What is a flame? On Wednesday, fifth grade students from The Good Hope School were tapped to judge an international competition of scientists trying to answer just that question.
The Flame Challenge is the brainchild of actor Alan Alda. In an editorial in Science magazine, Alda explained that when he was 11, he asked his teacher what a flame was and she simply replied “oxidization.” Alda wrote that the disappointing experience stuck with him. He has come to believe that one of the greatest failings of scientists is their inability or disinterest in communicating their ideas in ways people can understand.
In the editorial, he challenged scientists to “have a go at writing your own explanation of what a flame is—one an 11-year old would find intelligible, maybe even fun?”
“We’ll try out the entries on real 11-year-olds and see which work best,” he continued.
Tori Baur, a teacher at Good Hope, heard about the contest and got her students involved. When it came time to judge the finalists, her class was one of 10 from around the world chosen to vote on the winner.
Her class gathered in the computer lab Wednesday to participate in a video chat with Alda and the nine other schools, but technical difficulties prevented them from participating fully.
As the chat started, the audio came out in short, garbled bursts and it was impossible to tell what Alda and the other children were saying.
“It’s our bandwidth,” Baur explained to the class apologetically.
The class did their best to work around the difficulties. As each of the entries was shown on the screen, a Good Hope student would speak into the microphone, giving their opinion.
“I thought this entry was OK, but it didn’t have that much information. I couldn’t really understand it,” said Nia Coates about one comic-book style entry. “The graphics didn’t tell me as much as I would like.”
It was unclear, however, if the other schools could hear them.
The entries were presented in different formats. Four of the finalists were simple text articles, one was a graphic, and three were videos. Baur’s students preferred the videos overwhelmingly. Ultimately they voted on a slapstick video of two men acting out the combination of fuel and oxygen by skipping around their backyard.
When asked why they thought it was the best, one student replied in a matter of fact tone, “It was hilarious.”
Raquel Cedano, the head of school, said that the technical difficulties were disappointing, but the students should still feel proud.
“To be in the top ten, to be able to participate in something like this; that’s an honor in and of itself,” she said.
The student’s votes will still be counted. The winner of the competition will be announced at the World Science Festival in New York City in June.
To see the entries, visit www.flamechallenge.org.