Siemens Pits Students Against Each Other for the (Science) Battles of Their Lives

The idea of a science fair initially feels kind of mid-century quaint, with images of kids in thick-rimmed glasses setting off baking soda volcanoes. But science competitions have come a long way. They’re one of the preferred ways for tech company foundations to hand out funds. And the foundation of German engineering corporation Siemens is one of the more competition-happy of those funders.

Siemens is a big conglomerate, but its foundation isn’t nearly as big as some of the huge players like Intel, Merck or ExxonMobil, for example. But it does give entirely to STEM education, including the Siemens STEM Academy, which offers professional development opportunities for teachers. 

But the funder puts a big emphasis on science competitions, the flagship giving program being the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology. The Siemens Competition is one of the more respected nationwide science competitions, hosted by schools like MIT, Georgia Tech, Carnegie Mellon and CalTech. The two top prizes are $100,000, with $500,000 total in scholarship funds awarded each round. 

The great benefits for educators about this kind of science competition are definitely the openness and the visibility. Corporate foundations giving to science education can be incredibly opaque. They hand pick partners and are programs are heavily branded and connected to the company. Science competitions are largely wide open. Schools with talented teachers and students can enter and, even just making it past initial rounds can often mean a ton of publicity and funds for the students, and sometimes the schools themselves. And getting kids excited about a national competition is clearly a strong way for a school to get students enthusiastic about science.  

The downside, of course, is the tough competition. Aside from the fact that having teens publicly compete for life-changing scholarships has kind of a Hunger Games feel to it, these competitions can be pretty intense.

For example, the Siemens Competition challenges individuals or teams of high school students to undertake research projects, each with a mentor, and in recent years has drawn some 1600 entrants. Out of the initial round, only 60 entrants go on to the regional finals, in which they participate in competitions held at the esteemed sponsor universities. Then in the finals, they are placed in the Thunderdome to fight for their lives. Not really, it’s another science competition before university judges.

The winners’ research projects are no baking soda volcanoes. For example, 2012 winner Kensen Shi developed a more efficient algorithm for motion planning, which allows robots to navigate paths in complex environments.

Of course, not all of the Siemens competitions are quite so advanced. For example, the We Can Change the World Challenge is open to elementary through high school students and educators, inviting them to undertake projects that make their campuses or communities more sustainable, with prizes going to the schools and students involved. 

Learn more about Siemens’ STEM education giving here.