Calling all science-loving middle school girls. What if there was a national contest that could turn your best theory into reality? What would you need?

“Um, an easy way to enter…like by video or something.” Check.

“Grown ups who know a lot about my topic and want to help me.” Experts. Check.

“A real scientist who could be my advisor, like ALL the time.” A mentor. Check.

Girls, welcome to the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge. Last year’s winner was in the 6th grade – so crazy…text friends…we’ll wait – and submissions for 2018 just opened. So huddle up, because we bet you have an idea you’re dying to test. And we’re pretty sure you like a challenge. And we seriously believe you could win this thing.

You need details. We hear you.

Known as the nation’s premier science competition for grades 5-8, the Young Scientist Challenge has “sparked a sense of wonder and discovery in hundreds of thousands of students.” What starts out as a video competition (yep, you can totally film it on your phone) narrows down to 51state merit winners and, ultimately, 10 national finalists.

And here’s where we got hooked.

Each of the 10 finalists is assigned their own 3M scientist as a mentor and enters a summer program involving real-life innovation and 3M technology. 

Hands-on experience. A mentor committed to your project.

And 9 other finalists your age to encourage and inspire you.

Girls, this is how wonder is cultivated and scientific progress is made. But don’t take our word for it. Listen to what 11-year-old 2017 winner Gitanjali Rao – who created a mobile app for early lead detection in water – told us when we asked her about…

How she first started thinking about her project?

“I was originally inspired by the Flint Water Crisis after being introduced to it through a STEM lab and by watching the news. I was 9 years old at that time, and I continued to research and follow it for the next couple of years.” 

Gitanjali continued, “I then saw my parents testing for lead in water at home, and that is pretty much what sparked the idea of using technology to solve the problem. Using test strips and sending them to labs was time-consuming, inaccurate and expensive,” she explained, “[and] I really wanted to do something to change this, not just for my family but for the residents of Flint and places like it around the world. I heard about carbon nanotube sensors being able to detect hazardous gas in the air, so I decided to use a similar CNT based sensor to detect lead in water. I further extended it to connect to a mobile app for displaying the results!”

How she sought out experts and mentors?

“I had several STEM lab managers (4H club, STEM Scouts and a few more) who introduced me to the challenge and encouraged me to enter the contest. 

Once I was selected as one of the finalists, I was introduced to Dr. Kathleen Shafer, a 3M Scientist. She guided me in making my idea a reality.

Throughout the whole process, I reached out to experts in the materials science and nanotechnology field to get more information about my idea,”Gitaljali continued. “My teachers at STEM School Highlands Ranch helped me by providing access to a safe high school lab, a 3D printer and guiding me with creating a mobile app.

My advice for finding mentors is to create a plan of study or research in whatever field you are passionate about, and reach out to exerts or professionals in that field. I was initially nervous about reaching out…but this experience made me realize that the worst answer you may get is a ‘no.’ So, why not try? I always asked my mentors their expectations of a mentee and consciously made sure that I met their expectations, if not exceeded them.”

OK, seriously. We want to be BFFs with her and at the same time we want her to be our mentor! Because Gitanjali Rao is exactly what the Young Scientist Challenge is all about: She saw a problem, devised a solution and matched a need. Alongside a mentor, her idea became real.

Girls, YOU could do this.

And the 2018 Young Scientist Challenge is the place to start.

Read all about the entry requirements and review the rules with appropriate grown ups in your life. Then get busy creating your Challenge video – former winners even put together these video tips to help you out. How nice is that? Submissions are open until April 19th, so your timing is perfect.

Your ideas are ready. 

And to erase that last little bit of doubt, listen to 2017 guest judge Abigail Harrison (CEO of The Mars Generation, aka “Astronaut Abby”) when she says, 

“Stepping forth and sharing your talents with the world is a big part of pursuing your dreams and finding success in life. The 3M Young Scientist Challenge allows students to share their talents with the world. Win or lose a challenge such as this will help shape your future and the next chapter of your life may be written by the brave steps you take today to put your work out there.”

New chapters in our lives often start with challenges, girls.

We think this one should be yours.

Share your idea. Solve a problem.

Change the world.

Learn more about the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge here and read the full Être interview with 2017 Winner Gitanjali Rao here.


  • Illana Raia

    Founder & CEO


    Recently named one of the first 250 entrepreneurs on the Forbes Next 1000 List, Illana Raia is the founder and CEO of Être - a mentorship platform for girls. Believing that mentors matter as early as middle school, Illana brings girls directly into companies they select to meet female leaders face to face. The goal, as Être's French name suggests, is to help today's girls figure out who they want to be.    Named a Mogul Influencer in 2017, Illana appeared in the HuffPost "Talk To Me" video series, participated in the 2018 Balance Project Interviews and the 2019 #WomenWhoRock campaign, and has been featured on Cheddar TV and podcasts like The Other 50%, Her Money, Finding Brave and Women To Watch. Illana has authored 50+ articles for Thrive Global, HuffPost and Ms. Magazine, and her award-winning book Être: Girls, Who Do You Want To Be was released on Day of the Girl 2019. Her next book, The Epic Mentor Guide, is scheduled to arrive on International Women's Day 2022.   Prior to launching Être in 2016, Illana was a corporate attorney at Skadden, Arps in NYC and an occasional guest lecturer at Columbia University. She graduated from Smith College and the University of Chicago Law School, and remains unapologetically nerdy.