An aging population in Italy. The banking system in Spain. Productivity in Portugal. These are issues that many adults don’t fully understand. When I tell my colleagues that I have 14 and 15-year-old students who not only understand these topics, but have developed policy prescriptions to address them, they are skeptical. Skeptics are turned into admiring believers once they have the opportunity to see my students present their research and recommendations during the Euro Challenge competition. In my opinion, the Euro Challenge is one of the most transformational experiences of my students’ high school careers.
I’ve been fortunate to mentor Mount Saint Mary Academy’s Euro Challenge teams since 2006. As a seasoned coach, I find the beauty of the competition lies in the fact that in a fun way, it asks 9th and 10th graders to tackle real world problems that can’t be solved by simply looking in a textbook. In my estimation, it requires research and critical thinking skills that would challenge even the most seasoned college student. Each year, I’m continually amazed at how quickly a group of students who know little to nothing about the Eurozone delve into the intricacies of economic policy and become experts on a problem facing one of the countries using the Euro. The formal competition requires them to present and defend their solution to the problem, but ultimately, the competition teaches them that the world is an interconnected and complicated place, and there are no cookie cutter solutions.
Since the Euro Challenge is an extracurricular activity at Mount Saint Mary Academy, it requires a serious commitment of time outside of traditional school hours. Beginning in January before the March/April competition, team members spend afternoons and weekends doing research, developing their presentation, and preparing for the round of questions they will receive from the panel of judges. It’s a lot of work, but all nine teams I have mentored unanimously agree that the time and effort has been well worth it.
I think a recent team member said it best:
“I suppose what I enjoyed the most about Euro Challenge was the fact that what we were researching and presenting were real, as in real problems that countries are facing in our time. Especially at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis, and after the recent referendum in the UK, when the European Union was in the spotlight, knowing background information felt so good — I knew what the people on the radio were talking about! Not only that, but at the competition, we would present to the people who are experts on the Euro. It was a wonderful feeling to know that these people found listening to high school students’ presentations important enough to take time from their busy schedules — in a way, it boosted our confidence and self-worth. Through the Euro Challenge, I got my own taste of the life of a policy-maker. It was a wonderful academic experience — those long meetings were most definitely worth it.”
The benefits of participating in the Euro Challenge extend well beyond critical thinking skills in economics and policy analysis. Most importantly, students learn how to operate as part of a team — -sharing ideas, brainstorming solutions, and resolving differences of opinion. They recognize that they can’t do it all and must rely on their team members both before and during the competition. They learn how to form a cohesive argument and defend it when challenged. They also learn how important it is to organize their ideas into a clear and compelling presentation. They acquire the ability to access online data and transform it into tables and graphs. Although it goes without saying that the competition requires students to perfect their oral presentation skills, the evolution of a generally trepidatious and reserved group of teenagers into a team that exudes confidence is one of the major benefits of the competition.
The national competition culminates each year in New York City. The five top teams receive scholarship money, with the top two also receiving a trip to Washington D.C. to visit the EU’s Delegation to the United States. In my experience, however, the true benefits of the competition can’t be purely measured by a monetary prize. The real benefits extend well into the future as all students who participate form a deep and long-lasting understanding of the challenges facing member nations, realize the interconnectedness of their world, and are thus better prepared for their roles as global citizens. As I enter the tenth year of coaching a Euro Challenge team, I am thrilled once again to be part of such an amazingly rich educational experience. Many thanks to the Delegation of the European Union for providing this unique opportunity to American high school students and their teachers!