How Well Can You Explain ‘Sound’?

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Child listening to headphones
Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science challenges scientists to explain ‘Sound’ in a way 11-year-olds can understand. Photo: Philippe Put used under CC Attribution 2.0

What is ‘Sound’? The question seems simple enough, but the science behind it can get complicated quickly. So the real question is, can you explain ‘Sound’ to an 11-year-old?

Every year, educators are challenged by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science to explain scientific properties in a way that an 11-year-old can understand. Previous years have included “What is Sleep?”, “What is Color?”, and the question that inspired the contest, “What is a Flame?” When Alan Alda was 11 years old, that was the question he asked a teacher. The response, “oxidation,” while correct, did nothing to explain what a flame is to a child.

The goal of the contest is to help scientists understand how to explain complicated scientific principles simply, but also communicate with children without talking down to them. The contest is open to scientists; this includes graduate students studying science, and people who are employed (or have retired from) doing scientific work.

Teachers with 11-year-old students can also participate by registering the class to be judges. Full rules are here.

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