Computer software that can decode human emotions by listening to speech? Antimicrobial coatings to prevent nosocomial infection? Nanoparticles designed for drug delivery and space craft navigation systems? These all sound like innovations worthy of Nobel-Prize-winning scientists, right? Nope! All of them were developed within the past year by high-school students under the guidance, inspiration, and encouragement of their science teachers. Now, each of these amazing accomplishments has a great chance of being integrated into future technologies that will improve the quality of life for many people. For example, in this interview on NPR’s Science Friday, the two students who developed the emotion-detection software discuss its possible application with autistic individuals — giving them a “mood watch” that will help them read and understand the emotions of those around them so that they can interact appropriately. While we can’t expect that every student in a class will come up with world-changing innovations, we can expect students to benefit from the guidance, inspiration, encouragement, and opportunity to create and innovate just as these students did.

In science especially, it is critical that students get the opportunity to engage in innovation and creativity. In its very nature, science is a discipline of questioning, experimenting, and thinking outside the box. Being able to engage in inquiry, innovation, and creativity within the science classroom in particular is important for your students both now and in the future. Students learn best by doing. So as they study a particular content objective, students will retain more if they have done something with it. Perhaps more importantly, innovation and creativity will be necessary in today’s students’ future careers. According to the US Department of Labor, the top two fastest-growing occupations are biomedical engineering, with projected growth of 72 percent by 2018, and network systems and data communications analysts, with projected growth 53 percent by 2018. Both of these careers are heavily based in science, and both require professionals who can innovate and think creatively.

In light of these facts (and innumerable others), fostering creativity and innovation in your science classroom is certainly a worthy task. But how does a busy and data-driven teacher achieve that goal? What are some opportunities and ideas that will allow students to innovate and problem-solve while at the same time learning essential core content? In the remainder of this article, I will present several competitions and classroom project ideas that will help you achieve the dual goals of providing an opportunity for students to innovate and problem-solve, and enabling you to present essential core content. The ideas in this article do not constitute a comprehensive list, but they do offer some effective jumping-off points to get you started.


In many cases, if you want to get your students to memorize a particular boring set of facts — a portion of the periodic table for example — the easiest way to get them to do it is to stage a competition: Who can name the most in a minute? Who can name all of them in order? Most students love a good old-fashioned competition and will rise to the occasion beyond your expectations.

A competition may have the same effect when attempting to foster creativity: If you want students to produce some of their most inspired work, the prospect of being recognized for excellent results can spur even the most reluctant student to go above and beyond his everyday performance.

There are likely several factors involved in the motivating effects of competition. For one, some students are simply motivated by the prospect of a reward, whether it’s prize money, a scholarship, or something more intangible like public recognition. But even students who are not inclined to show off their academic prowess may be inspired by a competition. Competitions represent a significant change from the academic norm, particularly in the realm of assessment. Many students enjoy the opportunity to be assessed relative to their peers or against national standards, rather than on a flat A-to-F grading scale determined by their teacher.

Additionally, students may simply like responding to an authentic challenge. In my experience, when students have a meaningful reason to do something, such as develop a solution to the school’s recycling problems, they are intrinsically motivated to complete the challenge. The competitions listed here tap into that desire to respond to a relevant and timely issue with innovation and critical thinking. Best of all for you, each competition can also be used to present the core content that you are required to teach.


ExploraVision is a science competition in which groups of two to four K-12 students, plus their teacher serving as a coach, imagine future technology. The student group selects a piece of technology that affects everyday life. The team then explores how the technology currently works, how and why it was invented, and the history of the particular technology. Based on the current state of the technology, the team envisions what it will look like in twenty years. Using this vision and their research, the team creates a detailed written entry on their technology and submits simulated web pages explaining the technology and the group’s vision.

Details about deadlines as well as links to free webinars for potential coaches can be found at the website. Previous winning projects include: NIBEye (Neural Interfaced Bionic Eye), in which students imagined an artificial eye that would give the blind sight; RegenX, an injection that would regenerate limbs following an amputation; and Automatic Correcting Eyeglasses, glasses that don’t require renewal of the prescription because they automatically adjust to worsening vision. Each of these products represent the student group’s vision for a specific technology in the future. While their visions aren’t necessarily feasible at this time, they are based on the actual current technology in each area. For example, some of the components of the bionic eye — such as stretchable silicon and intraocular lenses — currently exist.

These winning projects demonstrate the level of creativity and innovation of the students in developing their visions. The students successfully thought beyond current technology in order to come up with something that has yet to exist. While these projects are impressive, they tap into students’ natural curiosity and tendency to ask questions like “Why can’t scientists do that yet?” or “Wouldn’t it be great if someone would invent… ?”

In addition to the innovative aspects of this competition, ExploraVision allows teachers to integrate the National Science Education Standards (NSES) — specifically Science as Inquiry, Science in Personal and Social Perspectives, Science and Technology Standards, and History and Nature of Science Standards. Also, depending on the specific technology selected, many of the life, physical, or earth and space science standards can also be integrated into a project.

Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge

A second choice for a competition is sponsored by the prominent technology company Siemens. The Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge focuses on environmental sustainability. Small groups of students and their mentor/teacher are charged with identifying a local environmental concern and developing a sustainable, reproducible way of addressing the concern. The competition encourages a six-step process in which students choose a local environmental issue, research that issue, plan a feasible and measurable solution to impact the issue, carry out the plan, analyze their impacts on the issue, and finally share their results by making recommendations on how their solution could be expanded, improved, and spread to other communities.

Last year’s first-place winner studied the impact of idling cars in their school’s after-school pick-up line. The students handed out stickers and brochures to educate parents about the harmful effects of idling and actually succeeded in decreasing the number of parents idling as a result of their education campaign.

Like the ExploraVision competition, the Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge encourages students to work together to come up with a creative, implementable solution to a problem — in this case, an environmental one. This particular topic should be of great concern to today’s students, as they and future generations will face major environmental challenges such as climate change and overpopulation. Thinking creatively about those issues now will benefit them as they move toward an adulthood in which they’re responsible for finding viable solutions to these problems

In addition to providing students with a forum for creativity, this competition offers the teacher a way to integrate important standards from the NSES. First, you might notice that the six suggested steps for completing this competition sound a lot like the “steps of the scientific method” that many teachers teach: Students need to collect and analyze measurable data before drawing their conclusions. Although we may like to teach our students that science is more of a circular thought process — questions lead to experiments which lead to results that lead to more questions — framing the competition in such a way is likely to reinforce students’ scientific thinking.

This competition also helps teachers to address the Science in Personal and Social Perspectives content standard. The NSES says, “Although students in grades 5-8 have some awareness of global issues, teachers should challenge misconceptions, such as anything natural is not a pollutant, oceans are limitless resources, and humans are indestructible as a species.”1 Having your students compete in this challenge would be an excellent way to address some of the misconceptions held by students and build their recognition of science as an avenue for solving social problems.

ThinkQuest International

A third option for a competition that will inspire innovation and creativity is the ThinkQuest International competition. ThinkQuest is an online learning environment that includes a library of 7000+ projects “by students, for students.” These projects cover a range of topics and are mostly interactive websites to help students learn about a particular topic. The competition is extremely broad: The only instruction is that student groups define a problem and come up with a solution. The solution can take the form of a ThinkQuest learning project such as are displayed in the library, a digital media project (a blog, video, photo essay or combination), or a web-based application. Some project ideas given by ThinkQuest include addressing school bullying, finding out how eco-friendly your seafood is, and teaching younger students about grammar rules. What makes this competition different from the others is that students are encouraged to think and collaborate globally. The website features a matchmaker tool to help students find coaches and other students with similar interests.

Since the competition topic is so broad, it could be used to address learning objectives in nearly any content area. On the other hand, its broadness can be daunting, as students often get that deer-in-the-headlights look when the options are so wide open. If that’s the case, you and your students may benefit from setting some parameters to limit the scope of the competition.

One option might be mandating the format in which students will submit their product. For example, you might ask your students to create only a digital media project. Defining a topic can also be helpful. For instance, if you’re studying ecosystems in your class, you might want to brainstorm with your students a list of potential issues and problems related to that topic. You might come up with ideas like invasive species, storm-water runoff, and recycling. Once you’ve narrowed the topic and defined the type of projects your students will create, the students should be much more capable of coming up with a creative and innovative solution. One student might make a photo essay documenting the sources of storm-water runoff in their community, and then show how they are addressing those issues. Another might make a video about a nonnative plant that’s grown out of control in the community, and offer some creative ideas for solving the problem.

Classroom projects

While competitions can be a great way to inspire your students to create and innovate, all of the competitions listed in this article require copious amounts of time and effort. But even when time is limited, you don’t need to sacrifice opportunities for creativity. There are innumerable smaller classroom projects that merge student innovation with essential content instruction. A few suggestions — though again, not a comprehensive list — are listed here.

NASA Engineering Design Challenges

NASA’s Engineering Design Challenges help teachers teach specific science content, introduce students to real problems faced by NASA engineers, and model the process by which those problems are solved. Each project takes only a few class periods — a fraction of the time required for some of the in-depth competitions.

In my experience, middle school students tend to be particularly motivated to learn anything related to outer space. Unfortunately, outer space is not always in the required curriculum. NASA’s Engineering Design Challenges can help you find a concept that is in your curriculum and tie it to space exploration, resulting in a more engaging experience.

The challenges and their respective science content alignments include:

  • Thermal Protection Systems Design Challenge (heat and conduction)
  • Spacecraft Design Structures Challenge (Newton’s Law)
  • Electrodynamic Propulsion Systems (electromagnetism)
  • Centennial of Flight: Propeller Design Challenge (forces and motion)
  • Personal Satellite Assistant (forces and motion)
  • Living Off the Land: Water Filtration Challenge (properties and changes of properties in matter)
  • Lunar Plant Growth Chamber (life science, technology)


Let’s examine the Water Filtration Challenge in detail. In this challenge, students are asked to build a water filtration device using commonly available materials. You could include this project in several different units that you might be teaching, none of which is necessarily a “space unit.” In a unit on solutions and mixtures, building a filter that would best clean the water would require students to have an understanding of the differences between items in a mixture and items in solution. In a unit on ecosystems, completing this challenge would model the way that estuaries filter storm-water runoff and prevent water pollution. If you were teaching a unit on pollution, implementing this project would help students learn about the challenges of recycling and limited resource management as they build the filter. In all cases, the space tie-in is that on the International Space Station, astronauts need an efficient supply of potable water, and a recycling system is critical.

Each of these challenges comes with a detailed teacher’s guide to help you implement it in your classroom. The guide gives an overview of the background science as it relates to NASA’s work, and the ever-important supply list with cost estimation. All of the challenges can be completed with cheap, easily obtainable supplies. All of them provide a hands-on experience for the students, allowing them to gain a deeper understanding of whichever topic you decide to tie in to. Educationally, the way that these challenges are designed allow for a nice balance of freedom and constraint. The goal of each challenge is explained clearly, and material parameters are given. However, students then have the freedom to build and test their devices by creatively using the available materials.

PBS Design Squad

The PBS Design Squad website is a companion to the PBS children’s show Design Squad. On the website, you can watch episodes of the show, which showcase hip, diverse engineers and student teams completing some kind of design challenge. The challenges range from the serious — designing a machine to make peanut butter using inexpensive materials in order to help Haitians — to the silly — a challenge to create an item of clothing that has a “hidden” function such as turning into a piece of furniture. These episodes could be used to inspire your students prior to implementing one of the projects featured on the teacher’s site. Even if you don’t have your students complete a hands-on project, just showing them an episode or two will allow them to see what the design process looks like, from the brainstorming and testing phases to assessing their final designs. It is a great model for scientific innovation!

To take it a step further and give your students a hands-on design opportunity, you’ll find a number of possibilities on the Design Squad teacher’s site. There, you will find, organized by science topic, an extensive collection of activities, animations, career profiles, and episodes related to that topic. As a teacher, this is your jumping-off point for giving your students the freedom to create and innovate within the confines of a particular topic.

The activities are particularly useful. For each one, there is a PDF handout that explains the challenge, lists necessary materials, and guides students through the brainstorming and designing process without giving them a prescribed set of steps to follow. This format provides just enough structure and direction while still allowing students to be creative — which is a powerful way to scaffold students toward true innovation.

Additionally, these projects could be completed by students in just a few class periods. Since the activities are arranged by topic, you can align your selection to any one of several NSES standards. For example, if you were studying structure and function in the human body, in particular the skeletal and muscular systems, you could have your students complete the Helping Hand challenge. In this challenge, students are asked to design a device that can pick up objects two feet away from them. Building this device will reinforce concepts regarding how muscles and bones work to allow movement.

Solving tomorrow’s problems

Developing and nurturing creativity and innovation is essential for students today. With the issues that will face them — climate change, overpopulation, shrinking natural resources, to name just a few — these skills will be critical as tomorrow’s leaders formulate solutions. Additionally, it seems as if technology advances and increases on a daily basis. Companies will need employees who can come up with new types of technology and new ways to use it. Those future skills will be built on what students do in the classroom today. While these ideas represent only a small sampling of the opportunities available, they provide a starting place to help your students experience the joys of creativity and innovation.


  1. National Science Education Standards: Observe, Interact, Change, Learn (Washington, DC: National Academy, 1996), 167. [return]

Photo credit: Pedro Moura Pinheiro on Flickr.

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