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The Flame Challenge – explaining complex science to an 11-year-old

The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University trains scientists and health professionals to communicate more effectively with the public.

I helped found the Alda Center after a stint hosting “Scientific American Frontiers,” the PBS show dedicated to explored cutting-edge advances in science and technology. As we shot the show, I really wanted to understand the work of the scientists I was speaking with.  I kept asking questions until I did and that drew us into a close personal connection. That connection helped them to more easily distill their message. That approach to clear and vivid communication is at the heart of the work we do at the Center.

We believe that scientists have a responsibility to share the meaning and implications of their work, and that an engaged public encourages sound public decision-making. The ability to communicate directly and vividly can enhance scientists’ career prospects, helping them secure funding, collaborate across disciplines, compete for positions, and serve as effective teachers. We’ve trained over 8,000 scientists and medical professionals to tell inspiring stories about their work.


The Flame Challenge is the Alda Center’s annual contest that challenges scientists to explain complex science topics to 11-year-olds. Now in its sixth 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 an understandable way.

Flame Challenge

Students from Katonah Elementary School join Alan Alda for The Flame Challenge, hosted at the IBM Research THINKLab

The first year’s question, “What is a flame?” was one that I posed when I was 11. The question for 2017 is “What is energy?” As far as I know, nothing happens without energy. Night and day we’re surrounded by it, moved by it — we live and breathe by it. But what is it?

This year, hundreds of scientists submitted answers to the featured question in written or video format. After screening for scientific accuracy, the contest entries were judged by thousands of 5th and 6th grade schoolchildren around the world, narrowing the field down to six finalists.

Flame ChallengeYesterday, a panel of student judges joined me at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. to discuss the six finalist entries — written and video. The winners will be invited to New York City in June to be honored as part of a special program at the World Science Festival.

This year it was particularly exciting to live-stream the conference from the IBM Research THINKLab. IBM Research is home to some of the most notable technological and scientific business breakthroughs of the 20th and 21st centuries, including the invention of Dynamic Random Access Memory (DRAM), the FORTRAN programming language, and the IBM Watson cognitive system. Today, IBM researchers are pursuing cutting-edge research in areas sure to inspire the next generation of scientists such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence and blockchain.

Flame Challenge;hyperimager

Alberto Valdes Garcia, IBM Research scientist and manager of the RF Circuits and Systems Group, with the millimeter wave imaging experimental set-up that is part of his team’s research and development of a portable hyperimager platform.

I was also reminded that IBM’s researchers were once budding scientists themselves. For example, IBM researcher Alberto Valdes Garcia first exhibited his passion for electronics sometime around middle school when he built an FM radio from scratch. Today, he and his team are pushing the boundaries of electrical engineering in a quest to build a new type of portable imaging device that harnesses portions of the electromagnetic spectrum to make the invisible visible. The instrument, known as a hyperimager, illuminates portions of the 99.9 percent of the environment that we can’t see with the naked eye — including radio waves, microwaves, and infrared rays — to identify potential hazards and reveal new insights.

It’s these types of stories and scientific frontiers that are so essential to inform and inspire young people to pursue a career in the sciences.

And the scientists that participate in The Flame Challenge gain a chance to learn or relearn the importance of relating to their audience. The beauty of this challenge is that both the scientists and the students get a chance to come away knowing more than they did before.

To learn more, visit www.flamechallenge.org.

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Flame Challenge

Alan Alda

Actor, writer, science advocate and a visiting professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science