Top 15 science / STEM contests for kids

***UPDATED FOR 2013-2014: Click here to view Top 20 STEM contests for kids***

‘Tis the season to plan your participation in science contests and competitions for kids in the 2012-2013 academic year. is proud to compile this list of the year’s top science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) competitions. Please share, tweet, re-post this list to parents, educators, potential sponsors and judges.

Encourage–heck, force–your kid to participate the same way you’d push for attendance at that out-of-town soccer game. Help your niece, nephew, grandchild, or the neighbor kid complete a science project. Volunteer to work at your local science fair; if you’re a scientist, technician, or engineer, volunteer to be a judge or mentor a team at your neighborhood school. Make a donation or sponsor a special award. Get involved to support STEM education!

Not your standard science fair:

1. The DuPont Challenge: Every kid with access to a computer should enter this one.

  • Science writing contest (700-1000 words on the science topic of your choice)
  • Grades 7-12 (junior & senior divisions) students in U.S. and Canada
  • Prizes: expenses-paid trip to Walt Disney World & the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, plus thousands of dollars
  • This year’s deadlines not yet posted; in 2011, online entries were accepted starting in November with deadline Jan. 31, 2012

2. Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge: Deadline for entry this year is October 24, 2012 so you’ll have to move fast–or make a note for next year. (Last year the deadline was later.) Entries accepted starting in August.

  •  Team event, ages 13-18. Challenges high school students to create innovative new commercial products using STEM. Open to students worldwide.
  • Challenge: conceptualize a solution in one of these areas: aerospace & aviation; energy & environment; cybersecurity & technology; health & nutrition
  • First, submit a brief proposal of your idea. If your idea makes the next round, the stakes go up with a technical concept report, business plan and graphic visualization. Five finalists invited to the Innovation Summit, a one-of-a-kind opportunity.

3. US FIRST Robotics & Tech Programs: World-wide eligibility. You’ve probably seen winners of these competitions featured in the media.

  • Jr. FIRST Lego League: For kids ages 6-9. Team event. Event season is now to April 2013. Learn about this year’s challenge (Improving Lives of Senior Citizens) and use LEGOs to build a model of a machine to make seniors’ lives better.
  • FIRST Lego League: For kids ages 9-14. Team event. Season starts in the fall. Design, build, program, test robots using LEGO Mindstorms technology.
  • FIRST Tech Challenge: For high school (grades 9-12). Big scholarship prizes at stake.

For students who want to compete head to head using a sports model. Teams of up to 10 students are responsible for designing, building, and programming their robots to compete on a 12 X 12’ field in an Alliance format against other teams. Robots are built using a TETRIX® platform that is reusable from year-to-year using a variety of languages. Teams, including Coaches, Mentors, and Volunteers, are required to develop strategy and build robots based on sound engineering principles. Awards are given for the competition as well as community outreach, design, and other real-world accomplishments.

A varsity Sport for the Mind,™ FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) combines the excitement of sport with the rigors of science and technology. Under strict rules, limited resources, and time limits, teams of 25 students or more are challenged to raise funds, design a team “brand,” hone teamwork skills, and build and program a robot to perform prescribed tasks against a field of competitors. It’s as close to “real world” engineering as a student can get. Professional Mentors volunteer their time and talents to guide each team.

4. 3M/Discovery Young Scientist Challenge

  • U.S. students in grades 5-8
  • To enter, students need to submit a 1-2 minute video which describes a new innovation or solution that could solve or impact an everyday problem related to: [1] the way we move; [2] the way we keep ourselves healthy; or [3] the way we make a difference. {These topics may change for 2013 Challenge.}
  • Ten finalists will be mentored by 3M scientists and win a trip to 3M headquarters in Minnesota
  • First place wins $25,000. All finalists win a Discovery Student Adventures trip
  • Contest entries accepted December to April

5. The Kids Science Challenge: Sponsored by National Science Foundation. No details posted yet for this year; information below is based on last year’s contest. Note that their website also offers science games, videos, science fair project ideas, and more.

  • Free, nationwide science competition for students in grades 3 through 6. Individual or team entries allowed.
  • Kids submit ideas and experiments for scientists and engineers to solve: Each year the KSC selects 3 science topics and a panel of expert scientists and engineers. The entry process is 3 easy steps: STEP 1: Kids research the three topics. STEP 2: Kids brainstorm their ideas, experiments or problems. STEP 3: Kids submit their ideas or experiments for scientists to solve.
  • Prizes: trip to work with a scientist or engineer on the project in a lab; tons of science stuff
  • Last year registration was from October to February. This year TBD.

6. eCyberMission: is a web-based STEM competition free for students in grades 6 through 9 sponsored by the U.S. Army. Teams can compete for state, regional and national awards while working to solve problems in their community.

  • Registration deadline: Dec. 14, 2012
  • 3 or 4 student members from the same state with an adult team advisor
  • Team chooses one category of “mission challenge”, asks a question, and tests it using scientific method
  • 1/5 of final score is based on project’s potential benefit to the community

7. Science Olympiad: School-based teams of 15 students in grades 6-12 who prepare, coach, and practice throughout the year.

8. The Tech Challenge: This is an awesome program with tons of support (workshops and clinics throughout the preparation process) but everything is at The Tech Museum of Innovation in Silicon Valley (San Jose, CA) so contest is effectively restricted to Bay Area teams.

  • The Tech Challenge is an annual team design challenge for students in grades 5-12 that introduces and reinforces the science and engineering design process with a hands-on project geared to solving a real-world problem.
  • Teams of 2-6 people compete in three divisions: Elementary (grades 5-6), Middle (grades 7-8), High (grades 9-12)
  • Event Day is Saturday, April 20, 2013 at the Tech Museum.
  • This year’s challenge: variant on the classic egg drop

Math & Technology competitions:

9. Future City: “The Future City Competition is a national, project-based learning experience where students in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade imagine, design, and build cities of the future. Students work as a team with an educator and engineer mentor to plan cities using SimCity™ 4 Deluxe software; research and write solutions to an engineering problem; build tabletop scale models with recycled materials; and present their ideas before judges at Regional Competitions in January. Regional winners represent their region at the National Finals in Washington, DC in February.”

  • Educators can do the program without competing if they wish. Teams of 3 students + educator + engineer mentor
  • 1. Register; 2. Design virtual city in SimCity4 3. Draft essay 4. Work on building scale model of city 5. Write city narrative 6. Submissions

10. MathCounts: Enrichment, club, and competition math programs for middle school U.S. students (grades 6-8). National competition is a major event held in May; 12 students vie for title of Raytheon Mathlete Champion

  • Enroll your school online now to get your MathCounts handbook (early deadline: Nov. 16, 2012; final deadline: Dec. 14, 2012). Homeschools are eligible. Club program is free. Competition teams of 1-4 students: fee $25-$100.
  • Competitions begin in January

11. National STEM Video Game Challenge: “Goal is to motivate interest in STEM learning among America’s youth by tapping into students’ natural passion for playing and making video games.”

  •  Categories for middle school (grades 5-8), high school, and collegiate. Also prizes for educators. Homeschoolers are eligible.
  • To enter, you or your team of up to 4 people must design a “video game” (defined at the site) that incorporates STEM learning (Click here for detailed description of middle school projects.)
  • Game can be fully programmed and playable (in one of the platforms suggested) or submitted as detailed written game design documents
  • Entry dates for this year TBD; last year entries were accepted from November to March
  • Prizes: laptop computers + $2000

12. Microsoft’s Imagine Cup: For budding tech entrepreneurs. Three technology competitions for high school & university students worldwide. First prize $50,000. Finalists win trip to competition in Russia summer 2013. Register now.

  • World Citizenship: Make an app that could change someone’s life. Pick your cause: the environment, education, health, you name it. Use technology as an agent of change.
  • Games: Put a smile on the face of the world. Make the next great game and see people playing it all around you on console, PC, phone, slate – wherever people play games.
  • Innovation: Reinvent social networks. Transform online shopping. Experience music in a new way. Do something amazing with GPS. It’s time to take that crazy idea of yours and ship it!

13. M3 Moody’s Mega Math Challenge: Math competition to solve an open-ended, realistic, applied math-modeling problem focused on a real-world issue.

  • High school juniors & seniors in certain U.S. states only. Homeschoolers eligible.
  • Teams of 3-5 students have 14 hours over one weekend to do the problem; prepare by working on problems from previous years
  • Registration begins November 2012

Traditional science fair competitions:

Science fairs were a crucial formative experience for me.  I’m competitive by nature but not interested in sports. I loved science and I was smart. Science fairs were a perfect match for me. Competing in three ISEFs truly changed my life. (Thank you, Minnesota State University SC/SW Regional Science Fair–so happy to see you’re still honoring kids with a passion for science!)

14. Intel International Science and Engineering Fairs (ISEF) and their affiliated regional fairs are the granddaddies of the science fair world. I can only summarize this massive global enterprise and direct you to the website of the sponsor, Society for Science and the Public.

  • Students in grades 6-12 are eligible to compete in affiliated regional fairs
  • Individuals or small teams perform a real scientific investigation (sometimes engineering, math, or computer programming) with well-designed experiments following the scientific method. This can be from the most basic level (such as, testing effect of water on seed germination) to the most advanced (ISEF national winners often have worked in university laboratories on cutting-edge science).
  • Check your regional fair’s website for deadlines. Regulations for use of human subjects, chemicals, etc. are quite strict and most projects require pre-approval as early as December, but certainly before the student starts work.

Broadcom MASTERS competition is part of the ISEF enterprise, a kind of junior ISEF. Top winners in grades 6-8 at ISEF-affiliated regional science fairs are nominated to enter their work in Broadcom MASTERS. Entry is by nomination only.

Other competitions for big-time high school science projects to enter are the BioGENEius Challenge and the Siemens Competition.

15. The Google Science Fair: “an online science competition seeking curious minds from the four corners of the globe. All you need is an idea. Geniuses are not always A-grade students. We welcome all mavericks, square-pegs and everybody who likes to ask questions.”

As best I can tell, Google Science Fair entries are traditional science fair projects (real experiments performed using the scientific method and following all safety/ethics rules of the sponsoring fair) that the student enters online in a virtual science fair. You are allowed to enter a project that you also entered in a “real” science fair.

Ideal for kids who don’t have access to an ISEF-affiliated regional fair.

  • Anybody, anywhere ages 13-18 can enter
  • No details posted yet for 2013; sign up to be notified
  • Awards in 3 age divisions. Big prizes: last year’s winners won tens of thousands of dollars, media coverage, a trip to Google, and even a visit with President Obama at the White House
  • Special prize: Science in Action, sponsored by Scientific American, is chosen from entrants

16. The Canada Wide Virtual Science Fair invites K-12 Canadian students to do a science project and then build a website to display their work.

  • Grades K-12 in Canadian schools
  • Registration begins January 2013

Bonus Contests:

Science & Art: 2nd Annual Humans in Space Art Contest

  • Open to kids 10-18 years old worldwide
  • Visual, literary, musical, or video artwork expressing vision of how humans will use science & technology in the future to explore space
  • Enter by November 15, 2012

Environmental Education: Canon North American Envirothon

  • Nationwide team competition for high school students in U.S. and Canada.
  • Teams organized in schools, homeschools, scout groups, etc.
  • In-class learning + hands-on outdoor activities to learn environmental science.
  • Topics: Soils and land use; aquatic ecology; forestry; wildlife; environmental issues.
  • Students are tested at local competitions. National event is held in August.
  • Registration will open in late fall.
    Want to combine science learning with thriller fiction? University professor and author Dr. Amy Rogers will chat with you via Skype about microbes & oil and her eco-disaster novel PETROPLAGUE. Perfect for homeschoolers or book clubs. Learn more here.

    Do you know about another great STEM contest? Leave a comment!

    Want to know more about how to do a science project? Need project ideas? Click here.

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2 Responses to Top 15 science / STEM contests for kids

  1. Tom Goudreau says:

    In 2012 the Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC) completed its tenth year of inspiring and attracting the next generation of engineers and technicians to join the aerospace industry. The Aerospace Industries Association’s signature program and the only aerospace-specific national STEM competition, TARC has reached over 55,000 students in the past decade and involved over 3,000 students in 48 states during the 2012 season alone. 2013 Finals are May.

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