The National Science Olympiad is one of SAASTA’s flagship projects. Since 2005, the 53-year-old project has offered learners in grades 10-12 an exciting opportunity to compete in science with fellow learners from SADC countries such as Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

The competition comprises an annual examination in science (Physical and Life Sciences). The top national performers win all-expenses-paid trips to the London International Youth Science Forum and the Australian National Youth Science Forum.

The main aim of the competition is to identify talent, to encourage excellence in science education and to stimulate interest in the sciences. It seeks to inspire young people to consider careers in science and technology.

Traditionally, during June/July vacation, a group of 100 learners who excel or demonstrate potential in the Olympiad examination, are invited to participate in a Science Focus Week consisting of stimulating lecturers, excursions, industry visits and other fun events. Learners from different categories who demonstrated exceptional performance are selected to attend the London International Youth Science Forum during July/August and another group to attend the Australian National Youth Science Forum in January of each year.

During the focus week a high profile Award Giving Ceremony is organised and key stakeholders from Government, Science Councils, and the Business sector are invited. Next year the National Science Focus Week will be during the June/July vacation and a high profile Award Giving Ceremony will be held on the last week of June.

Prizes and awards

Over the years, prizes and awards were given to schools and learners during the Science Olympiad Award Giving Ceremony. During the past three years, over 30 awards in different categories have been made to deserving learners and schools each year. Some of the main categories are:

  • Top five national learners per stream (Physical Science and Life Science)
  • Top learner from a previously disadvantaged school per stream (Physical Science and Life Science)
  • Top girl learner per stream
  • Top girl learner from a previously disadvantaged school per stream
  • Top learner per grade per stream (Grade 10 and 11)
  • Top learner from SADC countries (Namibia, Zimbabwe and Lesotho)
  • Dinaledi schools with the most participants
  • School with most participant (excluding Dinaledi School)
  • Top three best performing schools
  • Top three best performing previously disadvantaged schools

Learners could win:

  • iPads
  • Laptops
  • R200 book vouchers
  • Lab equipment
  • A trip to attend the International Youth Science Forum in London or the Australian National Youth Science Forum

Milestones and challenges

Over the years, a number of milestones were achieved through the National Olympiad, in particular:


Participation of learners in the National Science Olympiad during the past nine years has increased significantly as indicated below:

Year  2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Participants 9117 9614 13971 17538 15538 19438 23364
Year  2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Participants 20546 24624 22546 30764 29115 16573 30651

The significant increase was among others due to:

  • Our aggressive marketing strategy that enabled us to reach more schools in rural areas that had not been reached before;
  • collaborations between the Department of Education and provincial level departments through Mathematics, Science and Technology (MST) coordinators; and
  • increased support by our partners in the business sector, in particular our main sponsor from 2009, Harmony Gold Mining Pty Company, as well as our previous sponsors, Mailtronic,Skynet, and Xahumba.

Identifying and Nurturing Talent

In line with the Department of Science and Technology’s Youth into Science Strategy and the Department of Education’s National Strategy for Mathematics and Science and Technology, the National Science Olympiad identifies and nurtures talent in SET. This approach contributes in increasing the human capital in the critical areas of Science, Engineering and Technology.

This is being achieved through:

  • Our consistent effort to expose learners to international events such as the London International Youth Science Forum (LIYSF) and the Australian Youth Science Forum;
  • Hosting of Science Focus Week for top learners based on the Olympiad examination results;
  • Our efforts to expose learners to the SET work environment through visits to industries, science councils and higher education institutions;
  • Establishing an examination steering committee that comprises reputable professionals.


Listed below are some of the noticeable challenges facing the project, despite marked milestones over the past six years:

  • On average, approximately 10% of the schools in South Africa participated in the National Science Olympiad. The province with the highest number of participants over the years have been Limpopo, and Gauteng followed by the Eastern Cape Province. There is therefore an urgent need to increase participation in the National Science Olympiad.
  • In most South African schools the Olympiad still has the greatest appeal to more able learners. Therefore, there is a need to identify and nurture more learners who are talented, especially those who are from disadvantaged schools and communities.
  • The poor performance of some learners who sit for this (syllabus-based) Olympiad examination raises an issue of concern, especially those who are from disadvantaged schools. While it is encouraging to note that there has been a steady increase in performance by girl learners in the Biology paper, it is worrying to note that girls are outperformed by their male counterparts in Physical Science. A comparison of performance in the Physical Science paper reveals that since 2006, only one female learner has been in the top ten performers.

There seems to be limited educator support in coaching and preparing learners to excel in the competition. In the near future SAASTA will invest in educator development in this regard.

Related Pages

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James Tlhabane
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