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Garden City student's question chosen for international Flame Challenge

C.J. Casano posed the question.

C.J. Casano posed the question. Credit: Chuck Fadely

Christopher John "C.J." Casano says he isn't lying awake at night, but there is a question he and fellow sixth-graders at Garden City Middle School have on their minds.

What is sleep?

It is the question selected for scientists from all over the world to answer in this year's Flame Challenge, an international competition founded by actor Alan Alda and the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.

C.J. thought of the query back in October. It was voted the most popular by the 80 students in Ellen Wohlberg's science classes and submitted for consideration as the contest's centerpiece.

This is the first time the question for the Flame Challenge, now in its fourth year, has come from a school on Long Island -- besting 500 submissions, organizers said.

"I just wonder, 'What happens when you go to bed.' Does your body shut down?" C.J. said Monday after Wohlberg announced to the excited students that the question was chosen to start off this year's science competition.

The contest has schoolchildren pose a different question each year that professional and amateur scientists must explain through writing, video or graphics. "It's not a test of what you know. It is a test of how well you communicate it," Alda, 78, said in an interview.

The entries are screened for scientific accuracy before being judged by thousands more schoolchildren around the world. Last year, 27,000 students were registered through their schools to serve as Flame Challenge judges.

Wohlberg, a teacher in the Garden City school district for more than 30 years, said she and her classes have participated in the contest from the beginning. Last year, the school submitted the question "What is a dream?" and it was a finalist. In her opinion, humor works best when communicating scientific concepts to this age group, she said.

"I love doing anything outside of the textbook that makes them see themselves as scientists," Wohlberg said. "I want them to know they can solve real-world problems, and they don't have to wear a lab coat."

Elena Cascio, the science coordinator for the district, said the question is "very deep."

"What I like about it is that to explain it you can draw on several areas of science -- biology, physics, chemistry -- and make interesting connections," Cascio said.

The Flame Challenge, sponsored by the American Chemical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, began with Alda's childhood query: What is a flame? Since then, the questions have been chosen from hundreds submitted by children and have included "What is time?" and "What is color?"

Scientists have until Feb. 13 to submit their answers. The winner will be announced at the World Science Festival in May.

This year, for the first time, a $1,000 cash prize will go to scientists who submit the two winning answers -- one written and one video or graphic entry.

And what are C.J. and his sixth-grade schoolmates trying to get out of it?

"I hope the answer is easy -- that it answers the question completely and I don't have to think about it anymore," C.J. said.

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