Skip Navigation

Alda Center at Stony Brook University Calls for Scientists to Enter the Flame Challenge 2017: What is Energy?

Annual contest challenges scientists to explain complex science topics to 11-year-olds

STONY BROOK, NY, USA – After reviewing hundreds of questions submitted by children from around the world, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University has announced the question issued to scientists for The Flame Challenge 2017 – What is Energy?

“As far as I know, nothing happens without energy,” says Alan Alda, actor, writer, science advocate and a visiting professor at the Center. “Night and day, we’re surrounded by it, moved by it — we live and breathe by it. But what is it?”

An international contest 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 a way that is understandable to an 11-year-old. Entries can be submitted in written or visual format.

Please visit for information about entering the contest (for scientists) and to register your school or fifth/sixth grade class as contest judges (for teachers).

“I hope scientists from every discipline will have a go at answering this fundamental question about energy. Eleven-year-olds all over the world are waiting to hear the explanation. The kids — and our sponsor, the American Chemical Society — all invite scientists to see if they can explain this complex aspect of nature clearly and vividly. Give it your best shot because, don’t forget, the kids themselves are the judges,” Alda says.

The Flame Challenge is sponsored in part by the American Chemical Society (ACS).

“Energy, in all of its many forms, is a fundamental part of science and nature. Yet explaining this concept in a way that 11-year-olds, much less adults, can readily grasp and appreciate is daunting,” says Allison Campbell, PhD, president-elect of the ACS. “Still, I have no doubt that the scientists accepting this year’s Flame Challenge will generate a bevy of amazing responses that could ignite a life-long passion for science among these young and eager students.”

The contest offers a $1,000 cash prize for scientists in each category. The winning scientists will also receive a trip to New York City (includes airfare and accommodations for two nights), where they will meet Alan Alda and be honored at the World Science Festival.

Rising to the top of 228 entries from countries as far as Egypt and Australia, the 2016 contest winners were: Nick Weckesser, a physicist from Michigan and Dr. Bruce Goldstein, a distinguished teacher and Associate Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of Arizona.

“The Flame Challenge… doesn’t just challenge scientists, but also traditional education in a way that has the power to inspire and excite kids about science. It makes science approachable,” says Weckesser, whose online persona is Nick Lucid. “Participating in the Flame Challenge was very enlightening and winning it was easily one of the most amazing experiences of my life.”

Dr. Goldstein comments, “I feel that the Flame Challenge is important because 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.”

The Flame Challenge began in 2011 when 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 2015, scientists wrestled with “What is sleep?” In 2016, they took on “What is sound?”

In 2016, about 26,000 students from 440 different schools participated as judges for The Flame Challenge. The United States was well-represented, with 38 schools registered, including a few from Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Additionally, the contest attracted participation from across the globe, with participating schools including: Australia, China, India, New Zealand, and Thailand among others.

Julia Hondal, a former Flame Challenge student judge from Vermont, says, “Energy is all around us and it is a very complex subject to study and understand. From The Flame Challenge, I learned that it is important to use numerous sources to really understand the question being discussed.”



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 is sponsored in part by the American Chemical Society (ACS), an organization that 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.

Read story "Alda Center at Stony Brook University Calls for Scientists to Enter the Flame Challenge 2017: What is Energy?" on SBU News