From Risk Sense:
Six months ago, Risk Bites launched as a somewhat quirky YouTube experiment in science communication. Twenty-seven videos on, how are things going?
From Risk Sense:
Six months ago, Risk Bites launched as a somewhat quirky YouTube experiment in science communication. Twenty-seven videos on, how are things going?
Risk Bites – my new foray into the world of YouTube informal education – was officially launched a few weeks ago (although the transition from “unofficial” to “official” simply meant posting new videos more regularly!). The channel is an experiment in overcoming the tedium and seeming irrelevance of much academic online content by unbundling the things that I research and teach and talking about the interesting stuff in an engaging and accessible way.
Is it working? It’s too early to say yet. I’m getting good feedback from my peers. But I have yet to crack how to get a much wider pool of eyeballs onto the videos (any offers of publicity here gratefully received – the url is http://youtube.com/riskbites – just in case you need it!). What I’m really looking for is a growing number of subscribers and viewers who are entertained and informed by the videos.
That said, I’m learning a lot from the experience. The workflow is admittedly crude (idea, script, voice-over, storyboard, film, edit, post – all fit into an already packed schedule). But that in turn means that the videos can be nearly as responsive as writing a blog post – as last week’s response to the Sandy Hook shootings showed. In fact, the whole feel of the exercise is very much like the early days of writing posts for 2020 Science.
The big difference though is the challenge of taking my work on risk and evidence-informed decision-making and dividing it into very short pieces that create a coherent narrative. A 1 – 2 minute video allows for between 200 – 400 words, which isn’t a whole lot to handle the intricacies of the science of human health risk. Even seemingly basic concepts like dose-response need a surprising amount of groundwork. But the beauty of a series of videos like this is that simple self-contained “bites” can be combined to develop a much more complex bigger picture over time. It’s more like having a conversation with your viewers – albeit a rather drawn out one – than hitting them with the full weight of risk science all at once (intellectually satisfying to the lecturer, but terrifying for everyone else!).
Brave new territory for me. But quite exhilarating. And a lot of fun!
All I need now is as many subscribers as I can scarf up.
A guest post by Candace Rowell MPH. Candace is an alum of the University of Michigan School of Public Health Department of Environmental Health Sciences, and a former contributor to Mind The Science Gap. She is currently a research associated with the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute in Doha, Qatar.
The traffic in Doha is horrendous. Ask anyone who lives here. It might take you 45 minutes to commute a mere 15 km. The summers are brutal – the temperature bounces around the 50⁰C mark and the humidity threatens to drown you on the doorstep.
YouTube intrigues me. Having been dragged into the YouTube culture by my teenagers over the past two years, I’ve been fascinated by the shift from seemingly banal content to a sophisticated social medium. But what has really grabbed my attention is the growth of YouTube as a unique and powerful platform for informal education which is being driven not by the educational establishment, but by an emerging educational counterculture. Continue reading Open access academics: Experiments with YouTube, the Science of Risk, and Professional Amateurism
Tomorrow, my 16 year old daughter is leaving her home in the US for the UK. She’ll be there for the next two years while she studies for her A levels. It was a heart-rending decision for my wife and I to agree to her living apart from us in a different country. But the stark reality is that my daughter’s high school education here is just not good enough to prepare her for a British University – and in two years’ time, that’s where she wants to be. Continue reading Jumping the gap between a US and UK high school education
YouTube is gearing up to transform the way we learn. At least that’s the message that came across loud and clear at this morning’s VidCon breakout panel on education. In an overflowing room of well over two hundred conference goers, head of YouTube Education Angela Lin led a panel of five leading video makers in a lively discussion, that gave a compelling glimpse of the future of online education. And it was a future that didn’t feature too many conventional lessons or institutionalized videos!
As the panel included John and Hank Green (SciShow, CrashCourse and a gazillion other things) I was expecting a room packed to the brim with their incredibly engaged teen fans – which it was. An odd audience you might think for a panel on education. But this was a serious, intelligent and engaged crowd, eager to listen to the panel, ask questions and provide their own insight on online learning. Joining the Green brothers were physics blogger Henry Reich (minutephysics), science YouTuber Brady Haran (The Periodic Table of Videos), Mike Rugnetta, host of the PBS Idea Channel and Vi Hart of Mathemusician and the Khan Academy.
What was notable was that these panelists are all a) successful online educators (extremely so in some cases), b) not formally trained in teaching (to my knowledge) and c) not representing mainstream educational institutions (not counting PBS). This is important, because there was no doubt here that the excitement and impact surrounding online education is occurring outside conventional educational circles – and in many cases leaving them standing. John Green talked about this emerging online education community as being “disruptive,” while brother Hank talked about a “new kind of learning.” And everyone the panel agreed that education content on YouTube is where online music was five or six years ago, and on the cusp of something really big. But a big that might not necessarily include conventional educational institutions unless they get their act together!
On this point Henry Reich made the distinction between learning and teaching. Formal educators (as well as “informal educators” in museums and on educational TV programs) teach to a curriculum or a plan, with competencies, learning objectives and evaluation being the name of the game. But at the cutting edge of community online education, content developers are using their passion and interests to facilitate user-driven learning. And as John Green pointed out – endorsed by the packed room – people want to learn!
Bridging this gap between learning and teaching is perhaps going to be one of the biggest challenges – and opportunities – of online education over the next few years. Without question, there is a global hunger for learning, and some very talented individuals who are beginning to satisfy this hunger using an increasing array of online tools. This will undoubtedly help people develop and grow as individuals – but how do you also give them the tools to “do stuff” as opposed to simply enriching their understanding and satisfying their curiosity?
As new tools come online, educational institutions are jumping on the band-wagon to provide instructional content. Initiatives like Coursera and edX are bringing college course material to a far wide audience using online video. But even these innovations are in danger of looking turgid and outmoded in comparison to the new breed of community educators.
There are some moves to close this gap. Brady’s Periodic Table videos for instance are used by teachers to kick-start classes and inspire kids. And the Khan Academy is leading the field in terms of combining user-driven learning with practical teaching. But if teaching institutions want to keep up with the revolution in online learning, it seems pretty clear that they are going to have to radically rethink their ideas of web-based content. They are going to have to start partnering with and learning from the masters of online community education. And they are going to have to let go a bit and embrace the mess and madness of online educational content as they respond to a growing community’s desire to learn.
What seems clear after this panel is that we are at the beginning of an exciting revolution in online educational content. What is not clear is whether the teaching institutions can get their act together fast enough not to be sidelined in the rush toward online learning.
I‘m over half way through the first day at VidCon 2012, and thought I would jot a few notes down on the science scene here. OK, so maybe 7,000 people haven’t come to the Anaheim Convention Center to hear the latest on the Higgs boson and other interesting science stuff (although you’d be surprised by how many of them are interested), but after last year, I’ve become increasingly interested in how YouTube is developing as a platform for science communication, education and engagement.
After last year’s experience of a distinctly counter-culture nature, I wrote this:
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.
I doubt very much that Hank Green – the driving force behind VidCon – is a sufficiently avid reader of 2020 Science that he read this and acted on it. But nevertheless science has clearly moved up the agenda this year. This in part reflects a massive increase in science content and viewership on YouTube over the past year – including the launch of Hank’s own channel SciShow. It also reflects the fact that grass roots and alternative science communicators on YouTube are – not to put too fine a point on it – smokin’ it when it comes to connecting with today’s youth.
In this morning’s opening main stage session, Henry Reich (MinutePhysics) gave a packed audience in the Anaheim Convention Center Arena a quick lesson in quantum mechanics and the paradox of Schrödindgers cat. And it went down a storm! Think about that – when was the last time you saw a physicist commanding the rapt attention of around 7,000 people in a live show? Over the past year, Henry has shot up to over 300,000 YouTube subscribers and regularly gets several hundred thousand views on his videos. His secret? I suspect it’s in part due to his skills as an educator and the simplicity of his delivery – this the classic “chalk and talk; and a damn good teacher” model transported to YouTube, and it works!
(Minutephysics is one of the few YouTube channels my son watches regularly btw)
This afternoon, Henry was joined by Derek Muller (veritasium) and Destin (Smarter Every Day) to talk about physics on YouTube in a breakout session. Also in the room were Vi Hart (Mathemusician on YouTube, and currently with the Khan Academy) and Brady Haran (The Periodic Table of Videos and a ton of other science communication projects). All have an enviable reach on YouTube and videos that get tens to hundreds of thousands of hits.
The room was packed to overflowing. I’d guess that there were around 150 or so VidCon attendees there, which believe me is impressive in a breakout session when a gazillion other things are going on. (I think last time I spoke at a major conference at the Anaheim Convention Center, you were lucky if you got 50 people to your breakout!) And the audience were fully engaged, with the session teetering on the edge of a physics Q&A session the whole time.
Three things in particular struck me in this room predominantly filled with young people – many of them young women:
Tomorrow we have a breakout session on education with Henry Reich, Brady Haran, Hank Green (SciShow), John Green (CrashCourse) and Mike Rugnetta (PBS Idea Channel). Another science-heavy lineup that again emphasizes the growing importance of YouTube and its grass-roots science communication/engagement community.
Hank may not have read my blog from last year on upping the science at VidCon, but he certainly got the message it seems!
Update: In my haste to post, I forgot to mention BrainSTEM – an unconference of science YouTubers held in Ontario Canada a couple of days before VidCon. The place to be if you want to experience the cutting edge of online scicoms entrepreneurship. Here’s a flavor from veritasium:
Here’s an introduction to the “wonders and worries of nanotechnology” that I think is rather brilliant:
It’s part of a series being produced by the Science Museum of Minnesota for the Nanoscale Informal Science Education network (NISE Net). The series is designed to stimulate discussions addressing the societal and ethical implication of nanotechnology – but in an accessible and non-threatening way.
Keep your eyes peeled for further episodes with Mindy and Denny – having read through some of the draft scripts, I think you will enjoy them!
Last semester, speculative designer James King worked with myself and a small group of science and public health students at the University of Michigan to explore how a fusion of science and creative art can lead to new insights and modes of communication. The exercise was part of the A World of Surprises project – a project James is working on as the Witt Artist in residence at the UM School of Art and Design.
Part of the aim was to take these science-grounded students out of their comfort zone, expose them to some radical new ideas and perspectives, and see what happens.
The results were impressive! Once the students realized that they weren’t bound by the rigid limitations of their science education, they became enthused over using creative techniques to tell science-grounded stories that connected with people on a far deeper level than just the facts would allow.
Today the group presented the fruits of their final assignment: to produce a piece of creative work that captures the tension – in narrative form – between imagined catastrophic risks and experienced mundane risks. As a group, we were interested in the tension between the catastrophic consequences often imagined to arise from human endeavors, and the mundane reality that often develops.
I’ll try to showcase all of the projects over the next few weeks. They were all, in their own way, quite brilliant. Coming up in future posts there will be:
(I’ll add the links as they are posted – The Tale of Rhino Banana will be up first)
James will be back in Ann Arbor for the culmination of the A World Of Surprises project in March – stay tuned on that.
In a little over a week, ten of my University of Michigan Masters of Public Health students will embark on an intensive science blogging course – and they need your help!
Every week for ten weeks, each student will take a recent scientific publication or emerging area of scientific interest, and write a public blog post on it that is aimed at a non expert and non technical audience. And as they do this, they will be evaluated in the most brutal way possible – by the audience they are writing for!
The blog is Mind The Science Gap (mindthesciencegap.org, or mtsg.org for short), and the course is designed to use the medium of science blogging to develop more generally applicable communication skills.
This is where you come in: We are looking for people who are willing to read and comment on the posts each week, and help the participants hone their skills. You don’t have to be an expert in what is being written about – you just have to have an opinion over whether the pieces connect with you or not, and how they could be improved. Even comments as short of “I liked this” or “I don’t get this” are tremendously helpful in indicating what works, and what does not.
Whether you are a public health expert, a science communicator, or simply someone who enjoys reading about science and health, please consider checking into the blog regularly and commenting on what you read. If you can commit to leaving a couple of comments a week, please consider becoming a mentor – check out the blog’s Mentor page for details. Even if you can’t, please do read the posts and comment when you get the chance.
And please do spread the word – the more readers and the more comments, the quicker these ten students will develop the skills necessary to communicate complex science to a broad audience.
Blogging starts on January 16th – Thank you for your support, and see you there!
Two years ago I posted links to ten (relatively) mindless online “games” as a bit of fun, and as something not too taxing to indulge in over the holiday break. Having reached that point again where anything more intellectually challenging than tic tac toe makes my head hurt, I thought I would revisit and update the 2020 Science Compendium of Mindless Games. The only criteria for inclusion: an ability to retain my attention for more than 10 seconds, minimal thinking required, a high smile-factor, and absolutely nothing of overtly educational value!
Just in case you are looking for something a tad more intellectually stimulating, you can always try the Royal Statistical Society Christmas Quiz instead!
Have fun, and Happy Holidays! Continue reading Brain candy for the intellectually incapacitated – the sequel
A couple of weeks back I had the pleasure of moderating an American Chemistry Society webinar on the Chemistry of Fireworks with pyrotechnics guru Chris Mocella. It’s not quite emerging technologies, but Chris gave such an engaging talk that I thought I would post it here. It’s a great intro to some chemistry basics, and perfect for high school chemistry classes
You can read more about the ACS webinar here.
A question for you: How many science literacy/communication/engagement metaphors can you see in the photo below?
Answers on a metaphorical post card in the comments area below please – I’m really interested to see what you come up with!
The photo by the way is the header image for a student science blog that will be launching in January – I’ll be writing more about that in a couple of weeks. The blog is called Mind the Science Gap, and is designed to improve the science communication skills of public health masters students.
I picked up a new toy this weekend. (If you want to cut to the chase and see what I’ve been doing with it, please head straight to the end of the post).
I’m fascinated by the combination of old tech (essentially “chalk and talk”) and new media that Sal Kahn has been successfully using to teach mathematics and science on-line. The basic approach he uses of writing and drawing while talking is as old as the hills. But he successfully enhances this through “debundling” topics (breaking things down into small digestible chunks) and making his digitized chalk and talk lessons freely available as short online videos.
Chalk and talk is a way of teaching I still find effective, as it forces me to develop ideas at a measured pace, while allowing my students to follow the thought process and take notes. But it’s an approach that is increasingly out of vogue as educators feel they have to pander to today’s tech-savvy and social media-immersed students. So inspired by Sol Kahn, I’ve been looking at ways of combining this approach with new online tools to provide teaching resources that extend what can be achieved in the classroom.
My first approach was to look at Kahn’s setup – essentially using a drawing tablet and software as a digital blackboard, and recording short videos to teach specific concepts and skills. But after just a few minutes, I realized that this was a learning curve that was too steep for me (put it down to age!) – tablets have a remarkable ability to make everything look like it was drawn by a 3 year old, until you get the hang of it!
Then I came across pencasts. Continue reading Pencasts – a useful educational tool?
I’ve been up to my eyeballs this past few weeks in stuff, and haven’t had as much time as usual to post here. So this weekend I thought I would take the easy route and post a couple of videos from the recent Symposium on Risk, Uncertainty and Sustainable Innovation.
These were back to back panel discussions that were designed to set the scene for the symposium by helping to distinguish technology reality from technology hype. They make interesting viewing, as well as providing what I thought was a rather interesting take on significant areas of technology innovation – especially the second panel.
The full set of symposium videos can be viewed here.
Mark Banaszak Holl, UM Associate VP, Office of Vice President for Research. Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Dean for Entrepreneurial Programs, UM College of Engineering. Paula Olsiewski, Program Director, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. James Bagian, Director of the UM Center for Healthcare Engineering and Patient Safety.
Gil Omenn, Director of the UM Center for Computational Medicine & Bioinformatics. James Baker, Director of the Michigan Nanotechnology Institute for Medicine. Ann Marie Sastry, CEO and Co-Founder of Satki3. Jörg Lahann, Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering, University of Michigan.
Two years ago, I wrote a piece about ten things that inspired me to become a scientist. One of those was my high school teacher. We never kept in touch, but through the miracle of the web, that post eventually came to his attention, and we connected again.
The other day he unearthed a photo harking back to the year we overlapped at Pilgrim Upper School and emailed it to me – bringing memories flooding back:
The occasion was Mr Tranquada’s – Tim’s – last day teaching us, as he prepared to move on to another appointment. As a class of 14 year olds we were gutted, and bought the only gift we thought suitable for such a great physics teacher – a Newton’s Cradle.
You can get a sense of how inspirational Mr Tranquada was by looking at the comments on the back of the photo – remember, this was a physics class:
Tim moved from Bedford in the UK to teach in Milton Keynes in 1981, and then on to Chelmsford in Essex. From there he became a National Strategy Secondary Science Consultant for Essex – a job he says really enjoyed and during which he felt that he was giving something back to the system through supporting Schools and their Science Teachers. He is currently enjoying his retirement!
It really was a blast from the past seeing the photo and the comments, and remembering what it was like being young and inspired.
But what really got the nostalgia flowing – I was the student who took that photo, thirty years ago.
Blockbuster movies aren’t usually noted for their scientific accuracy and education potential. But since its release last week, Steven Soderburgh’s Contagion seems to be challenging the assumption that Hollywood can’t do science.
The other day I posted a piece about how director Steven Soderburgh and screenwriter Scott Z Burns’ attention to detail and plausibility left me with a sense of optimism after watching the movie, despite its disturbing theme. This was due in large part to the involvement of three science experts – Ian Lipkin (Professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columblia University), Laurie Garrett (senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations) and Larry Brilliant (President of the Skoll Global Threats Fund).
Larry Brilliant is well known for his work on eradicating the smallpox virus. He was also a past Executive Director of the philanthropic arm of Google, and is currently President of the Skoll Global Threats Fund. Yesterday afternoon, I had the chance to chat with him on the phone about the movie, his involvement, and his thoughts on its importance.
What was quickly apparent in our conversation is that the idea of using film as a medium to help people better understand the threats epidemics and pandemics present is one that Brilliant has long been interested in. While Executive Director of Google.org, he supported production of the Oscar-nominated documentary The Final Inch – a film about the historic global effort to eradicate polio. Given the success of the documentary in bringing a global issue (and public health success story) to the attention of millions of people, Larry was interested in how the medium of film could be further used – in particular to alert people to the plausible threat presented by pandemics, and the measures that are necessary to curtail their global impact.
And in Steven Soderburgh and Scott Z Burns, he found the ideal partners.
Well before he became President of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, Brilliant was interested in exploring how humanity can prepare for low probability high impact events like pandemics. As he explained, he is particularly concerned over how we go about developing expertise and resources to tackle such events, especially where short term and local thinking does little to prepare society for eventualities that demand a globally coordinated and informed response. Brilliant emphasized that devolving responsibility to local communities and private organizations just doesn’t work here – you need the resources and reach of national and international government organizations, together with long term investment in expertise and people, in order to respond rapidly and globally to a fast-moving viral infection.
But how do you get that message across – especially at a time when long term strategic measures against catastrophic risks are being ditched in favor of short term economic and political gains?
Movies, according to Brilliant, are part of the toolbox for raising awareness and helping people understand how some challenges are just too big to be privatized. Unfortunately, films that build on fantasy rather than plausibility have led to the medium being marginalized as a vehicle for science-based communication and education. But in the case of Contagion, Larry felt that with the combination of a “brilliant” director and screenwriter, together with a cast of dedicated and engaged actors (on whom Larry lavishes praise and admiration – especially for Matt Damon and Kate Winslet), the scene was set for a movie which was was emotionally engaging yet grounded in plausible reality.
The scenario developed within the movie is clearly fictional – it hasn’t happened yet. But as Larry noted, because of the science that went into the movie, what emerges is a series of events that are not beyond the realms of possibility – and in fact, given enough time, are highly probable. As fellow consultant Laurie Garrett wrote the other day on the CNN website,
‘Contagion’ is part reality, part fantasy, totally possible
When asked whether he was pleased with the results, Brilliant gave an unqualified and very enthusiastic affirmative. As well as high praise for the cast and production team, he was pleased with the way that the response to the pandemic was portrayed in the movie. As he pointed out, the White House and UN are notable by their absence. Rather, the heroes – the people who identify, track and eventually tackle the pandemic – are government-employed public health professionals. To him, this is a highly realistic portrayal of how a pandemic is likely to play out, and a stark warning against cutting investment in public health because of short term thinking and a potentially catastrophic lack of understanding.
At a time when public health agencies in the US are facing significant cuts, this was a key message for Brilliant. Contagion is plausible reality wrapped up in a strong narrative – to Brilliant and others, it’s not a case of if such a pandemic will occur, but when. And what Burns and Soderburgh have done is provide us with glimpse of our best hope for surviving this eventuality – assuming we haven’t abandoned our trained and prepared public health professionals in the meantime because we didn’t have the intelligence and foresight to recognize their importance.
This is a key message that Brilliant hopes will come through loud and clear as people watch and talk about the movie. And it’s one that he hopes will have sticking power – with the movie stimulating conversations and action for many years to come.
There’s been quite a bit of chatter about the “Brian Cox Effect” in the UK recently, as interest in science seems to be on the rise. But I haven’t heard anyone talking about the “Charlie McDonnell Effect”.
Maybe it’s because Charlie appeals more to a growing movement of teens who just want to immerse themselves in awesomeness, rather than science advocates on the lookout for the next Carl Sagan. Maybe it’s because Charlie doesn’t fit the mold as science communicator extraordinaire – he didn’t even go to University for goodness sake! But like it or not, 20 year old Charlie McDonnell is reaching out to millions of teens when it comes to science, and engaging with them in ways few others are even getting close to!
Charlie McDonnell was lauded in today’s Sunday Times as the first Brit to hit 1 million regular viewers on YouTube (the story’s behind a paywall I’m afraid). You may remember that I highlighted him as someone to look out for in the recent roundup of Science and VidCon.
Amongst the many things he talks about on his YouTube channel, the Sunday Times piece specifically mention his interest in science. To quote the article,
“Among his latest releases is a four-minute video called Fun Science, in which he plays his ukulele while singing in rhyme about how sound works. It has had 1.7m hits.”
Here is that video, which at the time of writing has has 1,804,281 views, and received more than 21,000 comments:
This is pretty significant when it comes to connecting teens with science (it was only posted two weeks ago). Charlie’s YouTube channel – charlieissocoollike – currently has 1,194,000 subscribers, and has received over 172 million views. More importantly, there are millions of teens the world over who listen to what he says, are inspired by it, and act on it – actively engaging in a growing community, rather than passively absorbing received wisdom.
Charlie McDonnell may not fit middle class expectations of an educated yet hip science advocate. But believe me, he’s the one your kids are more likely to be listening to. Which means I expect that the “Charlie McDonnell Effect” is alive and kicking – albeit hidden down in the grass roots of a science-hungry on-line community.
This morning I sat down with my 14 year old son and asked him what area of science caught his interest especially. He answered “the future of space exploration”. We carried out a search on the Web of Science for “future + space + exploration”, and the fifth article returned was “Comparing future options for human space flight” by Sherwood Brent (Acta Astronautica 69 346-353, 2011). We downloaded the article and he read it. When asked, he said the paper was understandable and interesting – he was glad that he’d read it, and wanted to know where he could read more stuff like this.
There’s a myth that only people who have ready access to peer review papers have any real need or desire to read them, and it’s a pernicious myth.
George Monbiot stirred up the debate on access to scientific publications recently in his Guardian piece “Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist“. In response, Kent Anderson – a long-time publisher and editor of scientific journals – set up this straw scenario, using it to justify limited access to journal publications: Continue reading The public and peer review literature: Pearls before swine?
Is social media messing up today’s teens? Adults, it seems, love to pontificate on the benefits and ills of emerging internet-based communication platforms on young people. But how often do they bother to listen to the teenagers they claim to be concerned about?
Well, this is their chance.
Over this past week, the members of my daughter’s YouTube collaboration channel Fellowship of the Ning have recorded their thoughts on camera, and provided a candid and personal perspective of how social media is affecting their lives. Continue reading Social Media messed-up teens reveal all