Let’s face it, people still think science is inaccessible. According to a recent Pew study, half of American adults think that students don’t go into STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — fields because they’re too hard, and an additional 12 percent think students find it too boring.
But a cohort of engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs are advocating for STEM education on YouTube in a way that’s thought provoking and LOL-worthy.
They’re building wacky machines, debunking viral science stories and testing clever ideas to revisit concepts such as the scientific method, without the boring lecture.
There are three types of YouTubers reimagining STEM education: investigators, makers and thrill seekers. Each style has its own methodology for exploration and a unique “wow” factor to keep audiences engaged.
This type of YouTuber works to address misconceptions about STEM by challenging viral debates or demystifying common experiences. They ask questions and test theories, but most of all, this group leads discussions on the ways science is part of our lives.
At Action Lab, learning facts about science is an unintended but welcome consequence, according to the channel’s description. The channel’s creator, James Orgill, has a PhD in chemical engineering and a passion for answering “what would happen if” questions he has seen on online. He always starts with a hypothesis and explains why it is or isn’t possible based on science. In this video, he tests whether you can fix a broken plate with milk after he saw a video go viral making the claim on Facebook. He follows the steps outlined in the video, but (spoiler alert!) the plate didn’t reassemble after being submerged in milk for two days. Instead, we learn that we can create a plate out of milk due to a protein called casein.
Do you hear Yanny or Laurel? Is the dress blue or gold? The science community isn’t immune to those viral debates. In the tradition of investigative science on YouTube, AsapScience creators Greg Brown and Mitchell Moffit use logic to challenge viral sensations like the Dress. For instance, the duo spends a video attempting to “play” with a tarantula, but also explains the evolutionary science behind how we express fear. Other videos, like the one above, focus on a topic of interest and use animation-driven story arcs to explain where the science comes in. However disgusting or tame, these two show viewers how often science can help us understand life on- and offline.
These engineers, woodworkers and robotics fanatics have a passion for building machines that solve challenges big or small — and even the things no one asked for. They vary in engineering skill, but there’s never a dull moment watching how makers combine innovation and play.
Simone Giertz’s robots aren’t sleek or pretty, but that’s the point: Engineering doesn’t have to yield perfection. Watching her inventions attempt tasks such as pouring cereal is funny, but how Giertz treats her failures is the true lesson. Her robots emphasize that the learning process is more important than the outcome. In this video, Giertz shares all her failures building the Wake-Up Machine (a rubber arm duct-taped to an alarm-clock-like contraption), but turns it into banter.
“I really don’t want to talk my projects down because they’re kind of like the children I never had,” she quips. The Wake-Up Machine nearly rips out her hair during the demo, but she learns how not to dismantle an alarm clock and asks subscribers to give recommendations. Even though her machines rarely work without hiccups, Simone’s Robots shows that science can be fun if the goal isn’t efficiency.
This former NASA engineer started his YouTube channel to share science education, build wacky things for fun and document his love of technology seven years ago. Mark Rober is perhaps best known for his expertly crafted DIY inventions, but his commitment to science education and love of technology makes him the most well-rounded maker of the group. He has a ton of videos that cover a variety of topics, such as how carnivals scam attendees and what happens if you fill an empty hot tub with sand.
Some of his content has a clear intention to educate viewers, but his general enthusiasm for building things and his dad-like humor are what keep you watching. This man-vs.-machine-style video riffs on Rober’s admiration for card-throwing enthusiast Rick Smith Jr. He challenges Smith to three rounds against his DIY card machine gun and breaks down the physics of card throwing.
Creator Joseph Herscher is a self-proclaimed “inventor of useless things” with a passion for machine building similar to Rube Goldberg’s famously convoluted machines. His goal is to inspire people of all ages, especially children, to find creativity and innovation in everyday places. For classic maker mischief, we recommend Herscher’s life devices playlist, where he builds machines from household items.
If you’ve ever fought to retrieve that last bit of ketchup stuck in the bottle, Herscher has a device for that. Enter: the Sauce Squirter; basically, it’s two condiment bottles strapped to a desk fan with rubber bands. Herscher teaches you how to create your very own sauce squirter. Each time he sets up a scenario to test the machine, Herscher either creates a mess or breaks things. In the big finale, he tries to up the stakes but ends up with a face full of sauce.
THE THRILL SEEKERS
The creed here is: make it exciting, but scientific. Some of these videos require a “Don’t try this at home” label, but thrill seekers don’t stop at making things explode. They take on meticulous projects like constructing giant candied shapes or explaining why liquid nitrogen doesn’t belong in a liquid pool, but science is always at the heart of their flashy demos. Welcome to experimentation on steroids.
Each Backyard Scientist experiment is based on a “what if” scenario. The genius of this channel is its way of building suspense. For example, the video featured is inspired by the YouTube channel What We Made’s video on molten salt. The Backyard Scientist creates a similar test and walks you through his hypothesis before testing it several times. When the molten salt explodes after it touches the water, the host gives us a play-by-play of the science that informs the outcome.
Can you turn coal into diamonds? Well, the King of Random can show you how to convince people that you can. True to its name, the channel tackles random questions prompted by viewers, like how to encase metal in kinetic sand for a visually satisfying science hack. The channel was created by Grant Thompson, but after a run-in with the law for his explosive experiments, the show has two new hosts, Nate and Calli (who haven’t revealed their last names). The channel offers nontraditional hacks and tutorials, but the question is more important than the outcome on this channel. Testing whether food will go bad in a vacuum chamber doesn’t have quite the rush of lighting a pool on fire, but the host’s sense of curiosity provides a different kind of thrill.