Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math! This is what everyone in the education field hears over and over again. STEM is critical for students looking for the best jobs in today’s economy and we need to measure how students are learning these skills in every way possible. A May 2016 jobs report indicated that there were 5.8 million job openings, which is a symptom of a growing problem in the US: employers can’t find skilled workers for jobs in a number of sectors. Much of this can be attributed to increasing disparity known as the job skills gap.

When we look at Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) jobs, economic projections point to a need for 1 million more STEM professionals than the US will produce at the current rate over the next decade, according to the Obama Administration’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. STEM jobs alone grew by 17 percent year over year, which is much faster than the nearly 10 percent growth rate in all other areas.

It is absolutely true that STEM skills are becoming increasingly important for students looking to gain access to these high-wage, high-technology jobs. However, there is also another skills-gap that is becoming an increasing problem for our companies - the “Soft-Skills” gap. In fact, according to a survey by, 77% of employers say that soft skills are just as important as STEM skills in preparing students for the jobs available.

Soft-Skills aren’t as tangible as science, technology, engineering, and math skills. They include things like communications, managing relationships, organization, ethics, handling subjectivity, teamwork, handling failure, and many others. Often-times the term “Soft-Skills” is used interchangeably with what is considered “Social and Emotional Learning” or SEL in the education industry. The P21 framework for 21st-century learning provides a good list of many soft-skills that students need in addition to STEM-skills for career success.

As the focus on STEM has increased, the focus on teaching soft-skills has waned and it’s becoming increasingly rare to find soft-skills taught directly in the curriculum of a formal schooling environment. According to Bill Sutton from the University of South Florida, who studies soft-skills development through sports, “Soft skills, primarily in the communication areas, have deteriorated as we have become increasingly dependent on technology and social media.”


Soft-Skills and Academic Competitions

So where do students go to learn these critical soft-skills as our schools increasingly focus on teaching to the test and hitting STEM requirements? Some skills they learn from humanities classes, but more and more these are being cut from school time for students. Another area where students can learn soft-skills is in the realm of sports. In sports students learn teamwork, how to cope with failure, they learn organizational skills in practice, and how to make and keep commitments to the team.

But sports aren’t for everyone. Not every child is going to find the physicality of the main sports played in high school suitable for them. Luckily, it’s not just sports where students can pick up their soft-skills. Academic Competitions help students learn soft-skills while also gaining valuable STEM skills at the same time, and they have much more versatility and diversity in the types of programs students can get involved with.

We know from many studies that there are a wide variety of benefits from academic or educational student competitions. However, simply competing in a science fair does not mean a student will increase their collaboration or team work skills. The competitions must have a structure to help students experience situations in which soft-skills are practiced and learned to win the competition.

If you want to help your students learn STEM skills and Soft-Skills at the same time, look for these two things in a STEM Competition:

  • Team-Based it’s no secret that working in a team requires students to communicate and learn how to deal with various personality types. There is even scientific research that shows students learn the best when they are on a team competing against another team for a competition.
  • Performance-Based – look for competitions where the students have to perform against another team, rather than just submit something on their own. Performing in real-time (whether it be in a robotics program, debate-tournament, or science-bowl), helps them practice soft-skills like time-management, pressure-management, anxiety, and a range of other topics.

Educators or parents coaching students in these competitions can also do a few things themselves to help students pick up on soft-skills, particularly:

  • Let the Students Manage The Project – make sure that the students are the ones organizing their time, and commitments. Guide them in the management, but let them put the requirements in place.
  • Provide Feedback & review sessions – even if your team loses a tournament, or doesn’t make it to the final round of a competition, they can still learn valuable skills. Providing feedback and having active review sessions is key to making sure students learn from their failures and pick up valuable soft-skills along the way. Have planned review sessions after every tournament, practice, or competitive event to make sure they learn from their experience. But don’t just focus the review on the STEM skills, focus on what happened with their team communication, their leadership, or time management skills. Check out org for more information on important soft-skills you might want to review in your feedback sessions.

If you focus on these few things, you’ll have a great system in place to help your students pickup critical soft-skills while also learning the STEM content. So if you’re working with students and you’re worried that they aren’t getting enough soft-skills training along with their STEM skills, don’t fret! Check out any of the hundreds of STEM competitions available to students and use these programs to help students pick up both skills sets to be well prepared for their future careers! Check out the academic competitions on our database and use the filters to find the programs best suited for you and your students:

“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sports can create hope, where there was once only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination. Sports is the game of lovers." -- Nelson Mandela, 2000

In 2000, Nelson Mandela gave the keynote address at the Laureus World Sports Awards. The Laureus awards celebrate the most remarkable men and women in the world of sports each year. They are like the Oscars of the sports world, but on steroids, encompassing all sports across the entire globe.

Nelson Mandela’s remarks hit home on the point of just how powerful sports can be. However, we believe there is something slightly off with this remark. Although the pure physicality of many professional athletes may have some additional attraction for many people, the factors that provide the powerful effects of which Mr. Mandela speaks are not unique to sports – they are seen through all kinds of competitions. The power comes from the fact that they are competitions in and of themselves. It comes from the fact that there is a struggle between participants to prove they are elite performers reaching a level few can reach.

Nelson Mandela’s quote could be more accurately stated as, “Competitions have the power to change the world.” So what is it about competition that makes us think that it has the power to change the world? To inspire and unite people like little else does? And what exactly is this power? At the Institute of Competition Sciences, we evaluate the research and analyze data on how competitions impact people. Not only the participants in competitions, but their families, friends, communities, and societies at large.

When it comes to scientific studies, there has been a lot of research into how academic competitions impact the students who participate. Unfortunately, little has actually been studied in how they impact the communities around the students. However, for many of the kinds of benefits we want to explore, the differences between physical competitions and mental competitions are irrelevant. Much of the benefit in a community that embraces a competition will be the same regardless of whether it is an athletic one or in the academic realm.


What We Can Learn From Athletics

The government of Australia has been a leader in embracing sports competitions as a means to improve community building efforts, and enhance their society at large. The government keeps a “Clearinghouse for Sport” online that houses an entire knowledge base of information about the various ways in which sports can help communities. Although some of these are specific to the physical attributes of sports – such as increased health benefits from being more active – many are directly translatable to other areas of competitions, such as in educational challenges.

Australia’s Clearinghouse on Sport lists Social Capital, Building Communities, Well-being, and Social Impacts and Interventions as four key areas where sports can provide valuable benefits. In the absence of other direct studies on the academic competition impact in these areas, we thought it valuable to evaluate the reasoning and data behind what the Australian government lists for its sports benefits. Particularly we were interested in how competitions help build community and have other social impacts on those around the participants.

What we found in our literature review was that it is not the fact that people participate specifically in athletics that brings about the community benefits noted, but rather that there is a competition itself that is available to provide an attractive gathering place for the community. To gain these social benefits the competition does not have to be a physical, head-to-head challenge bringing people together. It can be anything using the competition model that helps communities come together around a shared appreciation of excellence in the subject of the challenge.

In one 2008 report, “More than winning: The real value of sport and recreation in Western Australia," the Department of Sport and Recreation in the government of Western Australia identifies some core ways that athletic competitions contribute to our lives. Among these, the report states that:

  • Sport and recreation serve as a catalyst for community gatherings, bringing people together for play, talk and shared experiences. Importantly, sport has a positive effect that reaches many levels of our society, providing an important thread that ties our social fabric.
  • In most regional and remote communities, sports clubs sustain community interaction; bringing people together to boost confidence through times of prosperity and galvanizing communities in times of need.
  • Recreational and sporting activities rely upon a significant voluntary workforce that enriches people’s lives and improve their connections within the wider community.
  • Sport and recreation is a key medium for creating new relationships among disparate social groups.
  • Youth’s participation in sport may contribute to academic performance; but more importantly, participation contributes to social development and can teach valuable life skills. Sport and recreation may also help to divert young people from anti-social behavior by targeting those most at risk.

Furthermore, in his paper, “Empowering people, facilitating community development, and contributing to sustainable development,” Dr. Hal Lawson, notes five impacts that sports have on social development:

  • They produce and reinforce social networks involving participants, their family systems, and other residents of the community. Vibrant social networks produce rich stocks of social trust, norms of reciprocity, and conditions conductive to cooperation, coordination, and collaboration.
  • They contribute to the development of collective identities. Local community identity is especially important because it helps to bridge inter-group differences and conflicts, facilitate social integration, and create solidarity.
  • They can improve personal health by creating health enhancing environments.
  • They can improve personal wellbeing by supporting opportunities for human development across the life course.
  • They contribute to human social capital – that characteristics deemed essential to sustainable, integrated social development.

Additionally, in 2015, Dr. Russell Hoye and his colleagues published a paper on the “Involvement in sport and social connectedness,” in which they explored the relationship between involvement in athletic competitions and social connectedness. It compares involvement in sporting organizations versus involvement in other non-sport community organizations. One conclusion made by Dr. Hoye was that sport involvement was found to be a good predictor of high social connectedness while involvement in non-sport community organizations was not.

However, the key distinction between these two types of organizations was not that one was a physical program and the other was not, but rather that one was a competition-based program (sports) and the other was not. None of the “non-sport” community organizations in Dr. Hoye’s study involved any kind of other competition based programs such as academic competitions. So, is it a logical step to extend Dr. Hoye’s and Dr. Lawson’s conclusions to other competition-based programs such as educational competitions? To an extent, we believe so. Many of the benefits discussed in their reviews have little to no causal relation to physical activity, but are rather tied to the fact that a competition structure is available to bring the community together. Of course, much more research on academic competitions themselves is still needed.

We know that many academic competitions serve as great community gathering places. Local and Regional science fairs, robotics competitions, and quizbowls among numerous others, provide communities with the opportunity to sustain interactions and strengthen social ties that include learning and education as a fundamental tenant of the community identity. Academic competitions provide many opportunities for volunteers to participate in the programs at all levels. Many community leaders often serve as judges, mentors, and advisors to students as they enter competitions and progress to ever increasing levels of the challenges.

So what can we actually learn about academic competitions based on this literature review of the impact that sporting competitions have on Australian communities? Here are our top 4 Community Impacts of educational competitions:

  • Increase Community Cohesiveness & Interactions. Competitions in general serve as a catalyst for community gatherings, bringing people together for play, talk and shared experiences. The structure of competition provides an overall positive effect that reaches many levels of society. In regional and remote communities, competitions can help sustain community interactions. By bringing people together it can boost confidence through times of prosperity and galvanize communities in times of need. These activities often rely upon a significant voluntary workforce (judges, volunteers, mentors, etc.) where the opportunities to support the community youth help enrich people’s lives and improve their connections within the wider community. Educational competitions have the added benefit of bringing people together around positive academic fields to help increase interactions around learning.
  • Increase Social Skills Development for Youth. Youth’s participation community based competitions contributes to social development and can teach valuable life skills. Providing these activities within a community may also help to divert young people from anti-social behavior by targeting those most at risk. Supporting academic competitions may have similar effects on family members, friends, and other community members as well.
  • Strengthen Social Networks Within the Community. Competitions produce and reinforce social networks involving participants, their families, and other residents of the community. Vibrant social networks produce rich forms of social trust, reciprocity, and strengthen the conditions for cooperation, coordination, and collaboration among otherwise disparate member of the community. Community based competitions where they are widely adopted can be a key medium for creating new relationships among disparate social groups. By providing a forum where community youths can strengthen social networks with positive role models in academics, it has the added benefit of enhancing potential future economic opportunities as well.
  • Enhance the Development of Collective Identities. Competitions contribute to the development of collective identities. Local community identity is especially important because it helps to bridge inter-group differences and conflicts, facilitate social integration, and create solidarity. If members of a community have strong common identities, they are less likely to start arguments or break bonds within the community. They are more likely to be able to work out disagreements and maintain their shared identities. Additionally, academic competitions particularly increase the shared identity of a community valuing excellence in academics as well as athletics or other topics.

All in all, the Australian government’s review of the benefits of sport to their communities demonstrates many high-level benefits of “competition” – not just athletics to communities. Many of these benefits examined in their reviews are just as applicable to academic competitions as athletic ones. So should we ditch sports and just focus on academics? Of course not. We should continue to embrace sports in our communities just as we always have been. There are many physical benefits from sport that are important to youth development that will not be achieved through academic competitions; however, there are also unique benefits to academic competitions, and many overarching benefits achieved from all types of competitions. Both academic and athletic competitions should be embraced by communities to create the well-adjusted, socially connected, world-wise youth that our societies strive for.