Science Olympiad

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This article is about competition for secondary schools in the United States. For others, see International Science Olympiad.
Science Olympiad logo

Science Olympiad is an American elementary school, middle school and high school team competition in which students compete in 'events' pertaining to various scientific disciplines, including earth science, biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering. Over 7,300 teams from 50 U.S. states compete each year.[1][2] There are multiple levels of competition; invitational, regional, state, and national. In addition, some states or private groups offer 'invitational' tournaments which serve as practice for regional and state competitions.[3] Teams which excel at the regional competitions advance to the state, and then to the national level. Winners later receive several kinds of awards from medals to trophies and plaques.

Science Olympiad is not associated with the International Science Olympiads, which follow a completely different format and set of rules.


The first recorded Science Olympiad was held on Saturday, November 23, 1974 at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, North Carolina. Dr. Donald Barnes and Dr. David Wetmore were the originators of this event. Fifteen schools from North and South Carolina participated in this event. It was a day-long affair, with competitions and demonstrations for high school students in the areas of biology, chemistry, and physics. There were four event periods during this day and each event period had one fun event (like beaker race or paper airplane), one demonstration (like glassblowing and holography), and one serious event (like periodic table quiz or Science Bowl). An article by David Wetmore was published in the Journal of Chemical Education in January 1978 [4] documenting the success of recruiting students through Science Olympiad. St. Andrews Presbyterian College continues to host a Science Olympiad tournament to this day.[5] Mr. John C. "Jack" Cairns was a teacher at Dover High School in Delaware when he learned about the Science Olympiad tournament in North Carolina. He shared this information with Dr. Douglas R. Macbeth, the Delaware State Science Supervisor. Mr. Cairns was appointed to a steering committee to organize the first Science Olympiad in Delaware [6] which took place at Delaware State University in the Spring of 1977. A write-up in The Science Teacher of December 1977 caught the attention of Dr. Gerard Putz, who proposed that the program be expanded throughout the United States. After competition tests in Michigan at the Lawrence Institute of Technology and Oakland University in 1983 and 1984, Putz and Delaware director John Cairns took their plan for a national competition to the National Science Teachers Conference in Boston. The first National Tournament was attended by representatives of 17 states, held at Michigan State University in 1985. Since then, the program has expanded greatly, with 60 teams present in each division at the National Tournament.[7] In 2012, a Global Ambassador Team from Japan was invited to attend the national tournament at the University of Central Florida.[8]


There are four divisions in the hierarchy of Science Olympiad:

  • Division A1 for elementary school (grades K-3)
  • Division A2 for elementary school (grades 3-6)[9]
  • Division B for middle school (grades 6-9)
  • Division C for high school (grades 9-12)

However, the national tournament and generally state and regional tournaments are only for divisions B and C. Division A teams usually have separate interscholastic tournaments, apart from the more common intra-school competitions. Note that 6th and 9th graders have the option of competing in either of the two divisions in which they meet the grade requirements and are part of the competing school. A middle school may, however, only use up to 5 members who have graduated to the next school if they are in 9th grade or lower. Students in grades lower than the division in which the school competes in may also be on the team. Teams are restricted to five 9th graders for division B and seven 12th graders for division C. Students may not participate on multiple teams, e.g. a 9th grader on both a high school and middle school team would not be allowed.[10]


Students compete in twenty-three main events, which usually occur on a single day; done by a team of limited numbers. Events fall under three main categories: Science Concepts and Knowledge, Science Processes and Thinking Skills, and Science Application and Technology. They are either knowledge-based (for example, written tests on earth science, physics, astronomy, or biology), hands-on (for example, chemistry lab practicals), or engineering-based (participants construct a device to do specified tasks).[11]

Knowledge-based events generally have two participants either taking a test or mathematically analyzing data. Examples of such events are Designer Genes, Forensics, and Chemistry Lab.

Hands-on events generally consist of two participants performing experiments or interacting with physical objects to achieve a certain goal. Some examples are Bio-Process lab, Forensics, or Science Crimebusters.

Engineering-based events have a team of two to three participants. They are to construct a device following a specific event's parameters and test the device against others. Examples include Robo-Cross, Bridge/Tower Building, and Storm The Castle.

The majority of events require two team members, though a few require more. If one member is unable to attend an event, the other is able to continue, depending on the event, with the competition, though at an obvious disadvantage. If the team has one available, a back-up team member may be placed with the member as opposed to their former partner.

The list and rules for events change and are updated every year to input dynamism and to limit the advantages of more experienced teams.

States have substantial leeway in how they run their organization; several states, notably North Carolina[12][13] and Texas run altered slates of events; in the case of Texas, teams can choose to replace National events with state-exclusive events.

Events for the 2014-2015 school year[edit]


Note these are C events

Event Name Description
Air Trajectory Teams will build a device to launch a projectile to a target.
Anatomy & Physiology This event encompasses the anatomy and physiology of selected body systems: this year limited to cardiovascular, immune, and integumentary systems.
Astronomy Teams will demonstrate an understanding of the basic concepts of math and physics relating to stellar evolution and stellar formation.
Bio-Process Lab Students demonstrate their knowledge of biology. It is a lab-oriented competition involving the fundamental science processes of a middle school science program (Middle School), and Introductory Biology (High School).>
Bridge Building Students will build a wooden structure to span a 45 cm (Division C) or 35 cm (Division B) wide gap.
Bungee Drop Students will design an elastic cord to drop a specified height.
Cell Biology Students will demonstrate knowledge of cell biology and biochemistry.
Chemistry Lab Teams will demonstrate chemistry laboratory skills related to stoichiometry and chemical kinetics.
Compound Machines Students will construct a device and answer questions about simple and compound machines.
Disease Detectives Students apply principles to scientific study of disease with focus on population growth.
Dynamic Planet Teams will work on tasks with emphasis on oceanography.
Entomology Students will identify and answer questions about insects by order and family.
Experimental Design Teams will design, conduct, analyze and write-up an actual on site experiment.
Forensics Teams will perform tests to solve a crime.
Fossils Students will identify and answer questions about fossils.
Geologic Mapping Teams will demonstrate use of topographic and geologic maps to evaluate geohazards and subsurface features.
Green Generation Students will demonstrate an understanding of general ecological principles, human impact on the environment and possible solutions to harmful impact on the environment.
Its About Time Teams will construct a non-electric clock and answer questions about time.
Mission Possible Teams design, build and demonstrate a "Rube Goldberg" device.
Protein Modeling Students will model proteins using "tools" used to edit the human genome.
Scrambler Teams must construct a device to transport an egg.
Technical Problem Solving Teams will gather and process data to solve problems in forensics.
Wright Stuff Teams design, construct, and test a rubber powered model plane.
Write It/Do It A technical writing exercise in which one student writes a description of a contraption and another student attempts to recreate it using only the written description.

Events for the 2012-2013 school year[edit]

Note that some events are not included in the competition scores, as they are trial/pilot events.

Event Name Description
Anatomy (B) Teams will be tested on their knowledge of anatomy and health concepts based on two pre-selected body systems. This year,the two are the nervous and integumentary systems.
Anatomy & Physiology (C) This event encompasses the anatomy and physiology of selected body systems, this year limited to nervous, immune, and integumentary systems.
Astronomy (C) Teams will demonstrate an understanding of the basic concepts of math and physics relating to stellar evolution and Type II supernovas.
Boomilever (B/C) Students will build a cantilevered wooden structure.
Chemistry Lab (C) Teams will demonstrate chemistry laboratory skills related to stoichiometry and equilibrium.
Circuit Lab (C) Students will compete in theoretical and practical activities involving knowledge of direct current (DC) electrical circuits.
Crime Busters (B) Teams will identify the perpetrators of a crime or crimes by using paper chromatography and analysis of unknown solids, liquids, and plastics found at the scene of a crime.
Designer Genes (C) Students will solve problems using their knowledge of molecular genetics and biotechnology.
Disease Detective (B/C) Requires students to apply principles of epidemiology to a published report of a real-life health situation or problem. (Environmental Quality)
Dynamic Planet (B/C) Teams will work at stations that display a variety of earth science materials and related earth science questions. (Glaciers)
Elastic Launched Glider (C) Students will design, build and test two elastic launched gliders capable of the highest time aloft.
Experimental Design (B/C) Given a set of unknown objects, teams will design, conduct, analyse and write-up an experiment.
Fermi Questions (C) A Fermi Question is a science related question that seeks a fast, rough estimate of a quantity which is difficult or impossible to measure directly. Answers will be estimated within an order of magnitude recorded in powers of 10.
Food Science (B) Using their understanding of the chemistry and physical properties of baking ingredients, teams will answer questions at a series of stations.
Forensics (C) Students will identify polymers, solids, fibres, and other materials in a crime scenario.
Forestry (B/C) This event will test student knowledge of North American trees that are on the Official List.
Gravity Vehicle (C) Teams design, build and test one vehicle and ramp that uses gravitational potential energy as the vehicle's sole means of propulsion to reach a Target Point as quickly, as accurately and as close to their predicted time as possible.
Helicopters (B) Students will construct and test free flight rubber-powered helicopters prior to the tournament to achieve maximum flight times.
Heredity (B) Students will solve problems and analyse data or diagrams using their knowledge of the basic principles of genetics.
Keep the Heat (B) Teams must construct an insulated device prior to the tournament that is designed to retain heat. Students must also complete a written test on thermodynamic concepts.
MagLev (C) Competitors may construct up to two self-propelled magnetically levitated vehicles powered by batteries that turn up to two propellers to move the vehicle down a magnetic track. Students will also be tested on their knowledge of magnetism and related topics.
Materials Science (C) Teams will answer a series of questions or complete tasks involving the scientific processes of chemistry focused in the areas of materials science.
Meteorology (B) This event involves the use of process skills as applied to meteorology.
Metric Mastery (B) Students will demonstrate an intuitive feeling for estimating then measuring metric units including mass, volume, area, surface area, force, distance, time and temperature.
Mission Possible (B) Prior to the competition, participants will design, build, test and document a "Rube Goldberg-like device" that completes a required Final Task using a sequence of consecutive tasks.
Mousetrap Vehicle (B) Teams will design, build and test a vehicle using one mousetrap as the sole means of propulsion to reach a target as quickly, accurately and close to their predicted time as possible.
Reach for the Stars (B) Students will demonstrate an understanding and basic knowledge of the properties and evolution of stars, open clusters and globular clusters, and normal and star-forming galaxies.
Remote Sensing (C) Teams use remote sensing imagery, science and math process skills to complete tasks related to an understanding of Earth's Hydrosphere.
Road Scholar (B) Requires the accurate interpretation and understanding of various map features using a variety of road and topographic maps.
Robot Arm (C) Prior to the competition teams must design, build, document and test one robotic device to move scored items.
Rocks and Minerals (B/C) Teams will demonstrate their knowledge of rocks and minerals.
Rotor Egg Drop (B) A team will construct a helicopter device which uses one or more helicopter rotors to safely transport a raw chicken egg from a specified height to the floor.
Shock Value (B) Students will compete in activities involving basic understanding of electricity, magnetism and simple electrical devices.
Sounds of Music (B) Students will build two instruments based on a 12 tone tempered scale, prepare to describe the principles behind their operation and be able to perform a major scale, a required melody and a chosen melody with each.
Technical Problem Solving (C) Teams will gather and process data to solve problems.
Thermodynamics (C) Teams must construct an insulated device prior to the tournament that is designed to retain heat. Teams must also complete a written test on thermodynamic concepts.
Water Quality (B/C) The event will focus on evaluating aquatic environments. (Freshwater/Estuaries)
Write It/Do It (B/C) A technical writing exercise where students write a description of a contraption and other students will attempt to recreate it using only the written description.

Trial/Pilot Events[edit]

Trial/Pilot events are, at Regional and State tournaments, events that are specific to that state that are being considered as events for the next year. At Regionals and States, these events may count towards the team's score. At Nationals, however, there is a completely different set of Trial/Pilot events, sometimes known as "alternate events" because the people entering them do not have to be on the official team. These do not count towards the team's score, but ribbons and medals are usually awarded.

Distinction Between Trial and Pilot Events[edit]

The terms "trial event" and "pilot event" (also called "exploratory event") are sometimes interchangeable, both pertaining to an event that is not an official, national event for the year. However, at the National Tournament, there are often two differences. First, in 2010, it was announced that medals would only be awarded to the top 3 in the Trial events, but not at all in the Pilot events. Also, the Trial event are often much closer to becoming official events for following years than pilot events. Almost all of the Trial events from recent National tournaments have become official events within a few years of the tournament, while the same is not true for almost any of the pilot events.

Team Structure[edit]

Teams are hosted by the school from which the participants attend.

Science Olympiad is most often run as an after-school extracurricular activity, but some schools offer Science Olympiad classes that allow students to receive academic credit for participation. A teacher, parent, or student (usually a volunteer) coordinates the team in practice and preparation for the competition. Often there are others who coach individual events as well. A team can consist of up to 15 students and any amount of alternates; some states allow more students per team. At the middle school level at nationals, only five ninth graders are allowed to compete on one team; at the high school level, only seven twelfth graders are allowed per team. However, for state competitions, the rules may often be different. Homeschool groups may also form teams to compete.

Although teams may have an unlimited number of alternates, it is implicitly stated within the rules that competitors present at the event must have completed all of the work on their event. This is specifically aimed at building events. It is illegal for teams to have their alternates as "builders" and their formal team members as "thinkers". Judges at the event are allowed to ask any question of the machine or contraption in an effort to keep the scenario above from occurring. Nonetheless, competitors, coaches, and entire teams are expected to have integrity and to abide by this rule.

A great deal of strategy usually goes into forming a team. Since events go on at the same time as other events during a competition and conflicts may occur, the coach or coordinator must make decisions based on the competitor's specialty and ability in order to correctly place him/her. Sometimes, usually during the reformation of competitors when a team advances a level, a competitor who wasn't originally planned to compete in a certain event may have to compete in it to fill the certain event slot.


The winner of the competition is determined by each team's overall score. Each school is ranked in every event based on that event's rules. The team's overall score is then calculated by adding together the rank of the school in all events (e.g. 1st place receives 1 point, 2nd place 2 points, etc.). The team with the lowest overall score is declared the winner. However, it should be noted that some state competitions choose to score the competition by awarding more points per place (e.g. 13 points for 1st place, 12 points for 2nd place, etc.) and having the team with the most points being declared the winner.

There are several ways to break a tie (draw):

  • One method for tie-breaking is based on medals where the team with more first place medals wins, if both teams have the same amount of first places, it moves to second place medals and so on. This is the method that the National Tournament uses.
  • Before a competition, the event organizer decides on several events to be used as tie-breakers. If two teams get the same score overall, the team that rates highest in that one event will take the lead.
  • A third way of tie-breaking is to use a team's score in trial/pilot events. The team with the best combined score in trial events would win the competition when this method is used.
  • In some competitions, there also may questions added into event, labeled as tie-breakers. If needed, these questions can be used as tie breakers, although this type of tie-breaker is generally for only the event and not the overall rank.

Competition levels[edit]

Science Olympiad competitions occur at the regional, state and national level. Normally, the top few teams advance from the regional level to state competition, the exact number depending on how many regions there are and how many teams compete. For example, the regional Science Olympiad competition in Albany, New York will typically send the top three finishing teams to the New York state competition. However, an additional team or teams can be sent to the state competition if one of the top three has been victorious (or has gone to the state competition) multiple times in a row. In most states, the top team advances from state to the national competition. Some states with a larger number of teams are allotted a second spot at the national competition to represent their larger participation. About 120 teams compete at the national level each year (60 from Division B and 60 from Division C); the number has changed over the years to accommodate growing participation.

Many states also hold invitational tournaments. These competitions serve as "practice rounds" for qualifying tournaments, and are hosted by individual middle schools,[15] high schools and/or colleges. These are also often organized by schools themselves and usually occur some time in January or February. Teams can participate in invitationals from multiple states depending on availability. At some invitational, only a few events are held. However, many invitational tournaments mimic regional and state competitions in their competitive intensity.[16] For example, Solon Middle School holds an invitational each year that fields about 60 teams, including 6-7 past national qualifiers. In this way, teams can gain extra practice before competing in Regional, State, or National tournaments. In 2014, Yale University[17] became the first institution of higher education to host a tournament run by Science Olympiad alumni, followed in January 2015 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology[18] and Cornell University.[19]

National Tournament[edit]

The National Science Olympiad competition is held in late May at a different university every year. Teams compete at the state competition with the top two schools in Division B and Division C each earning a spot at the national competition. Some states are given a second slot, based on the membership within the division. The total number of invited teams in each division is equal to 60 and the national tournament hosts 120 teams. In 2012, at the University of Central Florida, a team from Japan was invited as a Global Ambassador Team. Although they competed in several events, their scores were not tallied against the state teams.

The competition officially begins with opening ceremonies on Friday night that usually includes a notable speaker, such as a Nobel Laureate. A traditional Swap Meet follows the opening ceremonies which is an opportunity for teams to meet and greet. They bring state memorabilia to trade with other teams. The most popular items include hats, license plates, T-shirts, and key chains.

Saturday includes several time blocks. Each block includes a 60-minute section for each study event, plus a 15-minute break time for competitors to get from one event to another.

That night, a formal Awards Ceremony is held. It opens with a short speech followed by awarding medals for the top six teams in each event. Points for all the events are added together to determine an overall national team winner. The trial events are not included in this tally. The top ten teams in each division are recognized with trophies and plaques.

In some national tournaments, scholarships are awarded to the top teams in each event. For the 2005 and 2010 competitions, held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, first-place event winners received full four-year tuition waivers to the university. At the 2006 National Tournament, host Indiana University awarded $7,000 annual scholarships to those who finished first place in Division C and who attend the university in their freshman year. The George Washington University offered Division C gold medalists at its 2008 National Tournament a $20,000 stipend for those who were accepted and attended GWU. In 2012, the University of Central Florida offered $30,000 scholarships to the university for first place medalists in Division C. Additional awards may also provided by sponsors and industry leaders for specific events. For example, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention provided first place medalists in Disease Detectives (Division C) with a trip for the two competitors and their coach to tour the CDC facility in Atlanta, Georgia.

National Locations and Champions[edit]

This is a list of past national champions and locations.[20][21]

Division B Division C
Year Location School State School State
1985 Michigan State University Slauson Intermediate School MI Seaholm High School MI
1986 Michigan State University Slauson Intermediate School MI Seaholm High School MI
1987 Ohio State University Gompers Secondary School CA Irmo High School SC
1988 Delaware State University Irmo Middle School SC Haverford High School PA
1989 University of Colorado, Boulder Irmo Middle School SC Irmo High School SC
1990 Clarion University Irmo Middle School SC Irmo High School SC
1991 Penn Valley Community College Grandville Junior High School MI La Jolla High School CA
1992 Auburn University Jenison Junior High School MI La Jolla High School CA
1993 University of Southern Colorado Thomas Jefferson Middle School IN Grand Haven High School MI
1994 University of Arizona State College Junior High School PA Grand Haven High School MI
1995 Indiana University State College Junior High School PA Harriton High School PA
1996 Georgia Institute of Technology Thomas Jefferson Middle School IN Troy High School CA
1997 North Carolina State University J.C. Booth Middle School GA Grand Haven High School MI
1998 Grand Valley State University J.C. Booth Middle School GA Solon High School OH
1999 Chicago Museums and University of Chicago J.C. Booth Middle School GA Troy High School CA
2000 Eastern Washington University J.C. Booth Middle School GA Troy High School CA
2001 University of Colorado, Colorado Springs J.C. Booth Middle School GA Harriton High School PA
2002 University of Delaware Rising Starr Middle School GA Troy High School CA
2003 Ohio State University J.C. Booth Middle School GA Troy High School CA
2004 Juniata College J.C. Booth Middle School GA Fayetteville-Manlius High School NY
2005 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Community Middle School NJ Harriton High School PA
2006 Indiana University, Bloomington J.C. Booth Middle School GA Troy High School CA
2007 Wichita State University Community Middle School NJ Troy High School CA
2008 The George Washington University Solon Middle School OH Troy High School CA
2009 Augusta State University Solon Middle School OH Centerville High School OH
2010 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Solon Middle School OH Centerville High School OH
2011 University of Wisconsin–Madison Solon Middle School OH Solon High School OH
2012 University of Central Florida[22] Solon Middle School OH Solon High School OH
2013 Wright State University Solon Middle School OH Solon High School OH
2014 University of Central Florida Beckendorff Junior High School TX Troy High School CA
2015 University of Nebraska–Lincoln Solon Middle School OH Troy High School CA
2016 University of Wisconsin–Stout
2017 Wright State University
2018 Colorado State University


  1. ^ 2013 Science Olympiad Membership Map
  2. ^ Science Olympiad History
  3. ^ Science Olympiad Invitational Tournaments
  4. ^ Journal of Chemical Education- Student Recruitment Through a Science Olympiad
  5. ^ Science Olympiad Tournament at St. Andrew's Presbyterian College
  6. ^ Delaware Science Olympiad
  7. ^ Science Olympiad History
  8. ^ Science Olympiad National Tournament 2012
  9. ^
  10. ^ Divisions Science Olympiad Divisions
  11. ^ Event Descriptions
  12. ^ North Carolina-specific events Division B
  13. ^ North Carolina-specific events Division C
  14. ^ Division C Rules Manual, Science Olympiad, Inc. 2015
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^ National Tournament Winners
  22. ^ Future Tournament Locations

External links[edit]