The 6 Categories of Educational Competitions

Posted July 4, 2016 by Josh Neubert

There are more than 500 educational competitions available to K-12 students in the United States - such as the You Be the Chemist Challenge, featured in the header image. Many more are also available internationally and in post-secondary education. Understanding the entire field of educational competitions may seem daunting to many educators. For this reason, ICS has created a multi-layered educational competitions taxonomy to help educators, parents, and students understand how competitions work, and what types of competitions might be right for them.

ICS's taxonomy is organized into 6 categories based on how competitions are structured in four components common to all competitions: (1) Outreach & Registration, (2) Academic Process, (3) Judging & Review, and (4) Awards & Recognition. Categories are based on commonalities in competition structure rather than topic areas. So one competition that deals with environmental science might fall into the same category as another competition that deals with civic engagement.


Performance-Based Challenges

Hands-on academic processes where students create a product or object to solve a given problem. Many of these challenges fall into the engineering-design areas require students to construct a physical solution to the problem; however, some challenges may only require visual mockups, prototypes, or simulations that perform to required specifications.

Examples: FIRST Robotics Competition, Vex Robotics, International Bridge Building Competition, RoboCup.

Search: Find more competitions of this type by searching the ICS Database here.



Competitions in this category are typically knowledge-based where two or more teams are put in head-to-head educational competitions. These tournaments can take many shapes by having differences in their rules, such as how many rounds there are, or how the teams are scored. Many sports programs have tournament based playoffs. The high flexibility of tournaments also means that they are often combined with other categories to create hybrid challenges (such as an engineering design tournament).

Examples: Spelling Bee, National Ocean Sciences Bowl, Science Bowl, Science Olympiad, History Bowl.

Search: Find more tournament based academic competitions by searching the ICS Database here.


Presentation and Debate Competitions

In these competitions, students are required to develop some form of presentation to highlight their knowledge in a given subject matter. In competitions that involve an aspect of debate, they are often hosted as head-to-head challenges where teams are judged on the validity of their arguments. In competitions that are purely presentation based, they are hosted as either online submissions, or in-person presentations. Sometimes these competitions also include multiple rounds that may include both online and in-person activities.

Examples: Mock Trial, Business Case Competitions, Business Plan Competitions, Oral Presentation competitions.

Search: Find more Presentation and Debate academic Competitions by searching the ICS Database here.


Concept Submission Competitions

A written essay, poem, piece of artwork, or other submission is typically the product created in this category of competitions. Students are often tasked with creating a written or visual product as a response to a topic statement. These are then reviewed based on a wide range of criteria including grammar, comprehension, design, story-telling, etc. However, there can be many other submission-based topics such as software/coding, videos, or simply ideas. These competitions are typically conducted as individual projects with online submissions.

Examples: Patriot's Pen, the Dupont Challenge: Science Essay Competition, First Freedom Competition, We the Future Contest, International Design Awards, and many others.

Search: Find more submission-based academic competitions by searching the ICS Database here.



Just like your county fair, educational competitions can host large showcases of student projects that are judged based on a pre-defined set of criteria. Typically there are multiple awards given through each fair-based competition. Student projects can be judged on any number of criteria that vary widely based on the subject matter of the fair. Many fairs have multiple rounds of judging (for example, local, regional, state, and national rounds). The most common fairs are science fairs, but they can also be held in other academic subjects such as art or business.

Examples: Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, Broadcom Masters, Intel Science Talent Search, Google Science Fair.

Search: Find more Fair based academic competitions by searching the ICS Database here.


Exam Competitions

Many Organizations host contests based on exams. Although we can debate whether or not these types of programs are actually "competitions" we felt it valuable to include them in our database. There are exam-based competitions in many academic and educational areas. One field that still uses many exam based contests is in mathematics.

Examples: American Mathematics Competition, Caribou Contests, etc...

Search: Find more Exam-Based academic competitions by searching the ICS Database here.