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7 competitions to get your students fired up about STEM

Quick! How do you get students interested in STEM?

The answer, unfortunately, isn’t easy to pinpoint. With the exception of a small number of math, science and computer whizzes, most middle and high school students — particularly girls and students from disadvantaged backgrounds — are so intimidated by STEM subjects that they never even consider pursuing a career.

Research shows, however, that when you show students a real-life application for their work, let them get hands-on and have them collaborate in teams, you can turn STEM avoiders into STEM lovers. Add a dash of competitive spirit, and you’ve got a surefire recipe for student engagement.

Competitions, says Sergei Lupashin, were the key to his ultimate success as a systems engineer and roboticist. “Everything in my life that has allowed engineering to actually work for me has [come out of] competitions,” Lupashin said during his EdTekTalk at ISTE 2015.

Lupashin — who now runs a company in Zurich that creates Fotokites, or personal drones for journalists and other professionals — credits student challenges like the RoboCup for much of what he learned during college.

The RoboCup, he explained, is a perfect example of a competition that teaches participants STEM principles in action. “If you take just a small part of that challenge — like the kickoff — it’s all about trig and geometry,” he said.

Another reason competitions are so attractive is that educators don’t need to develop them from scratch. The web is already full of STEM challenges for students in grades 6-12. All you have to do is choose one — or better yet, let the students choose — and sign them up.  

Here are just a few cool middle and high school STEM competitions we found:

Intel Science Talent Search. Billed as the United States’ “most prestigious science research competition for high school seniors,” the Intel STS, hosted by the Society for Science & the Public, gives young scientists the chance to present their own original research to nationally recognized professional scientists.

Computer Science Network competitions. The Computer Science Student Network (CS2N), a collaborative research project to increase the number of students pursuing advanced STEM degrees, hosts a variety of themed competitions for programming and robotics skills, with prizes!

eCybermission. This web-based STEM competition for sixth through ninth graders invites teams to propose solutions to real problems in their communities for state, regional and national awards.

Imagine Cup. Students 16 and older are eligible to enter Microsoft’s global competition by creating an original technology project from start to finish in one of three categories: games, innovation and world citizenship. Finalists get a free trip to Seattle, Washington, and winning teams in all three categories walk away with $50,000. 

Google Science Fair. This online science competition invites middle and high school students from around the globe to come up with ideas that will change the world. Stuck for an idea? Try Google’s online idea springboard tool.

Engineering Encounters Bridge Design Contest. This online competition gives middle and high school students a real-life, engaging introduction to engineering. Each member of the winning two-person team receives a cash scholarship of up to $5,000, and all finalists get a tablet computer! 

Zero Robotics Tournaments. Middle and high school students write programs to control satellites in space. After several phases of virtual competition, finalists in these Massachusetts Institution of Technology-sponsored tournaments compete in a live championship aboard the International Space Station. An astronaut will conduct the championship in microgravity with a live broadcast!

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