Thursday, October 16, 2014

Pass on the Torch - Alan Alda's Flame Challenge

When I grew up the dominant philosophy for teaching science to children was "if you can't understand the scientific explanation, then you are still too young for that topic". Explaining inheritable genetic traits or nuclear fusion to a 6-year old - crazy, right? So I thought as well, until my own 6-year old asked why his eyes don't have the same color as mine. I hate leaving questions like this with an "it's too complicated for you". And I discovered that the real challenge of passing down geekdom is not being stumped by a question I might not know the answer to (there is always Google), but how to take that answer, extract the most important mechanisms and fit them into the world of a 6-year old. I ended up waving piles of Lego instruction booklets - one for building, and a similar second one as a safety copy.

I realized that once your kids are beyond being fascinated by the fact that there are more than 4 colors, it is not that easy to come by content that explains complex scientific facts to children. There are only so many episodes of Bill Nye or the Magic School Bus, after all.

One entity that tries to fill the void is the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. (Yes, THAT Alan Alda of M.A.S.H. fame!). The center's mission is a real challenge - helping scientists to communicate with the public (I was not aware we were allowed to do that ...).

As part of that mission it sets an annual "Flame Challenge", named after the first year's topic. The Flame Challenge picks a challenge question every year and asks scientist from around the world to submit written or graphic explanations that can be understood by an 11-year old. But now here is the best thing: children are involved in every part of the process. 10-12 year olds are invited to submit their own "burning questions". 5th and 6th graders from around the globe are then invited to vote on their favorite challenge question. And finally, students get to review, grade and vote on the submissions. What better way to get kids involved into science than taking their opinions seriously and letting them vote? 10 schools will even be so lucky to be picked for a world-wide video conference to discuss the entries. So email your kid's science teacher today and ask them to sign up their classroom!

And last but not least - the amazing winner of the 2012 Challenge, Ben Ames, explaining what a flame is (I dare you to resists singing along):

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