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A Call for Scientists to Enter the Flame Challenge 2018: What is Climate?

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™ 2018 – What is Climate?

This international contest challenges scientists at every level – from graduate students to senior researchers – to communicate familiar yet complex concepts in ways that are understandable to an 11-year-old.  These submissions then make their way to classrooms of 5th and 6th graders from all over the globe who review them and decide the winners.  Entries can be submitted in one of three categories: written, graphic, or video.

“…Eleven-year-olds all over the world are waiting to hear the explanation. The kids…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™ offers a $1,000 cash prize for scientists in each of the three categories. 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.

This year boasts new opportunities for scientists to prepare for the contest and exercise their skills.  In addition to public recognition for the six finalists and prizes for the three winners, all participating scientists will have the benefit of a communication training series designed specifically for scientists entering The Flame Challenge™ in 2018. The training videos will help scientists tackle many of the common obstacles to clear and vivid communication.  Each comes with follow-up challenges by Alda Center instructors and past Flame Challenge winners to help scientists stretch and grow.

The 2017 contest winners that got students’ attention for their creativity and  clarity of presentation were: Hannah Holt, a writer and former civil engineer from Oregon (, and Dr. Johanna Howes, a science writer and the host of her own YouTube channel, Class 509: Science History, that she creates in Australia. These winners were picked out of entries submitted worldwide.

“I think the thing that really got me into the competition was that I was being judged by the people I was making the video for,” Howes remarked,  “[because] one of the challenges of science communication is getting to know your audience – you can’t explain something to someone if you can’t think from their perspective.”

Holt added, “The better we communicate, the bigger and stronger our bridges. In today’s world, we need more bridge builders. As a science community, we can only do this if we have strong communication skills. If I can’t explain a scientific idea so that an eleven year-old would understand it, maybe I don’t understand the idea as well as I thought.”

The Flame Challenge™ began in 2011 when Alan 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 2016, scientists wrestled with “What is sound?” In 2017, they took on “What is energy?”

In 2017, more than 20,000 students from hundreds of different schools participated as judges for The Flame Challenge™. The majority of the schools were from all over the United States, but there were also many schools from Australia, as well as Poland, the Netherlands, Ireland, India, and Japan.

Please visit for more information and to sign up for email alerts about upcoming events, entering the contest (for scientists), and registering your  fifth/sixth grade class as contest judges (for teachers).

About The Flame Challenge™

The 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.

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