Shelley Latham Outreach Coordinator

Inspiring Young Engineers with STEM Contests

PostedWednesday, October 10, 2018 at 12:37 PM

Inspiring Young Engineers with STEM Contests

Sports have long been an outlet for schools to develop teamwork and good sportsmanship with competitive leagues providing student athletes and coaches alike a shared goal of improvement.  It should be no surprise, then, that academic and artistic competitions would build on this model with competitive challenges and festivals to reward hard work and creativity in academic subjects. Many companies, governmental agencies, and nonprofits have created competitions to drive engagement in STEM. Some of these initiatives are national in scale, with substantial prizes for students and participating schools. Done right, they can be a lot of fun.

We have pulled together a list of STEM competitions that have a solid engineering component. Before you decide to participate in a contest with your students, make sure that you understand the time commitment, associated costs, and how the challenges will align with your STEM curriculum. And consider whether you have the time and resources to give the kids a shot at doing quality work. Be aware that sometimes it makes the most sense to create an afterschool club to work on the project, rather than integrating the competition into the school day.

It is also important to make sure that these plans address possible barriers to participation that some students may have. Aim to create an opportunity that can be shared by all interested students, especially girls and students from underserved communities. Linda Kekelis, founder of Techbridge Girls, and Simil Raghavan, who oversees NAE's EngineerGirl website suggest  ways to promote equity in STEM competitions. They recommend engaging directly with underrepresented youth to find out what they are interested in and personally reaching out to students who might not see themselves as being successful in a STEM contest.

Be sure to involve parents and community stakeholders. Consider what community support is available to help you and your students succeed.  The winning middle school team for Samsung’s Solve for Tomorrow Contest, designed software and sensors for football helmets to help detect concussions. Jonathan Harvey the enrichment teacher advising the team admitted, “If it was just up to me, this project would never have reached the level it did without input from the community.” His students worked with the football coach, an area physician, and a local software engineer to design their winning entry. Some competitions provide access to engineering mentors for students and their advisors. MIT’s Think! competition even uses mentors and funding as the prize for winning entry ideas.

STEM Competitions for Multiple Age Groups


  • Fluor Engineering Challenge -  The annual Fluor Engineering Challenge is designed to help students experience how engineers design solutions and to show students first-hand how fun engineering can be. The challenges utilize inexpensive household items. Teams are scored, and qualifying projects are entered into a lottery to win prizes for their schools.  Last year’s challenge was a ball launcher, this year’s challenge will be announced in January.
  • Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest - This contest challenges students in grades 6-12 to show how STEM can be applied to help improve their local communities. Selected finalist schools receive equipment and technology prizes.
  • ExploraVision – The National Science Teachers Association and Toshiba ask small teams of K-12 students to envision what a current technology will look like in the future. The ExploraVision competition has refocused over the past several years to align with Next Generation Science Standards. Last year’s 4-6 grade winning team from Plainview, New York submitted an idea for Cystic Fibrosis Absorbent Sponge Technology.
  • Team America Rocketry Challenge – Middle and high school students take part in designing, building, and flying model rockets. This year’s contest, themed around the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, challenges students to design, build, and fly a rocket carrying three raw eggs in a capsule to an altitude of 856 feet and return it to ground with the eggs intact within 43-46 seconds.
  • TEAMS – (Testing Engineering Aptitude, Mathematics and Science) In this contest, middle and high school teams of four to eight students conduct hands-on design challenges, answer multiple choice questions, and write an essay based around an annual theme. Themes relate to the NAE's Grand Challenges.
  • EngineerGirl Essay Content – Each fall, the website posts an engineering-related prompt for students grades 3 – 12 to write about. Despite the name, the contest is open to all students in grades 3 – 12, not just girls! This year’s theme is “Stories Engineered to Inspire” and for the first time in the contest's history the essay is to be a work of fiction.
  • The Tech Challenge - This signature program of The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California, invites teams of students in Grades 4-12 to use the engineering design process to solve a real-world problem. Participants spend months engaged in the challenge while documenting their progress and designs. The program culminates in an exciting two-day showcase in March, when teams put their solutions to the test in front of judges. This year’s challenge is to design and build a hovercraft that can navigate different terrains. Awards are givien in categories such as Test Methodology, Most Efficient, Best Team Safety, Best Sportsmanship, even Best Costume. This year, Outstanding Engineering Design Process was won by team Technados from the Phillips Brooks Elementary School in Menlo Park, California.

Tech Challenge

STEM Competitions for Middle School Students

  • Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist lab – In this competition, students in grades 5 – 8 create videos on unique solutions to everyday problems. The contest has students identify and create a solution to an issue that directly impacts their family, community, or the global population. The solution must be a new innovation or idea, and it cannot simply be a new use for an existing product. One of last year’s finalists was Rishab Jain, a 13-year-old from Portland, Oregon.  Rishab created a method that uses artificial intelligence to help accurately locate the pancreas during MRI radiotherapy, making cancer treatment more effective.
  • Future City Competition – In this activity, middle school student teams use the engineering design process to create a city 100 years in the future that solves a sustainability issue. Competition elements include design of a virtual city, construction of a physical model, an essay, and a presentation. Each year has a specific challenge. This year it is Powering the Future.
  • eCYBERMISSION – eCYBERMISSION is a web-based competition for students in grades 6-9 that promotes self-discovery and enables all students to recognize the real-life applications of STEM. Teams of three or four students are instructed to ask questions (in science) or define problems (in engineering), and then construct explanations (for science) or design solutions (for engineering) based on identified problems in their community. Last year’s winners included a 6th grade team from Naperville Illinois, that addressed the problem of phosphorus runoff into local ponds and streams.

STEM Competitions for High School Students

  • Google Science Fair – In this competition, students ages 13-18 perform in-depth investigations of real-world problems vying for prizes in different age categories. Projects from past finalists examined whether orange peels could protect against drought or whether heat from one's hand could power a flashlight.
  • Clean Tech Competition – Individuals and small student groups participating in this competition research, design, and produce papers around a real-world environmental theme that integrates eco-friendly energy sources. Last year’s challenge was “Solving Climate Change.”  The first place team from Plainview, New York, proposed a more efficient Hydrogen Fuel Cell.
  • JSHSJunior Science and Humanities Symposia  – This 3-day event is organized by the United States Army, Navy, and Air Force and administered by the Academy of Applied Science, a non-profit STEM education organization. Individual students compete for scholarships and recognition by presenting their original research before a panel of judges and an audience of their peers. The event includes hands-on workshops, panel discussions, career exploration, research lab visits and networking.  Last year’s winner in the engineering and technology category was Eshika Saxena from Bellevue, Washington. She was recognized for HemaCam, a computer vision-enhanced mobile phone imaging system for automated screening of hematological diseases with convolutional neural networks.
  • THINK -   THINK is a nationwide educational initiative from MIT that encourages students to turn their ideas into a reality. Student's submit a research proposal, and winners get a research grant and an all-expenses-paid trip to MIT to meet professors and attend MIT’s xFair.  Among last year’s winners were Zuriel Joven and Luke Torre from Sacramento, California for their idea of a low-cost transradial prosthesis using novel methods for optimizing muscular control.

Especially for Girls

  • Technovation - This contest, from Iridescent, offers girls around the world the opportunity to learn the skills they need to be entrepreneurs and leaders. Students identify a problem in their community, and then come up with ideas to solve it. Girls work in teams to build both a mobile app and a business plan to launch that app, supported by mentors and guided by an online curriculum. There are junior and senior divisions, encompassing  ages 10-18.  Last year’s senior division winner, from India, designed an app to help people dispose of e-waste properly. The junior division winner, from Nigeria, designed an app to verify the authenticity and expiration dates of pharmaceuticals.
  • Project CS Girls -  This competition encourages girls to develop projects that disrupt the present in a positive way. The contest’s aim is to create a community of creative, talented, and confident young women building the technologies that will shape the future. The contest is open to middle school girls working alone or in teams up to three.
  • EngineerGirl Ambassador Program -  This new initiative from the NAE seeks high School girls with a love of engineering to become mentors to middle school girls. Those wishing to become an ambassador submit a proposal for a project to promote engineering in their communities. Winners get funding to carry out their project and mentorship training from the Society of Women Engineers.

Done well, these contests inspire teachers and students to explore engineering and stretch past what they normally do in the classroom.  Who knows, given the opportunity, today’s youth may solve some of our most pressing problems. Better yet, they may identify ways to improve life in their own communities. And that is the best prize of all.

Tell us about your experiences with STEM competitions in the comments.

Photo credits:

Top: Members of team Fire Boltz react after qualifying for the Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC) competition. Courtesy California National Guard via Flickr, Creative Commons License.

Top Right: Students working on project for Fluor Engineering Challenge. Courtesy contest website.

Middle: Finalist in 2018 The Tech Challenge. Courtesy contest website.

Bottom Right: JSHS finalists attend symposium activities. Courtesy USArmy via Flickr, Creative Commons License.


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  • Mar  Ek

    Posted 4 hours and 25 minutes ago

  • Hanah  Ismail

    Posted 5 days ago

    It is good to see the work of your organization. When students participate in the competitions they gain knowledge and experience. also arrange resume writing competitions to build the interest and skills of individuals.
  • cooper  juarez

    Posted 2 weeks and 3 days ago

    This is a difficult task because very few people do this. In the game Red Ball The puzzles that are then very difficult!
  • Jordan  Beaubien

    Posted 3 weeks and 4 days ago

    This is so cool! Getting them ready from a small age is incredible.
  • Hetal  J

    Posted 1 year and 8 months ago

    Hi, just wanted to let you know about a recent STEM initiative. Stemity (at is an initiative started recently by a middle schooler with a goal of raising money for charity through fun STEM-based online contests and free tests for everyone. Winners get prizes and proceeds are donated to the charity of the month. For May 2020, Stemity is focusing on relief funds for the ongoing pandemic. Stemity is a WA registered non-profit organization.