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Science Competitions for Secondary School Students

May 12th, 2021

Participating is Key!?

What Determines Success or Failure in Student Competitions

Tim Höffler, Eva Treiber, Carola Garrecht, Anneke Steegh

For many decades, the IPN has very successfully organized selections for several scientific competitions, the Science Olympiads. The national team that will compete for Germany in the international competition is determined over several rounds. Almost all selected German students to participate in the international competitions return with medals. Last year, more than 9,000 youths took part in the first selection rounds of the Science Olympiads. This means that the Science Olympiads not only appeal to the best-performing students in each age group, but also motivate a large number of interested youths to explore scientific issues. An interdisciplinary project at the IPN has studied the participants.

A key goal of the Science Olympiads is to achieve a good interplay between top-level support and the promotion of scientific talent on a broader scale. To what extent the competitions achieve this goal has now been systematically investigated for the first time by the research project Effects of science competitions (WinnerS), which is funded by the Leibniz Association. Over the course of a year, participants in all ScienceOlympiads were surveyed several times regarding a variety of potentially relevant factors, such as their scientific self-concept, their cognitive abilities and problem-solving skills, their support at home, their career expectations, attributions, interests, and much more. It was important to also interview those participants who had already dropped out of the competition, i.e. those who did not advance in one of the four selection rounds. Of course, it is conceivable that an elimination - which is not unlikely in the case of national teams of four to six members - could also have a negative impact on the highly motivated participants. Since the survey of the control group has not yet been completed, it is not yet possible to answer the overarching questions about the impact of the Science Olympiads and about the skills and characteristics of successful versus less successful Olympians.

In addition, the project, in which all departments of the IPN were involved, also offered the opportunity to work on numerous other investigations: Four PhD students of the IPN from the departments of Biology Education (Carola Garrecht), Chemistry Education (Anneke Steegh), Mathematics Education (Eva Treiber) and Physics Education (Peter Wulff) used the data of the project for their research on competitions. In this article we present the two projects from mathematics and chemistry education. The project from biology education is described only briefly. The results of the physics education project are reported in detail in a separate article in this issue of the IPN Journal.


To what do participants in the Physics Olympiad attribute their competition results?

Eva Treiber

Around 900 students take part in the first round of the Physics Olympiad every year. They aim to be among the five young people who represent Germany at the International Physics Olympiad. However, many of them fail to reach the second round. Even talented students may therefore wonder whether they really lack the necessary skills in physics.

Subjective ascription of causes for events such as success or failure is also referred to as attribution. In attribution theory, four causes in particular are named in the academic context: high ability, effort, ease of the task, or luck in the case of success, or lack of ability, lack of effort, difficulty of the task, or bad luck in the case of failure.

It stands to reason that it makes a difference for the academic self-concept or the motivation to participate again in the Physics Olympiad whether participants attribute their elimination to a lack of physics, difficult tasks, too little effort, or bad luck. In the Physics Olympiad, mathematics-related reasons could also be relevant, since the tasks usually include demanding mathematical requirements: An analysis of sample solutions of Physics Olympiad tasks showed that almost no task was solvable without mathematical knowledge. The mathematics required came from many different areas of mathematics and in some cases went beyond the school level.

This sub-study investigated the question to what the participants attributed their success or failure in the selection competition. In the WinnerS project, participants were asked to indicate how relevant they considered the following seven causes for their success or failure in the first round: physics or mathematics ability, effort related to the physics or mathematics requirements, task characteristics with respect to physics or mathematics, and luck/fortune. Those students who were eliminated in one of the national selection rounds viewed each of the reasons offered as rather irrelevant. Notably, they did not attribute their elimination to ability. Mathematics also seemed to play only a minor role. Qualified participants, on the other hand, viewed their own abilities as very relevant to advancing.

Overall, the participants seem to answer the question of "why" in the case of success or failure in a self-serving manner. Specifically, no indications emerge that the mathematical requirements play a special role in the participants' perception of failure. It must remain open, however, what reasons the young people then attribute their failure to.


How does participation in the Federal Environment Competition affect students' assessment skills?

Carola Garrecht

Many controversial issues - think of genetic engineering or animal testing, for example - arise at the interface between science and society. Social aspects must always be included in addition to scientific ones to form a balanced opinion. This ability to grasp and evaluate complex issues is referred to as socioscientific decision-making and is a central area of competence in science teaching.

Participation in the BundesUmweltWettbewerb (BUW) requires students to deal with ethically and factually complex issues of sustainable development autonomously. Participating adolescents are therefore assumed to receive assistance in their evaluation competence. Two studies investigated the extent to which this succeeds, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Although no clear confirmation of this hypothesis could be found, it was shown that the decision-making process, which consists of several phases, is positively influenced by the BUW, particularly in its first phase - the pre-selectional phase.


Why are girls a minority in the higher rounds of national selection competitions?

Anneke Steegh

The number of girls decreases disproportionately compared to the number of boys in the selection rounds of the Biology, Chemistry and Physics Olympiads. But why? We suspect that this decline is influenced by self-concept and implicit stereotypical ideas about gender and science.

Self-concept, i.e. the specific self-confidence of being good at biology, chemistry or physics, is proven positively related to performance. That is, students with a higher self-concept usually also achieve better grades, while those with a lower self-concept achieve worse grades. Nevertheless, our results showed that in the first round of the Biology, Chemistry, and Physics Olympiads, female students had significantly lower self-concept than male students, even when they showed comparable performance.

Stereotypes developed since childhood about gender play an important role in the development of the self-concept. Stereotypical beliefs about the role of gender in science are expressed by the belief, or even just the feeling that men are in some way better suited to science than women. While in some countries it is still perfectly normal to support and explicitly pass on these stereotypes, this is not so much the case in Germany. Implicitly, however, the notions still play a major role, even in the generation of today's students. Since asking direct, open-ended questions about stereotypes usually elicits socially desirable but not necessarily honest responses, we decided to use a more subtle method: the Implicit Association Test (IAT; see box). This digital test measures implicit associations, e.g., between science and masculine or feminine linked words based on reaction speed.

Overall, both male and female participants in the three competitions associated science with "male" rather than "female." This likely has the effect of boys unconsciously using their stereotypical beliefs to convince themselves that, based on their gender, they are well-suited to science. Girls, on the other hand, lack such positive support that serves their self-concept. They may even feel discouraged to continue participating in science Olympiads (even if they qualify for the next round) because of these stereotypes. This may also be the reason why in all three competitions the boys had stronger associations of self-esteem-serving "science is masculine," than the girls.

The next step will be to examine the extent to which childhood gender stereotypes negatively shape girls' self-concept and whether there are direct links between stereotypes, self-concept, and performance in the competitions.


Garrecht, C., Eckhardt, M., Höffler, T. N., & Harms, U. (2020). Fostering students’ socioscientific decision-making: exploring the effectiveness of an environmental science competition. Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Science Education Research, 2, 1-16.

Steegh, A. M., Höffler, T. N., Keller, M. M., & Parchmann, I. (2019). Gender differences in mathematics and science competitions: A systematic review. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 56(10), 1431–1460.

Steegh, A., Höffler, T., Höft, L., & Parchmann, I. (2021). First steps toward gender equity in the chemistry Olympiad: Understanding the role of implicit gender‐science stereotypes. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 58(1), 40-68.


The ScienceOlympiads

The six science competitions organized by the IPN address students nationwide from the beginning of secondary school until after they have finished school. In addition to the selection competitions for the International Olympiads in Biology (IBO), Chemistry (IChO) and Physics (IPhO), these include the selection competitions for the International Junior Science Olympiad (IJSO) and the European Science Olympiad (EUSO) as well as the Federal Environmental Competition (BUW). They aim to promote long-term scientific skills and interests and thus guide both the general school population and the top students toward choosing a career or course of study in the STEM field. Every year, around 9,000 students from around 1,000 schools from all federal states in Germany take part.


The implicit association test (IAT)

Among other things, the implicit association test (IAT) is used to obtain a measure of unspoken agreement with gender stereotypes in science. The test uses reaction times to measure cognitive associations between the concepts of "male" and "female" in combination with "science" and "liberal arts." Participants are asked to recall male-associated words (man, boy, father, male, grandfather, husband, son, uncle), female-associated words (girl, female, aunt, daughter, wife, mother, grandmother), " science" (biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, geology, engineering), and "liberal arts" (philosophy, art, history, literary studies, linguistics, music) to one of two category pairs (either (1) male/science and female/liberal arts or (2) male/liberal arts and female/science).

The test is based on the principle that participants match words most quickly when they associate the two words in the category pair. A positive total score indicates an association of natural sciences with "male" and liberal arts with "female," while a negative total score indicates a reverse association.

You can also try this test yourself:, Test: Gender Science.