Want youth to em­brace sci­ence? Give them video

The Mercury News Weekend - - OPINION - By Leonid Solovyev Leonid Solovyev is di­rec­tor of op­er­a­tions for The Break­through Prize Foun­da­tion, ded­i­cated to ad­vanc­ing un­der­stand­ing of the uni­verse at the deep­est lev­els.

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?

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