R-Flame Challenge logo
Vote for your Flame Challenge winners below and watch the Worldwide Assembly 2016

Vote for your Flame Challenge winners!

Select entries that best answer the question, “What is Sound?,” and fill out the form available here. Remember, only classrooms who are registered (by their teacher) as judges can vote on the finalists.

Voting is open until 11:59 p.m. EDT Wednesday, May 4. Vote here!

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

Entry # 701
Location: Michigan, U.S.

Entry #740
Location: California, U.S.

Entry #742
Location: Michigan, U.S.

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

Entry #108 from California, U.S.

“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.”

Entry #156 from Arizona, U.S.

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

How does banging on the drum 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! ”

Entry #259 from Massachusetts, U.S.

“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?”

Vote for you favorite Video and Written entries here!


“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.