When actor Alan Alda was 11 years old he asked his teacher, “What is a flame?” Her reply: “It’s oxidation,” which was an explanation that was neither accessible nor interesting to him. It was this encounter that inspired him to create a competition to help 11-year-olds understand science in a way that makes sense to them.
Aptly named the Flame Challenge, the competition is run by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Scientists throughout the world are asked to submit either a written or video answer to a complex science question. The answer must be geared towards an 11-year-old audience. In 2011, the first year of the Flame Challenge, Alda returned to his original query, “What is a Flame?” Now, he encourages 11-year-old students to submit their own original questions. Past contest questions include “What is time?” in 2013 and “What is color?” in 2014.
This year’s question, “What is sleep?” inspired more than 200 scientists to submit answers. Brandon Aldinger, a materials scientist, won in the written category and Eric C. Galicia, a student in the Master of Health Physics program at Illinois Institute of Technology, won in the video category. Aldinger’s written answer makes scientific concepts more relevant by relating those concepts to kid-friendly subjects like waking up for school, superpowers, and popular TV shows. Galicia’s video answer uses a combination of cartoons, video games, and humor to communicate the importance of sleep in an entertaining but scientific way. Most notably, he eats a bar of soap as a way to demonstrate how lack of sleep can lead to poor decision-making skills:
The question for the next year’s Challenge is: “What is Sound?” From this November to January 2016, the center will encourage scientists to send in their answers. Meanwhile, teachers will register their classes, allowing thousands of 5th and 6th grade students to examine the submissions and vote for their favorites.
Alda also organizes a video conference called the Worldwide Assembly, where 5th and 6th grade students have a chance to discuss their opinions with Alda and students and teachers in other participating classrooms. After the vote, the winning scientists receive $1,000 and a trip to New York City to be honored at the 2016 World Science Festival.
If you are interested in the Flame Challenge, you can find more information on their website. There is still time to submit an answer to next year’s question or register a classroom to participate in the voting. Also, make sure to check out the Society for Neuroscience’s Brain Awareness 2015 Video Contest, to see more videos that take science questions and explain complex subjects in understandable language.
– Ali Chunovic