Share it! Science : Pathways to Science: The Flame Challenge

Pathways to Science: The Flame Challenge

the flame challenge science contest
This is the third post in our series, Pathways to Science, where we are sharing opportunities for students to connect with scientists.

We are going to take a closer look at the Flame Challenge, a contest for scientists where students are the judges. This is not only an exciting and engaging opportunity for kids because it puts them in the driver's seat, but also has great opportunities for extensions like teaching writing and communication in the sciences. 

flame challenge science competition student judges
Stonybrook University: Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science

The Flame Challenge began when Alan Alda, actor, writer and advocate for clear communication of science issued a challenge to scientists to explain, in an understandable way, the answer to the question "What is a flame?". Scientists from across the globe submitted their answers in written and visual form to be judged by 11 year olds.

This first challenge was issued in 2012, and the competition has evolved over the past few years. Now there are separate categories for written and visual submissions and schools can participate in a virtual Worldwide Assembly when it is time to announce the winners. Each year, the question is different. To date the questions have been: What is time? What is color? What is sleep? and What is sound?

When I was in the classroom I participated with my students for the first three years of the Flame Challenge, and students in grades 5 and 6 continue to participate at the school I worked in. What I thought was most important about having students judge the entries is how easily we could extend this activity in the classroom.

This is the perfect precursor to having students present their own findings at a science fair or event at school. They begin to learn what makes for interesting and clear communication. After judging the entries we would generate a list of why students thought the ones they had chosen were the best. This was always a thoughtful discussion. Students reasoned that giving examples we can all relate to is helpful. They did not want to be spoken down to and they didn't want too much technical language. A balance of humor was deemed important, but not too much and not too cheesy. They were appalled by grammatical errors and typos.

The students began to understand that scientists are people too. Although they hold information that is valuable to us all, it is okay to question the information that is being handed to you, and acknowledge there might be a better way to communicate with students and people who may not be professional scientists.

Although my students might never meet the scientists who they judged, they began to relate to them. They understood that these were people, and the people had personalities just like those they interact with at home and school. During one of the first years we participated, my students fell in love with a scientist named Steve who had submitted a particularly funny and informative video. (He also happened to win the challenge that year!) Over the course of the next year or so, they continued to ask if they could watch Steve again. I loved that he inspired them to be excited about science.

To register to participate in the challenge, visit the Flame Challenge website. Judging happens in the late fall and winners are announced in the spring. 5th and 6th graders may participate (regardless if they are exactly 11 years old or not!) Homeschoolers working on teams can participate too! You can also connect with the Flame Challenge on Facebook and Twitter.

Have you participated in this program? If so, we'd love to hear your experience. E-mail us at or meet up with us on Facebook, Google+ or Twitter.  

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  1. I love your site.. continue the nice work! Do you know what the theme is by the way?

    1. Thanks! Do you mean the theme of this year's Flame Challenge? The new question (for 2018) will be announced in December.