Where I cover science at this year’s VidCon YouTube convention, take a look at science and engineering more broadly on YouTube, and suggest that for next year’s VidCon the organizers should bring together some of the leading science projects on YouTube with grass-roots science-advocates like Charlie McDonnell and Hank Green.  It’s a long post, but hopefully worth reading to the end!

This weekend I was dragged off to VidCon by my kids – my daughter is part of an up and coming YouTube channel, and reliably informed me that this was The Place to Be!

I thought I would use the opportunity to learn more and write about science and the online video community.  Expecting a convention of YouTubers to be full of narcissistic wannabe’s, videos of kittens and songs about double rainbows, I didn’t have much hope about finding something to write about it here.

How wrong I was!

Organized and hosted by brothers John and Hank Green (the vlogbrothers on YouTube), VidCon is emerging as the premier convention for people seriously into YouTube.  This year – the convention’s second – there were some 2,400 attendees, with a claimed 2,000 on the waiting list.  To my untrained eye, the demographic was predominantly teens between 12 – 16; mainly female (around a 3:1 female:male ratio if I had to take a guess).

But what really grabbed my attention was that this was a crowd that was hungry for science – not what I expected at all!

What kept on coming back to me over the two days was that, at a time when there are still enormous challenges to women pursuing an interest in science and engineering, I was surrounded by hundreds of teenage girls at a popular culture convention, getting excited about science.

And this got me wondering whether the science and engineering community is taking as much advantage of this as it could.

In some ways I should have expected this emphasis on “nerdyness” (if you’ll forgive the expression) at the convention.  Some years ago, John and Hank Green set up NerdFighters – an online community of teens interested in more than just the latest fashion (John is a prize-winning author of teen novels, while Hank runs the blog EcoGeek, co-owns the record label DFTBA, and is a Billboard-charting musician). The community, which has been incredibly effective in connecting teens together around the world, has always had a emphasis on science and technology.  And it is associated with some of the biggest names on YouTube, such as musician and on-line personality Charlie McDonnell.  So you would expect a convention hosted by John and Hank to attract a certain number of nerds.

But this was a convention totally over-run with people with a keen interest in connecting with others on everything from science and technology to the arts and humanity. It seems that when you strip away the outer fluff from YouTube, this is what the core community looks like – people looking to connect with others to listen and talk about stuff that interests them.  And rather a lot of that stuff includes science, technology and engineering.

I should have cottoned on to this on the first day when astronaut Mike Massimino (@astro_mike on Twitter) got up to speak.  Apart from John Green repeating over and over “we had an ASTRONAUT at VidCon!” I was surrounded by teens shouting out “we love science!” as Mike spoke to an audience of over 2,000 YouTubers.

The next morning, I tweeted the following, impressed by both the audience and their hunger for science and technology:

To which John Green replied:

The performance in question was Hank Green singing “Strange Charm: A Song About Quarks” (which I did hear live).  Here’s a brief clip of Hank leading 2,000 YouTubers in the chorus at VidCon:

And here’s the full song with lyrics, because you can’t make out much above the crowd in the above clip:

Hank has a style that is reminiscent of a modern Tom Lehrer in many ways, although his subject range is far broader.  His latest CD – which includes Strange Charm – hit the Billboard charts recently; not bad for someone who sings about fundamental physics!

But this was only a prelude to an even bigger science-hit at the convention.

One of the most anticipated talks at VidCon was that of British YouTube superstar Charlie McDonnell.  Charlie has over a million YouTube subscribers on his main channel, is lead singer in the hit band Chameleon Circuit (also Billboard-charting, and inspired by the UK hit series Dr. Who), and has had nearly 150 million views of his videos on YouTube.  He is also passionate about science, and has posted a couple of science videos – most recently one on light, which has already had over one and a half million views.

Before his presentation, Charlie asked his Twitter followers what he should talk about.  This is how he responded to one tweet:

Not only was this presentation live to over 2,000 VidCon attendees.  It was also broadcast live on the YouTube home page, and linked to on every YouTube page.

Which means that a rather lot of people will have heard YouTube celebrity Charlie McDonnell talking about the importance of science and science literacy in today’s society.

More than anything, from my perspective VidCon was about a community of teens hungry to connect with science and technology, and grassroots celebrities responding to this hunger.  But apart from Mike Massimino, the more “mainstream” science community was notable by its absence.

Which led me to wonder what exactly is going on with science on YouTube – something I must confess I haven’t really thought about much in the past.

Of course I’m aware of a lot of the science education and science promotion videos that have been posted (some of them mine) – many of them aimed at instructing and informing viewers, and to be honest many of them getting lost in the YouTube noise.  But I’m not that familiar with what is out there.

However, after putting the word out on Twitter that I was on the lookout for effective YouTube science content, I was pleasantly surprised by what people sent me.  Clearly the science community is having a bigger impact on YouTube than I realized.

Joanne Manaster (@sciencegoddess on Twitter) reminded me of the excellent PsiVid blog over at Scientific American.  The blog, written by Joanne and Carin Bondar, is highlighting some of the more interesting and successful science video projects currently going on.  Recent posts include one on Bill Hammack, aka The Engineer Guy. With over 40,000 subscribers to his channel, Bill’s YouTube videos regularly get hundreds of thousands of views, and attracts hundreds of comments.

Joanne also has her own successful science channel on YouTube – she was responsible for the Liquid Nitrogen Frozen Gummy Bear video posted a couple of years ago which so far has had over 230,000 views.

Then there’s the Periodic Table of Videos from the University of Nottingham (thanks Beverley Gibbs for the call-out, and video journalist Brady Haran whose project this is).  I was aware of these videos but hadn’t paid them much attention before writing this blog.  I should have done!  Their YouTube channel has over 49,000 subscribers, and so far has racked up a total of over one million views.  Nottingham University scientists are also responsible for the equally successful Sixty Symbols YouTube channel.

The NurdRage YouTube channel was one that I wasn’t previously aware of.  With over 87,000 subscribers and over 1.1 million video views, it’s described as “Science nerds doing experiments for other science nerds” (you can follow the creators as @NurdRage on Twitter).

Then there are the viral science videos like the Zheng Lab – Bad Project – one of a number of Lady Gaga science videos (link here for more on Lady Gaga science videos from PsiVid).  Thanks to @aehrens for the reminder here on Twitter.  Since being posted this video has attracted nearly 3 million views.

And I couldn’t end this post without including The Symphony of Science. These autotune mashups of well known scientists have had a phenomenal impact.  The Carl Sagan – A Glorious Dawn video (below) for instance has attracted over six million views since being posted nearly two years ago.

And these are just some of the YouTube science resources out there – there are many others (feel free to post the ones I didn’t mention in the comments).

So there is a vibrant community using YouTube to present stuff about science – and it’s far more successful and widespread than I had realized. But this is a community that was largely absent at VidCon.  And I wonder whether this is because, as a science community, we are still struggling to make the transition from education to interaction – from telling people about stuff to being active members in a larger community.  Because without a doubt, VidCon was about a large and rapidly growing community of people who are using online video to engaging with each other and build strong communities, rather than just tell people stuff.

Of course, instruction has an important role to play in building a society that can develop and use science effectively.  But when it comes to online video (and social media more generally), should be thinking in terms of building “science connections” more than “science engagement” or “science literacy”?  This is exactly what people like Charlie McDonnell and Hank Green are doing – they are connecting with a wide community of people in a very significant way – not because they are promoting science, but because they are interested in stuff that others also find interesting.  And because some of these interests involve science, technology and engineering, a new generation of teens is realizing that it’s cool to talk about “nerdy” stuff, that there’s a whole load of others out there with similar interests, and that being into science is OK.

Just imagine what might happen if these science and YouTube communities came together more.  Could more widespread science connections lead to more effective science engagement and a better informed and equipped generation for living in a science dominated world?  It’s not beyond the realms of possibility, but it will require scientists laying aside their pedagogical instincts and becoming part of a community that digs science, but sometimes also gets a kick out of fluffy kittens and double rainbows.

Postscript.  Next year, VidCon will be held at the Anaheim Convention Center in LA, and I suspect will attract a much larger crowd than this year.  As planning gets underway for the event, it would be really good to see participation from some of the big names in science communication on YouTube, and a greater integration of science and technology YouTube communities into the program.  John and Hank Green are already working on a science and technology project, and Charlie McDonnell has committed to doing more Fun Science videos.  Could the VidCon organizers combine these with work of Nottingham University, Symphony of Science and others to create a truly unique YouTube Science Connection experience?

Update 7/6/11.  Just in case you are interested in a taste of what VidCon was like from a teen’s perspective, here’s my Daughter’s video recap.  Enjoy:

Andrew Maynard