What if a group of children asked you to explain a complex science concept? Could you do it in a clear and entertaining way, one that was specifically geared toward kids?

The Flame Challenge™  is an international competition in which scientists are asked to do just that: tackle a technical question in a way that engages an audience of 11-year-olds. And that is exactly who judges the entries and decides on the winners: thousands of fifth and sixth graders from all over the globe.

The contest began in 2012, when actor and science communicator Alan Alda was asked to write an article for Science magazine. He recalled being 11 himself, and deeply curious about what flames were; he asked his teacher, who thought for a moment and replied, "It's oxidation." Still frustrated over that answer decades later, Alda used the article as a challenge to scientists: do a better job than his teacher had answering that question for an 11-year-old audience. This was the start of an annual contest, run by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, designed to force scientists to sharpen their communication skills. Each year, 11-year-olds pose a new question to scientists who then compete to answer it in a way that is not only accurate but also engaging and clear. The question for the 2018 Challenge is “What is Climate?”

Kids and teachers love participating in the Challenge, of course, but its core goals are to give scientists an opportunity to engage a specific audience, get feedback from that audience to sharpen their communication skills, and acquire the tools they need to engage a variety of future audiences.

The Challenge illustrates one of the most important aspects of effective communication, which is the ability to communicate in a clear, vivid and engaging way. Too often, scientists intuitively rely on jargon to communicate the complexities of climate and other complex scientific issues, frequently losing the interest of their intended audience.

Our partnership with Scientific American on this series of blog posts will provide an important forum for illustrating the importance of communicating science in clear, vivid and engaging ways. This year’s Challenge on climate—arguably one of the most significant and contentious issues facing society—will showcase the creative ways that scientists communicate about the topic, and highlight best practices that will inform the efforts of other science communicators.

This year’s Challenge will be providing training videos to guide participating scientists through the biggest communication obstacles and help them craft their best possible entry. The latest video, “Jargon Police,” is available today! View the video and play the Jargon Police game. You can also access “Meet an 11-year-old,” our video focused on knowing your audience, and make use of its accompanying worksheet.

Our video on landing your message with your audience, “Make it Snap,” will be released next month.

Registration is open now at flamechallenge.authorea.com/signup_flame_scientist. The deadline for entries is March 16, 2018.

More information? flamechallenge.org 

Questions?  flamechallenge@stonybrook.edu

The Flame Challenge™  is sponsored in part by the American Chemical Society.