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 limiting travel, many chemistry competitions are still running this year in a hybrid or fully virtual format

Competitions are great for students. Besides the opportunity to put their scientific knowledge and skills to the test, they also teach them the relevance of their learning, as well as the importance of teamwork, success and failure.

With everything from essay, poster and video competitions to practical projects, there’s something to suit everyone’s strengths and interests. (And you yourself can benefit from the array of downloadable materials to use in your lessons, as homework or part of a science club!)

Many competitions this year are being run in a hybrid or even fully virtual format – so don’t let coronavirus restrictions or the impossibility of travelling with your students put you off.

These competitions have been ordered by closing date. Last updated: 11 January 2022.

Royal College of Science Union (RCSU) Science Challenge

Age: 14–18
Opens: now
Closes: 11 February 2022

Imperial College London’s RCSU Science Challenge is all about science communication – requiring students to demonstrate their skills in debate and reasoning and teach the public about science and its consequences.

Questions on a given theme are set by eminent scientists – who even read the shortlisted entries, so there’s a real chance students’ work will be seen by world-leading academics. You can find last year’s (Covid-related) questions on the website.

There are both individual and team categories, and students can answer one of the questions in either written or video form of up to 1000 words or four minutes respectively. Winners receive cash prizes, plus there are non-cash prizes for the runners up.

Shortlisted candidates will be informed on 14 March 2022 and invited to the grand final on 21 March 2022 at the Royal Institution, where they will deliver a short presentation. Find more information about taking part on the challenge website.

MathWorks Math Modeling Challenge

Age: 16–19 (England and Wales only)
Opens: now
Closes: 18 February 2022 (registration)

The M3 Challenge is an internet-based applied maths competition that inspires participants to pursue STEM education and careers. Working in teams of three to five, participants have 14 hours to solve an open-ended math-modelling problem focused on a real issue during the challenge weekend of 25–28 February 2022 .

The problem typically has a socially conscious theme – equity, the environment, conservation, recycling, energy use, health, and other topics that young people care about. The challenge gives students the opportunity to experience the vital role applied maths plays in society and its value in gaining insight into multi-faceted, real-world problems.

Free access to modelling handbooks, videos, and sample problems in the website’s ‘Resources’ tab help teams prepare for success.

Teams that make it through round 1 will be set further activities, with successful teams progressing to round 2. Contention judging activities will then be used to select finalists and presentations to determine a winning team will take place on 25 April 2022, followed by an awards ceremony.

Top teams this year will be awarded scholarships toward the pursuit of higher education, with members of the overall winning team receiving $20,000 each.

For rules, resources and to register visit the competition website.

Newnham College Essay Prizes

Age: 16–17 (female only)
Opens: now
Closes: 11 March 2022

The University of Cambridge’s Newnham College Essay Prizes are open to all girls currently in year 12 or equivalent in a UK school and involves submitting an essay (2500 words max) answering one of a selection of questions.

Besides targeting their literacy skills, the competition is a great chance to prepare students for higher education and would make a great addition to a UCAS form. Students also have the chance of winning a cash prize ranging from £400 (first place) to £100 (third place).

The STEM options relate to the biological sciences, computer science, mathematics, medicine and engineering. Students may only submit an essay for one subject and each school may only submit five entries per subject.

The questions for 2022 are available on Newnham College’s website, where you can also find out more, sign up to their guidance webinars and view last year’s essay questions and prize winning submissions.

Big Bang Young Scientists and Engineers Competition

Age: 11–19
Opens: now
Closes: 20 March 2022

The Big Bang Competition recognises young people’s achievements in STEM and builds confidence in project-based work, focusing on investigation, discovery and use of scientific methods. Students can submit their project as a written or video report – on any topic in the field of STEM. The possibilities are endless!

Students can include their involvement in the competition in their extracurricular activities on UCAS forms and personal statements, and be in with the chance of winning a range of awards and prizes – including up to £2000.

Find out how to get started and be inspired by past projects on the Big Bang website.

Schools’ Analyst

Age: 16–17
Opens: now
Closes: 25 March 2022 (registration)

The Schools’ Analyst Competition is returning to schools in May 2022 , with teams tasked with finding the perfect formula for fish and chips!

Run by the Analytical Chemistry Trust Fund and the Royal Society of Chemistry, it allows students to expand their chemistry knowledge and skills through practical analytical experiments. Students must be in year 12 (England, Wales, NI)/S5 (Scotland)/5th year (Republic of Ireland).

Schools and colleges will register their interest to host a heat and, if randomly selected, can then enter up to 10 teams of three students to compete to be crowned the overall school winner. Each winning school team will then compete within their region to find a regional winner. Regional winners receive a cash prize for themselves and their school.

Register your interest to host a heat in your school via the RSC events website by 25 March 2022. The competition will run from 25 April–27 May 2022, with winners announced by 31 May 2022.

NB: the Scotland regional deadline has now been extended to 17 June 2022 due to clashes with the exam period. Winners will be informed by 21 June 2022.

Quantum on the Clock

Age: 16–18
Opens: February 2022
Closes: 31 March 2022

The Institute of Physics’ QQQ group’s Quantum on the Clock competition is open to all A-level or equivalent students in the UK and Ireland. Students are tasked to create a three-minute video about any aspect of quantum science or technology. Entries can be individual or in teams of up to four students.

Cash prizes are on offer for the winners and runners-up, with the judging focusing on creativity, clarity, engagement and accuracy. The ‘best individual’ and ‘best team’ winners will also receive year subscriptions to Physics World and an expenses-paid invitation to a prize-giving ceremony at the Photon 2022 conference dinner, which will take place from 30 August until 2 September 2022.

To find out more and apply, watch this video and go to the Quantum on the Clock website.

Clean Tech Competition

Age: 15–18
Opens: now
Closes: 22 April 2022 (registration); 29 April 2022 (paper submission deadline)

The Clean Tech Competition research and design challenge asks students to identify a problem with our natural world and resource use that they want to change, innovate a sustainable solution and submit a research paper to the judges. This year there is no topic restriction; entries simply need to have one goal: create a sustainable solution for an environmental issue.

This is a great opportunity to refine research, analysis and literary skills.

Each team should be made up of one to three students, who must be 15–18 years old on the submission deadline, 29 April 2022. Once the papers have been submitted, the top 10 teams from the global pool will be selected to progress to the virtual global finals. They will present their research and prototypes to the judges, and will receive handsome cash prizes, with the 1st team also earning a continued mentorship from an expert in the field. 

Find out more and register on the competition website.

British Science Week poster competition

Age: 11–14
Opens: TBD
Closes: TBD

British Science Week is back in March 2022. Also returning is their themed poster competition – and this year’s theme will be ‘growth’.

Besides creativity, the judges also want to see clear, accurate, informative content communicated in an engaging and effective way – a great opportunity to practise students’ scientific communication skills. There is a whole host of science-themed prizes for both individuals and their schools on offer.

Entrants can be teams or individuals and each school can submit up to five entries. Find out more on the website, where you can also find activity packs for inspiration.

Top of the Bench

Age: 14–16
Opens: September 2022
Closes: October 2022 (regional heats)

Top of the Bench  (TOTB) is an annual practical chemistry competition that has been running for over 20 years. It’s a long-standing favourite for students and teachers and is a great chance for students to put their teamwork and practical skills to the test. This year’s national final will be held at the end of March at the University of East London, with the next instalment of the competition kicking off later in 2022.

Regional heats will be led by RSC local sections between October 2022 and January 2023, with the winning team from each heat progressing to the national final held in the spring. First prize is awarded to the best overall school performance, with five teams receiving runners up prizes. Plus, there’s the opportunity to win the Jacqui Clee Award, which is given to the student who has demonstrated an outstanding individual contribution to the day.

Teams must consist of four students: two from year 9/S2; one from year 10/S3; one from year 11/S4.

Find more information, including past papers and how to apply, on the TOTB homepage

Deadlines passed:

UK Chemistry Olympiad 

Age: 16–18 (recommended)
Closed: 10 January 2022

Run by the RSC, the UK Chemistry Olympiad  is designed to challenge and inspire older secondary school students, encouraging them to push themselves, boost their critical problem-solving skills and test their knowledge in real-world situations. Explore the past papers  to get an idea of the types of questions involved.

There are three rounds, culminating in the prestigious International Chemistry Olympiad – this year hosted in Tianjin, China. Round 1, a written test taken in your school, is scheduled to take place on 22 January 2022. Students then receive bronze, silver or gold certificates depending on their scores.

Up to 30 students will be selected to move on to round 2 – a training weekend in Cambridge, scheduled for 31 March–3 April 2022. Four will then be chosen to represent the UK in the international competition in July.

Register your school and find out more on the Olympiad homepage. 

Cambridge Chemistry Race

Age: 16–18
Closed: early in January 2022 (apply as early as possible next academic year for the 2023 race)

The Cambridge Chemistry Race  is run in collaboration with the University’s Department of Chemistry. Teams solve as many theoretical problems as they can over the course of two hours – ranging from easy riddles, through tasks of A-level difficulty, to complex chemical problems.

Once a team has solved a question, the examiner verifies their answer and hands them the next question. Points are awarded based on the number of unsuccessful attempts.

Students may use a calculator, as well as books, notes, or printed literature since the problems mainly aim to test problem-solving skills and chemical understanding rather than knowledge. Explore past questions and solutions here  to get an idea of what’s in store.

Registration is on a first-come-first-served basis. Schools can register one team and teams must consist of three to five students. The competition will take place in Cambridge on Saturday 19 February 2022, but teams are allowed to compete online if coming to Cambridge is not possible – so don’t let the travel put you off.