Top Three Tips for Winning Solve for Tomorrow
How can a student scientist get over stage fright? That’s the pressing question facing 10 national finalist teams of public school students traveling to New York City on April 1 to pitch their unique STEM ideas to a panel of judges (and a big audience), as Samsung’s 2019 Solve for Tomorrow contest heads into the home stretch.
Stakes are high. After hearing the students’ all-important presentations, the judges will select just three teams as grand-prize winners of the contest that challenges public middle and high schoolers to use science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to solve a problem in their community, sending each of those three teams home with $100,000 in Samsung technology and supplies for their schools.
The path from national finalist to grand-prize winner isn’t easy. Here to help with their best advice are teachers and students who guided past Solve for Tomorrow championship teams.
1. Practice, practice, practice.
“Memorize your script… then throw it away,” advises STEM teacher Michael Eilertsen, whose middle school team from Snowflake Junior High School, in Snowflake, Arizona, won the 2017 Solve for Tomorrow contest with a low-cost wildlife detection system to alert oncoming traffic to nearby animals and reduce the number of fatal collisions. “Preparation and practice are the keys to getting students ready to speak in front of a large audience.”
Eilertsen gave his students many opportunities to get comfortable with discussing their project, answering questions on the spot and presenting in a more formal setting. Manning a booth at a local science fair and pitching their idea to the local school board helped hone his students’ public-speaking skills. He advised his students to focus on just one person at a time during the pitch, to avoid feeling overwhelmed by the crowd.
Another Solve for Tomorrow alumni teacher had his students craft a five-minute pitch script, then relentlessly practice and refine it until they were finally at ease with their presentation.
“Presenting to different audiences and to a large group, like the student body, can also help alleviate any anxiety,” said Justin Reinmuth, electronics teacher at Gering High School, in Gering, Nebraska, whose team designed a drone-powered spraying system to reduce the use of herbicides and pesticides on crops by way of precise targeting. Reinmuth’s students were named Solve for Tomorrow National Finalists two years in a row and clinched the Grand Prize in the 2017 competition.
For those times that practicing out loud isn’t an option, a handy set of notes can reinforce preparation and quell nerves, according to Maureen Pollitz, gifted-student teacher at Nicholson Elementary School, in Picayune, Mississippi, whose team of sixth graders won a grand prize in the 2015 Solve for Tomorrow contest for designing a robot to fix obstructed storm drains and prevent flooding.
“We created a booklet on the process for the students to review on the airplane to New York when they became nervous,” she said.
Rachel R., one of Reinmuth’s students who pitched her Gering High School team’s National Finalist project to the 2018 Solve for Tomorrow judges, said preparation and practice are essential to a great presentation, and so is self-confidence.
“You’ve made it this far,” Rachel said. “You’re prepared. You know what you’re doing. So be confident in yourself, and relax. It helps your sentences flow better and makes what you’re saying sound more conversational.”
2. Communicate Passionately.
Pollitz, of Picayune, MS, said her students communicated powerfully about their project by demonstrating to the judges exactly how important their solution was to them and to their community.
“It amazes me the enthusiasm and passion my students had for the project and the legacy they left behind,” she said.
Eilertsen, of Snowflake, AZ, said great communication starts with an interesting hook that catches the audience’s attention.
“Then explain the problem in a personal way that has some heart, and show how your project effectively helps solve the problem,” he advised.
3. Enjoy the Ride.
“Have a great time! This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Reinmuth, of Gering, NE, and Eilertsen agreed.
“Think of the final pitch event as a party for the best in the nation,” he said. “Your school is already a winner. Don’t forget to smile and have fun.”
A past national finalist herself, Rachel R. had some practical advice to share with this year’s talented 10 teams as they prepare to head to New York to spend so much time with so many strangers.
“Make friends on the first night,” Rachel said. “The pitch event is so much more fun if you get to know the other competitors. Then soak up the culture while you can. The week goes fast, and it’s hard to leave.”
No matter what the trip holds for the 2019 national finalists, it’s going to be unforgettable, said Pollitz.
“Solve for Tomorrow was an unforgettable experience that my students and I will always treasure.”