Nick Williams, former Leavenworth resident, has won first-place in the written category of The Flame Challenge, a global science contest run by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York.
1. Nick, can you tell us how the contest works?
The Flame Challenge is a science contest sponsored by Stony Brooke University, the Center For Communicating Science at Stony Brook, and the actor Alan Alda. The intent and "challenge" is for a scientist, or a teacher of science, to explain a complex scientific principle. The rules are that the scientist must explain a complex scientific principle so the answer would be clearly understood by an 11 year old, 5th-grade student. The contest is open only to scientists. The Flame Challenge is judged by 11-year-old kids. This year 20,000 kids judged this contest. When the results came down to the final, top three, 10 schools from around the country reviewed these three finalists to determine the winner.
2.The question this year was "What is Time." How did you even begin to formulate an answer to that question which would allow fifth-graders to understand since most adults would have difficulty grasping the explanation?
This was the second year for the Flame Challenge. I entered both years. Last year the question was "What is a Flame"? I did not place in that contest. This year the Question was - "What is Time"?
I teach a 5th grade science class at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in Livermore Calif. Classes of 30 -35 students each come from all over the San Francisco Bay Area on a "field-trip" to the Laboratory. As part of that field trip we present an hour and a half of hands-on science experiments for them. This is part of the LLNL Outreach Program to schools. I'm used to teaching 11yr old, 5th grade students. So instead of doing a lot of computer research on time, I mentally put myself in a classroom setting, and during my presentation (which can include almost 20 experiments) a student asks this question - What is Time? I try to answer all questions, but I only have about two minutes to answer this one because I have a lot of experiments to do in a short period of time. The answer you will find on the enclosed document is what I came up with. Remember, these are 5th graders and need to grasp a scientific principle at it's very basic level at this point in their science training. If they can grasp that concept now, and understand it, they will retain that concept and when they are in later grades they can expand on that basic concept for a more in-depth understanding.
3. Tell us about the event from Alan Alda's childhood that was the impetus for The Flame Challenge.
Page 2 of 3 - Mr. Alda was once asked his teacher, as an 11-year-old 5th-grade student, what a flame was. The answer he received ("it's oxidation") did not explain, or satisfy his curiosity, about what a flame actually was. So, Mr. Alda coordinated with Stony Brook University and the Center For Communicating Science to institute this Flame Challenge. In 2012 the question put to scientists was What is a Flame? This year the question was What Is Time?
4. You graduated from Immaculata High School in 1960. What has your career been like, where has it taken you and do you credit your time 'spent' in Leavenworth for some of your success?
Experiences since Immaculata. I took a not so traditional route to get my degree. After Imac I worked for Hallmark Cards for three years (bldg by the Centennial Bridge). Because of the military draft in place at the time I elected to join the Navy instead of being drafted into the Army. It's while I was in the Navy (1963-1967) that I received my initial training in Electronics. I spent almost three years aboard the USS Point Defiance (LSD-32), a landing ship that carried marines and their heavy equipment. Most of my time on the ship was off the coast of Vietnam during that conflict. After the Navy I decided to back to school for a Degree in Electronics Engineering. I graduated from Diablo Valley College in California in 1969, and started at LLNL in June of 1969. I worked at the Lab for 33 years before retiring in 2002. About 6 years ago I had an opportunity to back to the Lab, part-time, to be a Lab Tour Guide and a Fun With Science presenter.
My Mom and Dad, Jane and Nick Sr., were both born in Leavenworth, so of course I was raised there. I attended St. Joseph grade school and then Immaculata. A sports enthusiast, I played all sports in grade school and high school. I was not a great student in either school, but I realized very quickly, while I was in the Navy, that in order to eventually succeed I had better buckle down a get an education that would satisfy me during my working career, which I did. Leavenworth was a good place to grow up and I think a great influence on my life. Leavenworth was, and in my mind still is, a small town. I grew up with great family value experiences (I am the oldest of 11). Great religious training and experiences reinforced the family values and set the tone for real life experiences as well.
Of the 10 siblings I have, David Williams, Marge Connell, Terri Ray, Mike Williams, and Kenny Williams still live in the Leavenworth area.
I'm married to my wife Dee (45 years), have four kids and 6 grandkids. We've lived in Livermore, Calif. since 1969.
5. You are now a presenter for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's "Fun With Science" program. How does the program help children and why do you believe so firmly in the need to effectively communicate science to the general public and in particular, to children?
Page 3 of 3 - LLNL's Fun With Science Program. What a wonderful experience this has been. 11 year old students are enthusiastic, very curious, and very willing to experience new things and learn. In today's age, where virtually everything can be pulled up and explained on a computer, we at the Lab can actually let the kids get their hands on these science experiments, and together, we can perform science magic. Actually, I call it "explainable magic" because, although it seems like magic, all of the experiments/processes can be scientifically explained. And - we call it "Fun With Science" because we have 1 1/2 hrs of science FUN!!! I know I have as much fun as the kids.
Now think back to your science in school days. Did you learn very basic science concepts in grade school, did you learn with hands on experiments, did you have fun learning these basic concepts, did you retain most of the basic science concepts you were taught? If you did, did it encourage you to take science classes in middle school, high school, college? Here's the question I ask myself when I'm in front of a class. Is what I'm doing going to help train and influence these students in such a way to encourage them to pursue science in later higher ed classes? That's my goal!
Bonus Question: What was it like to not only meet Alan Alda, the famous actor who starred in M.A.S.H., but to be presented this prestigious award by him?
Alan Alda. What a cool man. I had lunch with Mr. Alda. He was not formally schooled in science, but is still a science geek. He loves it, and loves anyone who has taken the opportunity, and has the skills, to teach children the basics of science. He was very interested in me, what my experiences were, what I was doing now, how I formulated my answer to What Is Time, what I taught at LLNL and how I taught it. Then, to be awarded this prize and have it presented by him was one of the very best experiences I have ever had. I feel very, very fortunate to have had this experience.