There’s been a recent huge surge in the popularity of MOOCs. They are said to be “revolutionising” education and paving the way for free, accessible education online. But before MOOCs, there were vloggers on the internet, sharing their lab spaces or field work with whomever was interested.
Typically, the videos don’t follow a strict lesson plan and the vloggers have no goal in sight grander than simply talking about things they love. Despite that, these videos are a treasure trove of insight and are arguably more engaging than the average MOOC, in part because of their casual nature.
Here, we review and recommend six science education-geared YouTube channels.
“We have to learn how to do easy things in a hard way in order to do hard things in an easier way.”
Some of her videos do have a 101-flavour to them but for the most part her videos assume a high school level background in the subject and illustrate the value, universality and applicability of mathematics outside of a classroom setting.
Vi is for the jaded middle-schooler wondering where he will ever meet a logarithm again. Vi is for the maths alumna who misses the trippy joy of number theory. Or if you just want to hang back and watch someone entertain themselves with hexaflexagons, Vi has that too.
A caution: they. are. long.
Vi Hart creates what she wants to in the fashion that she wants to. These are no short works created to pander to the average attention span. These demand attention, and for an extended period of time. They do not function well casually played in the background. But if you can find the ten minutes, they are wonderful works of art in their own right and rare odes to mathematics.
MinutePhysics delivers what it promises – videos about topics in physics, usually in a minute and spare seconds. The earliest videos answered straightforward questions, like ‘‘What is Gravity?’’, but quickly grew in ambition and scope to include such subjects as the working of lasers and of satellite navigation.
There is the occasional dose of mathematics mixed in, such the ever-popular Hairy Ball theorem, although for a proper plunge into numbers, try ViHart above.
The same marker-wielding hand that runs MinutePhysics also created MinuteEarth, a unique channel that covers planetary-level phenomena such as epidemiology and geology. MinuteEarth serves as the miscellaneous bin that collects all the interesting topics that are outside the strait and narrow purview of MinutePhysics.
Do not forget to sample the series of ten-second videos that the channel created as a minimalist challenge. We recommend the ten-second video on the Dark Side of the Moon as an appetising amuse-cerveau, followed by an all-spanning course of What is the Universe?, and ending with The Hottest Place on Earth from MinuteEarth for, er, dessert.
If I were to recommend only one science vlog from this list, it would have to be Periodic Videos. The original conceit was for the videos to cover each element of the periodic table, but the videos have progressed to topics ranging from household chemistry (tea) to mineral processing (one of the most popular is filmed inside the gold bullion vault at the Bank of England).
The videos are created by Brady Haran with the assistance of chemists from the University of Nottingham, but the star is undoubtedly Professor Martyn Poliakoff, CBE, known simply as ‘The Prof’. Distinguished as much by his trademark cadence as by his shock of grey hair, Prof. Poliakoff has been with the channel since its first video and recently starred in the five hundredth (where he showed off his collection of three hundred plastic water bottles). Brady Haran is also the creator of several other YouTube educational channels.
The channel has recently acquired a high-speed camera, which has allowed for some memorable videos. My favourite among these are those of cæsium in water, where the cæsium droplets flying away from the explosion leave individual vapour trails, and rubidium in (phenolphthalein-laced) water. The rubidium vapour cloud glows a brilliant lilac inside a larger cloud of rosy phenolphthalein at the 4:40 mark. It is quite mesmerising.
For starters, we recommend the one with rubidium.
The Brain Scoop
The Brain Scoop’s focus is natural history – a fascinating branch of science that has sadly much fallen in popularity since Darwin boiled pigeons in his backyard. It is about time that this messy, demanding, and rewarding science was brought back into fashion, and Emily Graslie has thankfully taken up that muddy gauntlet.
Graslie’s career is a testimony to the power of the Internet to amplify obscure voices and launch careers. An arts graduate from the University of Montana, Graslie volunteered at its museum, giving tours and dusting specimens.
In 2013, she started her own YouTube channel to take her viewers to the back stage (‘‘I found a two-headed fish down here once.’’) and show them around her haunts (‘‘This is a foetal elk! In a jar!’’). Within the year she was offered a position as the first Curiosity Correspondent at the Fields Museum in Chicago, from where she continues producing excellent videos that cover gutting wolves, pinning insects, and dissecting roadkill.
Graslie’s videos can be quite hands-on and animals, would you believe it, are squelchier and less adorable on the inside. Viewer discretion is definitely advised, and many of the videos themselves include a ‘grossometer’ for the benefit of younger viewers (who probably actually don’t mind the gross innards as much as the delicate grown-ups around them seem to think they do).
Microbiology might come across as much too recondite for a series of popular science videos, but public awareness of pathogens is uniquely important. Contagion is democratic. Hoping that somebody somewhere with a lab coat will ‘‘solve’’ an epidemic with the wave of a pipette is not sufficient in an age of transoceanic flights and high-density urban spaces.
From adhering to a vaccination schedule to practising restraint with antibiotics, popular participation is vital to the control of infectious diseases. The response to avian flu was heroic, but California is experiencing an Ebola epidemic even now. There is a need for public education in this sphere, and as often in biology, niches do not stay vacant for long. In this case, the organism of the hour is Oxford biologist JimtheEvo.
We recommend the History of Infectious Diseases videos to begin with. Not only does he cover major historical epidemics but also uses these as a lens through which to educate on basic microbe biology.
JimtheEvo has no gimmicks. His videos are akin to sitting down comfortably with your TA. He lectures in a straightforward manner and moves logically through the topics. We recommend going through them in chronological order because he sets the stage in early videos to answer questions in later videos.
In 2013, Sally LePage won a Guardian and OUP competition where the challenge was to create a minute-long video that would motivate viewers to learn more about a subject. Sally’s videos are not meant to be thorough and only just skim the surface of a topic, but their thoughtfulness and engaging nature does exactly what they are designed to: provoke viewers to deeper exploration.
Each individual video is typically very focussed, but her channel’s content spans from the snake in her neighbours’ garden to musical odes to starfish to theories within evolution. You may well find yourself marathoning through her entire content (and we urge you to do this because we are selfish and want more of her).
On the side, Sally has co-hosted a long list of videos outside her regular channel. Though some of these videos are more declamatory than educational per se, we recommend them just as enthusiastically.
One remarkable video has her collaborating with a couple of other YouTubers to debunk a video from Hank Green, easily one of the better known YouTube science vloggers. It’s a necessary reminder that science, which ought to be objective, is curated by humans, who are not always. Even as we invite you to roll up your shirtsleeves and dive wholesale into the universe of science vlogs, we urge caution and scepticism, especially on matters of opinion.
With that disclaimer in place, colouring your forehead blue is sexy.