The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science has announced the question for its fifth annual Flame Challenge: “What is sound?”

The contest, also promoted by the American Chemistry Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, challenges scientists at every level — from graduate students to senior researchers — from around the world to explain commonplace but complex phenomena in a way that 11-year-olds can understand.

“The premise of the Flame Challenge is to try to encourage the general public to learn more about science and to encourage scientists to be able to communicate their work to the general public,” Anna Huang, coordinator of the 2016 Flame Challenge, said.

“There are so many ways in which sound affects us, so many ways that different animals use sound, and so many kinds of sound,” said actor, writer and science advocate Alan Alda, a visiting professor at Stony Brook University in a news release. “I can’t wait to see how creatively scientists will explain exactly what sound is. The kids and I are all ears.”

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The idea for the Flame Challenge came from a question Alda asked his teacher when he was 11.

“When I was your age I asked my teacher, ‘What’s a flame?’” Alda said in a video message to students. “And all I got was a one word answer, ‘Oxidation.’ It wasn’t very helpful.”

Since 2012, the Flame Challenge has asked scientists, “What is a flame?” “What is time?” “What is color?” and “What is sleep?”

Contestants of the Flame Challenge will have their work screened for accuracy by scientists and will then be evaluated by classes of 11-year-old school children, with each class evaluating five entries. The evaluations ask the children whether the entry was informative, interesting, clear and understandable. Fifth-grade student judges then vote on the finalists from the classroom evaluations.

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Last year, 20,000 students from the United States and other countries like India, Germany and New Zealand registered to serve as Flame Challenge judges. This year, the Alda Center estimates it already has 15,000 students signed up, with the sign-up deadline in March.

The winners of the Flame Challenge are awarded a $1,000 cash prize and a trip to New York City to be honored at the World Science Festival.

“The previous coordinators were in the hard sciences fields, but I’m in a biology lab, so I’m excited about getting lots of neuroscientists to enter,” Huang said.

In 2012, the winner was Ben Ames, who, at the time, was working on his Ph.D. in quantum optics at the University of Innsbruck. He created a seven-and-a-half minute video explaining flame to a man who seemed to be in Hell, ending with a song.

In 2013, the winners were Nicholas Williams, a retiree from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and Steven Maguire, who, at the time, was a Ph.D. candidate studying inorganic catalysis at the University of Ottawa. Williams wrote about his definition of time as “Forward Movement.” Maguire explained the dimension of time, comparing it to the dimensions of a classroom.

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In 2014, the winners were Melanie Golob, who at the time was working for a company called Doctor Evidence, and Dianna Cowern, who at the time worked for the UCSD physics department as an outreach coordinator. Golob wrote about color, comparing human eyes to dog eyes. Cowern made a video describing color like a person who crashes into different objects and is sensed in different ways.

In 2015, the winners were Brandon Aldingerm who at the time worked as the materials scientist at Ibis Tek, and Eric C. Galicia, who, at the time, was a candidate in the Master of Health Physics program at Illinois Institute of Technology. Aldinger explained sleep as a time for the brain to organize what it learned while awake and a superpower that allows the body to heal itself. Galicia’s video showed the effects of sleep through an explanation to a character who stayed up all night playing video games.

For information about entering as scientists or as judges, or to see previous winners, visit www.flamechallenge.org.

“If we can get thousands of children involved in science, it’s a great future,” Huang said. “It allows for the possibility of a little more interest in the STEM fields in the future. And funding for science in recent years has been going down, so the idea of getting more people involved and more people interested in science is very important.”

Update: Nov. 14, 2015

This story has been updated to include quotes from The Statesman’s interview with Anna Huang, the coordinator of the 2016 Flame Challenge.

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Featured Image Credit: The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science 

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