Sixth graders from the Setauket, Rocky Point, Shoreham and St. James school districts were among 6,000 eleven-year-olds selected from around the world to determine the best scientific explanation of a flame.
In response, more than 800 scientists submitted text and multimedia explanations; and sixth-graders from Long Island and around the world reviewed and judged the submissions.
Alda said he anticipated 100 to 150 entries and was heartened to receive over 800. "The majority were from people who were trying really hard to communicate to a nonscientific audience," he said. "Like many of the kids, I learned more by hearing several different explanations. That's something I learned about communication: The great importance of not just saying it one way."
"It was tremendously exciting to see how game the scientists were to take on such a difficult challenge—and very moving to see how eager the kids were to learn from them," said Alda.
"It was really fun because you got put in an adult position," said Clara Rosenzweig, who attends Setauket Elementary School. "I not only learned what a flame was, but I also learned a lot of different terms. It was a really good way to learn science."
Zachary Hobbes, a Setauket student who wants to be a doctor, explained that he enjoyed "seeing other kids from different countries and hearing what they had to say."
Alda was encouraged that the students focused on the entries they could learn from rather than those that entertained them.
"What really impressed me was the dignity they had talking about their reasons for turning down an entry," Alda said of the student judges. "They thought and expressed themselves with such a respect for learning."
The kids were so excited to be judging real scientists, to be thinking critically about these answers, Alda explained. He said they learned far more about the chemical and physical properties that go into a flame than they would have if they had a class in it.
The schools that participated in the judging included Joseph A. Edgar School and Rocky Point Middle School in Rocky Point; Mills Pond Elementary in St. James; Setauket Elementary, The Laurel Hill School, Minnesauke and Arrowhead elementary schools; and Miller Avenue School and Prodell Middle School in Shoreham.
Alda, who helped to establish The Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in 2009, explained that the ultimate purpose of the contest was not to elicit the best explanation of a flame or even to teach kids what a flame is, but to get scientists to communicate effectively.
His interest in making scientists into better communicators dates back to when, at age 11, he asked his teacher what a flame was and received a less than satisfactory answer. “There was a slight pause,” Alda recalled “and she said, ‘It’s oxidation.’ She didn’t seem to think there was much else to say. Deflated, I knew there had to be more to the mystery of a flame than just giving the mystery another name.”
A native of Kansas City, Missouri, Ames is currently pursuing his PhD in quantum optics at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. He produced a seven-and-a-half minute cartoon video that explains a flame using humor, serious science and a catchy theme song.
The Center for Communicating Science plans to host the competition next year and is soliciting questions from sixth-graders. So far, the center has received about 40 questions. This fall, students will have a chance to vote on the questions. After the vote, CCS will narrow the list down to five questions. The Center is looking for questions with surprising complexity, a spokesman said.