The Flame Challenge

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Watch the Worldwide Assembly 2016

Worldwide Assembly Recap – The Flame Challenge with Alan Alda from Stony Brook School of Journalism on Vimeo (above).

Worldwide Assembly (Full Production) – The Flame Challenge with Alan Alda from Stony Brook School of Journalism on Vimeo (above).

Here are the three finalist entries for the video submission category:

Nick LucidBy Nicholas Weckesser (Nick Lucid)

Title: College Lecturer (Physics)

Location: Michigan, U.S.

“The best way to teach kids is to find your inner child.” — Nick Lucid

Nick has been into astronomy since he was a little kid. Learning about the stars and planets was always exciting, but back then his whole family thought he should go into computer science, so his high school years were mostly focused on computers and coding. In college, he rediscovered his passion for the physical sciences and earned a BS and MS in physics from Eastern Michigan University. It was during that master’s program that he realized he wanted to be an educator. He enjoyed being able to share his knowledge and help others learn. As a result, he has spent a decade teaching physics part-time at several colleges/universities in southeastern Michigan and the last 3 years hosting his own YouTube channel: The Science Asylum.

MichaelBronskiMichael Bronski

Title: Graduate Student (Biology)

Location: University of California, Berkeley, California, U.S.

“Today, more so than ever, scientists must be exceptional communicators.  While scientists frequently communicate with their peers, competitions like the Flame Challenge force them to engage with a different – but equally as important – audience.  Scientists must play an active role in helping to create a scientifically literate populace.  This means not only educating the public about ideas and discoveries that will influence their lives, but also combating misinformation and pseudoscience.  As such, it is important that scientists (1) help to educate children about things we know to be true, and (2) show them how science can be used to discover new things, or reject claims that are not supported by data.” — Michael Bronski

Michael Bronski developed a deep interest in science at a young age, and he’s passionate about sharing that interest with anyone who will listen.  He especially enjoys sharing discoveries that change the way people look at the world, or their place in it; and he likes to show how seemingly unrelated disciplines like biology, physics, and astronomy actually intersect.  Michael is currently a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley in the department of Molecular & Cell Biology where he studies DNA sequences that control gene expression.  He’s also working on sequencing the genome of a mind-controlling parasite.  While teaching at Berkeley he received the Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) Award, and also led workshops to train new GSIs.  Michael always had diverse interests.  As an undergraduate at Cornell University, he double majored in Biology and Government while pursuing research projects in molecular genetics and international relations.  He was also a Hughes Scholar.  Prior to starting graduate school, he worked in research and also taught at the Bronx High School of Science.  He enjoys hiking, climbing, and traveling.

Tom KuntzlemanTom Kuntzleman

Title: Professor (Chemistry)

Location: Spring Arbor University, Michigan, U.S.

“I love science. Not only because science can explain so much about our world, but because science is just plain fun! I also enjoy working with students of all ages – especially students that ask inquisitive questions. These questions often lead me to try new experiments!” — Tom Kuntzleman

Tom has taught science in all grades K through college. He is currently a professor of Chemistry at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. One of his favorite things to do is to perform live science experiments for students in schools. He has made about 200 of these presentations since 2004. As part of this work, he served as an American Chemical Society Science Coach in middle school classrooms from 2011 – 2015. He likes to discover new and interesting ways to do chemistry experiments using everyday items like glow sticks, batteries, dry ice, and LEGO blocks. He is a regular contributor to the Journal of Chemical Education and also a write a blog on the Chemical Education Xchange site.

Here are the three finalist entries for the written submission category:

By James Dodd

Specialization: Engineering

Location: California, U.S.

“I love teaching and explaining things.  To me the challenge of describing something as fundamental as sound and how we experience it was exactly the kind of topic that excites me.  Being hearing challenged (I wear hearing aids), I know how important sound is to my life experience.” — Jim Dodd

Jim was born in New York City, and grew up on the east coast.  He received his Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering from the University of Delaware in 1988, and his MS and PhD from University of California at Santa Barbara in Electrical and Computer Engineering in 1992.  He is married, and have two children aged 16 and 19.  He has worked at Intel Corporation in Folsom, CA for the past 25 years.  He enjoys teaching classes in Electrical and Computer Engineering at California State University at Sacramento.  In his spare time he is an avid wood worker and love to make things including guitars.

Jim Dodd’s Entry

Sound is created by vibrations in any gas or liquid including the air around you. When something moves through a gas or liquid, it causes the molecules that make up the gas or liquid to get pushed together, and then bounce apart. If you throw a pebble into a puddle, what happens? The pebble causes a splash which pushes the water molecules away, and they crash into each other and little waves are formed which move away from the pebble. Even though you cannot see them with your eyes, when something moves through the air, it causes the similar kinds of waves.

The sounds you hear are waves created by vibrations in the air around you which reach you like the waves in the puddle. In much the same way that you can feel with your body the vibration of a vacuum cleaner or a cell phone when it silently vibrates, your ears can sense the waves that reach them.

The air vibrations must be strong enough and fast enough to be sensed by your ear. Your ear then translates these vibrations into signals to your brain which interprets them as sounds. The faster the vibrations, the higher the pitch you hear. The sound of a cat purring is the waves from a slow vibration, so you hear it as a low-pitch sound, and a bird chirping is caused by faster vibrations which you hear as a high-pitch sound. Scientists call slow vibrations “low frequency vibrations” and fast vibrations “high frequency vibrations”. Each higher note on the musical scale is simply caused by higher frequency vibrations. Each musical instrument like a guitar, or flute create vibrations at a specific frequency to make a specific note. The speaker on your computer or phone vibrates to make the sounds you hear.

Bruce GoldsteinBruce Goldstein

Title: Associate Professor Emeritus (Psychology)

Location: University of Pittsburgh, Arizona, U.S.

“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.” — Bruce Goldstein

Bruce is Associate Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of Arizona. He received the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award from the University of Pittsburgh for his classroom teaching and textbook writing. He received his PhD in experimental psychology from Brown University and was a postdoctoral fellow in the Biology Department at Harvard before joining the psychology department at Pitt. Bruce is the author of two widely used undergraduate textbooks – Sensation and Perception, 10th edition (Cengage, 2016) and Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research and Everyday Experience, 4th edition (Cengage, 2015).

Bruce Goldstein’s Entry:

“A drummer bangs on a bass drum. Sam, standing nearby, hears BOOM!

How does banging on thedrum turn into the sound BOOM?

Sounds are vibrations, and the drum-head’s back-and-forth vibrations create pressure waves in the air that set Sam’s eardrums, just inside his ears, into vibration. The magic of sound happens deeper inside Sam’s ears in a hollow tube-like structure called the inner ear or cochlea.

Imagine that you’ve shrunk yourself so small that you can look into this tube. When you peek inside, you see thousands of tiny hairs lined up in rows. Suddenly, the drummer bangs the drum! You feel the vibrations, and then you see something spectacular – the hairs are moving back and forth in time with the vibrations, and every movement is creating electrical signals! These signals are sent down the auditory nerve towards the brain and a fraction of a second later, when they reach the hearing areas in the brain, Sam hears BOOM!

What makes some vibrations create a drum’s low-pitched BOOM and others create a bird’s high-pitched tweet? Slow vibrations create low pitches and faster vibrations create high pitches, so the hairs vibrate more slowly for BOOM and faster for tweet.

But sound is more than BOOM and tweet. You create sounds when talking with friends or playing music. Music is really amazing, because when the tiny hairs vibrate back and forth to music, electricity reaches the brain’s hearing areas, plus other brain areas that make you move and that make you feel emotions like happy or sad.

So sounds are vibrations that make you hear, and might also make you feel like tapping your feet, dancing, crying, or even jumping for joy. Pretty amazing, what tiny hairs vibrating inside the ear can do!

Luke Hewitt, left.

Luke Hewitt, left. Maddie Cusimano

By Luke B. Hewitt and Maddie Cusimano

Title: Graduate Student (Cognitive Science)

Location: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Massachusetts, U.S.

“In our entry, we wanted to communicate how difficult perception really is. Many of the most interesting aspects of sound happen after it has passed through the ear, and so we thought we could bring a unique perspective on sound to students – one that goes beyond the interpretation of sound as just physical energy.”– Luke Hewitt, Maddie Cusimano

Luke and Maddie are first year PhD students, studying brain and cognitive sciences at MIT. They are very interested in how people perceive – that is, how the brain interprets information from the senses into knowledge about the world.

Luke Hewitt and Maddie Cusimano’s Entry:

Sound is much more than just vibrations. Sound is what you experience when your brain interprets vibrations.

To understand this, think about what seeing is. When you look at the world, light comes into your eye from all directions, and makes an image. Like a picture taken with a camera, this image has millions of pixels – but you aren’t aware of each pixel individually. That would be far too much information to think about.

Instead, your brain finds patterns in the image to help you understand it. It can tell if some pixels all came from one object, and so it groups them together. That’s how you can see that one object is separate from another.

Sound is the same. When you speak, your voicebox vibrates (try it now: talk to your friend and feel it on your neck!). In fact, it causes hundreds of vibrations at the same time: some fast, some slow. They travel through the air and into your ear. But imagine if you could hear each vibration individually: you’d never make sense of them all! So instead, your brain looks for patterns.

Just like it can recognize the pattern of light and dark pixels that make up a face, it can recognize the pattern of fast and slow vibrations that make up a voice. And so when it finds that pattern, it groups those vibrations together into one ‘sound’. A voice sound.

Voices can sound different, too. For example, if the pattern of vibrations is slower, then the voice sounds deeper. But now imagine a whole orchestra playing. Your brain is so good at finding patterns that it can sort all the thousands of vibrations into different groups – one ‘sound’ for each instrument. What a boss, eh?

“What is Sound?” That is the question that The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University is challenging scientists to answer in video or written form for the Flame Challenge 2016. 

The Flame Challenge is an international competition where scientists answer the question in a way that is most appropriate for 11-year-olds. Entries will be judged by thousands of 5th and 6th grade schoolchildren around the world.

More about this year’s contest:
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. 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.

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

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 winners of the 2016 Flame Challenge will be revealed at a special event at the World Science Festival on June 5, 2016. 

So don’t be caught napping – pick your winners for the Flame Challenge 2016!

How it works:
Each year we pick a new question students around the world want to see answered and hundreds of scientists send in entries in written or video form.

The Flame Challenge began in 2012 with Alan Alda’s childhood query: What is a flame?

“When I asked what a flame was at the age of 11,” Alan said, “I was probably younger in some ways than most 11-year-olds are now.” He said the kids asked a very deep question in 2013, “What is Time?” and that it was fun to see how scientists around the world answered “that one” in everyday language.

After screening for scientific accuracy, the entries are judged by thousands of 11-year-olds in schools around the world. The winning scientists are brought to New York to be honored in June at the World Science Festival. Entries can be written, video or graphic. For rules and other information, see the links in the sidebar at the right.

Alan Alda’s message to students:


Thank you to our Flame Challenge sponsor, the American Chemical Society, a nonprofit organization working to improve communication of science. 

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is the world’s largest general scientific society and proud sponsor of the Flame Challenge 2016. As an international, nonprofit organization, AAAS seeks to advance science, engineering and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people.