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Making It Happen: Academic Competitions and Contests

By Stacey Burt on August 26, 2009
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8, 9–12





The beginning of the school year is a perfect time to start thinking about activities that inspire students throughout the year. Some activities I focus on early are academic competitions. My students love a challenge, especially when it gives them the opportunity to demonstrate how intelligent they are. Academic competitions provide students with the chance to refine skills and develop new ones. Join me as I address a few math and science competitions that require pre-planning and provide a challenge for everyone.




I will be dividing this post into two parts. Focusing on a few outstanding science competitions this week, and addressing some impressive math competitions in next week’s post. I’m including links and some things to consider when planning on mentoring or sponsoring an academic team.


Part I


I love science. I really do, so last year when I had a student create a robotic arm one weekend (just for fun) I realized that I needed to give him a little more. The “more” I gave him turned out to be our school’s first competitive robotic team. After doing some research, I found a hub for a national robotics competition called BEST (boosting engineering science and technology) for middle and high school students where teams designed and built a robot that had to complete a task while competing against other teams. Teams were also judged on a booth and table display, oral presentation, webpage design, engineering notebook, sportsmanship, and fundraising. This six week competition changed, no transformed, our lives. It was incredible.


Best notebook 024



Now I know that you may be thinking that sponsoring or mentoring some sort of science type team will be too time consuming, and you’re right. My first bit of advice is to enlist the help of other teachers or parents to make the job a bit more manageable. I was fortunate to have a colleague, Kristy Mall, join me in sponsoring the team. Having her on board made all the difference. We also had three totally committed parents that showed up for every meeting or practice. They too were invaluable. Even after 6 months had passed we still had students mention BEST on a weekly basis. Even as I type this I have parents and students from last year wanting to know if they can come back and compete with this year’s team. So without further adieu, here are some things to consider when sponsoring a competitive team:


  1. Poll your students-

Determine student interest before you go to the trouble of organizing a team and locating sponsors to help.



    2. Plan early-


Many academic contests and competitions have early deadlines for registering.


  1. Support of your administrator-

This one is crucial if you want the endeavor to be a success. Generally, anything that is going to benefit the students and the school’s image is a plus in any principal’s book.


  1. Community resources-

Find local professionals that specialize in the area of the competition to mentor the students. Think community colleges, local universities, and businesses.


  1. Designated area-

I found that having access to an empty classroom or an area in the school that is large enough to store items and host the practices or work sessions helps tremendously (having the principal on board helps with this one too).


  1. Divide and conquer-

Split the work sessions into manageable chunks. We divide our team into small groups that meet individually. The entire team does meet less frequently to inform one another of what’s going on; however, from a management stand point smaller is better.


  1. Rules and guidelines-

Not only for behavior, but for having a truly invested team, there must be guidelines and rules set in place before the first team meeting. The success of the team depends on everyone being on the same playing field.



Here are some possible science-based contests and competitions for middle and high school students:



middle and high school




First Lego League (FLL)

grades 4-8



Science Olympiad

middle grades



National Science Decathlon

middle grades




Grades 5-8




grades 6-9



West Point Bridge Design

middle and high school students



Future City Competition

middle grades



Check back next week for Part II which will have tips and information concerning math contests and competitions for middle grade students.


Here’s to a great week-










Comments (1)

Your students are lucky to have you. Sponsoring and running these academic programs takes a lot of planning, time, and energy. I coach Odyssey of the Mind which is a creative problem solving competition. These type of programs are an asset not only to advance the curriculum beyond the textbook, but for initiative and self esteem. Do you run your programs as an after school activity or as enrichment during the day? Are students chosen to participate or self selected? Pat Gill

Hi Pat-

I think it's awesome that you sponsor the OM team at your school! We currently run the program as an after school program. We have worked robotics, the engineering design process, and programming into our enrichment clusters that meet once a week for approximately 2 hours. The clusters are multiage and allow us to work on basics and get a feel for students that may be interested in participating on the robotics team in 6th grade. I generally allow any student that has an interest in robotics to participate. I agree with you that these programs add so much to regular curriculum and provide the opportunity for students to "find and develop their passions".

Thanks so much for sharing a bit of what you do to enhance your students' educational journey.

Warm Regards-


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