A robot that can move pencils and tubes. Magnets that can make something levitate. A carefully controlled chain reaction set off by a falling coin. These are just a handful of the thousands of projects that students around the country have already brought to this year's Science Olympiad, a series of regional competitions that will conclude with a national event in May.

This year makes the 29th annual Science Olympiad, which encourages student teams from grades K-12 to try standards-based projects covering science, technology, math and engineering (also known as STEM) and see how they compare with teams from other schools. After being coached by their teachers, the students compete locally, then on a state level, with the winners progressing to the national competition. At each step the winners can earn scholarships and other recognition. Schools with winning teams also earn prizes.

The subjects for the competition are designed to encourage students who aren't actively studying science to participate. For example, the popular Elevated Bridge category can tap kids who are interested in engineering and woodworking to create a winning project.

Preparation for this year's Science Olympiad has been underway since the fall, when teams and students started working on their projects. Regional competitions are going on right now and will be followed by state competitions in April. After that, the top 60 teams from grades six through ninth and 10-12 will go on to the national competition, which will be held this May 17-18 at Wright State University in Ohio.

The events can be exciting and nerve-wracking. "I'm still like shaking right now," 15-year-old Michigan student Bridget Parker told mLive after demonstrating her team's sequential engine device at her region's competition last weekend. "It went really good, though — this is probably the best event, to me at least."

Although the regional prizes are already significant — students in North Carolina recently earned prizes ranging from $500 to $1,500 — it's the national competition that holds a bigger incentive to win. Prizes include scholarships, technology, trips to corporations or professional conferences, and tuition waivers to some top tech schools, including George Washington University and the University of Delaware. It's not just about the science itself: Lockheed Martin also gives awards each year to the teams that show the best sportsmanship, teamwork and school spirit. The teachers coaching the teams can win, too, with expenses-paid trips to the Science Olympiad Summer Academy, where they can learn how to make next year's teams even better.

The regional events are open to the public right now, so check with your local schools to see if there are events to attend. The national competition in May will also be open to the public, and it will be live-streamed online as well.

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