Our 3rd Annual STEM Writing Contest

How do daddy longlegs grow such strange legs? Can genetically engineered bacteria help us detect buried land mines? Why does snow sometimes turn red? Can Saturn’s rings help to reveal what’s happening in the planet’s core?

If you click on any of these articles, you’ll see that they are written for a general reader. Special technical or scientific knowledge is not required, and each is designed to get our attention and keep it — by giving us “news we can use” in our own lives, or by exploring something fascinating in a way that makes it easy to understand and shows us why it matters.

That’s what Times journalists do every day across our Science, Health and Technology sections, and it’s what Science News and Science News for Students do on their sites too, where journalists explain things like the moon’s orbital wobble, “zombie” wildfires and how sleep may affect test scores.

For this contest, The Learning Network invites you to bring that same spirit of inquiry and discovery to finding a STEM-related question, concept or issue you’re interested in, and, in 500 words or fewer, explaining it to a general audience in a way that not only helps us understand, but also engages us and makes us see why it’s important.

So what questions do you have about how the world works? What science, technology, engineering, math or health questions might be inspired by your own life or experiences? What innovations, processes or problems in any of these areas puzzle or intrigue you? What concepts in STEM — whether from biology, physics, psychology, computer science, algebra or calculus — have you learned about, in or out of school, that might be useful or fun to explain to others?

The best of this kind of writing includes three elements we’ll be asking you to include, too:

It begins with an engaging hook to get readers’ attention and make us care about the subject.

It quotes experts and/or includes research on the topic to give context and credibility.

It explains why the topic matters. Why do you care? Why should we care? Whom or what does it affect, why and how? How is it relevant to broader questions in the field, to the world today and to our own lives.

Take a look at the full guidelines and related resources below. Please post any questions you have in the comments and we’ll answer you there, or write to us at [email protected]

Here’s what you need to know:

How to Submit

This contest begins on Feb. 2, 2022. We will add links to the submission forms here on the day the contest opens.

Students ages 11 to 19 anywhere in the world attending middle or high school can participate. Students ages 13 to 19 years old in the United States and the United Kingdom, and students ages 16 to 19 years old anywhere else in the world, can submit their own entries. Younger students can have an adult submit on their behalf.

Contest Guidelines

1. Choose a STEM topic you care about.

Maybe it’s something personal — you just found out you’re nearsighted and you want to know what that means, or you want to learn about the brain and how to create more efficient study habits.

Or, maybe it’s something cool you observed in science lab that you’d like to explain, or a phenomenon you’ve noticed in your own neighborhood, school or backyard that you’d like to investigate. It could be a topic you already know a great deal about and want to explain to others, or something you’ve never thought about until now.

Please choose something you are genuinely curious about. We’ve been running student writing contests for over a decade, and one thing we know for sure is that the best writing is inspired by students’ real interests, not from a one-size-fits-all assignment given to an entire class.

2. Make sure your topic is narrow enough that you can cover it well in 500 words or fewer.

You probably can’t explain the entire circulatory system within our word limit, but you probably can explain why the heart keeps beating. You probably can’t get across all the thinking and research on the science of happiness, but you probably can choose one research-backed recommendation and explore it.

3. Do research, and cite your sources.

For this contest, we are partnering with Science News. At least one of your sources must be from either The New York Times, Science News OR its sister site, Science News for Students. But of course you can use all three, and any other additional sources.

We provide you with a separate field to make a list of sources you used to write your article or essay. You can format your list however you want; we will not judge your entry based on formatting in this section. And, internal citations are not necessary.

We also encourage you to interview experts whose work is relevant to your chosen topic. But that doesn’t mean you have to call the head of the U.S. Forest Service if you want to write about butterfly habitats. You can talk to a local park ranger or gardener who has experience with and extensive knowledge about the topic.

And, of course, part of your research can be your own investigations. Let’s say you’re writing about teenagers’ use of e-books. You might survey your own class or grade about their habits and preferences, then use those findings in your piece.

4. But be very careful to put quotations around any direct quotes you use, and to cite the source of anything you paraphrase.

If we put a sentence from your submission into a search engine, we don’t want to find it anywhere else — unless you’re clearly quoting or citing that source.

5. Your submission must be 500 words or fewer, not including the title.

6. Here is the rubric that shows exactly what we’re looking for.

7. Please submit only one entry per student.

Write your essay by yourself or with a group, but please submit only one essay per student. If you are working as a team, just remember to submit all of your names when you post your entry. And if you’re submitting as part of a team, you should not also submit as an individual.

8. The deadline for this contest is Wednesday, March 9, at 11:59 p.m. Pacific time.

We provide a small window of time after that deadline to allow for technical difficulties. However, at some point after the deadline, our contest submission form closes and you will not be allowed to submit an entry, so please be mindful of the deadline and submit early.

Resources for Teachers and Students

Our full Informational Writing Unit.

An on-demand webinar (also available on YouTube) with Learning Network staff and expert educators on teaching informational writing with The New York Times.

Mentor texts that demonstrate three important elements of STEM writing: hooking the reader, quoting and paraphrasing experts and research and explaining why a topic matters.

Examples of STEM writers discussing the process behind their work: an annotated article by Nicholas St. Fleur, a science reporter at The Times, and a video conversation with two students who won the contest in 2020.

Short videos with advice from Times writers on hooking the reader; explaining why a topic matters; quoting and paraphrasing; research; and selecting the right topic.

The work of our 2020 and 2021 winners.

A writing prompt: What Questions Do You Have About How the World Works?

A lesson plan: Teaching Science with the ‘Trilobites’ Column, and all of our Lessons of the Day that concern STEM-related topics.

Our contest rubric.

Frequently Asked Questions

Answers to your questions about judging, the rules and teaching with this contest. Please read these thoroughly and, if you still can’t find what you’re looking for, post your query in the comments or write to us at [email protected]

QUESTIONS ABOUT JUDGING

How will my essay be judged?

Your work will be read by journalists from The New York Times and Science News as well as by Learning Network staff members and STEM educators from around the United States. We will use this rubric to judge entries.

What is the “prize”?

Having your work published on The New York Times Learning Network.

When will the winners be announced?

About two months after the contest has closed.

My essay wasn’t selected as a winner. Can you tell me why?

We receive thousands of entries for this contest, so, unfortunately, our team does not have the capacity to provide individual feedback on each student’s essay.

QUESTIONS ABOUT THE RULES

Who is eligible to participate in this contest?

For this contest, we invite students ages 11 to 19 in middle school or high school to enter. For students in the United States, we consider middle school to begin in 6th grade; students outside of the United States must be at least 11 years old to enter.

The children and stepchildren of New York Times employees are not eligible to enter this contest. Nor are students who live in the same household as those employees.

If you are not sure if you are eligible for this contest (for example, if you’re taking a gap year), please see our more detailed eligibility rules.

My essay was published in my school newspaper. Can I submit it to this contest?

No. We ask that your essay be original for this contest. Please don’t submit anything you have already published at the time of submission, whether in a school newspaper, for another contest or anywhere else.

Do I need a Works Cited page?

Yes. We provide you with a separate field to list the sources you used to write your essay. You’re allowed to format your list however you want; we will not judge your entry based on formatting in this section. Internal citations are not necessary.

Can I have someone else check my work?

We understand that students will often revise their work based on feedback from teachers and peers. That is allowed for this contest. However, be sure that the final submission reflects the ideas, voice and writing ability of the student, not someone else.

Who can I contact if I have questions about this contest or am having issues submitting my entry?

Leave a comment on this post or write to us at [email protected]

QUESTIONS ABOUT TEACHING WITH THIS CONTEST

I’m a teacher. What resources do you have to help me teach with this contest?

Start with our unit plan for informational writing. It includes writing prompts, mentor texts and lesson plans that can support this contest.

You might also invite your students to read the winners of last year’s contest to get inspiration for their own work.

Do my students need a New York Times subscription to access these resources?

No. All of the resources on The Learning Network are free.

If your students don’t have a subscription to The New York Times, they can also get access to Times pieces through The Learning Network. All the activities for students on our site, including mentor texts and writing prompts, plus the Times articles they link to, are free. Students can search for articles using the search tool on our home page. In the rest of The Times, they can access up to five free articles a month.

How do my students prove to me that they entered this contest?

After they submit their essays, students should receive an email from The New York Times with the subject heading “Thank you for your submission to our STEM Writing Contest,” which they can forward to you to show their entry has been accepted.

This contest is a collaboration with the Society for Science & the Public, publisher of Science News, a source of independent nonprofit journalism on the latest in science, medicine and technology since 1921, Science News for Students and the Science News in High Schools program.

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