The world could use more Neil deGrasse Tysons and Janna Levins. In a time where information is being consumed through various mediums and misconceptions about science often spread faster than the truth—it’s important that scientists are able to meet people where they are. A new program at MIT is creating the next generation of science communicators and they’re tackling the digital landscape through engaging, short-form videos on YouTube.
The MIT+K12 program was started in 2011 to address the underperformance of US K-12 students and the underrepresentation of minorities and women in STEM fields. The program started with MIT students working together to create short explanatory videos for STEM topics like the rock cycle and sports car aerodynamics . Since 2013, the program has expanded into four core initiatives: Science Out Loud is an original web series written and hosted by MIT students, SciVids101 is an outreach event which brings area middle and high school students to the MIT campus for a crash course on making science videos, an MIT class on writing and hosting educational shows, and the MIT+K12 Fellowships train future thinkers and makers in educational media.
Elizabeth Choe, the program manager and the Executive Producer of Science Out Loud, has worked with the program for nearly two years and participated in the pilot program as an undergrad. With a B.S. in Biological Engineering and a background in nanoparticle-based cancer therapy research, Elizabeth has channeled her love for science with her desire to share the work of MIT students in a way that is both educational and engaging. This season of the Science Out Loud series included 20 cast members and there are currently another 20 students enrolled in the “Becoming the Next Bill Nye” class (who will be responsible for the third season of the web video series this fall). Every year, the students take their videos to more exciting frontiers, both in content and in the way they are shot. For example, check out the first episode of the second season where a group of students go skydiving to explain drag!
I recently got a chance to talk to Elizabeth about the importance of science communication, her experience in managing MIT+K12, and the future of the program.
Why do you think science communication is such an important skill for MIT students to possess?
ELIZABETH: I think a lot of people here certainly enjoy sharing their interests with others, but there can be a tendency within scientific communities to overlook the sense of urgency there is in developing ambassadors for science. On a practical level, there’s really a civil responsibility to promote STEM literacy with a public whose daily life is affected by this science, who can understandably be scared by a lot of it, and whose votes can shape the research that happens. It’s easy to take this for granted when you’re in a community like MIT, where everyone shares this passion for science and engineering and learning. I think there’s an equal civil responsibility to share scientists’ love of learning with non-scientists and to highlight the many faces of science. There are certain aspects of our current culture that perpetuate misconceptions about the door to science being open only to certain people, and by equipping the very diverse student population at MIT with the ability to both inform and inspire, we can start to fight those misconceptions.
What lessons have you learned about effective ways to communicate science to the public since you’ve started MIT+K12?
ELIZABETH: If anything, I’ve just come up with more questions! There aren’t really established best practices for the space we’re trying to inhabit, this space that’s sort of at the intersection of education and entertainment, of TV-narrative and web video. Definitely still trying to figure those out. I will say that my thoughts on what constitutes good science communication has changed a bit, in that things like clarity and accuracy are important, but the ability to empathize with an audience and understand their perspective is the crucial bit. So much of effective communication is listening, and then reaching people where they are.
What are the biggest challenges that you face when producing a new Science Out Loud episode?
ELIZABETH: It’s funny, I talk to many members of the community here whose eyes will just light up when they’re talking about their research, and then when you ask them to write a script or you turn on the camera, it’s this sudden fall-back to formulaic, textbook-like, and almost robotic content and delivery. We’ve just been ingrained with a sort of traditionally bland mode of knowledge transfer throughout the majority of our education that it’s a very hard habit to fight. But it’s also probably one of the most fun parts, helping the students to be themselves on camera. It’s also difficult to get them to think outside of their MIT perspective, which is completely understandable—if I’d been asked to do this as an undergrad I probably would have been the worst! But thinking about what someone outside your sphere would find interesting or uninteresting, or identifying the parts of your world that others may not be able to see but would want to… it’s hard to step outside of yourself and do that.
What kind of feedback have you gotten from teachers and students who have used Science Out Loud videos in the classroom?
ELIZABETH: They like that we show real-world applications to the things they learn in the classroom and bring them to this world outside of the textbook. Science Out Loud was never intended to be an instructional series. Instead, we try to highlight the resources we have at MIT and give other people—who otherwise wouldn’t have access to them—a window into these resources, and the chance to start their own discussions.
What are your next steps for the Science Out Loud series and the MIT+K12 Fellowship program?
ELIZABETH: I’ll be teaching a class during MIT’s January term called “Becoming the Next Bill Nye,” where students can earn credit for learning about digital media literacy, STEM-advocacy, and what it means to be a good science communicator through writing and hosting short educational shows. I put this together after seeing that there was this huge opportunity to develop these skills during the production process of Science Out Loud, but one that we couldn’t really take advantage of because of limited time. We’ll take the best projects from the class and produce season 3, and eventually turn it into a semester-long course! As for the fellowship program, we just selected our inaugural class, and they’ll be working on various educational media projects (not just related to MIT+K12 Videos) throughout the spring semester. It’ll definitely be a learning experience for all of us, but hopefully one that will help them advance their interests and understanding of educational media. I would love to see this program continue as a way to support students who have an interest in occupying the space between science and media, in equipping them in a more specialized way.
MIT+K12 is a great example of how important it is for scientists to use new tools and spaces to share their work with the public. Challenging the perception of who scientists are and what they do is a powerful way to increase student interest in STEM and show them the agency that they have to accomplish great things. Check out the second season of Science Out Loud on their YouTube page and visit their website to learn more about the program!