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How product managers can get involved in inspiring the next generation’s workforce
Today we are talking about preparing the next generation of innovators. If you are a parent, have a nephew or niece, or want to help influence future innovators, this will be a very helpful discussion for you, especially if the kids you can influence are in grades 6-12 or will be in the future.
Joining us is Jennifer Kopach, the CEO of Science Olympiad and President of the Science Olympiad USA Foundation Board.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[2:06] What is Science Olympiad?
We’re one of the largest STEM competitions in the United States. We have school teams in all 50 states and have been around for almost 40 years. Science Olympiad is creating the next generation’s workforce. Right before the pandemic, we had about 8,000 teams of kids in grades 6-12 and almost a quarter of a million students competing.
The way Science Olympiad works is there are 23 events for each division. Kids form a team of 15 in their school. They practice just like an athletic team, and they advance through levels of competition from Regionals to State to Nationals. Every year we have alumni who graduate, go on to college, and go into STEM careers or other careers, and from Science Olympiad they take the soft skills of collaboration, teamwork, and intellectual curiosity that are the hallmarks of Science Olympiad. We hear from our workforce partners that when the alumni show up at work, they have those teamwork skills already embedded in their processes. They’re problem solvers, creative, not afraid to take risks, and not afraid to fail. In Science Olympiad, students work with people they might not necessarily know. They learn from them and learn different skill sets. Science Olympiad includes a lot of cross-column learning. Some people are more interested in engineering, others in study skills or lab skills, and they come together and learn from each other.
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[5:54] What do you tell parents about why their kids should be in Science Olympiad?
I like to share the participants’ comments. The thing I hear the most is that Science Olympiad was that “one thing” in the student’s life. It was the thing that really brought them to school. It’s what kept them going to school. It’s what kept them interested in the subject matter that connected the real world to what they were learning in the classroom. Sure, there are lots of great students, and they’re obviously going to excel, but Science Olympiad allows them to choose the topic they want to excel in. They can apply their learning in ways the classroom doesn’t offer. Parents who are looking to give their kids a nudge in the direction of certain activities should know Science Olympiad will definitely create a skillset in a student that they can take throughout their time in college and entire career.
[6:16] Tell us more about how Science Olympiad is structured and what students learn in Science Olympiad.
Science Olympiad was founded by a group of people who were super committed to science education. They wanted to share the love of all sciences. Science Olympiad is not just robotics olympiad or biology olympiad or chemistry olympiad. They wanted something for everyone, so they created this great system of 23 events across different columns: life science, earth and space science, physics and chemistry, tech and engineering, and inquiry of science. There are 15 kids on a team and 23 events, and students work in pairs on each event, so they’re never working alone and they each have do more than one event. If a student is really into studying, they can do a bio event, but they could also try a building event and a chemistry event. We really encourage students to branch out and try different things and we make sure we also help the teachers by making the events aligned to the curriculum. Science Olympiad is everything the kids are learning in school, just on steroids.
Part of the fun of a Science Olympiad tournament is students usually get to go to a big high school, community college, or university. They not only get to be doing what they love, which is science, but also get to be part of the team with a bunch of people who are their friends. Then they’re with a professor who is at the front of the room running the event, and that’s really exciting and inspiring because they have immediate access to these mentors and a vision of what it’s going to be like when they go to college.
[11:15] How does Science Olympiad choose the events?
We rotate about a quarter of the events every year. There are some signature events that we cannot get rid of. If we didn’t have Write It Do It, I think we would have a mass mutiny. Other events like Disease Detectives, which is an epidemiological event, stay in the rotation every year, but we change up the subtopics. We like to freshen things up and follow the science. If there’s something new and cool in codebusting or cybersecurity, we build an event around it. For example, we now have a Write It CAD It event. We don’t stray too much from the regular school curriculum, but we like to keep it fresh. We’re always working with our industry and government partners, like NASA, the U.S. Forest Service, the CDC, the NIH, and NOAA to stay on top of what’s cutting edge in science.
[13:28] How can families find out more about joining a Science Olympiad team?
Visit our website soinc.org to find out how your student can join a team through their school. We’re open to public school, private schools, charter schools, and homeschools.
[15:14] How can product managers and innovators get involved as mentors in Science Olympiad?
Science Olympiad would not exist if it were not for volunteers. We rely on a giant volunteer army to run our competitions, coach teams, and act as mentors. We look for subject matter experts in all our event categories. We need people to work with the students to inspire them and help them prepare for the competitions. We provide students with a set of rules that they use to practice for the events. For every one of those 23 events, we need people to run the students through the content and provide the bridge between the content and what it’s like to actually be in the real world doing this as your career.
[17:25] Can you share some success stories about former Science Olympiad competitors?
Our Science Olympiad alumni are some of the most amazing people out there—everyone from NASA astronauts to CEOs and people running startups to engineers and professors at universities across the country. Some of my favorite alumni stories are:
- Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook: He filled out his handwritten application to Harvard with all of his Science Olympiad medals.
- Steve Chen, founder of YouTube
- Reed Timmer, storm chaser and meteorologist: He started out in Michigan and loved all the nature events. He received medals in Fossils and Rocks and went on to get a degree in meteorology and become a renowned storm chaser. He designed one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen, the Dominator series of tornado-proof vehicles.
- Chris Curro, professor of electrical engineering: He won a huge student competition at Cooper Union in New York for developing the rapid packing container. He likes to say Science Olympiad taught him how to prototype, ideate, and redevelop. He and his partner in Science Olympiad did a lot of building events, and they took those skills with them to college. They were ready for the student competition for design and development of a product, won the competition, and received a US patent.
[21:14] What are some other benefits of Science Olympiad?
Science Olympiad is helpful for scholarship interviews, and some colleges list Science Olympiad as a recommended activity for students hoping to come to their college. It’s not just because you won a gold medal. It’s because those medals exemplify all the work you did and the skills colleges and employers are looking for—somebody who is resilient, has grit, and is not afraid to work with a complete stranger and put your heart and soul into something and have it not just be about you. Sometimes I get a note from a student saying, “I did Science Olympiad, and I’m awesome, but my partner stinks and we didn’t win. Can I get my own medal or can I advance individually?” I say, “Let me tell you how the world works. It’s not just about you.” I relish those moments as teachable moments. Life is not a straight, upward line that you can control. Science Olympiad helps students understand that and makes them better people, because if they don’t fail until later it’s going to hurt a lot worse. It’s really important for students to understand that being part of a team, being part of something that isn’t always perfect, is a really good thing to learn very young.
Science Olympiad also inspires students. I’ve had students from underserved areas tell me that when they showed up at a Science Olympiad tournament, they thought, “I didn’t realize this many people just like me also love science.” They find their people. The students who do Science Olympiad are not the stereotypical kids you’d think of. Many of them are multitasking overachievers who are doing every competition—band, theatre, sports. Science Olympiad develops the whole child experience. It is one of the best ways for students to have an extracurricular that not only feeds their minds but also feeds their spirits.
Action Guide: Put the information Jennifer shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
- Learn more about Science Olympiad
- Check out the Science Olympiad state websites to find out how you could get involved as a mentor, event supervisor, or parent
“As engineers, we want to create things that don’t necessarily exist on the planet, or may have never existed, but that solve real problems.” – Dr. Frances Arnold
“If you’re going to change the world, you’ve got to be fearless.” – Dr. Frances Arnold
Thank you for taking the journey to product mastery and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.