The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is urging countries to redesign their core curricula by 2025 to provide students of all ages with a big picture of Planet Earth including geology, geography, energy, air, water, ecology and sustainability. Engaging educational videos, like those created by science education YouTube channel MinuteEarth, may be one of the best ways to do this. MinuteEarth has more than 2.6 million subscribers and it’s loved by teachers and children alike. Its short animations quickly grab the attention of the viewer, while presenting deep scientific concepts in a highly intuitive and understandable way. The program is known for asking non-trivial questions and helping viewers see the world from a new perspective. I spoke with David Goldenberg, the producer of the channel.
Julia Brodsky: Please tell me about the history and purpose of the MinuteEarth channel.
David Goldenberg: About a decade ago, Henry Reich started making quick physics explainers on YouTube using nothing but an overhead camera and a pen and paper. His ability to simply explain complex topics using stick figures and humor quickly won him an audience and convinced him—as well as a few science-minded members of his family—to use the same format to tell all sorts of science stories. So they brought in a bunch of scientists and illustrators with backgrounds in fields from geology to ecology to biology to public health and started MinuteEarth! Through our videos, we want to not only teach people concepts, but also help them appreciate the world they live in and the science we use to explore it.
JB: How do you manage to cover such a wide spectrum of science topics, while keeping to high scientific standards?
DG: Our team is made up of experts in all sorts of fields, from ecology to physics to optics to biology and math. But even with all that wide-ranging expertise, we often need to get up-to-date information on a particular topic. So we dive into the academic literature and find the scientists doing the research. Then we call them and talk—“nerd-to-nerd”—about their work and its implications.
JB: Some people call you “the masters of engaging questions.” How do you look for topics that would be engaging for people of all ages and turn them into exciting questions?
DG: Coming up with potential topics for MinuteEarth is one of the most important—and fun—things we do. It’s basically a two-step process. First, we ask questions that we’re genuinely excited about and want to know the answer to but don’t feel have been satisfactorily answered before; we call them “the unGoogleables.” Second, we push each other to make sure that the video is not just a fun fact, but rather a tension-filled science story with a takeaway. We think that with the right treatment, even questions about complex processes like photosynthesis can be turned into videos that everyone from first graders to PhDs can enjoy and learn something from. The key is to truly understand the material and focus on telling exactly one story at a time.
JB: So tell me, how do you make those deep scientific concepts accessible to everyone?
DG: We’ve found again and again that if we need to use scientific jargon to explain something, it’s because we haven’t done enough work to come up with a really clear, down-to-Earth way to communicate it. So we constantly test our scripts by rewriting paragraphs into plainer and plainer English, as well as trying to come up with relatable metaphors wherever possible, like using baked potatoes to explore the age of the earth, or beer to explain biodiversity. It helps that all of our illustrators have science backgrounds and unmatched creativity, so they can translate arcane science graphics into cute understandable animations.
JB: Could you give some examples on how your materials are used in classrooms around the globe?
DG: One of the great joys of sharing our videos on a global platform like YouTube is that teachers around the world can simply grab them and embed them into their lesson plans for free. Our “Why Do Rivers Curve” video, for example, is used in middle school earth science classes around the globe, and our “Rise of the Mesopredator” video was turned into an elementary school play in New Zealand. Teachers love the fact that we do not oversimplify things while making them engaging and memorable. Students appreciate our lessons, too. We get comments like, “When your teacher has a MinuteEarth poster in their room, you know it’s going to be a good year,” and even, “This taught me more about the topic than my actual science class has taught me in the past 9 years.”
In addition to videos, we also plan to offer printed materials for teachers and students. Our very first book, MinuteEarth Explains: How Did Whales Get So Big? And Other Curious Questions about Animals, Nature, Geology, and Planet Earth, comes out in October. We spent months distilling the best parts of our best videos into short, clever explanations with gorgeous illustrations. Inside, you’ll find answers to 25 of our favorite science questions, from “Can Plants Talk” to “How Much Food Is There On Earth?” We’ve even worked with a middle school science teacher to create lesson plans around our favorite chapters. So let your science teachers know—and help us bring around more awareness to our planet, and share the awe!