Both you and your students can gain a lot from participating in science competitions besides winning, says chemistry teacher Annabel Jenner

One of the science labs at my school is home to Miranda, a bearded dragon who was bought with money won in a regional science competition by a team of Key Stage 4 STEM club students. While Miranda has been a popular addition to the department and enjoys something of a celebrity status around school, I have come to realise that entering competitions offers a wealth of benefits to students far beyond that of a new school pet …

Miranda the bearded dragon

Miranda the bearded dragon was bought with prize money won in a science competition by students at Annabel’s school

Independence, teamwork and practical skills

Team-based competitions such as Top of the Bench provide an opportunity for students from different year groups to collaborate, which can help them to improve their communication and cooperation skills. Experimental work typically forms an element of such competitions, providing an opportunity for students to apply their practical skills in an unfamiliar setting without the safety net of too much teacher input. Students often return to the familiarity of their school laboratory with increased confidence in their ability to carry out practical investigations independently.

Confidence and risk taking

Sometimes students can view classroom activities through the lens of exam preparation, and this can make them unwilling to take risks in their learning. Conversely, the positive ethos and extracurricular status of competitions can provide a context in which students may be more willing to come out of their comfort zone and have a go. This can lead to them discovering they may have underestimated their capabilities, which can boost their self-esteem.

Which competitions are running in 2020–2021?

Find out which competitions your students can enter this year in our article compiling which ones are still running amid the pandemic.

Find out which competitions your students can enter this year on the Education in Chemistry website:

Putting big fish in a bigger pond

Students at the top of their own class can sometimes be tempted to rest on their laurels and may benefit from the awareness that there are other talented students out there. Competitions can provide an opportunity for students to meet and learn from others their own age, and perhaps make new friends. An inevitability of any competition is that not everyone can win, and this can also provide students with a low-stakes and positive opportunity to identify and reflect on the value of what they have learned, even if they didn’t emerge victorious.

Stretch and challenge

Many science competitions focus on stretching students, none more so than the Chemistry Olympiad, which will challenge even the most able 16–18 year old. Exam-style competitions such as this are great for developing problem-solving skills, as entrants will be faced with challenging calculations and many opportunities to push their logical reasoning. The level of questioning is high; to access them students must draw on prior understanding and apply it in unfamiliar contexts, which is also a key skill required at A-level/Highers/Leaving cert. The intention of the Olympiad is for students to push themselves, and this is helpful in developing resilience and combatting perfectionism in able students. The challenge requires the attitude ‘how well can I do?’ in an examination context and students often feel a genuine sense of pride and achievement at having taken part.

An illustration showing people in various activities such as interviews, presenting and exams, all on a giant hand.

Source: © Otto Dettmer/Ikon Images

STEM competitions provide students with skills for the world beyond school, and provide opportunities for teachers too

Essay skills

Students aged 16–18 whose studies focus on physical sciences and mathematics may encounter few opportunities for extended writing within their set courses. Taking on the challenge of a science essay writing competition creates an opportunity to diversify their skillset to include independent research and planning skills, which are highly valued at university. A typical challenge (for example those set by Cambridge colleges Newnham and Peterhouse) sees entrants select from a list of possible essay titles and prepare a response of around 2000 words. Even for those more familiar with writing essays, the self-motivation and time-management required to research, plan and write an extended response in an extracurricular context makes this a valuable endeavour.

Personalising UCAS personal statements

For students applying to university, experience of relevant competitions can provide a helpful focus for part of their UCAS personal statement. It could be a means of demonstrating commitment to their chosen subject, showing detailed understanding of a particular topic or emphasising personal skills such as teamwork or project management. Universities wish to see individuality in students’ personal statements and a well-crafted reflection on a competitive project, essay or exam can provide just that.

Benefits for teachers

  • Attending competitions provides excellent opportunities for professional networking and creating links with other schools.
  • Competition participation (or running your own in-school competition) can raise the profile of your department.
  • Within lessons competitions can increase the quality of students’ work, for example setting 16–18 chemists the challenge: ’who can make the purest aspirin?’
  • Competitions can provide ready-made aims and objectives for a science/STEM club. Look out for competitions that require project work (such as Crest Awards and the Greenpower challenge). The kudos of preparing for a competition can help to keep pupils motivated and clubs well attended.

Showcasing talent

In most schools the stage is set to showcase the achievements of musicians, dramatists and sports people through performances, newsletters and assemblies. Those who excel in science do not always have their talents recognised in the same way. Competitions provide an opportunity for students to be publicly recognised for their achievements. Many schools even ask students to prepare assemblies to talk about their experiences after a competition campaign.

Exciting prizes

Keen students will find participation its own reward, but the prospect of a decent prize can entice those who are a little more reticent to get involved. Cash, gift vouchers and international trips (often to take part in the next round of a competition) are surprisingly common prizes.