The Flame Challenge is on: What is color?

Jan. 23, 2014

The Flame Challenge is on: What is color?

Carenda L Martin,, 925-424-4715
How well do you know science? Do you know it well enough to explain it to a fellow scientist, engineer or your boss? What about a news reporter, college or high school student? Or, the ultimate challenge, a fifth-grade student?

That is what the Flame Challenge is all about: encouraging scientists to voluntarily create ways to communicate complex material simply, clearly and engagingly.

2014 marks the third year of the Flame Challenge. Each year a specific scientific question is posed and challenges a scientist to explain it so that a fifth grader will understand.This year the topic is "What is Color?" Previous challenges include "What is a Flame?" and "What is Time?"

The contest is promoted by Alan Alda (yes, the actor) and the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University on Long Island in New York. Sponsors include the American Chemical Society (ACS) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

What makes this contest unique is that the entries are judged by 11-year-old students. Last year, more than 20,000 fifth graders judged this contest, including Ms. Tracey Ananmalay's class from Los Alamitos elementary school in San Jose.

There are two categories in which to submit entries: written and visual (video or graphic). Written responses must be less than 300 words and videos must be shorter than six minutes. See the complete list of contest rules and entry guidelines on the Web.

All entries are pre-judged for accuracy and then sent to students in classrooms all over the United States and the world for judging. Once the top three entries (three in each category) are determined, they go out to ten pre-assigned schools for final judging.

Nick Williams, a retired engineer of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) who works part time as a LLNL tour guide and Fun with Science presenter for the Public Affairs Office, was last year's overall Flame Challenge winner of the written category, "What is Time?"

Williams is passionate about science education and his enthusiasm is infectious. "Presenting a science program, or science topic to students in very early school years is definitely a challenge," he said. "My hope is that the Flame Challenge will reinforce the concept that science must be understood by all, no matter what the age. Teach at the grade level, not below, not above. Teach so it makes sense. Teach so it can be understood. Teach so it can be remembered."

To learn more about Williams and his winning entry, see YouTube or visit the Web.  The deadline to enter the Flame Challenge is 11:59 p.m. (EST) on March 1 with the winners announced in late May. Winners will receive a free trip to New York City to accept the award directly from Alan Alda. See the 2013 ceremony on the Web.

Williams is offering an informal brown bag on the Flame Challenge to those interested in submitting an entry on Tuesday, Feb. 4 at 12:15 p.m.  in the Discovery Center auditorium. The Discovery Center is open to the public. Williams will share his experience with the Flame Challenge, relay contest rules, provide guidance and answer questions.