Skills that Transcend

Debate Skills Succeed Inside & Outside the Classroom

Bill Lawhorn, economist with the Bureau of Leadership Statistics, explains: “Debaters must have strong research skills, think quickly, and communicate well. Debate clubs help students develop analytical and logical reasoning. Both colleges and employers value these skills.

Our program helps students bolster their 21st Century Skills outside the classroom. Critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication are attributes employers identify as most necessary for success in the modern workplace – particularly in the fast-paced, innovative fields of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM).

  • Debate Demands Critical Thinking
    Debate helps students learn to quickly and accurately synthesize information, seek quality research, and navigate opposing viewpoints. “I personally like to go for the argument I don’t necessarily agree with, just because it gives me a new perspective on how I view the world,” says Spanish Debate League debater Carlos.
  • Debate Generates Creativity
    Debate lets students propose their own solutions to difficult policy issues. Practice is a laboratory of new solutions and competition is a playground of ideas. “Debate pushed me to think more. I got into theory. I was coming up with ways to solve policy issues on my own,” says high school debater Dwight.
  • Debate Fosters Collaboration
    Whether by supporting their own debate partner or mentoring younger teammates, students learn the value of teamwork, leadership, and friendship in debate. “Debate’s really a team sport. You have to work together, rely on each other, and know each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” explains former middle school debater Gitanjali.

  • Debate Creates Clear Communicators
    Months of practice and days of competing at tournaments makes speaking extemporaneously, clearly, and confidently become second-nature for debaters. “Presenting in front of crowds is something a lot of people struggle with. From doing debate, I feel much more comfortable talking, having people listen to my ideas and judge them,” says novice debater Dana.

Science With Stakes

Debaters Explore How STEM Affects Everyday Life

Each year, debaters nationwide gain in-depth knowledge about real-world topics through the process of researching, debating, and competing. A sample of the last few years of debate topics demonstrates how students learn more than just the facts – they come to understand how science and technology interact with everyday life and policy decision-making.

  • 2014-15: Oceans
    Students dove deep into the benefits and drawbacks of aquaculture operations and gained content knowledge about climate change and weather patterns.
  • 2015-16: Surveillance
    Debaters tackled the hotly contested issue of surveillance, gaining deep knowledge about types of encryption and their technological uses. Students used probability to roleplay real-world decisions, deploying Bayes’ Theorem to calculate what constitutes a reasonable search.
  • 2016-17: China
    Debaters analyzed both the threat and promise of technology in international relations. Cybersecurity debates required students to research various technologies surrounding IP theft and national security. Students also explored ways China and the US might use science and technology cooperatively to improve human life via space exploration.
  • 2017-18: Education
    Students had the opportunity to take a stake in their own STEM education, analyzing how STEAM subjects should be included in schools, whether they trade off with or augment the humanities, and how to decrease the gender gap in STEM.
  • 2018-19: Immigration
    Students delved into probable and actual impacts of immigration, using mathematics to analyze wages, supply and demand, and the relative effects of different work categories on the economy
  • 2019-20 International Arms Sales
    Debaters analyzed the impact of changing weapon technology on international relations, from Taiwan to Yemen to Israel.
  • 2020-21: Criminal Justice Reform
    Participants debated the real-world implications of innovations in criminal justice technology, such as the use of algorithms in sentencing, and determined which forensic science technology should be (in)admissible in court.
  • 2021-22: Water Resources
    Students will gain deep content knowledge about the international and domestic water crisis. Topics will include, but not be limited to: ways to limit pollutants and contaminants, the impact of infrastructure on water access, whether to change regulations, and funding innovative filtration technology.

You will find students debating STEM-related topics in our community-led programs, like the impact of Mars Colonization in our middle school debate league (2020), the ethics of genetic engineering in our Spanish Debate League (2019), and the regulation of social media technology (Spanish Debate League, 2021).

Former Debaters In Action

Inventors Speak Up: How Debate Helped Them Innovate

Each year, debaters nationwide gain in-depth knowledge about real-world topics through the process of researching, debating, and competing. A sample of the last few years of debate topics demonstrates how students learn more than just the facts – they come to understand how science and technology interact with everyday life and policy decision-making.

Sara Blakely

Sara Blakely is the inventor of Spanx and now a top female philanthropist. Back In high school, she was a cheerleader and debate team member. She continued refining her public speaking skills on the debate team at Florida State University.

Blakely says: I’ve never paid to advertise, so grass-roots marketing was vital to the success of Spanx. I was also very active on the FSU debate team, and I took a lot of public speaking courses. Both helped me with my speeches and TV appearances.” (Tallahassee Magazine)

John Macken

John Macken is a retired laser physicist who is an inventor with 36 US patents. While studying engineering at St. Mary’s College of California, he was a member of the debate team.

According to a profile from St Mary’s College of California, “Macken says the confidence and verbal skills he learned through debate later helped him obtain government contracts in the aerospace industry and effectively manage people… science and philosophy at SMC taught me how to think,” he says. “Debate taught me how to effectively communicate those thoughts.”(Source: St Mary’s College of California)

Paul McEnroe

Paul McEnroe invented the vertical bar code, which has become a worldwide standard. A decade earlier, he had studied engineering at the University of Dayton. While studying there, he was part of the debate team at the University of Dayton.

Reflecting on his experience, McEnroe says, “I was on the debate team, and the public speaking skills I gained have helped me immensely. So many young engineers today can’t sell their ideas. To succeed in engineering, you have to be able to convince a company to develop your product.” (University of Dayton eCommons)

Debate Skills are a Springboard for Tech Entrepreneurs

  • Self-taught computer programmer and former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey joined the speech and debate team to overcome his shyness.

  • Tech author and entrepreneur, Adam Goldstein, came up with the idea for Hipmunk while competing as the captain of MIT’s debate team.

  • Poornima Vijayashanker, engineer, founder of Femgineer, and entrepreneur, joined her middle school’s debate team to overcome her shyness. She told the National Association of Speech & Debate in 2016,

“I’m so grateful for being on the speech and debate team. It was through all those practice sessions and communication skills that I could do things like ace my college interview and to land my first job and ace that as well. Over the years, I have used my speech and debate skills to lead companies and build products.”

Debate Skills Launched Pioneers of Medical Science

  • Award-winning neurosurgeon and New York Times bestselling author Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa competed in high school debate to improve his English skills.

  • Alexa Canady, the first African American woman in the USA to become a neurosurgeon, competed in debate at her high school and at the University of Michigan.

  • Celia Schiffer, internationally renowned researcher of HIV drug resistance, competed in debate in high school. She credits debate training for her success:

Debate taught me how to form and defend a logical argument, how to think on my feet, and how to speak in a public forum. These skills became invaluable since I have used them continuously throughout my career.

History-Making Scientists Got Their Start in Debate

  • Scott Forstall, software engineer best known for leading development of the iPhone and iPad, was a high school debate champion and drama performer in high school.

  • American physicist John Mauchly, who co-designed the first general purpose electronic digital computer (ENIAC), was an active member of his high school debate team.

  • Computer scientist and polymath Herbert Simon, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1978, competed on the debate team at the University of Chicago.

  • Suzanne Insook Ahn, prolific inventor, neurologist and activist for LGBT and Asian-American rights, competed on her high school’s speech and debate team.

  • Chemist Rosalind Franklin, who made significant contributions to our understanding of DNA, was a member of the debate team at St. Paul Girl’s School.

Debate is Essential to Society

We’re always looking for exciting new ways debate can make a difference. If you’re inspired to bring debate to your community,
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