A national video game design contest takes the game controller out of kids’ hands and replaces it with the reins.

The National STEM Video Game Challenge, an initiative of the Smithsonian Institution in partnership with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and E-Line Media, is soliciting applications for its fourth annual game design competition. High school and middle school students are invited to submit entries by February 25, 2015.

We’ve often written on the benefits of game-based learning. Games, digital or otherwise, engage kids’ imagination and critical-thinking skills. Most games present a complex problem to be solved or introduce the player to interdisciplinary topics and narratives. Or a game might simply serve as a novel, enjoyable tool for learning traditional lessons.

The video game challenge takes all these benefits of game play and adds a sense of ownership and empowerment. Participants can use various innovative game design platforms to make their game. Some of these products, like MIT Media Lab’s Scratch, require or teach basic programming skills. Others, like Gamestar Mechanic, are games themselves. By solving a variety of puzzles, users “earn” items they can incorporate into their own game design. One of the most popular programs, Gamestar Mechanic was founded on the idea that “game design is an activity that allows learners to build technical, technological, artistic, cognitive, social, and linguistic skills suitable for our current and future world.”

“Pathogen Wars” is one of the winning games from the 2012 contest.

That’s the premise that gave rise to the contest. A product of the Obama administration’s Educate to Innovate initiative, the video game challenge is meant to give participants an immersive experience in the STEM fields that may be neglected in traditional education.

The contest is also designed to help girls and low-income kids enter an industry they’ve traditionally been left out of. One-third of last year’s entries were created by girls.

The winning games in 2013 ranged from 14-year-old Lexi Schneider’s “Head of the Class,” which takes players through the grades of a virtual elementary school inspired by classic comic strips, to Noah Ratcliff and Pamela Pizarro Ruiz’s “Fog,” where players solve puzzles to uncover pieces of a mystical world enshrouded in fog. The two high school students teamed up to use their respective skills in coding and design. Another duo—eighth-graders Henry Edwards and Kevin Kopczynski—made “Etiquette Anarchy,” where the player navigates Victorian England at the height of a rodent infestation, attempting to make it to a party clean and unbitten.

Teachers, too, have flexed their design muscles to make products tailored to their students’ needs and interests. Dan Caldwell, the winner of the previous National STEM Video Game Challenge prize for educators, developed sciTunes, a series of video games and songs designed to teach elementary school students about the human body through interactive exercises.

“Good teachers are always aware of what their students are doing,” Caldwell said in a video for the contest. Because they’re attuned to their students’ particular interests, struggles, and attention spans, educators are in a unique position to create something that engages and challenges them.

Last year’s National STEM Video Game Challenge raked in a whopping 4,000 entries. It’s no wonder, given that the participants get to play with a medium they’re naturally passionate about to create something exciting and educational. The $1,000 prize plus software for each winner—and $2,000 for each sponsoring organization—can’t hurt, either.

Game on.