Changing Times in Tech Mean a New Era for Science Competitions

It’s a new day for science competitions. This month, we've seen two landmark announcements—Intel walked away from nearly 20 years as the foremost competition sponsor, and a band of tech billionaires launched a flashy new challenge. 

Science competitions are a bellwether for the country’s attitudes toward science and technology, especially how they fit into our economy and workforce. During the post-war Sputnik era, they became popular as a way to groom a future America that would lead the world in tech advances. In 1998, when Westinghouse handed over the preeminent youth competition to microchip maker Intel, it was widely viewed as a passing of the torch to the personal computing age. 

With Intel now stepping down from its sponsorship of the Science Talent Search, and the launch of the new Breakthrough Junior Challenge by Yuri Milner and other tech billionaires, it feels as if we are experiencing another such seismic shift in motivating our youngsters via competition. 

Related: Behind Intel's Big Give for Diversity and STEM

Symbolism aside, the news that Intel would no longer host the Science Talent Search was viewed almost entirely with confusion and disappointment. The competition has been around since 1942, and has held the spotlight as the most illustrious such event, with young competitors going on to win Nobel Prizes and become prominent leaders in their fields. 

There has been no official explanation regarding why the company made the decision, with the $6 million per year commitment a drop in bucket compared to the exposure it earned them, even for a company that’s seen better days financially. In contrast, backing out has earned them a ton of negative press. 

Even though it’s been bad for the company’s image, it makes a certain kind of sense that they won’t be the sponsor anymore. The idea of a PC chip manufacturer sponsoring a hunt for the next generation of Nobel Prize winners seems a little anachronistic.

The company is also making major changes since new CEO Brian Krzanich took over in 2013, trying to reinvent its PC-dependent image, and shake up its stuck-in-the-past reputation. Even though the Talent Search is still highly respected and very much on the cutting edge, perhaps the sponsorship felt too much like the old Intel. 

Under the new CEO, the company has taken an interest in the Maker movement, which involves a hipper, DIY approach to youth participation in science. Intel also recently launched a $300 million effort to diversify the tech workforce (which is definitely compatible with funding science fairs, but it's a distinct effort). Maybe the company wants to be more commonly associated with these initiatives as it pivots.

Related: Hey, STEM Funders: What If Science Competitions Aren’t Good for Kids?

With Intel stepping down, who will be stepping up to replace it as the competition’s sponsor? Rumors have been floated that Google could take over, with its own well-known STEM education priorities, like the Google Science Fair, and sponsorship of other competitions.

A company like Google, Apple, or maybe even a biotech firm, would be a natural evolution from Intel. Let’s face it: The young geniuses of tomorrow are much more likely to be crunching away at AI algorithms or genomic sequencing, and a modern tech giant could raise the competition’s profile and prize money. 

Which brings us to the other big news—the Breakthrough Junior Challenge. It’s the latest in a series of prizes designed to make scientists the new rockstars, spearheaded by Yuri Milner and backed by a coalition of tech glitterati like Mark Zuckerberg. The grand prize in each adult category is $3 million, making it the wealthiest in the world. 

Now there’s one for kids, although the prize money is a meager $250,000 in scholarship funds, plus $50,000 for the student’s teacher, and a new science lab for the school. The hook is that students must submit 10-minute videos that illustrate “a challenging concept or theory of mathematics, life sciences or physics in an engaging, illuminating and creative way."

The video component is appropriate, given the competition’s other partner, Khan Academy, a wildly popular online education company that has become a darling among philanthropists enthusiastic about disrupting educational resources. 


Another interesting aspect is that participants will be asked to score other submissions in a “peer-to-peer review” period, before facing panels of grown-ups, including some composed of Breakthrough Prize winners.

One nice thing about this competition is that, while production value will vary, really anyone can make a 10-minute video. STEM competitions are often criticized for the increasingly elaborate submissions that give an edge to students with access to adult help and resources. Students who didn't place or couldn't compete in other events could jump on this alternative.

Breakthrough Junior is a unique competition, but that's not to say it's going to replace more traditional fairs like the Science Talent Search, or that it should. Such events still have their place—engaging thousands of young people every year, many of whom will go on to top schools.

But the industry and philanthropic influences that inspire and reward young people pursuing science are most definitely changing, and maybe that means we'll open up more diverse entry points for a variety of young people. After all, there has been a certain amount of backlash against traditional competitions.

As developments like the maker movement and the drive for advanced manufacturing jobs continue to grow, maybe the old guard companies known primarily as hardware makers will shift the focus away from elite competitions. And maybe tech billionaires will launch more competitions that invite creative new perspectives that kids can cook up in their bedrooms, in hopes of nudging forward the next Zuckerberg.