Two YouTube channels aim to teach others about the way we see and understand our world.
YouTube has evolved into a platform that contains the typical ingredients of a social media site. People post videos and people can comment, like and share the post. With a simple equation at its core, the process is effective. According to YouTube, in one day, viewers consume about 1 billion hours of video. For creators of scientific content, this is a chance to change how people are learning and communicating about science, an opportunity to create a global classroom. Two YouTube channels, in particular, SciShow and MinuteEarth, are hoping to teach others about the way we see and understand our world.
SciShow is a channel started by Hank Green. In 2006, Hank and his brother, John, who were living several states apart, decided to communicate exclusively through YouTube videos on a channel they created called Vlogbrothers.
The brothers talked about their days and sometimes explained various educational concepts. Hank enjoyed the explainer videos, but commented that they took significantly more time to produce than their other content. Still, he wanted to put in the effort.
So, in 2011, when YouTube announced its Original Educational Channel Initiative, which offered grants and resources for content creators, the Greens immediately applied. The duo were given a green light for two educational channels—SciShow and CrashCourse.
For CrashCourse, a channel featuring animated videos that covered college-level courses, Hank stuck with science videos, while John created humanities videos. Simultaneously, Hank worked on creating SciShow with the goal of changing how people see and understand the world.
A recent Google analysis of SciShow showed that the show’s success boiled down to three aspects of the channel. First, the videos are entertaining to watch thanks to animated content and Green’s distinctive sense of humor. Second, SciShow addresses trending topics as they emerge, providing insight or a unique perspective on issues like climate change. Lastly, SciShow spends a good deal of time on engaging its audience.
Often times, new videos are created in response to individual comments on other videos, prompting others to engage with the content and leave comments. SciShow also engages readers with quiz shows and talk shows that feature fans and guest speakers that sometimes include other content creators. One such creator that SciShow has teamed up with is Henry Reich, creator of a channel called MinutePhysics, which uses stick figures to explain physics concepts in a little over a minute.
MinuteEarth, a channel with the mission of “telling more down-to-Earth stories,” uses the same format as MinutePhysics. Henry started the channel with his brother Alex Reich and father Peter Reich. The success of MinutePhysics channel motivated their efforts. The channel features videos that span topics such as where Earth’s water came from and why fighting wildfires actually makes them worse. To date, the channel has received 163 million views and amassed a 1.7 million-person following.
The channel creators — Hank and John Green and Alex, Peter, and Henry Reich — see YouTube as gap-filler that reaches more people than network television. Educational content on YouTube is viewed more than 500 million times a day. This tops network television views significantly, whether educational or otherwise, where annual viewership was near 9 million in 2016.
Importantly, however, both channels see YouTube as a community that inspires and educates people.
“To me, the most interesting communities of learners that are growing up on the internet right now are on YouTube,” John Green said. As a child, Green often felt like education was a series of hurdles with no positive outcome. He said he only understood the value of education when he was moved to a school that promoted the idea of a community of learners.
The purpose of the YouTube channels, then, was to encourage those communities of learners, according to Green. This strategy has been successful; the community that follows the Green brothers fondly refers to itself as the Nerdfighters. Nerdfighters have even created regional groups to meet up and talk about science and support each other in educational endeavors.
It’s important to note the ease of YouTube as a platform makes it prone to false information. There are channels that spew information about a flat Earth or highly inaccurate data on climate change. These channels also can have a loyal following.
“That’s the big challenge of the internet. There’s lots of information, and it needs to be curated towards improving people’s information literacy so that they know what kind of information to trust and know how to verify information that they are learning,” John Green said. To combat this, the Greens will be starting a course about media literacy on CrashCourse in the near future. They hope to make their own community of Nerdfighters and others who want to learn, stronger and more vibrant.
At MinuteEarth, the team makes sure to research information and contact experts as necessary. They pride themselves on this, but also know that misinformation can still spread easily. The team notes that science is always changing, but that they work hard to make sure their content is accurate at the time that it is produced. The team is also responsive to comments about mistakes in videos. Even if the mistake is small, the team is quick to add a note to the video acknowledging the mistake.
In building these communities, YouTube creators are changing science communication, which has sometimes been regarded as a tedious exercise. Making information more accessible and providing it in an entertaining way can foster a community of learners.
In Alex Reich’s words: “By helping people learn about how amazing the world is, they will become more curious and more engaged with it; and, ultimately, this will improve the way we do science and the way we interact with the world.”
Sanna Darwish is a student science writer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and a senior hearing and speech sciences major at the University of Maryland.
This article was edited on January 18, 2018.