Best STEM Programs and Competitions for Gifted Students

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Kat Tretina

By Kat Tretina

May 29, 2019


As the parent of a gifted student, you want to make sure your child gets the best opportunities to challenge and enrich them. While a challenging school curriculum is an excellent start, special programs and competitions for STEM students can give talented science and math students extra advantages, including college credits, scholarships and networking opportunities.


These programs include some of the top programs for gifted STEM students available nationwide. The programs are listed in alphabetical order in two groups, one for residential summer programs and one for STEM competitions.

Residential Summer Programs

For an intensive experience, residential programs allow participants to live on-campus at universities, working alongside like-minded students.

California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science (COSMOS)

The COSMOS program is a four-week summer residential program for students with an interest in STEM. Available to students in grades 8-12, participants live and study at a real college campus — UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC San Diego and UC Santa Cruz — and study material that is far more advanced than is typically offered in high school.

To qualify, students should have a GPA of at least 3.5. They also need recommendations from math or science teachers and need to complete a personal essay. For in-state students, the cost is about $4,000, but out-of-state students will have to pay thousands more. However, limited financial aid funds are available.

Center for Excellence in Education’s Research Science Institute (RSI)

Originally founded by Admiral H.G. Rickover, the Research Science Institute (RSI) is the most competitive STEM program available to high school students. Each year, the organization selects up to 80 students to participate in a six-week program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It’s completely free for students, and combines on-campus course work with off-campus work in science and research.

The deadline for domestic students to apply is January 15 each year, while international students have until March 15. The application process is rigorous. You must be one year away from graduating and show superior achievement in math, science, technology and verbal arts. High standardized test scores, such as in the ACT, PSAT or SAT, are expected. Applicants should also show the potential for leadership and higher learning outside of the classroom, such as through volunteer work or college-level classes.

After a week of intensive classes, students participate in a five-week research internship, working on individual projects with experienced scientists and researchers. The internships culminate in oral and written presentations. Students join an extensive network of alumni, called Rickoids, that can help them throughout their careers, while gaining an elite achievement for their college applications.

Davidson THINK Summer Institute

The Davidson Institute is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping students who score in the 99.9th percentile on IQ and achievement tests. The Davidson THINK Summer Institute is a three-week summer residential program for gifted students between the ages of 13 and 16.

By participating in the program, students can take two college courses taught by university faculty for college credit.

The tuition for the course is about $4,000, but there are scholarships and grants available. To be eligible for the program, students must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents, have exceptional SAT or ACT test scores, receive a positive recommendation and commit to being a full-time student for the duration of the program.

Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program

Girls Who Code is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping young women enter the technology field. Each year, the organization hosts its summer immersion program, a seven-week introductory computer science program for 10th and 11th grade girls.

Participants take part in daily workshops and hear from computer science professionals. The students are hosted at major tech companies nationwide, so they get a firsthand look at what it’s like to pursue computer science as a career.

The summer immersion program is free to all participants. The organization even provides students with lunch each day of the program, as well as all necessary equipment. The program accepts applications in two phases; the first opens in mid-January, and the second takes place in mid-February.

John Hopkins Center for Talented Youth Summer Program

John Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth (CTY) offers several different residential programs for qualified students in grades 7 through 12.

Each course requires advanced CTY-level scores on standardized tests. Some programs also require course prerequisites to qualify for entry.

There is an application fee to apply, and each course costs between $4,000 and $5,000, depending on whether the student will commute to the class or live on-campus.

Upon completion, each student will receive a certificate of participation and a detailed evaluation that describes their work, areas of growth, and ideas for future study. Some colleges recognize John Hopkins CTY courses for academic credit.


Mathily is an intensive residential program for secondary school students who excel in mathematics. In the program, students spend five weeks in the summer with like-minded young people and professional mathematicians. The focus of the program is on discrete mathematics and college-level material that isn’t usually taught in high school.

Students who enroll in Mathily may be able to get course prerequisites waived upon entering college, helping save money on college costs.

Mathily enrolls students on a rolling basis, starting in the Spring. The application incudes an exam readiness assessment, which takes about four hours to complete. The program costs $4,600, but there is need-based financial aid available.

Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development

Academically-advanced high school students can take part in Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development Equinox program. It allows students to take courses for credit at Northwestern University at the high school honors, Advanced Placement or college level during the summer.

As a benefit of participating, students get one or two semesters of high school honors credit for completing the program.

Students can commute to classes, or live on-campus for the duration of the three- or five-week program. Each session can cost several thousand dollars, but there are financial aid opportunities available.

Each course has its own requirements, but students should generally have excellent standardized test scores, have strong teacher recommendations and provide a writing sample. Admission is accepted on a rolling basis.

Smith College’s Summer Science and Engineering Program

Smith College’s Summer Science and Engineering Program is a four-week residential program held in the summer each year. It’s available to high school-aged women with an interest in science, engineering and medicine. The students participate in hands-on learning experiences and take intensive research courses.

The tuition cost is over $6,000, and covers room and board and all academic costs. The program allows girls to meet and work with other like-minded women and professionals in science and become prepared for college coursework.

Space Camp’s Advanced Space Academy

For those who dream of navigating a real spaceship, Space Camp’s Advanced Space Academy could be a perfect choice. A six-day long program, students train like astronauts and design, build and launch a team rocket.

Students can also earn one credit-hour of freshman-level general science at the University of Alabama for participating in the program.

Students must be in high school to be eligible for the program, and cannot have started college yet. Sessions are available throughout the summer, with each session starting on a Sunday. The cost is $1,199, plus fees.

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STEM Competitions

There are also STEM-related competitions that run over the course of the school year. Students can compete as individuals or as teams for scholarships and internships.

Dean Kamen’s First Robotics Competition

Dean Kamen is a world-renowned engineer, inventor and entrepreneur. The inventor of the Segway and an infusion pump for diabetics, Kamen started the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) program. In effect, FIRST has turned science and technology into a spectator sport.

The FIRST Robotics Competition is for high school students. To compete, the student needs to team up with nine or more other students, with two or more mentors with technical and non-technical expertise. The team will create an industrial-sized robot using a standard kit of parts and rules determined by FIRST.

Teams typically meet several times a week between January and April. Once a team has created their robot, they will participate in competitions; district and regional events start in late February and continue through April. Teams that qualify are invited to the championship at the end of April.

The cost for the team registration, robot kit and participation can cost thousands of dollars. However, there are a number of grants and fundraising opportunities available to help offset the cost and make it more affordable.

The benefits of participating are substantial. FIRST competition alumni are more than twice as likely to enroll in an engineering program in college than their peers. Participants in FIRST qualify for millions of dollars in exclusive scholarships from top universities and corporations.

There are also FIRST programs for younger children, including FIRST LEGO League Jr. (Grades K-4), FIRST LEGO League (Grades 4-8) and FIRST Tech Challenge (Grades 7-12).

Google Science Fair

Each year, Google hosts an international science fair. Submissions are due in September, and close in December of the same year. State winners are announced in March, regional finalists in April, and global finalists in May.

The Google Science Fair offers lucrative awards. The grand prize is a $50,000 scholarship, but there are a number of smaller scholarships and prizes as well, such as free computers or tablets.

Judges are looking for projects that offer a new perspective or innovation in STEM. They want to see that your project has real world applications that could benefit people, either now or in the future.

The Google Science Fair is completely free, and the contest is open to full-time and home-schooled students between the ages of 13 and 18 around the world.

Other national science fairs include the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) and Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS).

USA Olympiads

Each year, hundreds of thousands of students across the globe participate in the Olympiads, a series of tournaments for STEM-focused subjects. After completing several rounds of exams, select students are chosen to attend a residential training program where they learn advanced concepts and lab skills. From those groups, students are selected to represent the United States at international competitions each summer. There are six USA Olympiads:

To participate, each school must pay a registration fee. By competing in the Olympiad, students gain advanced knowledge and enhance their college applications.

Art of Problem Solving provides textbooks, online classes and other resources for students who are training for the USA Mathematical Olympiad.

Vex Robotics

In the Vex Robotics Competition, students team up to build their own robots and compete against other teams in an engineering challenge. Tournaments are held year-round at the local, regional, state and national levels, with the world championship held in April.

The competition is open to middle school, high school and college-level students. To participate, you need to register your team in the fall and purchase a kit to create your robot. The kit costs hundreds of dollars, but Vex Robotics has grants in place to help teams in financial need.

Participants become Vex Scholars. Besides getting to add their participation to their college applications, Vex Scholars also get access to exclusive academic scholarships to help offset their education costs.


Finding the Right Program

As the parent of a gifted student, you know how important it is to make sure your child is encouraged, challenged academically and recognized for their achievements. Participating in a summer residential program or competing in a tournament can enhance their development, help them earn college credits, and bolster their college applications.

There are also many scholarships for math and science students.

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