Want youth to embrace science? Give them video
Imagine walking into a science class and hearing the teacher explain that living creatures are powered by “vital forces.” Such ideas were once standard, but were superseded by the scientific revolutions of the 20th century. As they receded from the cutting edge, they naturally receded from the syllabus.
So why is it that when it comes to technology, many classrooms are stuck in the 19th century? Teaching methods have changed, but the technologies they employ remain stubbornly old-school.
The place where young people go to seek new information is their devices. And, in particular, video. On YouTube, science explainers are hugely popular. The Vsauce channel, in which Michael Stevens unpacks scientific theories, has more than 13 million subscribers and has been viewed 1.2 billion times. Channels such as Veritasium and Kurzgesagt are in the 4-5 million range — larger audiences than most network news shows. These videos assume little prior scientific knowledge and tend to take a lighthearted approach to science communication. But as well as accessible, they are also accurate enough to teach you something.
Educators are taking note. Recent years have seen the evolution of online, video-based, interactive learning technologies. A prime mover is the Khan Academy. Founder Sal Khan started off with YouTube math lessons for his cousins. But the idea has grown into a vast repository of videos and interactive tools covering dozens of subjects and millions of users. Its lessons mostly involve animated chalkboards with nar- ration. But video makes all the difference. It offers self-paced learning; allows teachers to follow students’ progress; and its reach has created a “global classroom” where students can share lessons. It has enabled teachers to “flip” the traditional class structure, featuring Khan Academy “lessons” in the typical homework time, and classroom time devoted entirely to one- on- one interaction. In Khan’s words, “Technology humanizes the classroom.”
Video is also increasingly how young people communicate and share ideas with each other, and this makes it a powerful tool to spread the word about science. The Breakthrough Junior Challenge is a global competition run by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation in which highschool students produce short videos explaining a big idea in science or math. Young people tell us that this way of teaching is also a way of learning: The process of producing a video involves deep immersion, independent research and creative engagement.
Participation has been growing internationally. Last year, a brilliant 18-year- old, Hillary Andales, won the competition, catapulting her to stardom in her native Philippines. This year, 16-year- old Samay Godika from Bangalore, India, won $400,000 in educational prizes for his video on circadian rhythms. Next year, we are considering a Mandarin version. We hope that network effects, in which young people are inspired by the videos, investigate their ideas independently and produce their own explanations, can snowball into a step- change in their engagement with science.
Some of these students will become the next generation of scientists. And the current generation should think seriously about mastering this medium — becoming fluent in the same language as the colleagues who will soon enter their labs. Video blogs are a promising platform for this: By talking to the public directly about the questions that fascinate them, scientists increase transparency, humanize science and embed it more deeply in the broader culture.
Science and technology form a feedback loop. The physics revolutions of the 20th century enabled the communications revolution that brought us the internet and the cellphone. If we allow young people to use them creatively, who knows what new science it will enable in the future?