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The Flame Challenge

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The Alda Center is, above all else, all about making science accessible. Not just for other scientists or professional communicators but for everyone no matter their education level, previous knowledge, or even their age. Which is why one of the first outreach programs we created was a way to bring children and scientists together to explore ways to make science accessible to young people. To give them insight into challenging concepts not by dumbing things down, but by making the science relevant to them and exciting to learn.

The Flame Challenge began with a seemingly simple problem: how do you explain what a flame is in a way even an eleven year old can understand? And when you really think about it, how do you explain what a flame is, period? You can toss out words like "combustion," "energy," or "oxidation," but those are just more abstracts. As a great man once wrote, "Simply giving a name to something doesn't explain it, as much as we might like it to."

That man, of course, was our own Alan Alda. You’ve probably heard of him. As a youngster, he posed the flame question to a favorite teacher who could only answer him with a single word that, while certainly true, didn't clear up a thing. And his frustration with that teacher and the non-explanatory explanation stuck with him through school, through his successes on M*A*SH*, and into his work with science communication. 

Years later, while writing an article on communication for a science magazine, a curious idea struck him: a contest open to scientists the world over. One with the objective of explaining what a flame is in a way an eleven year old would find not only comprehensible, but maybe even entertaining.

The Flame Challenge was born. In its inaugural year, 2012, the Alda Center asked scientists the world over to explain what, exactly, a flame is - but in a way a kid could understand. And to really hold the experts to that standard, kids would judge their answers. Fantastic and informative entries came pouring in from all corners of the globe, including a delightful animated video by then-doctoral student Benjamin Ames that the kids deemed the first ever winner of the Flame Challenge. But not the last.

Every year the Flame Challenge was held, school-age children picked the question and judged the responses. They got to judge video and written entries from scientists from around the world and, increasingly, children from around the world got to participate in the conversations and the competition. 



Unfortunately, circumstances prevented a new question from being posed in 2019. And in the subsequent years, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has presented logistical problems to organizing the competition. But the curiosity that inspired the Flame Challenge is not unique to our center or its namesake. Even the briefest of internet searches reveals countless programs all over the country aiming to get kids involved in science. From Space Camp to the US Forest Service to a multitude of local and regional programs, there are so many great institutions and organizations helping connect kids with science. And the work they do will always be of utmost importance because connection breeds understanding and understanding is key to effective science communication. It’s what we’re all about here at the Alda Center. It’s how the study and spread of science continues with future generations. And why great scientists the world over will always keep looking for ways to share their knowledge and curiosity with everyone, age eleven and up. Because some young kid who finds science fascinating today could someday find themselves winning a Nobel Prize.

Anybody interested in learning more about the origins of the Flame Challenge should check out Alan Alda’s insightful book If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating.

Paul D. Mooney

Paul D. Mooney is an award-winning writer and filmmaker currently earning his master's in Marine Conservation and Policy at Stony Brook University. He has a BS in Film and Television from Boston University, an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College, resides in Queens, and never turns down a burrito.

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