Flame Challenge 2014
Jan31

Flame Challenge 2014

A love of chemistry burns deep in the heart of Robert E. Buntrock. So much so, the American Chemical Society emeritus member will be fanning the flame of his love for the central science in the 2014 Flame Challenge. This annual challenge, which is entering its third year of sponsorship by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science (CCS) at Stony Brook University, SUNY, and the second year of sponsorship by ACS and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, asks scientists to answer a seemingly simple scientific question in such a way that an 11-year-old can understand. This year’s question is “What is color?” “Color is very important to me,” Buntrock says. “It helped attract me to chemistry.” So composing his essay shouldn’t be too difficult. The twist: He’s having his grandson’s fifth-grade class prejudge his entry. “My draft has exactly 300 words. We’ll see how much survives my critics,” he says. Patrick Allen, who teaches Buntrock’s grandson Brody at Asa C. Adams Elementary School, in Orono, Maine, has signed up his fifth-grade class to judge Flame Challenge entries, so they will be practicing, too, when Buntrock visits them next week with his entry. The annual competition began in 2012 when Alan Alda posed the question “What is a flame?” to scientists around the world because when he was 11-years-old he asked the question to his science teacher and wasn’t satisfied with the technical answer he received. The challenge question for the past two years has been decided by 11-year-olds across the world. This year, more than 800 questions were submitted by students. Scientists can answer the question either in written form (no more than 300 words) or in visual or video format (less than 6 minutes), and entries are due by March 1. In developing his entry, Buntrock has an extensive scientific background from which to draw. He is a semiretired chemist who does chemical information consulting and book reviews under the company name Buntrock Associates. He graduated with a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Minnesota in 1962, and he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from Princeton University in 1967. Before starting his company, Buntrock worked in industry for nearly 30 years at Air Products & Chemicals and Amoco Corp. A successful researcher, he holds three patents and has almost 200 publications. With such an accomplished science career, Buntrock can’t wait to join in the Flame Challenge excitement. “I may have so much fun,” he says, “that I’ll enter again” next...

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Alan Alda At #ACSIndy: The Public’s Blind Date With Science
Sep09

Alan Alda At #ACSIndy: The Public’s Blind Date With Science

Actor Alan Alda might be best known for his portrayal of Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H, but these days he’s also becoming well-known in another capacity—as a science communicator. For those who lost track of him after his time sparring with Hot Lips Houlihan, this might seem odd. (And if you did, you simply must watch the movie “The Four Seasons”—you won’t regret it). But since 2009, Alda has been on the advisory board of the Center For Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. In fact, he helped found CCS and has become a passionate advocate for helping scientists interact more effectively with the public. Yesterday at the American Chemical Society national meeting in Indianapolis, Alda bonded with a standing-room-only crowd (“I’m so glad to be in this huge beaker with you,” he said) and shared his views on why scientists need to do better. Right now, he theorized, “the public is on a blind date with science.” They’re wondering, can I trust this stranger? Will I be attracted to this stranger when we meet? To the public, Alda explained, it’s an uncomfortable, slightly scary, situation, just like those awkward setups friends force upon one another. To drive home his point, he showed a man-on-the-street video in which a film crew asked a random assortment of folks to define a few terms: “element” and “organic compound.” Let’s just say they had a lot of problems with the latter and made some vague grumblings about the former belonging in a table. I cringed when one woman suggested the identity of one element: “fire.” I’m sure there are many factors contributing to why the public has trouble even defining the word element. But Alda contends that one reason might be that scientists have what’s called “the curse of knowledge.” To illustrate this problem, he took a volunteer from the audience in Indianapolis and asked her to silently choose a song from a list he had in his pocket. Then he instructed her to tap it out for the audience. She predicted that at least 80% of the viewers would figure out the tune from her microphone tappings, but after her performance, only 25% were able to name it (“My Country ‘Tis Of Thee”). Scientists have knowledge in their heads, and it seems perfectly clear to them, but it doesn’t always translate well to others, Alda explained. After years of hosting Scientific American Frontiers on PBS (1993 to 2005), Alda has gathered a number of tips on communicating science. Using a conversational tone is one, of course. Story telling is another, he told the crowd in Indianapolis. But not just telling any story....

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Flame Challenge 2: And The Winners Are
Jun07

Flame Challenge 2: And The Winners Are

Some 20,000 11-year-olds voted to determine the winners of the Flame Challenge 2 competition. Depending on the format of scientists’ responses to this year’s question, “What is time?” entries were categorized as written or visual. Nicholas Williams, a retired scientist who spent 33 years working at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), and ACS member Steven Maguire, a Ph.D. candidate in inorganic catalysis at the University of Ottawa, in Ontario, were recognized as the winners on June 2 at the World Science Festival, in New York City. Both winners have experience communicating science, which is the goal of the competition. Williams, the winner of the written category, continues to work with LLNL through its “Fun with Science” outreach program. About teaching science, Williams says, “Teach so it makes sense. Teach so it can be understood. Teach so it can be remembered.” And this he did in his entry. He begins his prose mimicking a nagging parent and their child, “Time to go to school, time to clean your room, time to do this, time to do that.” No wonder 11-year-olds like his answer: He immediately relates to their world before he gets to the tough stuff. Maguire, winner of the visual category, hosts a Web series, “Science Isn’t Scary.” In each video clip, he answers a science question that seems complicated, but by the end of the explanation Maguire has helped the viewer better understand the science behind how or why something works. His series is essentially mini Flame Challenges, so he has experience explaining scientific concepts to an audience in a way that they'll understand. According to the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, a division of Stony Brook University, in New York, and one of the sponsors of the Flame Challenge, there will be another question from 11-year-olds for scientists to answer in 2014. If you know an 11-year-old who has a suggestion for the Flame Challenge 3, submit their question...

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Flame Challenge 2: The Answers Are In
May02

Flame Challenge 2: The Answers Are In

Last year, actor and science advocate Alan Alda and the Center for Communicating Science, sponsored the inaugural Flame Challenge by asking scientists around the world to answer “What is a flame?” so that an 11-year-old could understand. This year, the American Chemical Society and the American Association for Advancement of Science have joined in on the sponsorship, and the question scientists have been asked to answer is, “What is time?” Nearly 20,000 students from around the world have voted on the hundreds of submissions that made it through an initial screening by trained scientists, and the six best answers--three videos and three written responses--have been unveiled on the Flame Challenge website. The finalists each use unique examples to explain time. Some mention Einstein’s theory of relativity, some go into the details of the space-time continuum, and some rely on time being an invented concept that keeps track of events. One thing mentioned in each entry: time only has one direction and that’s forward. Registered schools can vote for their favorite answers until May 5. This year, rather than recognizing one overall winner, the best entry for each format will be recognized. That will happen at an event on June 2 at the World Science Festival, in New York...

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Flame Challenge 2: And The Question Is …
Dec12

Flame Challenge 2: And The Question Is …

Today’s post is by Emily Bones, a production editor and Newscripts contributor here at C&EN. “What is time?” is the question actor Alan Alda and the Center for Communicating Science (CCS) want scientists around the world to answer with a response an 11-year-old can understand. Last year, Alda launched an annual challenge by posing to the world “What is a flame?” The burning question had been on his mind since he was 11 years old, and his science teacher answered him with a technical response that he didn’t understand. CCS, which is a division of Stony Brook University in New York, decided to keep the tradition going and this year invited 11-year-olds across the U.S. to suggest a new question. After narrowing more than 300 entries down to five possibilities, 10- to 12-year-olds voted “What is time?” as the next seemingly simple question to answer. Scientists who want to compete in this year’s challenge may submit a written (less than 300 words) or visual (Vimeo video, less than 6 minutes long) answer. Click here for details and an entry form.  This time around, there will be two winners: one for each of the categories. Answers are due by 11:59 PM EST on March 1, 2013. To see what creative answers scientists came up with last year, check out the winning entry, those that were finalists, and those that were honorable mentions. As for who qualifies to compete, CCS says, “We define a scientist as someone who has, or is in the process of getting, a graduate degree in a science (including health sciences, engineering and mathematics), or who is employed doing scientific work, or who is retired from doing scientific work.” Once a submission is received, it will be screened for accuracy by a panel of CCS-selected scientists before it can move to the next stage of student judging. CCS is looking for 11-year-olds interested in judging. If you know a class of fourth, fifth, or sixth graders who want to participate, get them involved. Scientists, get creative and send in your answers. Time is ticking away!...

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