Some of you may have heard about the “Flame Challenge” proposed by Alan Alda, the actor, and sponsored by the Center for Communicating Science. In an effort to promote clear communication of science, Alda challenged scientists and engineers to explain what a flame is, using everyday language that an 11-year old could understand.
There were over 800 entries, which were judged by 6,000 11-year olds around the world. The medium used to create the explanation was entirely open. Some entries were written text; others were graphical; and a few were videos. It was no surprise to me that the winning entry was a video. Here’s the winning entry by Ben Ames, a Ph.D. student in quantum optics:
What was a surprise to me was how few of the finalists submitted videos. I was really curious to know how many of the 800 or so entries used video, but could not find that information. So I could only judge by the proportion of videos in the list of finalists (5) and honorable mentions (8). Of these (total of 13), only five were video entries, and many were just written text (7 of 13 = 54%).
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that so many scientists and engineers submitted written text to explain what a flame is. That’s the medium they are accustomed to using. They clearly did NOT have their audience (11-year olds) in mind when coming up with the medium to convey their explanation of a flame. I can’t imagine why anyone would think an 11-year old would be impressed with a text explanation. Before I go any further, here are a couple of the text entries so you’ll get the idea:
Honorable Mention (electrical engineer): “A flame is like you (a human) and needs oxygen to breathe and must eat to live, except a flame will eat almost anything (wax, wood, paper, etc.). After a flame eats its dinner, it “poops” out part of what it ate in the form of ashes or melted wax.”
Finalist (engineer): “What is a flame? A flame is an object, a “thing,” something you can see, something you can touch (but don’t do that because it is hot). It is not like other objects, such as a rock, because it “happens” and then goes away. It “happens” when something (a “combustible”) is heated to a high enough temperature and then starts to burn. This might be wood, or paper, or gas, or oil, or dry leaves, just to name a few. It takes different amounts of heat to get them to burn, but they all do. The big name for things burning is “combustion.” You get the heat by burning something else or — if you have a magnifying glass and focus sunlight on a single spot — you will be able to burn paper and some other things.
There are other ways to make a flame by mixing chemicals, but heating is easiest to understand. When something burns, it changes into ash and/or a gas (“residue”), and light. This light is what is called “a flame.” So a flame is what you see when something burns.”
Now, I’m not picking on engineers or these two specific examples. These were two of the shortest entries that made it into the final selections. Short is good. Other written entries were quite a bit longer. These descriptions are simple and clear enough for an 11-year old to understand. The problem is that for visual learners, verbal explanations are not going to work well. All of this makes me wonder about the other 780 or so entries that did not make it into the final group.
It’s also clear why the winning entry was the one that the 11-year old judges selected: It was fun to watch. I can imagine after reading a bunch of written entries that this video was a welcome relief. It also contained many of the elements I’ve listed previously for what makes a science video effective:
1. The video is relatively short (7 1/2 min).
2. The information is presented visually (as well as verbally).
3. The video continually adds information at a steady but rapid pace.
4. There is constant motion going on throughout the video.
5. Colors are intense and dramatic.
6. The text is minimal; only what is essential to understanding.
7. The video elicits an emotional reaction in the viewer (amazement, amusement, curiosity).
8. The video has people, animals, or cartoon characters that are doing something interesting, unusual, or surprising (a cartoon man chained in what appears to be Hell).
9. There is an element of suspense (what will happen to the guy who’s chained up?).
So overall, I thought the winning entry was particularly good from the standpoint of creativity and meeting audience expectations. One possible criticism, which I came across at another blog by Marc Kuchner, is that the video perpetuates the stereotype of the nerdy, cold-hearted scientist. I see his point, although I don’t think this video is the worst example of scientist stereotypes (see this post for a really bad video with stereotypes). Nonetheless, it’s something to keep in mind when designing science communication products.
On the other hand, I was disappointed that so few scientists and engineers bothered to do more than just write a text explanation. A few of the graphical or video entries were submitted by scientists/engineers who partnered with someone who helped them develop the visual components. At least they realized that there needed to be a visual explanation to help get across the information to an 11-year old, and they sought out someone who had those skills.
In summary, I think this contest highlighted the enormous gap between what the general public needs and expects in the way of science information and how scientists and engineers are trained to communicate their science. The fact that a few of the contestants were able to create reasonably good videos is encouraging. But we can do better.
Message to you scientists and engineers out there who are planning to submit an entry to the next science communication challenge: Kids who’ve grown up with YouTube are not going to be satisfied with text explanations.