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Science & Technology

June 25, 2007
Volume 85, Number 26
p. 44-46

A New Science Channel

Organizations and scientists experiment with YouTube as an outreach tool

Celia Henry Arnaud

Scientific organizations face a challenge in communicating with the younger generation. Some organizations are dipping their toes in the waters where that generation swims—on the Web. Museums, scientific societies, and even scientific teams are starting to post videos on YouTube, the popular Google-owned online video website.

Viewer's Choice Voters picked the "Minicoopers and Cheerleaders" video as their favorite way of visualizing how small a nanometer is.

Launch Video

Courtesy of Chris Ewels
Dear Diary The scientists at nano2hybrids will share their research experiences via video diary.

Launch Video

Last year, Carol Lynn Alpert and her coworkers at the Museum of Science, Boston, heard about a phenomenon that was sweeping the Internet-videos of fountains created by combining Diet Coke and Mentos candy as part of a theater act. Although the videos' creators at Eepybird.com (part of the Oddfellow Theater, Buckfield, Maine) ask that their videos not be posted on websites, numerous copies have been posted anyway on YouTube, where they've been watched millions of times and have inspired imitations and parodies. The team at Eepybird.com has even been nominated for a daytime Emmy Award in the new category of broadband variety.

That copycat phenomenon is "reminiscent of the whole notion of constructivist or inquiry-based science education," Alpert says. "People may have thought they were making funny videos, but they were practicing science. They were experimenting with different variables, seeing what might result, and recording it for others to see."

Alpert thinks YouTube attracts a "countercultural, skeptical, playful audience," which she sees as "in line with the true nature of science." She was curious about whether her team could harness this new venue as a way to reach audiences that might not visit a science museum.

At that time, her team was grappling with ways to convey the concepts of nanoscale science and engineering. In particular, they were struggling to find the best way to explain just how small a nanometer is. They decided to turn it into an audience-participation activity. They created three short videos to incorporate in a museum kiosk and let visitors vote for their favorite. They also posted them on YouTube.

"Here's this great way of reaching lots of people that hasn't been available to us before," Alpert says. "You're not restricted to having lots of money or being part of a big broadcast organization. Anybody in the world can make a video and post it on YouTube."

That very openness can make it tough for videos from reputable science sources to stand out from the background noise.

Ginger Pinholster, director of the Office of Public Programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, worked with Braun Film & Video to make a 12-minute video about the effects of climate change on the people of Shishmaref, Alaska, as the kickoff for a town hall meeting at the AAAS annual meeting. The society didn't want the video to languish when it could reach a broader audience.

YouTube seemed like the perfect answer. But the timing of the posting of AAAS's climate-change video to the site illustrates science fare's uphill struggle for YouTube viewers. The "Farting in Public" video was posted the same week as the climate-change video. As of June 18, the AAAS video had been watched more than 2,000 times, whereas the less savory video had been viewed more than 3 million times.

Among the lessons Pinholster learned from her YouTube experience was to keep videos short and sweet. The site's restrictions on video length and file size meant that Pinholster needed to shorten the original film. The carefully edited version AAAS posted squeaked in under the 10-minute limit at 9 minutes 59 seconds. If she were making the video again, Pinholster would cut its length in half. "The medium is best suited for short experiences," she says.

More Videos

How Big is a Nanometer?

Launch Video

AAAS Climate Change

Launch Video

AAAS Evolution

Launch Video

University of Wisconsin
Chemistry Comes Alive

Launch Video

Videos for Sciencenter, Ithaca

Launch Video

Farting in Public

Launch Video

Original Diet Coke/Mentos Experiments

Launch Video

Pinholster sent a professional film crew and senior writer to Shishmaref to capture the footage. "You don't need to go to that extreme" if your only goal is posting on YouTube, she says. Her office is exploring the possibility of making much more basic movies related to forthcoming papers in the journal Science. Recently, she posted a second AAAS video about evolution on YouTube.

While AAAS has looked to YouTube for broad distribution of its science videos, others are using the site simply for the convenience of delivering videos to a small target audience. The Sciencenter, Ithaca, N.Y., posts videos to let other science museums know about its traveling exhibits. "YouTube is a great way for people who are interested in renting one of our exhibitions to see a little bit of what it's about," says Charles Trautmann, executive director of the Sciencenter. "They're intended to give a potential renter a sense of the experience visitors would have when they take part in an exhibition."

The general public is a secondary audience for the Sciencenter's videos. The hope is that any people who see the videos will be "excited about the experiences they can have at hands-on science museums," says Hester Vermaak, public relations manager at the Sciencenter.

Trautmann and Vermaak don't want videos to replace the science museum experience. "Online is intended to be just a taste, a teaser," Vermaak says. "We want people to visit the museums and have their own experiences and explore on their own terms in a very hands-on, interactive way."

Museums and scientific societies aren't the only ones using YouTube for science communication. A European collaborative research project called nano2hybrids, which is making hybrid nanomaterials by installing metal nanoparticles on carbon nanotubes, is using video diaries on its website, www.nano2hybrids.net (and on YouTube), as its main form of outreach. Chris Ewels, science communications manager for the project and a research fellow at the Institute of Materials, Nantes, France, contacted the Vega Science Trust, which has been successful in creating science films. Through Vega, Ewels and the other scientists have joined forces with Ed Goldwyn, a producer who pioneered video diaries at the BBC.

The video diary would give the public a view of science in the making. Normally, the public doesn't hear about research projects until they're finished. People don't get to see science in progress. "You miss the whole point of the science," Ewels says. He wants the public to come along for the ride and see the setbacks as well as the excitement.

"We're really hoping to get a dialogue going through the website," Ewels says. "The website is very much an experiment that's running in parallel with the science experiments themselves. Different partners in the project have different ideas of who they'd like to be communicating with."

The nano2hybrids.net website, which is scheduled to go live this summer, will include an introductory documentary about the project, and new video diaries will be posted each week. Even though the website is not yet live, some of the videos that are already available on YouTube have gotten more than 1,000 views.

YouTube didn't enter the picture until the team had already designed its website and was trying to figure out where they could host all the video diaries. "YouTube was already there, and it was working well. Why reinvent the wheel?" Ewels asks. They post the videos on YouTube and embed them on their own site. "We get to tap into this huge movement and community on YouTube. There's so much enthusiasm from people on YouTube," he says. High-quality science content on YouTube is still scant, but Ewels hopes that nano2hybrids can help change that.

Some of the highest quality chemistry content now available on YouTube is there thanks to the efforts of a team at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the Journal of Chemical Education, although the team hasn't posted the videos themselves—yet.

The videos from the team of chemistry professor and JCE Editor John W. Moore, Associate Editor Jon L. Holmes, and videographer Jerry Jacobsen have been produced over the past 15 years. Their videos differ from many of the school-chemistry-project and blow-'em-up videos that can be found on YouTube. "A lot of effort has gone into making our videos star the chemistry and not the person who might be doing it," Jacobsen says. "You very seldom will see people, outside of a hand or something like that, in our videos because the chemistry is the star."

The videos were originally made with high school and college chemistry teachers and students in mind. Now that they have a wider reach, Moore isn't sure who makes up their audience.

Jacobsen, who is not a chemist, pushes his collaborators to help him understand why a particular bit of chemistry is interesting so that it can guide his editing. He believes that the videos have gotten "snappier" with time.

Most of the videos are available primarily on CD, but some have found their way onto the Web, including YouTube. Whenever Moore and company find one posted without permission, they request that it be removed. But now they plan to post a selection of videos on YouTube themselves.

Alpert acknowledges that there's plenty of content in "poor taste" on YouTube, but she thinks that science communicators can play a role in changing that. She also thinks that successful videos will take advantage of the medium's virtues and will be short and playful and involve real people.

"If you build a reputation for a channel of productions that are good quality, in good taste, but are still playful and creative, there would be an audience for that. Those of us who are in science communication should explore this together," she says. "It's going to happen anyway, so let's be part of it."

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
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