The Flame Challenge

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Alan Alda Announces Winners of Stony Brook University’s Flame Challenge During World Science Festival:
Scientists Explained Sound to 11-Year-Olds

Congratulations to the
2016 Flame Challenge Winners!

Teachers: Register Your Class for 2017
Students: Submit a Question for the 2017 Flame Challenge

Watch The Flame Challenge Award Show

Winning Video Entry

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.

Winning Written Entry

Bruce Goldstein

Bruce 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!

“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.