Monday, March 5, 2012

A Challenge to Make Science Crystal Clear-What is a flame?

What is the Flame Challenge?

It’s a contest. It’s an opportunity. It’s a chance to have fun, share your love of science, and be judged by a panel of 11-year-olds.

We’re asking scientists to answer the question – “What is a flame?” – in a way that an 11-year-old would find intelligible and maybe even fun.

Why did Alan Alda start this contest?

As a curious 11-year-old, Alan Alda asked his teacher, “What is a flame?” She replied: “It’s oxidation.” Alda went on to win fame as an actor and writer, became an advocate for clear communication of science, and helped found the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. He never stopped being curious, and he never forgot how disappointing that non-answer answer was.

So when he was invited to contribute a guest editorial to the journalScience, he wrote about why we need scientists to communicate clearly and vividly with the public. And he issued the Flame Challenge:

I’d like to try a playful experiment. Would you be willing to have a go at writing your own explanation of what a flame is—one that an 11-year-old would find intelligible, maybe even fun? The Center for Communicating Science is looking for new ways to light up people’s minds with science, and you might point the way. We’ll try out the entries on real 11-year-olds and see which work best. . . .

So here I am—I’m 11 years old and looking up at you with the wide eyes of curiosity. What is a flame? What’s going on in there? What will you tell me?

To read the full article from Science, click here.

How can schools get involved?

We are looking for schools to provide panels of 11-year-olds to judge the entries. To learn how to get involved, click here.

We also are collecting questions from 11-year-olds to use in the next round of the Flame Challenge. To send questions, email us at Please include the name, email and phone number of a parent, guardian or teacher.

What is the Center for Communicating Science?

The Center for Communicating Science, which is running this contest, is a multidisciplinary center based in the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University in New York. The Center is dedicated to helping current and future scientists learn to communicate clearly and vividly with the public. We give workshops and presentations for scientists at universities, laboratories and meetings around the country. At Stony Brook, the Center has developed a series of innovative Communicating Science courses being taken for credit by master’s and PhD students from more than a dozen science disciplines.

Alan Alda is a founding member of the Center and a Visiting Professor in the School of Journalism. He is pioneering the idea of “Improvisation for Scientists,” using improvisational theater exercises to help scientists be more direct and responsive in talking about their work. In addition, the Center gives courses and workshops in Distilling Your Message (speaking clearly and compellingly about complex science without “dumbing it down”); Writing about Science for the Public; Using Digital Media; Preparing to Speak (dealing with stage fright) and other topics. For more on the Center, please go

Read more about the Flame Challenge in an article published in the NY Times-- CLICK HERE.