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Alan Alda’s “Flame Challenge” Winners Explain Sound to 11-Year-Olds

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If a tree fell in the woods and no one was around, would it make a sound?

From vibrations in speakers to light reflections and pixels in a camera, those were just some of the examples used to tackle the question “What is Sound?” in the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science’s 5th annual Flame Challenge. This year’s question was posed to scientists by 11-year olds from around the world.

Alan Alda announced the winners of Stony Brook University’s Flame Challenge contest June 5 at the World Science Festival in New York City. The winners, Bruce Goldstein of Arizona and Nick Lucid of Michigan, each received a $1,000 prize, as well as congratulations from Alda and hundreds of children.

Nick Lucid
Flame Challenge winner Nick Lucid

The Flame Challenge asked scientists to answer the question “what is sound?” in a way that would interest and enlighten 11-year-olds. More than 26,000 schoolchildren judged the entries, including children in Australia, Canada, China, England, Germany, India, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Sultanate of Oman, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Italy, as well as in the United States.

Nick Lucid, a physicist from Michigan who enticed kids with his descriptions of air wiggles, was the winner in the video category. Nick has an MS in physics from Eastern Michigan University and has been teaching college physics and explaining complex science in a clear and vivid way to the public on his YouTube channel: The Science Asylum.

“It’s important for scientists to be challenged as a part of the scientific process,” Lucid explained. “The Flame Challenge carries that philosophy into science education.”

“Whether they’re competing or just watching, it helps scientists improve their educational ability by reminding them they weren’t always adults. If that science is also communicated in an entertaining way, it has the power to inspire children and adults alike to pay attention to the world around them and maybe even pursue science as a career. As a society, we need effective scientific communication as we face future challenges.”

His advice to scientists out there: “The best way to teach kids is to find your inner child.”

Dr. Bruce Goldstein
Flame Challenge winner Dr. Bruce Goldstein

Dr. Bruce Goldstein, the winner in the written category, painted a picture of sound by describing vibrations on a drum. Bruce is a distinguished teacher and Associate Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of Arizona. He believes the Flame Challenge is important because “science is a mystery to many people, so it is important to be able to communicate it in a way that they will find accessible, and in a way that enables them to appreciate the important role that science plays in their lives. I hope the Flame Challenge helps students experience the excitement of science and see the beauty of science.” As a college professor his biggest challenge in entering the contest was not just describing sound in and accurate and exciting way, but, “writing in a way that would be interesting to 11 year-olds, while not talking down to them.”

The winning entries, as well as other finalists, can be seen at the Flame Challenge website, www.flamechallenge.org. The annual contest is run by Stony Brook University’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, named for Alda, an acclaimed actor, writer and science advocate who is also a visiting professor at Stony Brook.

“The 26,0000 kids who had fun learning the physics of sound gave a special gift to the hundreds of scientists who entered the Flame Challenge: a chance to learn and relearn the importance of relating to your audience,” Alda said.

“The scientists and the students both had a chance to come away knowing more than they did before. I congratulate them and I thank them all.”

The Flame Challenge, now in its fifth year, aims to encourage scientists to explain complex material in ways non-scientists can understand. The first year’s question, “What is a flame?” was one that Alan Alda  had asked when he was 11. The contest is sponsored by the American Chemical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

“The Flame Challenge is a remarkable competition that we proudly support,” said Donna J. Nelson, president of the American Chemical Society. “It takes the scientists and the young students, who ask the questions and judge the entries, on a joint journey of discovery.”

“Congratulations to the winners of the 2016 Flame Challenge,” said Rush Holt, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and executive publisher of the Science family of journals.

“The genius of the Flame Challenge is to take a deceptively simple and obvious question that is actually rich and layered and can get a child to think more deeply about the world of science.”

To find the Flame Challenge winners, entries hundreds of scientists were first screened for accuracy and then sent out to schools for judging by 11-year-olds. Entries came in from scientists from around the world including Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, Egypt, Finland, Germany, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Portugal, Romania, South Africa, Spain, Syria, United Kingdom, and the United States.

Alan Alda launched the Flame Challenge in 2012 by asking scientists to explain a flame to an 11-year old in clear and concise terms. Since then, the questions – what is time, what is color, and what is sleep – have been contributed by 11-year-olds.

“It is exciting, heartwarming and inspiring to see how hundreds of scientist tackled the challenge of explaining science to kids in ways they not only understand, but are also inspired to learn more. The ability to witness the excitement of the kids and how they provided feedback to theses outstanding scientist communicators is one of the most exciting part of my work,” said Laura Lindelfeld, Director of the Alda Center.

The Flame Challenge will run again next year with a new question contributed by 11-year-olds. Children can submit their questions for consideration as next year’s topic on their website, flamechallenge.org.

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