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April 13, 2012
by: Dollie Cromwell, Journalist

Flame Project

Fifth-graders at ESAA will leave their mark on the world of science when they cast their vote on a burning question: What is a flame?

Alan Alda asked his teacher that question when he was in fifth grade, and her response was, “It’s oxidation.” Accurate? Yes.  Illuminating? No.

The veteran actor and writer has had a lifelong interest in science and helped found the Center for  Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York. On March 2, he invited scientists and science communicators from around the world to answer his childhood question in terms that an 11-year-old can understand.

More than 800 entries from the United States and 30 other countries were received by the April 2 deadline. Entries range from one sentence to several pages and from a poem in the shape of a flame to live-action videos with special effects.

Now the decision is in the hands of 11-year-olds who have volunteered to serve as judges. Fifth-graders at ESAA will cast their votes along with fifth-graders from around the world. Two other Wisconsin schools – Hamilton Middle School in Madison and Washburn Middle School in Washburn – are also helping judge the competition.  

The finalists will be announced on The Flame Challenge Website – www.flamechallenge.org – and the winner will be named at the World Science Festival, which will be held May 30-June 3 in New York City.

ESAA Principal Ted Hamm read about the competition in an article in The New York Times and believed that the challenge fit in with the charter school’s culture of thinking and 21st century skills. He submitted a request for the school’s 11-year-olds to participate as judges.

The ESAA fifth-graders will be given five entries to judge based on the following criteria:

  • Did you learn anything from this answer?
  • Was the answer interesting, boring or in between?
  • Was the answer clear or confusing?
  • Did the answer make you want to know more about how flames work?
  • Did you understand the answer?

“Their results will be tabulated with other fifth-graders from around the world, and a winning explanation will be chosen,” said fifth-grade teacher Helen Timm.

To help prepare the students for their role as judges, fifth-grade teacher Susan Griffiths took them to the North Beach Fire Pit today to build a bonfire.

“When we return from the bonfire, I will have students share their observations and explanations with each other,” Griffiths said. “Then, through descriptive writing each child will create their own explanation answering the question, ‘What is a flame?’ “

“On Monday, the students will get together to determine criteria for a good explanation of a flame and will read, analyze and judge the first entry,” Timm added. “ Students will then judge an entry a day and choose a winning entry on Friday, April 20th.”

After the scientists' entries have been judged, students will compare and contrast their explanations to the scientists, Griffiths said.

To learn more about The Flame Challenge,  go to www.flamechallenge.org.

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