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From Entertainment to Enrichment: The Growth of YouTube’s Online Scientific Content


Youtube pic 1Every week, major news sites are flooded with articles concerning recent technological advancements, changes in accepted theories, and brand new ideas from every field imaginable. To an individual who has great learning in science, reading a commentary on the Higgs boson is easily understood without the need for much outside research; however, without such a background, the beauty and significance of these discoveries can fall through the cracks.

With the constant advances in communication technologies, the comprehension and understanding of these scientific revelations and breakthroughs are no longer limited to those with a few college courses. The past few years have seen major developments in social media and technologies, making network access more convenient, and generating an ever-increasing audience for interest based scientific education. Now there exist entire online communities devoted to creating content tailored specifically for a lay viewership with little to no prior knowledge. The epicenter of this cultivation and popularization of scientific education is YouTube, home to the most connected and prolific of these online communities.

YouTube houses hundreds of channels devoted entirely to making science captivatingly clear. Many of these channels focus primary on digesting large, technical journal articles and publications put out by research institutes, and presenting the essence in interesting and easily understood videos with links to related topics. The video makers take remarkable developments, cut them to their core concepts, and provide an explanation of the idea, alongside the context and relevancy. Some of these institutions have channels themselves, such as theroyalinstitution1  for the Royal Institution of Great Britain and University of Michigan’s michiganengineering2. Others, such as SciShow3, are run by an individual, for whom running the channel and creating content is their full time job.

Often, these channels fulfill two purposes at once—reporting and entertaining. Many channels, including the aforementioned SciShow, pose questions to themselves, and upload the entertainingly informative answers. A prime example is MinutePhysics4, a channel that’s garnered over 50 million views since its inaugural upload. MinutePhysics creator Henry Reich tackles concepts as involved and complicated as quantum mechanics and neutrinos, strips them of their intimidating status, and offers the bare-bones concepts as an appropriately paced, engagingly fun two-minutes of drawings and voice-over. Many other channels do the same, through different means, adding their own flavor and style to this trend in scientific entertainment. Dr. Derek Miller, of Veritasium5, asks people on the street of Sydney seemingly simple questions, and then proceeds to debunk common misconceptions in biology and physics.

Although these types of videos are great for piquing the interest of a wider audience, they are essentially educational sound bites. However entertaining they are, three- to five-minute long explanations of electromagnetic induction cannot do much for improving general scientific literacy. Luckily, the very nature of this trend provides a rather simple solution. The increasing prevalence of online “academies”, coupled with a growing body of subject-specific refresher courses, has created a virtual vault of engaging online lectures. For someone lacking the relevant background, building a foundation of essential scientific knowledge has never been more accessible.

Most of these lecture-style channels are structured very similarly to Salman Khan’s Khan Academy6. In the typical format, “students” choose an area of study and watch a progressive series of lectures that build on specific concepts. By this process, the channel CrashCourse7 has created a series of ten-minute videos for biology, world history, ecology, and literature. Like most academic channels, these series aim to develop a working understanding of the fundamental events, nomenclature, and theories that compose their respective subjects. Keeping with this educational movement, most major universities have some sort of online media meant for audiences extending past their student population. In just the past three years, Harvard University alone has released hundreds of hours of course lectures online.

On their own, it is difficult to imagine these academies and online series moving beyond a general conceptual awareness. Although they provide entertaining contexts and presentations of significant ideas, YouTube videos are simply another, albeit more engaging, way to deliver information. Like most lecture-based learning systems, self-directed online education lacks many of the components composing an effective teaching method. Typically, we remember best the lessons learned through active involvement—contributing to shared experiences, exploring problems, and experimenting firsthand8. As neatly packaged sets of facts, lectures cannot compare to the benefits of a participation-based education.

However, most traditional classrooms heavily employ the same lecture-based teaching strategies to provide uniform instruction to students9. But in classrooms full of students learning at their own individual paces and with unique conceptual gaps, the lecture format’s blanket of information may be an ineffective teaching method. In an educational system without flexibility from a set curriculum, joining the worlds of face-to-face and online educational tools has great potential. A blended curriculum (one consisting both online and face-to-face elements) in the setting of an in-person classroom is considerably more effective than either alone10. Combined with the human component of traditional settings, the plasticity and breadth of online broadcasting produces a program that incubates scientific literacy in terms of social media.

Already, the line between online entertainment and scientific education in schools is blurring. The Summit charter school, located in San Jose, CA, offers an example of the blend between scientific and digital literacy11. Here, the online lectures and accompanying problem sets of Khan Academy make up the primary curriculum. Students move through topics at their own pace, independently pausing and rewinding as they need. An instructor, present and in-person, facilitates the class by encouraging the students, assisting them with individual inquiries, and managing the coursework. Across the country, more and more schools are employing similar techniques. Online content such as TED talks and YouTube EDU are finding a place into classrooms, as teachers employ available videos to create more engaging lessons12,13.


  1. The Royal Institution .”The RI Channel – YouTube.” YouTube.  (accessed January 4, 2013).
  2. Michigan Engineering.”Michigan Engineering – YouTube.” YouTube. (accessed January 4, 2013).
  3. SciShow. “SciShow – YouTube.” YouTube. (accessed January 4, 2013).
  4. Minute Physics. “MinutePhysics – YouTube.” YouTube. (accessed January 4, 2013).
  5. Veritasium. “Veritasium – YouTube.” YouTube. (accessed January 4, 2013).
  6. Khan, Salman. “Khan Academy.” Khan Academy. (accessed January 4, 2013).
  7. CrashCourse. “Crash Course!- YouTube.” YouTube. (accessed January 4, 2013).
  8. Rogoff, Barbara, Ruth Paradise, Rebeca Mejia Arauz, Maricela Correa-Chavez, and Cathy Angelillo. “Firsthand Learning Through Intent Participation.” Annual Review of Psychology 54 (2003): 175-203. (accessed January 1, 2013).
  9. National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. “National Board for Professional Teaching Standards: The Five Core Propositions.” The Five Core Principles. (accessed January 4, 2013).
  10. U.S. Department of Education Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development. “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies.” U.S. Department of Education. (accessed January 4, 2013).
  11. Sengupta, Somini. “Online Learning, Personalized.” The New York Times (New York City), December 4, 2011. (accessed January 4, 2013).
  12. Strom, Stephanie. “YouTube Subtracts Racy and Raucous to Add a Teaching Tool.” The New York Times (New York City), March 9, 2012. (accessed November 23, 2012
  13. Image Credit (Creative Commons): Korosi, Rego. “Youtube logo.” Flickr.Last modified April 1, 2010.

Alana Darcher is a freshmen majoring in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory University. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.

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