Young Naturalist Essay Contest

This program has been canceled for 2016


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The Young Naturalist Award is a research-based science competition for students in grades 7-12 to promote participation and communication in science. The student needs to plan and conduct a scientific investigation, one that will include observations, questions, predictions, trips into the field to gather data, and analysis. You are not expected to make a new scientific discovery. However, your investigation should provide you with a new understanding about your question. Tell them about your investigation in an essay that includes tables, charts, or graphs and artwork or photographs that help illustrate your findings.

To enter the Young Naturalist Awards you need to write an essay of more than 500 words (grades 7-8); more than 750 words (grades 9-10); more than 1,000 words (grades 11-12) and does not exceed 20 pages.

How Will Your Entry Be Judged?
Your essay will be judged alongside the essays submitted by other students in your grade. Judges will use a rubric to evaluate 13 categories. Each category will be scored from 4 (excellent) to 1 (poor) and the scores totaled. The 13 categories are:

  1. Question: a thoughtful and researchable question is posed. The topic is specific.
  2. Hypothesis/Predition: The hypothesis is clearly stated and is testable.
  3. Background Research: Research is thorough and relevant to the investigation.
  4. Procedure, Design, Materials: Procedure is detailed, thorough and appropriate. All materials are listed.
  5. Variables, Controls, Sample Size: Variables are identified, controls appropriate, sample size/trials sufficient.
  6. Data Collection: Data is systematically gathered and recorded.
  7. Data Presentation: Appropriate graphics chosen to display data.
  8. Discussion of Data Analysis/Conclusion: Data is thoroughly discussed. Conclusions are supported by the data.
  9. Further Research: Improvements and questions for further research are suggested.
  10. Visuals: Photos documenting the investigation are included. Illustrations and/or maps are included if appropriate.
  11. Essay Presentation: The investigation is clearly and concisely presented. There is a strong personal voice.
  12. Grammar and Spelling: There are no grammatical or spelling errors.
  13. Proper Citing of Sources: Sources are properly credited. Bibliography properly formatted.


  • If you are a student in grades seven through twelve and are currently enrolled in a public, private, parochial, or home school in the United States, Canada, the U.S. territories, or if you are a citizen in a U.S.-sponsored school abroad, you are eligible to enter.
  • Sons and daughters of American Museum of Natural History employees or consultants are not eligible to enter the Young Naturalist Awards.


1.    Twelve cash awards, two for each grade level, will be awarded to the authors of the winning essays. Cash awards are as follows:
      7th grade: $500
      8th grade: $750
      9th grade: $1,000
      10th grade: $1,500
      11th grade: $2,000
      12th grade: $2,500
2.    The winning entries will be published on the Museum's website.
3.    Up to 36 finalists will receive a cash award of $50 and a certificate of recognition. Up to 300 semifinalists will receive a non-cash award and a certificate of recognition.
4.    The teachers of the top twelve winners will receive resources for their classrooms.
5.    The first name and project title of the finalists and semifinalists will be posted on the American Museum of Natural History website at the end of March . The winners will be notified shortly after that. Their names will also be posted on the museum's website.

Check out other essay contests for which you may be eligible.

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This program has been canceled for 2016

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The Young Naturalist Awards is the Museum's research-based science competition for students in grades 7 through 12. Below, read about one of the 2011 winners, who studied bioluminescent dinoflagellates, and visit the Young Naturalist Awards site to read the contest guidelines and find out more about the competition.

The Rebound Effect: Student Studies DEET's Effect on Dinoflagellates

Puerto Rico is one of the few places on Earth with bioluminescent bays. A favorite destination for tourists, these inlets glow at night when swimmers agitate the waters’ light-emitting dinoflagellates, or tiny photosynthetic microbes.

Seventeen-year-old Ryan wanted to understand whether the popular insect repellant DEET, worn by many tourists to ward off mosquitoes, had any effect on the dinoflagellates in these bays. His investigation, outlined in the essay The Effects of DEET on the Bioluminescent Dinoflagellate, Pyrocystis fusiformis, earned Ryan one of the 2011 Young Naturalist Awards.

Ryan hypothesized that the presence of DEET in the water would adversely affect the dinoflagellates’ ability to luminesce. To test his prediction, Ryan used black garbage bags and duct tape to convert wooden shelves into near-complete darkness experimentation areas. He added several solutions with varying concentrations of DEET to flasks filled with dinoflagellates, also monitoring a control group that contained distilled water. After setting a timed lamp to mimic 12-hour cycles of daylight and darkness, Ryan agitated each culture with a swirl and measured their illuminance with a light sensor.

Upon recording the dinoflagellates’ maximum illuminance each day, Ryan realized his results did not support his hypothesis. While dinoflagellates exposed to the lower (.01 to .1 percent) concentrations of DEET emitted significantly less light than the control group on the first day of the trial, they rebounded on the second day and performed as well as the control throughout the rest of the experiment. The dinoflagellates that experienced the highest concentration of the repellant (1 percent) died, leading Ryan to conclude that these organisms may rebound from the stresses of DEET up to a certain threshold.

Ryan acknowledges the limits of his investigation and hopes he can conduct another one in the future that would take into account the amount of DEET that leaves a swimmer’s skin and enters the water. This information, he believes, “would aid scientists and conservationists in evaluating the policies regarding swimming in some bioluminescent bays.”

The Young Naturalist Awards is a nationwide, science-based research contest for students in grades 7 through 12 presented by the Museum. To learn more and to submit your own project, click here.

The Young Naturalist Awards are proudly supported by Alcoa Foundation.

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