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Alan Alda’s 2016 ‘Flame Challenge’: What Is Sound?

 “The kids and I are all ears” says Alda of the challenge that engages scientists to communicate familiar yet complex concepts to 11-year-olds 

What is SoundSTONY BROOK, NY, November 2, 2015 – After reviewing hundreds of questions submitted by children from around the world, the 2016 Flame Challenge will ask the burning question, “What is sound?” The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University is challenging scientists to answer that resounding question in video or written form.

An international contest now in its fifth year, the Flame Challenge is judged by 11-year-olds around the world, challenging scientists at every level – from graduate students to senior researchers – to answer and communicate familiar yet complex concepts in a way that is understandable to an 11-year-old.

"I came up with this contest as a fun challenge for scientists to explain a complex thing like a flame in a way that would make it clear to an 11-year-old,” said actor, writer and science advocate Alan Alda, a visiting professor at Stony Brook University. “The idea was to urge scientists to communicate more clearly. I didn't realize what an extraordinary learning experience it was going to be for the 11-year-olds. By now, tens of thousands of kids from all over the world have excitedly delved into the mysteries of nature as they've judged the scientists' entries.  

"There are so many ways in which sounds affect us, so many ways that different animals use sound, and so many kinds of sound,” Alda said. “I can't wait to see how creatively scientists will explain exactly what sound is. The kids and I are all ears."

The Flame Challenge offers a $1,000 cash prize for scientists in each category. The winning scientists will also receive a trip to New York City where they will meet Alan Alda and be honored at the 2016 World Science Festival. The Flame Challenge is sponsored by the American Chemical Society (ACS) and the AAAS.

"The ingenuity of the Flame Challenge is that participating students bring a new source of creativity and take away the lesson that science is fun," said 2016 ACS President Donna Nelson.

Keziah Job, an 11-year-old sixth grader from Lynbrook South Middle School in Lynbrook, New York, was one of the students who came up with this year’s question. "I hope that they tell me what sound is,” Keziah said when asked what she hopes the contest’s scientists will tell her about her question. “I'm speaking and I want to know what makes up the sound."

Aidan Green, a fifth grader from Maungatapu Primary School in Tauranga, New Zealand, also asked this year’s question. "I like to listen to the sounds around me and wonder how they all sound different?” said Aidan. “What makes them do that?"

The Flame Challenge began in 2011 Alda, an actor and science advocate, proposed to scientists his childhood query: What is a flame? Since then, children have submitted thousands of questions, out of which the contest questions have been selected. In 2014, scientists wrestled with “What is color?” In 2015, they took on “What is sleep?”

Last year, 20,000 students from states, including New York, Texas and California, as well as countries, such as India, Germany and New Zealand registered through their schools to serve as Flame Challenge judges.

The 2015 contest winners were Brandon Aldinger of Renfrew, Pennsylvania and Eric C. Galicia of Des Plaines, Illinois. For Aldinger, the contest was a chance to inspire kids.

“Science is an incredibly rewarding profession and pastime,” Aldinger said. “It is critical to expose kids to science in a way that they can understand, especially as they dream about careers that will guide their later schooling.”

Galicia, the video winner, said it’s important to make his work resonate with audiences.“I've always been a big advocate of being able to explain advanced topics in physics to anybody, especially children,” said Galicia. “One of my chemistry teachers once said, ‘If you can't explain it to a five-year-old, then you don't know what you're talking about.’ I believe this to be true.”

For information on how to enter the contest, scientists looking to enter the contest and for 5th-grade teachers who are interested in having their classes participate as judges visit, www.FlameChallenge.org. The website also contains past winning entries and tips from previous winners about crafting a good entry.

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About the Flame Challenge
The annual Flame Challenge contest is part of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science’s mission of helping scientists communicate more effectively with the public. Located in Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism, the Alda Center gives innovative science communication courses for graduate students in the sciences, and conducts workshops around the country. Alan Alda is a founding member of the Alda Center and a visiting professor in the School of Journalism. The Flame Challenge’s sponsors are both major nonprofit scientific societies. The American Chemical Society is chartered by the U.S. Congress and is a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research. ACS encourages each of its 164,000 members to speak simply about their science and its importance to all of our lives. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest multidisciplinary scientific society and publisher of the journal Science, was founded in 1848. It includes some 261 affiliated groups, serving a total of 10 million individuals, and its mission is to "advance science and serve society."

About Stony Brook University
​Part of the State University of New York system, Stony Brook University encompasses 200 buildings on 1,450 acres. Since welcoming its first incoming class in 1957, the University has grown tremendously, now with more than 24,600 students, 2,500 faculty and 20 NCAA Division I athletic programs. Its membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU) places Stony Brook among the top 62 research institutions in North America. U.S. News & World Report ranks Stony Brook among the top 40 public universities in the nation and Kiplinger named it the 33rd best value in public colleges for in-state students and 26th for out-of-state students. One of four University Center campuses in the SUNY system, Stony Brook University co-manages Brookhaven National Laboratory, putting it in an elite group of universities that run federal research and development laboratories. As the largest single-site employer on Long Island, Stony Brook is a driving force of the regional economy, with an annual economic impact of $4.65 billion, generating nearly 60,000 jobs, and accounting for nearly 4 percent of all economic activity in Nassau and Suffolk counties and roughly 7.5 percent of total jobs in Suffolk County.

 Reporter Contact: Alida Almonte
631-632-6310;  Twitter @sbunewsdesk