12/24/2014 08:13 am ET Updated Feb 23, 2015

What Is Sleep?

It didn't surprise me that 11-year-olds would have something to teach scientists. That was the whole idea four years ago when I started the contest called the Flame Challenge.

What surprised me was how much the kids would be learning about science in the process. And how enthused they'd be.

When I started the Flame Challenge four years ago, I asked scientists to explain what a flame is in a way that 11-year-olds could understand. I thought it would be a real learning experience for the scientists because it's actually a lot harder than it seems to answer a question like that in a way that's clear and engaging -- and accurate too.

And to make it more interesting, I asked 11-year-olds to be the judges.

That was where a learning experience for the kids came in. And it really surprised me. When kids hear and evaluate several answers, it seems to give them a three-dimensional view of the question. They become so knowledgeable that a frequent complaint about an entry is that it should be more informative.

As judges, they're in an unusual position of power in the learning process, and they love it. Some have even said they wish they could learn everything this way. That's probably not possible, but it does show their enthusiasm.

I had a personal investment in the first year's question because when I was 11 years old myself, I asked a teacher what a flame is and I got a very unsatisfying answer. She said, "It's oxidation," and didn't seem to think it was necessary to explain what oxidation was. I was stumped. So, decades later I decided to challenge scientists with the same question, but now the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, which runs the contest, asks current 11-year-olds to come up with their own questions. This year, kids have asked scientists What is Sleep? It's probably a question we all have asked ourselves from time to time. We spend a third of our lives doing it, but we don't fully understand why.

Kids will be judging the scientists as communicators. The challenge is not to show how much they know but to communicate what they know.

Last year's question was judged by over 27,000 kids in 41 states and 19 countries, and hundreds of scientists around the world submitted written answers and (sometimes elaborate) videos. I'd love to double those numbers this year. Teachers can sign up their classes and scientists can get full details at

I hope scientists and kids don't miss this opportunity. They have too much to learn from one another.

Alan Alda is an actor and founding member of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York.