases loaded, two outs, and a three-run lead. Basketball players imagine buzzer-beaters and boxers imagine landing the big knockout punch. It’s something athletes do. They imagine themselves playing well and being successful as a motivational tool. The image helps make them confident in their ability to do what they envisioned.

But while envisioning an outcome in the future can help make it happen, it wouldn’t be possible without something else— knowledge.

A quarterback must know how to complete a pass 40-yards downfield to a wide receiver that appears covered (no, you don’t just throw it). Basketball players needs to know at what angle he should shoot and how hard to make a shot. A boxer needs to know how to defeat his opponent’s defenses so that he can land a knockout punch.

Knowledge an imagination both play a role in helping people shape their own future. But is one more important than the other? Albert Einstein would say yes, having stated that:

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand."

Imagination can help a football player become better at his game. It can help a moviemaker create better movies. But what about the rest of us? Is imagination not as important to the factory worker, teacher, grocery store clerk, or politician?


The Importance of Imagination

In his article, The Importance of Imagination, Psychotherapist, and Social Ecologist Tao de Haas explains how a strong imagination helps us:

"The ability to imagine things pervades our entire existence. It influences everything we do, think about and create. It leads to elaborate theories, dreams, and inventions in any profession from the realms of academia to engineering and the arts. Ultimately, imagination influences everything we do regardless of our profession. Imagination is the key to innovation."

Dr. Haas went on to say:

"Yesterday’s knowledge alone will not suffice. Imagination is essential for anyone, especially for leaders, who not only have to lead people into the future but have to foresee the challenges not yet known that await mankind."

Okay—but how does imagining the future actually help us change it? By foreseeing challenges that could arise, we can develop a plan for dealing with them before they become an issue. For example, rather than wait for a virus to mutate and become a super-bug, we can develop a vaccine that eliminates it. On a smaller scale, it can help a person whose life appears to be spelled out in front of them change their circumstances for the better.

Researchers tested this theory in a pair of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion. The results were especially telling concerning women with challenging upbringings. Envisioning a happier, more secure future helped drive them on the path towards achieving it. Mesmin Destin, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University, had this to say about the results of the studies (Psychology Today):

“This research shows that (they) can draw from vivid and motivating images of their own futures to help support their motivation and persistence during challenging and uncomfortable tasks. It also suggests that faculty members should welcome students into their offices and engage with them about their goals as a potential way to help mitigate the power imbalance that many students experience.”


How Academic Competitions Help Students Imagine their Future.

Athletes test their skills against their peers on their respective game-field. Students can test their knowledge on a subject matter through examinations. But how can we put our imagination under the microscope to see how well developed it may (or may not) be? How can we train ourselves to picture the future in ways that will help us achieve the goals we want to? We’ve searched through the competitions database to pull out three competitions that are explicitly designed to help students use their imaginations of future possibilities to learn how to solve challenges and tackle hurdles ahead of them.


Modeling the Future Challenge

This competition challenges high school students to imagine how new technologies may change the future, but it also asks them to go a step beyond this and actually use real-world data and mathematical analysis to project how that change will happen. Students have to propose what the change is that they think a technology will bring, and then demonstrate logical reasoning and mathematical analysis showing what they know about the specifics of this change.

Get your students involved in the Modeling the Future Challenge to not only help them with imaging the  future, but also with using STEM techniques to project specific details of the change new technologies will bring.


Future City

The Future City competition challenges students to imagine a future design of a city that incorporates new technologies and new systems into the city structures themselves. Students must first imagine the future of the city they hope to see, and then examine how that city could come into being.


Future Problem Solving Program

The Future Problem-Solving Program has 4 competitive components: Global Issues Problem Solving, Community Problem Solving, Scenario Performance, and Scenario Writing. All of these components can help students learn to use their imagination to become better at solving problems and creating the future they want to see; but Scenario Writing and Scenario Performance particularly come in handy. Participants are asked to take one of the five topics for the year and imagine a scenario 20-years in the future (or more). What actions were taken to handle the problem in the scenario? What were the outcomes of those actions? What actions or events are currently taking place in the scenario and how well are they working out? Successful participants will have to use their knowledge of the subject matter and the power of their imagination to come up with potential solutions to whatever the issue is.


Competitions like Modeling the Future Challenge, Future City, and Future Problem Solving Program all give participants a chance to exercise their imaginations. By putting their imaginations to the test, they can develop them further and refine ways to use them to solve challenges that will help them design the futures they want. The better developed a person’s imagination is, the more possible outcomes they’ll be able to create.

By helping our students imagine a better future, we can help them figure out how to make it a reality. So what are you waiting for? Get imagining!