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Alan Alda's 'Flame Challenge' asks scientists to explain the concept of color to kids

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Tupac (left) and Alessandro paint boxes the color of a fire truck. University Village and the other two UCLA preschools are among a few in Southern California to offer science-based learning.
Grant Slater/KPCC
Tupac (left) and Alessandro paint boxes the color of a fire truck.

You know what color is, but explaining the idea of it and how it works might be a little harder. But do it creatively to an audience of 11-year-olds and you could win the "Flame Challenge" contest hosted by Alan Alda.

 Alright, we've got a question for you: what is color?

You might think like an artist, and say color is how you express emotions and ideas. Or you may think like a scientist and say it's all about different wavelengths of light. But now try explaining both concepts so a 6th grader can understand you.

That's the idea behind 2014's The Flame Challenge, an annual contest that challenges scientists to describe ideas that seem simple but in reality are incredibly complex.

The mastermind of the contest, now in its third year, is a visiting professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, Alan Alda himself.

"The first year's contest was, 'What's a flame?' So we called it the Flame Challenge and that name caught on," Alda told Take Two. 

That was a question an 11-year-old Alan Alda once asked, so he geared this contest with other 11-year-olds in mind. Scientists can answer the question either with a written answer or a video, and it must be appeal to 6th graders.

To get a sense of what makes a winner, here's the video that took first prize in 2012:

"I really started the contest to teach scientists to explain things so kids can understand them," said Alda, "and it's not just for kids. Most of us can't understand it unless an 11-year-old can understand the same explanation."

Alda also says that the contest appeals to scientists because they want the general public, and especially young people, to understand their work. 

"They want to share what they know with the public because it's so beautiful, and they want to be able to explain their work to policy makers to Congress, for instance, because they're not going to understand you and not going to give you money for something they don't understand," said Alda. 

This year's question -- what is color? -- is one that was crowdsourced by kids. Alda says, what's exciting, is that it can be approached in various different angles.

"If there's a neurologist," he says, "they should really think about explaining this from that point of view. But you can also approach it from psychological terms."

If you're a teacher, you can get your own class signed-up to be a judge by January 31st. For scientists, the deadline is March 1st to turn in your own creative answer.

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