Motivate your students through competitions and inspire them to love STEM

A digital artwork showing an atom next to a trophy

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Despite coronavirus, many chemistry competitions are still running this year

Science competitions are a great way to engage students, build on their practical skills and test their knowledge. Competition teaches the importance of teamwork, success and failure. You can also use competition materials in your lessons, as homework, or as part of an extracurricular science club.

Most competitions have changed to a virtual format this year. Nevertheless, the following competitions are a great way to motivate students, develop their practical projects and written skills and even be in with a chance of winning fantastic prizes.

1. UK Space Design competition 

Age: 14–18
Opens: now
Submissions close: beginning of November (digital heats); 11 December (video submissions)

The UK Space Design competition (UKSDC) combines science, engineering and business as a simulation of life in industry, opening students’ eyes to the vast potential offered by future study or a career in STEM. Teams of 8–12 students are given a list of requirements for a space settlement and tasked with coming up with a detailed design which they present to a panel of judges from industry, academia and business.

Teams can enter through the online digital heats or submit a video. In March, a selection of lucky winners will be invited to join the UK team and attend the International Space Settlement Design Competition (ISSDC) at Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center.

2. UK Junior Water Prize

Age: 15–20
Opens: now
Submissions close: February 2021

The UK Junior Water Prize (UKJWP) is a competition aimed at solving environmental challenges with a link to water. Students identify an issue and find a practical and innovative solution through research and experiments.

The UKJWP is run by the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management in partnership with the Stockholm International Water Institute, who runs the international round of the competition called the Stockholm Junior Water Prize (SJWP). The winner of UKJWP will get an all-expenses-paid trip to Stockholm during World Water Week, representing the UK in the SJWP.

To get involved, students need to present their work as an academic report of no more than 20 pages. It’s a great opportunity to practise writing in a way that is useful for wider study and improving scientific literacy skills, and it looks impressive on a university application.

3. CanSat competition

Age: 14–18
Opens: now
Submissions close: 10 October 2020 for expression of interest

CanSat is a European Space Energy competition that gives students a unique opportunity to have their first practical experience of a real space project. They are responsible for all aspects: selecting the mission objectives, designing the satellite, integrating the components, testing, preparing for launch and then analysing the data. The winners of the UK CanSat competition will be invited to compete in the European CanSat competition. 

4. UK Chemistry Olympiad

Age: 16–18 (recommended)
Opens: 22 September 2020
Submissions close: 11 January 2021 (for registration)

The UK Chemistry Olympiad is designed to challenge and inspire secondary school students, encouraging them to push themselves to excel in the chemistry field. Run by the Royal Society of Chemistry, students will develop critical problem-solving skills and test their knowledge in real-world situations – and could even represent the UK in the prestigious International Chemistry Olympiad. Explore the past papers to get an idea of the types of questions involved.

Round 1 of 3 is scheduled to take place in January 2021 and comprises a written test, with round 2 (an online training weekend) scheduled for March. Find out more on the Olympiad homepage.

5. Top of the Bench

Age: 13–16
Opens: October 2020 (regional heats)
Submissions close: January 2021

Top of the Bench is an annual practical chemistry competition for teams of four, fueling excitement and curiosity about chemistry. First established over 20 years ago, it is a long-standing favourite for students and teachers. The regional heats will be led by RSC local sections between October 2020 and January 2021. The national final will take place in March 2021. The entire competition will take place remotely.

Contact your local section leader to find out more and register.

6. ECO Film Awards

Age: 11–18
Opens: 26 October 2020
Submissions close: 10 March 2021

The Eco Film Awards aims to develop students’ environmental awareness and empower them to take green action. To get involved, students should produce a short film showcasing a project they have carried out to improve the environmental sustainability of their school. The competition focuses on sustainability through creativity and is open to all international schools, including applicant schools.

7. Newnham College essay competition 

Age: 16–17 (female only)
Opens: December 2020
Submissions close: March 2021

Cambridge’s Newnham College essay competition is open to all girls currently in year 12 in a UK school and involves submitting an essay of no more than 2500 words answering one of a selection of questions. The STEM options include the biological sciences, computer science, mathematics and engineering. These prizes may be of particular interest to those studying biology, chemistry, physics or mathematics but entries are welcomed from students studying any combination of subjects. The first prize is £400, with the runner-up receiving £200 and third place £100. 

The questions for the 2021 prizes will be released in December 2020. You can find out more about the competition and view the 2020 essay questions on Newnham College’s website.

8. Big Bang Young Scientists and Engineers competition

Age: 11–19
Opens: early January 2021
Submissions close: late March 2021

The Big Bang competition recognises young people’s achievements in STEM and builds confidence in project-based work. The science stream focuses on investigation, discovery and use of scientific methods. Students can enter any project work they have completed at school, home or in a STEM club.

The first stage is online heats, where students compete for a chance to showcase their work at The Big Bang Competition Finals and get their hands on amazing prizes. Projects are judged by leaders in industry and academia, who provide feedback to all competitors/finalists to help them continue to build their ideas, skills and confidence.

As well as the opportunity to network with scientists, students can include their involvement in the competition in their extracurricular activities on UCAS forms and personal statements.

Find out how to get started and inspire students with past projects on the Big Bang website. 

9. Peterhouse College Kelvin Science Prize essay competition

Age: 16–17
Opens: February 2021
Submissions close: April 2021

Similar to the Newnham prizes mentioned above, Peterhouse College also runs an annual essay competition for students in Year 12 or equivalent. The Kelvin Science Prize asks for a 2,000-word essay in answer to one of two questions and is an excellent opportunity for students to get a taste of university-level research. Again, winners receive cash prizes. The essay questions will be released in February 2021.

10. Crest Awards

Age: 11–19
Opens: all year round

Empower students to run their own project investigations and develop new skills with a CREST award. The resources library offers challenging and thought-provoking projects for students of different abilities at bronze, silver and gold levels and can be completed all year round.

Can you think of any other competitions taking place over the next year? Comment below so we can include them and let other teachers know.