Some academic competitions test students on their ability to recall obscure facts or spell exotic words. But one contest lets students show off their real-world knowledge and skills.

At the LifeSmarts consumer literacy competition, students vie to show mastery on financial literacy, consumer rights and responsibilities, the environment, technology, and health and safety.

“We want to empower a savvy generation of consumers,” explained Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League, which sponsors the contest.

At the LifeSmarts national championships April 21-24 in San Diego, 33 teams of students in grades 6 through 12 represented their home states. In the game-style competition, individual students and teams took turns answering questions on subjects such as cyber security, credit reports, recycling and consumer fraud.

Sally Greenberg (right), executive director of the National Consumers League, invited Kristine Khieu of Tritons for Sally Ride Science to address the national LifeSmarts competition in San Diego.
Sally Greenberg (right), executive director of the National Consumers League, invited Kristine Khieu of Tritons for Sally Ride Science to address the national LifeSmarts competition in San Diego.

This year Greenberg invited a representative of Sally Ride Science at UC San Diego to address the competitors. Sally Ride Science was founded in 2001 by America’s first woman in space, along with four friends, to promote diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Today, Sally Ride Science is part of UC San Diego under the direction of UC San Diego Extension.

Addressing the LifeSmarts competitors was Kristine Khieu, president of Tritons for Sally Ride Science, a campus club that supports Sally Ride Science programs. Khieu is a senior bioengineering major at UC San Diego who aspires to become a physician for the space program.

She gave a talk about how students can find their passion in college. “I discussed my work with Sally Ride Science and how outreach was a large part of my college experience,” Khieu explained. “The students were so excited about what I had to say, and I spoke to many afterwards about how to navigate through college.”

Savviest of the savvy

Students qualify for the LifeSmarts competition by taking a series of online tests during the school year. Schools with the highest scores get to represent their states at the national championships. More than 100,000 students competed for the chance to go to this year’s championships.

When it was all over, the team from Dallas High School, a public school in Dallas, Pennsylvania, triumphed, becoming the first team to win the competition three years in a row. Overall, eight top teams and five individual students earned scholarships and prizes.

Greenberg said Khieu’s presentation was ideal for the LifeSmarts competitors, who are “ambitious, diverse and aspiring college students.”

“They got a slice of American history, in that the vast majority did not have a working knowledge of Sally Ride and her amazing contributions to NASA and the American space program or that aeronautics is a field that they might want to pursue,” Greenberg said.

“I was especially pleased to have a great role model for girls, who are often outnumbered in STEM programs,” she added. “So, mission accomplished!”

Khieu noted that LifeSmarts and Sally Ride Science have some common goals. “Both organizations teach technical and practical skills in a creative and engaging way,” she said.

Khieu added that she was “incredibly impressed” by the LifeSmarts students. “It was refreshing to see a competition that wasn’t focused on memorizing pointless facts. They were actively learning about how the world works and applying it in a meaningful way.”

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s oldest consumer advocacy group. The league, based in Washington, DC, provides government, businesses and other organizations with the consumer’s perspective on issues such as child labor, privacy, food safety and medication information.

The league established the LifeSmarts program in 1994 to help prepare students to become smart adult consumers.