National Middle School Science Bowl

National Middle School Science Bowl

The National Middle School Science Bowl is a middle school academic competition, similar to Quiz Bowl, held in the United States. Two teams of four students each compete to answer various science-related questions. In order to determine which student has the right to answer the question, a buzzer system (or "lockout system") is used, similar to those seen on popular television game shows such as Jeopardy!. The National Middle School Science Bowl (" NMSSB") has been organized and sponsored by the United States Department of Energy since the competition's inception in 2002.

Subject areas

Questions are asked in the categories of Physical Science, Life Science, Earth and Space Science, Energy, and Mathematics. Although they are not subcategorized, the questions fall into the subcategories of Chemistry, Algebra, Computer Science, Biology, Physics, Astronomy, Geometry, and Current Events. The newest addition was a category specially made for the 2006 National competition: a group of about 5 questions asked through graphics and models projected onto computer screens and as hard copies distributed to competing teams. These were only used in semi-finals and championship rounds.

Before the 2010 year, there was no Energy category, and Earth and Space Science was called Earth Science. The General Science category was dropped in 2017.

Regional competitions

Each year, in late April or early May, the National Science Bowl competition is held in Chevy Chase, Maryland in the National 4-H Youth Conference Center.

The winning team of each regional Science Bowl competition is invited to participate in the National Science Bowl all expenses paid. There are a number of regional competitions all over the United States; the exact amount changes from year to year.

Typically, any middle school that meets the eligibility rules of the National Middle School Science Bowl competition is permitted to register for any regional competition in the country, but no middle school or student group may compete in multiple regionals. In addition, some regional competitions permit schools to register up to three teams. Teams composed entirely of homeschooled students are also permitted to enter.


This section is concerned with the rules of the national competition. The rules of regional competitions vary greatly. There are very few prescribed rules for regional competitions. Some regionals are run nearly identically to the national competition, while others use variations of the rules or different methods of scoring.

General rules

A team consists of four or five students from a single middle school (unless the team is composed entirely of home schooled students). Only four students play at any one time, while the fifth is designated as the "alternate." Substitutions may be made during the two-minute "halftime" and between rounds.

Two teams compete against each other in each match. Each match has exactly 25 questions (that is, 25 toss-ups and 25 bonuses in corresponding categories). The match is over when all the toss-up questions have been read, or after two eight-minute halves have elapsed (ten-minute at the national competition), whichever occurs first. The team with the most points at this time is the winner.


Every match begins with a toss-up question. The moderator announces the subject of the question (see "Subject Areas" above), as well as its type (Multiple Choice or Short Answer). Once the moderator completes the reading of the question, students have five seconds to buzz in and give an answer. Students may buzz in at any time after the category has been read — there is no need to wait for the moderator to finish. However, there is a penalty for interrupting the moderator and giving an incorrect answer. Once a student from a team has buzzed in, that team may not buzz in again on that question. Conferring between members of a team is not allowed on toss-up questions; if conferring occurs on a question, the team is disqualified from answering that question. The rules regarding conferring are typically very strict: excessive noise, eye contact, or even noticeable shifts in position can be considered conferring, as they convey information to teammates.

The moderator rules an answer given by a student correct or incorrect. On short answer questions, if the answer given differs from the official one, the moderator uses his or her judgment to make a ruling (which is subject to challenge by the competitors). On multiple-choice questions, the answer given by the student is only correct if it matches the official answer exactly. Alternatively, the student may give the letter choice that corresponds to the correct answer. The letters W, X, Y and Z are used in lieu of A, B, C and D to avoid confusion between similar-sounding letters.

The decision to require multiple-choice answers to be exact has been a controversial one, but experience has shown that it is the best way to avoid complicated disputes during matches.


If a student answers a toss-up question correctly, that student's team receives a bonus question. The bonus question is always in the same category as the corresponding toss-up question. Since only that team has the opportunity to answer the bonus question, there is no need to buzz in to answer it. After the moderator finishes reading the question, the team has twenty seconds to answer. Conferring between team members is permitted, but the designated team captain must give the team's final answer. Teams are given a 5-second warning after 15 seconds of the time allotted have elapsed.

Even if the clock runs out (either for the half or the round), a team that has correctly responded to a toss-up before the expiration of time still receives a bonus. The moderator/scientific judge ignores the timer and proceeds to read the question in its entirety, and the team receives the full 20 seconds of allotted response time. The half/round is completed as soon as the team's answer has been given and no more questions are read to either team.

The same rules apply to the judging of responses to bonus questions as apply to responses to toss-up questions. Once the team's answer has been ruled right or wrong, the moderator proceeds to the next toss-up question.

If neither team answers the toss-up question correctly, the bonus question is not read, and the moderator proceeds to the next toss-up question.


The scoring at NMSB is similar to scoring for Quiz Bowl, although with different numbers.

Correct responses to toss-up questions are worth 4 points each, and correct responses to bonus questions are worth 10 points each.

If a student buzzes in on a toss-up question before the moderator has completely read the question ("interrupting" the question) and responds incorrectly, then 4 points are awarded to the opposing team, and the question is re-read in its entirety so that the opposing team has an opportunity to buzz in.

Note the difference between interrupt scoring in Science Bowl and in Quiz Bowl: the interrupt penalty in Quiz Bowl is -5 to the interrupting team, while in Science Bowl it is +4 to the non-interrupting team.

Also, if a team "blurts" (shouts out the answer after buzzing but without recognition), the question is treated as an incorrect interrupt. If the judges rule that a team has conferred amongst themselves before buzzing in on a toss-up, that team is disqualified from answering the question and no points are awarded to either side.

Competition format

This section is concerned with the format of the national competition only. As is the case with competition rules, the competition format varies greatly among the different regional competitions.

The national competition always consists of two stages: round robin and double elimination.

Round robin

All competing teams are randomly arranged into several round robin groups of six teams each. Every team plays every other team in its group once, receiving 2 points for a win, 1 point for a tie, or zero points for a loss. The top 16 teams across all divisions make it into double elimination; however, it is done so that the same number of teams (or as close as possible to this) in each division make double elimination.


In the event that two or more teams are tied for one of the top two spots in a round robin group, there are several tiebreak procedures, applied in the following order:

The head-to-head record of all the tied teams is compared. The team(s) with the best record against the other tied teams win(s) the tiebreak.
The team(s) with the fewest losses win(s) the tiebreak.
If the top two teams still cannot be determined, the following procedures are used:
If more than two teams are still tied, each team is placed in a separate room and is read five toss-up questions. The number of questions answered correctly minus the number answered incorrectly determines each team's score. The team(s) with the highest score win(s) the tiebreak.
If exactly two teams are still tied, the two teams compete head-to-head, receiving five toss-up questions (no bonus questions are used). All the usual toss-up rules are in effect, including the interrupt penalty. The team with the higher score wins the tiebreak.
If a tie still exists after the third tiebreak step, the third step is reapplied until the tie is resolved.

Double elimination

Approximately 16 teams advance from the round robin (depending on the number of round robin divisions). The competition then proceeds like a typical double elimination tournament bracket. Unlike in the round robin, a match in double elimination cannot be tied. If a match is tied at the end of regulation, overtime periods of five questions each are played until the tie is broken.

As each team is eliminated from the original bracket, they proceed to the "Challenger's Bracket" for the second chance. By the end of the competition, this system produces a champion from each bracket. The two championship teams face off in the final round to determine the first and second-place winners.


Several companies and organizations sponsor the National Middle School Science Bowl competition, the most prominent being the United States Department of Energy. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory sponsors NMSB, and General Motors is also a regular sponsor of the event and has in recent years sponsored the Hydrogen Fuel Cell Car competition held at NMSB, where teams compete to build the fastest or most powerful fuel cell-powered miniature car.

National Science Bowl Competition Website