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Out of the Comfort Zone and into the Fire–How Taking the Flame Challenge Can Change Your Life

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The Flame Challenge is an international contest that asks scientists to communicate complex science in ways that would interest and enlighten an 11-year-old. As the person who is organizing it this year, I’m asking all scientists to take a crack at exploring this year’s question:  What is Time?   And I’m asking them to do it quickly – the deadline is midnight March 1.

The Flame Challenge began last spring with actor and science advocate Alan Alda’s childhood query: What is a flame? The winning entry, a cartoon video with an original song, was created by Ben Ames, a physics doctoral student at the University of Innsbruck, and can be viewed on our website (www.flamechallenge.org).  This year there will be winners in two categories:  written and visual (video/graphic).  The written challenge is to explain Time to 11-year olds in less than 300 words.  Thousands of 11-year-olds will judge the entries.

This year’s question, “What is Time,” seems to scare some people. If you are one of them, I hope you will try anyway.  Maybe even come up with something silly or playful – something you haven’t done before. From my own experience, as a marine sciences grad student, I know how communicating science to different audiences can be difficult and intimidating.  But this is how it helped me.

I remember walking into this dark theatre with a group of ten other graduate students, most of them strangers from other departments, and feeling an overwhelming sense of dread.  Someone clipped a mic to my shirt, and I knew right away that I would be pushed out of my comfort zone. I was already regretting my decision to volunteer for this project. I didn’t recognize any of the random people scattered in the audience, except for maybe Alan Alda (yes, that Alan Alda) standing in front of the stage.

We had all signed up to be guinea pigs for this pilot project started by Alan Alda and the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, where we were going to learn improvisation exercises that would help us talk about our research.  I thought it would be a good opportunity to improve my teaching and learn how to communicate better about important science, such as climate change, something I am passionate about.  I also was working on my dissertation, so anything that would help me stand up there and defend my thesis sounded pretty nice.  And, after all, I would get to meet Alan Alda.

As we were guided down the theatre stairs, I started to get really nervous.  My palms got sweaty and I wanted to run out of there.  But I didn’t.

We each had to get up on stage, one-by-one, and give a 5-minute overview about our research. And, I was right; it pushed me way out of my comfort zone. We got into the improv exercises next, my anxiety got worse…what did throwing around an imaginary ball around have to do with science anyway?

But, I stayed, and I learned. I wasn’t very good at first – no one was, except maybe for this one chemistry student (who went on to join an improv group). I felt really silly at times, even embarrassed, and wondered how in the hell this would make me a better “science communicator.” But I kept at it, and after a few classes we each went back up on stage to talk about our research. The transformation was amazing, for all of us.

And here I am now, a few years later, finishing up my dissertation in May, teaching classes, and organizing the Flame Challenge.  Too often as scientists we get stuck in our own heads, especially when we are presenting our research.  I learned how to let go and be in the moment, connecting more with my audience.  To effectively communicate you have to be able to listen. My teaching has improved, and I just gave two talks at a science conference in New Orleans that went great. But more important, answering those pesky questions from relatives at every family get together about what I’ve actually been doing here in graduate school all these years has gotten much easier!

So, how does this apply to you entering the Flame Challenge?

One of the main lessons I learned from improv was that you need to focus on the needs of the person you are trying to communicate with rather than your own. This is the same lesson we need to apply when communicating science on a daily basis – and one that is necessary to be successful at the Flame Challenge. Ask yourself, what would really interest an 11-yr old?  This lesson of knowing your audience is one that I am still learning.  I recently got a draft of my thesis back and one of the comments was, “You are writing like you are spending too much time with Alan Alda.”  I forgot my audience was other scientists.

Science is about questioning and discovery – but what good is it if no one hears about it, or if our research gets misrepresented? Teaching scientists how to communicate better is our goal here at the Center for Communicating Science, and it is why the Flame Challenge is sponsored this year by two major scientific societies – the American Chemical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

I think we have to do a much better job of communicating what we do not only to the general public, but also to our families, our friends, policy makers, and even our colleagues in other departments.  Entering the Flame Challenge is great practice to do just that!

As Alan Alda has said, we hope you’ll see this as a call to explore the mysterious, not to explain the inexplicable. You don’t need to provide a definitive answer to the question, “What is Time.”  Instead, you can explore the nature of time from any scientific perspective – not only physics, but also biology, chemistry, geology, psychology, anthropology, etc.  Speculation is fine, as long as you clearly distinguish between speculation and facts or accepted theories.

So, if you’ve been thinking about entering, now is the time – you have until midnight this Friday, March 1st.  More than 18,000 11-year old students around the world are waiting to hear your explanation!  The winning scientists will receive a trip to New York City, where they will meet Alan Alda and be honored at the World Science Festival on June 2, 2013.  So, go ahead, take a chance!  You might find yourself, as I did, standing onstage next to Alan Alda talking to an audience about your science!

Christine O'Connell About the Author: Christine O’Connell is a Ph.D. Candidate at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University. Her research is on ecosystem-based management, ecosystem services valuations, and marine spatial planning. Christine also works at the Center for Communicating Science, organizing the Flame Challenge and other science outreach initiatives. She is passionate about improving scientific communication to the public and scientific outreach to the community. Christine has a strong background in environmental organizing, community outreach, and campaign planning. Her goal is to work towards strengthening the connections between science, society, and policy. Follow on Twitter @flamechallenge.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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