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STEM Competitions for Middle School Students

7 minute read

For middle schoolers who love to tinker or experiment, entering a STEM competition can be a fun and engaging way to channel that curiosity into project-based learning opportunities. Participating in a science bowl or chemistry olympiad is an excellent medium to practice critical thinking skills and learn new STEM concepts. Beyond developing skills in science, technology, engineering, and math, participants in STEM competitions get to unleash their creativity by finding innovative solutions to real-world problems. They also improve their teamwork, communication, and time management skills throughout the process of preparing for and participating in the events. 

Looking for competitions for high school students? Check out our lists of science competitions, physics competitions, and medical competitions for high schoolers. Or, check out our list of online competitions for high school students, the ultimate guide for how to succeed.

Middle school STEM competitions can take a variety of forms, ranging from written exams that test participants’ theoretical knowledge to large-scale robotics contests in which students work in teams to design and build their projects in the months leading up to the competition day when they put their designs to the test. There are also research-style competitions, in which students conduct an experiment or engineering project and then communicate their process and findings to a jury of experts. Regardless of the science competition, come prepared to enhance your STEM skills and critical thinking ability as you prepare to become a high school student.

In many cases, there are opportunities for the top individuals or teams to advance to higher levels of competitions, where they can compete for national recognition, prizes, and even college scholarships.

Ready to compete? Here is our list of the top 8 STEM competitions for middle school students, compiled by Polygence experts!

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Top STEM Competitions for Middle School Students

Thermo Fisher Scientific Junior Innovators Challenge

Overview and purpose of the competition: The Junior Innovators Challenge (JIC) is a national STEM research competition for middle school students. This STEM activity, previously called the Broadcom MASTERS, the JIC is organized by the Society for Science and is open to students in grades 6, 7, and 8. The purpose of the competition is to encourage young scientists to conduct real research projects and to spark a lifelong passion for innovation.

Eligibility criteria and application process: To qualify for the competition, students must be nominated by their local or regional science fair. Most Society for Science-affiliated fairs take place in the spring, and judges may nominate the top 10% of eligible contestants to enter the JIC. Once a student has been selected, they must then submit an online application form in order to compete at the national level. 

Benefits for participants: All JIC participants get to learn from peers and receive national recognition. Additionally, the students with the top JIC projects receive cash awards ranging from $125 to $25,000.

First LEGO League

Description of the competition: First LEGO League is an international STEM education program for students up to age 16. The competition is divided into three age categories: “Discover” (ages 4-6), “Explore” (ages 6-10), and “Challenge” (ages 9-16). In the “Challenge” category, teams of students learn and utilize research, coding, and engineering skills to program and navigate a LEGO robot through a mission-driven game. The competition was founded in 1998 and aims to inspire students to build, research, and experiment. There are tens of thousands of First LEGO teams around the world. The “Challenge” program is structured as tiered, multi-round competition in which teams advance from local to state and national levels. Each future challenge tier provides more opportunities to increase your programming skills and STEM learning.

Entry requirements and judging criteria: The “Challenge” division is open to all students in the U.S. and Canada in grades 4-8, and students outside of the U.S. and Canada who are 9-16 years old. Participants first create teams of 2-10 students (plus a coach). The competition involves the Robot Game, in which teams build and navigate a LEGO robot, and the Innovation Project, which is based on a theme that changes from year to year. Teams are first judged on how well they express the core values of the program, including inspiration, teamwork, and “cooperation.” Judges then score teams based on the design of their robot (mechanics, programming, etc.). Finally, teams are evaluated on their innovation project during a five-minute presentation.

Awards and recognition: In addition to developing engineering skills in a fun and cooperative environment, there is a top prize of $20,000 for the top team at the First LEGO national competition. The other finalist teams each receive $5,000 awards.

Science Olympiad

Explanation of the competition and its goals: Founded in 1974, the Science Olympiad is a national competition open to American elementary (division A) middle (division B), and high school (division C) students. Division B participants compete in solo and/or team challenges in 22 events:

  • Air Trajectory

  • Anatomy and Physiology

  • Can't Judge a Powder

  • Codebusters

  • Crime Busters

  • Disease Detectives

  • Dynamic Planet

  • Ecology

  • Experimental Design

  • Fast Facts

  • Forestry

  • Fossils

  • Meteorology

  • Microbe Mission

  • Optics

  • Reach for the Star

  • Road Scholar

  • Roller Coaster

  • Tower

  • Wheeled Vehicle

  • Wind Power

  • Write it Do it

Eligibility and competition structure: In order to participate, students must be part of a registered team with a coach, usually through their school as part of a club or extracurricular activity led by a teacher. The program is structured into a multi-round tournament in which teams advance from regional to state and national competitions. The top teams (not individuals) advance from round to round. Scoring rubrics vary from event to event. For knowledge-based events, competitors are ranked based on the number of correct answers, whereas other events are judged based on the specific requirements outlined in the program booklet. Each year, usually in May, the National Science Olympiad brings together the top team from each U.S. state to compete at a rotating host university. 

Benefits of participation: Because of the nature of the contest, all Science Olympiad competitors develop their teamwork skills through participation in one or more scientific projects. For students interested in medicine, this competition provides exposure to health science degree careers that can help determine future educational goals.

Did you know? Polygence mentor Paige was a two-time state champion in Science Olympiad Division C, and received second and third place prizes at the national competition!


Description of the MathCounts program and its objectives: MathCounts is a nonprofit educational organization aiming to help students in grades 6-8 engage with mathematics while building their confidence in problem-solving. The program was founded in 1983. In addition to putting together competitions at multiple levels, MathCounts organizes the National Math Club for middle school students, offering math-based games and challenges every month.

Competition structure and entry requirements: MathCounts competitions occur at four different levels: school, chapter, state, and national. All students in grades 6-8 are eligible to compete, including students from public, charter, and private schools, as well as homeschooled students. 

At the school level, coaches select 12 students to form the school’s competition team at the chapter competition. All other students are also eligible to compete individually. Top teams and competitors advance to the state and national levels depending on their scores. Each level of competition includes approximately three hours of testing in four different events: the sprint round, the target round (with a calculator), the team round (with a calculator), and the countdown round. Each round tests different mathematical reasoning skills. The sprint round is all about speed, testing students’ abilities to quickly compute without a calculator. The countdown round is essentially a playoff among the top ten testers from that day of competition.

Benefits and prizes: The top competitor in the MathCounts national competition receives a $20,000 Donald G. Weinert College Scholarship. Other top finishers, including members of the top overall team, are also awarded scholarships ranging up to $7,500. Prizes are also given to the most improved team and to the team with the most spirit at the national competition. If math degree career opportunities interest you after competing in this competition, consider preparing for the future by exploring the top math summer programs for high school students.

VEX Robotics Competitions

Introduction to the VEX Robotics Competition: The VEX Robotics Competition is the largest robotics competition in the world, with nearly 20,000 teams from 45 countries represented. The competition consists of five categories based on age and education level. The two categories in which middle school students can compete are:

Teams have the opportunity to advance through the local, regional and national levels up to the VEX Robotics World Championship in April.

How to join and participate: In the VEX IQ category, students use pre-packaged VEX construction sets to assemble their robots before entering two rounds of competition. The games vary from year to year. In 2024-25, the game is called “Rapid Relay.” In this game, competitors attempt to score points by using robots to launch balls through one of four target windows. Each time a ball passes through a goal, a point is scored. An extra point is also awarded each time a new window is used. In the first half of the competition, two teams work together to score as many points as possible with their robots. The second part of the contest sees individual teams attempt to score as many points as possible on their own. This section is further divided into a driver-controlled segment (in which the team controls the robot in real-time), and an autonomous segment, in which robots are programmed to score goals.

In the VEX V5 category, teams of registered middle school and high school students design and build their own robots to compete in 2v2-style matches. For the 2024-25 academic year, the game is called “High Stakes.” This game is a bit more complex than the VEX IQ category. Here, the game starts with a fifteen-second autonomous period, in which robots must work on their own based on their programming. Following the autonomous part of the game, there is a one-minute and forty-five-second driver-controlled period, in which teams control their robots directly. In “High Stakes,” Alliances of two teams join together to compete against another alliance, for a total of four teams on the field at once. The goal is to stack your alliance’s rings onto the ten shared stakes scattered around the field. The blue alliance aims to get the blue rings onto the stakes while the red team attempts to score using the red rings. Each ring is worth one point. At the end of the round, the number of each color of rings stacked is added up, and an additional two points are awarded for the top ring stacked on each stake.

To participate, use the VEX competition search page to find the local competition nearest to you!

Opportunities and benefits: VEX Robotics Competitions aim to get students excited about engineering and robotics. Participants get to combine their creativity and technical skills through a fun and friendly competition. Many VEX participants go on to pursue careers in STEM. Explore other robotics summer camps if you apply for this competition.

Future City Competition

Overview of the Future City Competition: Since 1992, the Future City Competition has been engaging middle school students (grades 6-8) in engineering projects centered around urban design and sustainability. Last year, more than 60,000 students from around the world competed to design and build innovative cities of the future, solving complex problems by combining creativity and STEM skills.

Eligibility and competition format: To participate in the competition, teams of at least three students work together with a program leader and an engineer mentor to simulate the engineering design process. Each year, the competition organizers present a unique challenge for teams to address. This year’s challenge is to design and model a city that floats on water, highlighting at least two specific examples of how the city operates to maintain the health and safety of its residents. 

All students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades are eligible to enter the competition. Teams must be composed of at least three students from the same school, home school environment, or extracurricular program. Each team must have a program leader, as well as a mentor who is an engineer, urban planner, or graduate student in a related field.

During the competition, teams complete:

  • A project plan to keep them on track

  • A city essay (maximum 1,500 words) describing their vision for their city

  • A physical model of their city using recycled materials, and including at least one moving part

  • A presentation followed by Q&A with the judges

Awards and recognition: After competing in the regional competition level, the top teams have the opportunity to advance to the international competition in Washington, D.C. (transportation and hotel are included), where they compete for special prizes and awards.

American Computer Science League (ACSL)

Overview of ACSL and its objectives: The American Computer Science League (ACSL), founded in 1978, organizes international computer science contests for students in five divisions: elementary, classroom, junior, intermediate, and senior. The junior division is aimed at middle school students. The goal of the program is to get students excited about computer science topics through appropriate and stimulating challenges for students of all ages and experience levels.

Eligibility and competition format: The junior division is open to all students up through eighth grade and is intended for students in grades 6-8. Rather than having a single day of testing, the ACSL competition season includes five rounds. The first four rounds are called the “regular season,” with each mini-contest testing a different skill. Each round consists of a programming challenge and a written assignment. In the junior category, students have 72 hours to complete a given programming assignment in any programming language. For the written portion, they have 30 minutes to respond to five computer science-related questions. Past topics have included data structures, computer numbering systems, and regular expressions. The regular season is spread over the school year, during which time teams compete to qualify for the finals in late May (only the top few students’ scores from each team are counted). 

Benefits and recognition: Team and individual prizes and certificates are awarded following the regular season and at the end of the final competition.


Description of the competition: ExploraVision is a months-long science and technology contest for students in the U.S. and Canada in grades K-12. The competition was founded in 1992. Throughout the process, competitors must choose a technology to improve, form a team, research possible solutions, and submit their findings by February. The goals of the program are to encourage students to explore innovative solutions to real-world problems, to help them bring their ideas to life, and to inspire a life-long love of science and innovation.

How to participate and what to expect: The ExploraVision competition is divided into three age categories: grades 4-6, grades 7-9, and grades 10-12. The students collaborate in groups of 2-4 to construct a narrative outlining their engineering design process. Each project must include an abstract that summarizes their work, as well as a project description and a list of works cited. The project description should be further broken down into five components:

  • The history and current state of the chosen technology

  • The anticipated future of technology

  • A list and description of breakthroughs needed to bring that future version of the technology into reality

  • The students’ design process

  • Implications of their design for society

In addition, teams must create a website to present and communicate their project to the general public.

The deadline to submit the project is February 7. The regional award winners are announced on April 1. National winners are announced in early May.

Awards and recognition: Each student member of the top national team receives $10,000 worth of college scholarships, while each member of the second-place team receives $5,000 in college scholarships. Each team also receives a trip to Washington, D.C. to be recognized and to present their work.

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How to Prepare for STEM Competitions

Preparing effectively for STEM competitions during middle school requires months of planning and a commitment to staying on track. Most competitions take place in the spring semester of the academic year, but some take place in the fall and winter. In the best-case scenario, students begin preparing during the summer before they plan to compete. This allows students to take their time when studying for the various tests or designing and submitting their projects. Students also tend to have more flexibility during the summer, without the added pressure of putting competitions on top of their school work. 

In addition to starting their preparations early, students must manage their time effectively to stay organized and on track with their study schedules or projects. Working as part of a group can help students keep up with their projects, and having a mentor can also be useful for keeping them focused on the most important and pertinent tasks at hand.

Working with a mentor when preparing for a STEM competition can be an invaluable resource. However, qualified and dedicated mentors can be hard to find. Luckily, Polygence matches middle schoolers with one-on-one mentors to guide them through the process of preparing for and competing in STEM contests. Our network of mentors includes industry experts, PhDs, and graduate students at top universities who are passionate about teaching and passing on their knowledge to younger students. Beyond helping middle schoolers prepare for STEM competitions, our mentors excel at guiding students through their own projects in technology, math, economics, and more. 

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Next Steps with Polygence

Participating in STEM competitions is an excellent way for middle schoolers to get excited about science while developing a life-long passion for technology and innovation. In addition to developing STEM skills, many competitions require students to work in teams, improving their soft skills such as time management and effective communication.

For middle schoolers who love tinkering or exploring science and engineering projects, working with a mentor through Polygence can provide the support and guidance to channel that curiosity into project-based learning. If you or your child is interested in entering STEM-based competitions, Polygence is an opportunity to get the most out of that process through one-on-one mentorship and guidance.

Learn more about Polygence’s Core Program now to discover our programs and apply online!