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The Science of Sound: Parish 5th graders help judge Alan Alda's Flame Challenge
Posted 04/08/2016 03:37PM

The sounds of everyday life - traffic, laughter, the crash of lightening or the melody of a favorite song – are easy to recognize, but often difficult to explain in detail. “What is Sound?” was the question put to participants of the Flame Challenge, an international contest that asks scientists to explain familiar, yet complex concepts in a way that is understandable to an 11-year-old. Parish 5th grade science students got a chance to grade the competitors’ answers in April.

“I enjoyed learning about sound from different perspectives,” said Sofia V. ‘23

 “I now know sound wiggles tiny hairs in my ear!” explained Grace R. ‘23

So what is sound, really? I 

“Sound is turned into an electrical signal which is the language of the brain,” noted Landon S. ’23.

That’s the simple answer, but the Flame Challenge asks scientists, at every level, to dig deeper and provide more details that kids can understand. The competition was started in 2012 by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York. It was inspired by the actor’s childhood question “What is flame?” and his desire for a detailed description. Over the past five years, participants in the Flame Challenge have answered questions about flame, color, time, sleep and sound. The overarching goal of the challenge is to help scientists speak more effectively to the public and make science interesting and understandable.

“The challenge allows students to learn from a variety of “experts” and it broadens their understanding of how global the world is today,” said Donna Morrison, Parish Middle School Science Teacher. 

Morrison registered her science classes to vote on this year’s Flame Challenge entries. Students judged written and video entries that answered the question “What is Sound?” They looked at age appropriate vocabulary, interest level, amount of material learned and whether the message was clear and inspirational. Morrison says the 5th graders enjoyed being in charge and learned to recognize which scientists offered the most material while maintaining their interest.

“Finding this balance is exactly what teachers struggle with every day when developing their lesson plans,” noted Morrison.

Each year, the Flame Challenge picks a new question that students around the world want to see answered and hundreds of scientists send in entries. 5th and 6th graders vote to determine the winner.

 “The voting process has planted a seed and I am encouraging students to consider actually submitting their explanations for next year’s topic,” Morrison added. “The best way to learn is to teach the subject!”

The Flame Challenge offers a $1,000 cash prize for scientists in each category. The winning scientists also receive a trip to New York City where they will meet Alan Alda and be honored at the 2016 World Science Festival. Learn more about the Flame Challenge and the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science online.


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