Actor Alan Alda challenged scientists worldwide to answer the question "What is a flame?" earlier this year, and he turned to local students to help him find the answer.
Speaking at Brentwood South Middle School yesterday morning, Alda thanked a group of sixth-graders who had helped judge the contest.
"They took the judging very seriously," Alda said in the middle school library. "And they really wanted to learn and to understand."
More than 6,000 students from 131 schools participated, judging 535 entries after the contest was announced in March. Entries were due April 2 and the winner will be named at a Flame Challenge event at the World Science Festival June 2 at the Kaye Playhouse in Manhattan.
The first round of voting is over, and the seven finalists are on the flamechallenge.org website -- three written pieces, three videos and a cartoon. Alda recalled that when he was 11 and asked his teacher what a flame was, he received the response "oxidation." That told him nothing about the origin of a flame.
So Alda, a founding member of the Stony Brook University Center for Communicating Science and a visiting professor in the journalism school there, helped launch the flame challenge. The competition was sponsored by the center, which is dedicated to helping scientists learn to communicate effectively with ordinary people, said center director Elizabeth Bass.
The nearly 40 sixth-graders in two of teacher Mary Grizzle's classes considered multiple entries and looked for answers that were clear but not too short.
"It gave them a sense of empowerment for them to judge an adult -- someone who was at the top of their field," Grizzle said. The school had hosted its own science fair -- with 600 entries earlier this year and the students were happy to turn the tables and be the judges instead.
Kaitlyn Davidson, 11, said some of the entries were good "because the scientists were able to explain what a flame was without using big words, but if they did use big words, they made it so you could understand it."
And Alyssa Moonilal, 11, who wants to be either a marine biologist or forensic anthropologist, said she read very detailed entries in the contest.
"If we didn't have science, there would be no houses, no schools, no buildings, no cures for diseases," she said.
Alda spoke with the classes Tuesday morning, along with Miles O'Brien, science reporter for the PBS NewsHour, who is airing a story on the flame challenge. Alda has said scientists should find a better way to communicate their ideas and findings, especially to policy-makers.
Wednesday, Alda will moderate a video conference from a studio on the Stony Brook University campus with 10 of the judging schools including Setauket Elementary School. He told the Brentwood students yesterday that he would continue issuing these challenges to the scientific community.
"The flame challenge -- to see it land on these kids like this makes me know we are on the right track," he said.