At Westview Middle School in Pflugerville, Texas, science teacher Colleen Moore is scouting for future Olympians.
She's not looking for athletic stars. Instead, Ms. Moore needs competitive scholars who want to match minds with other serious students across the country.
After eight years in the annual Science Olympiad, Westview's team has taken the state championship four times. It placed eighth in the nation one year.
"These middle-school students could take an Advanced Placement [science] exam and pass," Moore says. "This is a form of competition where students are actually going to get turned on to science."
Hundreds of academic contests take place every year for students with a budding or thriving interest in a range of subjects. The chance to compete against kids with similar interests is a wonderful motivator, Moore says.
Needle in a haystack
But in many cases, eligible students never hear about these opportunities.
"Students hunting for academic contests have to cross an information gap that could swallow the Library of Congress," says Scott Pendleton, author of "The Ultimate Guide to Student Contests" (Walker & Co.). His new book lists more than 400 contests including art, writing, science, math, history, and multidiscipline competitions.
Some offer scholarships, cash, or travel opportunities to winning participants. "But students should enter for the fun of it," Mr. Pendleton says. "You don't have to be smart, special, advanced, talented, or the teacher's pet to get in on the action."
For Jennifer Harkness, participating in math contests during high school was a great way to spend time with her friends, meet new people, and take a few trips. "If I had just had math in a classroom, I probably would have been fairly bored," says Ms. Harkness, who is now a computer-science major at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
While the social opportunities sparked her participation, Harkness says the academic stimulus was very real. "It became a serious challenge," she says. "Although a problem might be similar to something you'd solved before, you had to either remember a technique for solving it or think of something on the fly. It's a real sense of exhilaration."
Harkness credits contests with drawing her toward math: "When you present academic material in that kind of competitive forum, it develops your abilities beyond what would happen otherwise."
For Adam Goldberg, playwriting contests provided an outlet for a prolific hobby. During high school, Mr. Goldberg wrote about 70 plays and won more than 10 competitions.
"You have to send away to the right contests, ones that are going to take you seriously," he advises. One contest awarded him a week in New York, where he met Stephen Sondheim. Another victory provided him with contacts that led to a summer job working on a film in Hollywood.
Despite the long-term benefits for students, many contest organizers say they have trouble attracting participants. Most send posters and other information to all 30,000 junior high and high schools in the country.
"But what if the poster never makes it to the hallway bulletin board?" Pendleton says. "What if the first interested student puts it in his backpack instead of copying down the information?"
One contest offering a $58,000 college scholarship attracted only one entry. In some cases, contests have been canceled for lack of participants. A science contest promising to introduce winners to the Nobel laureate of their choice brought so little response the Argonne (Ill.) National Laboratory called it off.
"Unless the student has an interest and goes and seeks the information, then the message gets lost," says Evelyn Guzman, program manager of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, one of the largest contests in the nation.
In its 75th year, Scholastic is working to make its program more visible. "We have the same schools year after year that participate," she says. "We're not as well known as we'd like to be."
The idea behind programs like the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, Ms. Guzman says, is to "give a kid a pat on the back."
"Hearing 'Test on Friday' doesn't motivate a lot of kids," Pendleton says. "But what if their teacher announces that they could win a trip to Space Camp? Now we're talking enthusiasm."