Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Alan Alda’s Flame Challenge for 2014 To Be Revealed Dec. 11

Stony Brook University challenges scientists to answer 11 year-olds’ next question; International contest seeks more effective ways to communicate science to the public.

by Stony Brook University
Register for free to listen to this article
Listen with Speechify

STONY BROOK, NY, December 6, 2013 – Each year the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University challenges scientists to answer a thought-provoking question asked by 11-year-olds around the country. This year’s challenge to scientists will be announced on Wednesday, Dec. 11.

Alan Alda.Photo courtesy of Stony Brook UniversityThe Flame Challenge, an international contest that asks scientists to communicate complex science in ways that would interest and enlighten an 11-year-old, began in 2011 with actor and science advocate Alan Alda’s childhood query: What is a flame?

“The Flame Challenge has grown from scientists trying to answer the question of one 11-year old (me) from many decades ago, to tackling questions on the minds of thousands of current 11-year olds from around the world,” Mr. Alda said. “I'm in awe of the scientists who can bring clarity to these questions and I'm in awe of the kids who keep the scientists on their toes."

Get training in Risk Communication and Decision-making and earn CEUs.One of over 25 IACET-accredited courses in the Academy.
Risk Communication and Decision-making Course

To choose this year’s challenge, the Alda Center collected more than 800 questions from children, but just what the winning question is, is still under wraps until Dec. 11.

Scientists have until March 1, 2013 to submit their answers in writing, video or graphics. The entries will be screened for scientific accuracy -- and then judged by real 11-year-olds. Last year, nearly 20,000 students from around the world registered through their schools to serve as Flame Challenge judges!  There will be two winners, one for a written entry and one for a visual (video or graphic) entry. The winning scientists will receive a trip to New York City, where they will meet Alan Alda and be honored at the World Science Festival. The Flame Challenge is generously sponsored by the American Chemical Society (ACS) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

“The Flame Challenge is a marvelous competition that we proudly support,” said ACS President Tom Barton. “It captivates young minds and, we hope, inspires them to explore the scientific careers, which are so vital to betterment of our lives. At the same time, it takes scientists back to their roots, answering the essential questions children ask in a simple, yet accurate ways. It is the perfect combination of awe, wonder and excitement for the children asking the questions, for the scientists formulating their responses, and for the general public watching this all unfold.” 

Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), commended the Flame Challenge. “Communicating science in fun, thought-provoking ways is an important goal for all scientists as we face ongoing concerns about U.S. science education and the future science and technology workforce,” said Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of the journal Science. “By rewarding scientists who make science more accessible to everyone, the Flame Challenge is also raising awareness of the importance of science within our society.”

The previous Flame Challenge winners have been busy communicating science to audiences of all ages, from Canada to Germany to California. Ben Ames, a physics doctoral student at the University of Innsbruck and the inaugural winner in 2011, made a cartoon video with an original song to explain a flame to kids.  Ben is finishing up his PhD this summer and is busy working on producing a kids’ science show.  Nick Williams won last year in the written category for his answer to the question “What is time?”  Nick, a retired engineer, runs an outreach program, Fun with Science, for California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  Nick just got back from an adventure in Northern Alaska where he got students in a remote village excited about science.  Steve Maguire, last year’s winner in the visual category, continues explaining complex science to kids in his web series, Science Isn’t Scary.

“The Flame Challenge is the perfect opportunity to step outside the ivory tower and connect with a different audience,” Steve said.  “It doesn't matter if the question is outside your field -- I'm a chemist, and I had to explain a topic in physics.  Whatever you do, don't talk down to them.  Kids are a lot smarter than adults give them credit for.  They will also give the most bluntly honest criticism you'll ever receive.”

For more information on entering or judging the contest, or to see last year’s top entries, please visit

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 Communicating Science 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’s sponsors are both major nonprofit scientific societies.  The American Chemical Society 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. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world's largest multidisciplinary scientific society, was founded in 1848 and includes some 261 affiliated groups serving 10 million individuals. Its mission is to "advance science and serve society."