Jennifer Snelling
Students work together on coding project

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 underserved students — never even consider pursuing a STEM 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 says.

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 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:

  1. Chowdhury STEM Innovation ContestElementary and middle school students choose a real-world issue to research and then they design a STEM solution, which they present in a fun and engaging way.
     
  2. Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Competition. Middle schoolers work with 3M scientists to create a solution to an everyday problem. Submission is by video. 
     
  3. eCybermission. This web-based STEM competition for 6-9 grade students invites teams to propose solutions to real problems in their communities for state, regional and national awards.
     
  4. Future Problem Solving Program. Future Problem Solving Program International (FPSPI) offers students from all over the world in grades 4-12 curriculum and competition opportunities to learn and apply problem solving skills through critical and creative thinking.
     
  5. 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. Winning teams in all three categories walk away with $100,000. 
     
  6. Intel International Science & Engineering Fair. Dubbed the "world's largest international pre-college science competition," this contest showcases student independent research and offers and average of $4 million in prizes annually. Get inspired by checking out the database of winning projects.
     
  7. MathWorks Math Modeling (M3) Challenge. This contest for high school junior and senior aged students in the U.S., England, and Wales lets students work as a team to tackle a real-world problem under time and resource constraints. Award is $100,000.
     
  8. Modeling the Future Challenge. High school students combine math-modeling, data-analysis, and risk-management to conduct their own research project and make recommendations to companies, industry groups, governments, or organizations. The Actuarial Foundation contest offers a $60,000 award.
     
  9. NASA eClips Spotlites Video Design Challenge. Students create videos to debunk science misconceptions. From research, to script, to screen, students build their own understanding of science concepts through creative video representations. This is a great project for teachers of digital media, science and English as an authentic, interdisciplinary task.
     
  10. Regeneron Science Talent Search. Billed as the “most prestigious science research competition for high school seniors” in the U.S., the Regeneron 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.
     
  11. Rube Goldberg Machine Contest. “All you need is a good imagination and a pile of junk!” Open to students of all ages, this annual international contest asks students to invent one of the famous contraptions using recycled and readily available materials.
     
  12. Zero Robotics Tournaments. Middle and high school students write programs to control satellites in space. After several phases of virtual competition, finalists compete in a live championship aboard the International Space Station. An astronaut will conduct the championship in microgravity with a live broadcast!

STEM for Distance Learning

This is an updated version of a post that originally published on April 24, 2019.