My ulterior motive

In case you’re wondering why I’m experimenting with video, there actually is an ulterior motive, and it’s the same one that got me into blogging in the first place: teaching. I’m teaching science at an undergraduate institution, and contrary to many people’s expectations, a bachelor’s degree does not confer a deep understanding of science, and it can’t. Students come out of high school with an ability to read and do basic math (at least the ones we admit to college!), and have wildly varying abilities in writing, analysis, and thinking. I think the undergraduate university’s role is more to deepen the student’s abilities in those general skills, and also to provide a broad knowledge base in a discipline of their choosing. We’re preparing students to go off and do science, if that’s what they want to do. I’ve done my job if my students go to graduate school competent and confident, ready to get to work and explore the natural world. Or if they choose not to follow a science career, they’re open to read and think about the world in a scientific way.

So there are a couple of things I do in my upper level lab courses. I take a hands-off approach: I teach students how to use the tools in my lab, give them a general idea of what would be cool to do or see, and turn them loose. If I see a combination of frustration (“I can’t get it to work! How do I get it to work?”) and play (“What if we do this?”), it’s a success. I have them blogging because it’s a sneaky way to get them to think about the subject of the class outside of class, and also to get them to blend their interests — which usually aren’t identical to mine! — with what I’m teaching.

And then there are presentations. Communicating your work is an important part of doing science, too. I try to get them to do that with the blogging, but also our university promotes a capstone experience, our senior seminars. Before a student can graduate, they have to do a one hour talk on some subject in their discipline, and it’s a big deal/ordeal to the students, and also a big deal/ordeal for us faculty in one of the largest majors on campus. Their quality varies all over the place, even though many of my colleagues and I do incorporate requirements for giving in-class presentations in our upper level courses, and we have a preparatory course on writing that includes giving presentations. There’s a limitation on doing that in class, though: you’ve got 20 students, you can’t chew up multiple class hours getting them all to do rehearsals and rehearsals under your supervision. We usually get an abstract and a promise and a conversation with them to help explain the data, and then boom, they do their talk to the class. It’s one shot and they’re done. That’s not the way to learn.

So I’ve had this idea…this is a generation that’s comfortable with their camera phones, that whiles away hours on facebook and youtube. What if I tried to combine that with doing presentations? What if, in one of my lab courses, I made the final project to be producing a short youtube video explaining some piece of data that they’d gotten in the lab? Put a micrograph or a chart or a time-lapse video on the screen and explain it with a voice-over, or stand in front of a camera while discussing some fine point of theory, or make a how-to video on how to use the microscope. It’s something they could tweak until it looks good, I’d be able to review work in progress fairly easily, and then what they put up for final evaluation might be a little more polished. This would be a useful skill for the future. I’m also rather impressed with how Casey Dunn has his students make creature features.

One catch: to have the students do it, I have to be able to do it. So in my spare time (hah!), I’ve been tinkering with ideas. I got some clamp lamps to play with lighting, I’ve got some cheap and simple backdrops to play with, I read Steve Stockman’s How to Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck (which has a lot of damn good basic practical advice), and I’ve been doing some experimenting, most of which will never see the light of day. I’m learning stuff, which is always fun.

And it’s useful stuff, too. For instance, I’m a words and typing sort of guy, so my approach so far has been to write a script and then wrap video and images around it. That doesn’t work so well. I’m slowly learning that in this medium you start with video and images and wrap words around them. And that’s exactly what we do routinely in a science talk! You’ve got these chunks of data in the form of images and numbers, and what you do in a presentation is show them and add your verbal explanation on top. Man, I ought to know this stuff already. I just have to adapt.

So this summer you might be seeing more of my unphotogenic face in videos as I clumsily try to get some basic skills in this medium. The payoff, though, is that in a year or so I’ll be able to teach my students how to do it better, and then we’ll get a fine new crop of video stars who are comfortable explaining science in front of a camera.

But don’t worry, you don’t have to suffer through my struggles, just don’t watch me.


  1. says

    Oh if only I could have done video (or Super 8, which was still around in my day) presentations in school, instead of having to endure standing in front of my classmates, terrified out of my wits and shaking from head to toe and trying to talk coherently…

  2. pHred says

    I REALLY hope that you blog some detail about how this goes. I was really interested in how well you thought that the student blogging improved learning (I asked you about this a long time ago but never saw a response since I can only sporadically visit here) – do your students get comments from the outside world? Rude ones ? Constructive ones ?

    I have been toying with idea for a while now for my environmental classes but I already spend too much time in front of a computer ! I don’t know that I could cope reading even more on screen text. The YouTube idea is interesting. I will watch with interest your struggles.

  3. azportsider says

    Brett @ #3: this is the real reason I decided not to follow my original inclination to go to grad school and ultimately teach at the college level. All these years later, I still haven’t overcome the fear and misery that giving public presentations engenders in me.

    Well, that, and the fact that I could never be as cool as PZ.

  4. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    Ah. This makes sense. Sorry for being Debbie Downer on the other thread.
    I’m also a professor, and the idea of switching to another medium frightens the hell out of me. Last semester I had to be away for a few weeks, and so I did sort of a voice-over powerpoint thing. Sitting in my office talking to my computer was profoundly weird and surprisingly exhausting. I can’t imagine going to video.
    This kind of brings up another concern that I have; I recently read a book called Quiet which was about the psychology of introversion*. We have moved toward an active learning model at our university that I think works very well for extroverted students (the way that video presentation might), but is very hard for our more contemplative students; in other words, our focus on group discussion, in-class presentation, and peer evaluation seems an effective way to spark the interest of one segment of the student population, but leaves the another segment clammy. For some reason, the undergraduates who gravitate toward my research lab (seven bad-asses) are mostly** in the latter demographic, and find the constant in-class mingling to be exhausting. I’m close with these students so I get to hear about their frustration.***
    I dunno. It’s just something I’ve been thinking about. I’m teaching a lab-based course in fall, and I want to make sure that I achieve a better balance than I have in the past. 
    *Susan Cain is the author. I’ll admit that I wasn’t crazy about the book, but I bought it in a moment of desperate boredom. Some of it was thought-provoking.
    **I have two more extroverted students. Surprisingly, neither has taken much of a leadership role in the lab.
    ***Which I’ve recently come to the realization that I share. Now that I have tenure, I don’t want to go to conferences anymore. This is sacrilege, because that’s what scientists are supposed to do. But I don’t like them. I find them exhausting rather than refreshing, and I have ojida for weeks surrounding them. It’s not good for my career, but I don’t care.

  5. jstackpo says

    Have you looked in at the “Kahn Academy”?

    I have looked at a few of his vids (just for general interest) and it appears he is doing what you are aiming at, although probably on a different level.

    In your “Experiment” sample vid you asked for suggestions; here’s one:

    Put you eyeglasses back on. Deer in the headlights, and all that.

  6. carlie says

    If I could add a suggestion of the type that would, however, add more work onto it: make sure that there is an accessibility component to their process so that they are also delivering the material to people who can’t hear.

    Another interesting idea in terms of communication is the ten hundred words one, where you limit your descriptions to only the thousand most commonly used words in English. The link goes to a tumblr specifically about describing science this way, but the tumblr links to an online text editor where you can compose things only using those thousand words (it won’t let you use other). Might be fun to make them abstract their project using that text editor for extra credit. :)

  7. says

    “a bachelor’s degree does not confer a deep understanding of science”

    Doesn’t give you great job prospects either….

  8. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    contrary to many people’s expectations, a bachelor’s degree does not confer a deep understanding of science

    next you’ll be telling me that my law degree won’t qualify me to be a supreme court justice and that when I taught, my students did not come out of the class experts in the gender analysis of social ethics in relation social institutions and government structures?

  9. says

    Different students have different interests. I’ve had students who do really well on the cookbook style lab — they’re methodical — and just melt down when confronted with a free-form inquiry based lab. And also students who are bored to tears with yet another follow-this-protocol lab, but have a ball when you just tell them to play with the gear. There are outgoing students who thrive on in-class presentations, and introverts who just want to write a term paper. I think it’s good to push students out of their comfort zones in all directions, but I would never have a class where I cater only to the extroverts or only to the introverts. Balance in all things and all that.

    Ooh, the accessibility stuff — that’s important. Gotta figure out how to add subtitles or include a transcript or something. I’ll put it high on my list of considerations for next time.

  10. blf says

    [Poopyhead is] hoping for groupies.

    I was thinking more mobs with flaming pitchforks and sharp torches.

    Er, that is, bigger and louder mobs &tc, &tc (may contain nutters).

  11. says

    If I was hoping for groupies, I’d wear a mask and get an Antonio Banderas sound-alike to dub in the voice.

    I’ve been saying for years that I’ve got a face and voice that are god-given talents that make me a natural for blogging.

  12. brucemartin says

    PZ, it might be good to start simple, with what you have to do anyway. Every time you get a new student to try work in your lab, you show a few things. Well, show us! In simple terms, what do zebra fish look like? The equipment? Routine care? Putting samples on a slide? What to look for in the microscope?
    Don’t make one 10-minute video on this. Make 5 different videos about 3 minutes each. That would be cool, useful, and be examples of where students should START aiming. They can do fancy stuff after they’re good at being clear in a short one. It will still take work. But people would rather watch the short ones. I bet your students would agree. Good luck. Please keep sharing.

  13. No One says

    PZ consider some form of white balancing. Your skin tone is distracting. Try using daylight lamps.

  14. says

    So I’ve had this idea…this is a generation that’s comfortable with their camera phones, that whiles away hours on facebook and youtube.

    Hey! Us old farts can waste time on the internet with the best of them!

  15. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    PZ: I don’t doubt that you manage that balance well. You’re being both a very public figure and still managing to attain novelty and coherence in your blogging must give you some insight. Or maybe intuition is the better word. Or maybe its having that intuition that allows you to maintain a balanced classroom experience.

  16. Louis says

    I for one fear and loathe this new advance into technology. Being an undergrad was hard enough. There was the turning up. Then there was the turning up sober….

    …in other words, I think this ulterior motive is excellent. Anything that improves students’ presentation skills is great, it’s an underdeveloped area in general.


  17. billrolland says

    I made some videos for my clients, they’re really really short and they’re not selling anything, that provide some really excellent background on making simple videos much more professional.

    This one I made for how to use a “Flip” video (they don’t make Flip cameras anymore but the rules would apply to any kind of small video camera or phone:
    How to make a Flip Video:

    I also made three others that I think you could find helpful
    What To Wear For Your Video Interview:
    How To Give A Better On-Camera Interview:
    Great Interview Locations:

  18. says

    I’m just using a logitech C910 webcam…and dammit, it doesn’t have a manual white balance! I went looking for ideas about how to fix it, and apparently Logitech removed that capability from their software…why, I don’t know.

    And yes, one of the things I’m hoping to do is short how-to videos this summer. I’m training a new research student, so I’m thinking of doing that along side teaching him stuff. Just a video on dechorionating zebrafish, for instance, might be useful.

  19. Andy Groves says

    I think the key to improving student presentations is practice, ideally in different formats. So I think your idea of making them produce a video is great, but just the video and the one hour graduation ordeal talk is probably not enough. I run a journal club for first year grad students, and we get each of them to give several presentations of different lengths – 50 minutes, 25 minutes and 12-15 minutes. The students think the 50 minute talks will be the hardest, but as they try to cover a paper in 12-15 minutes, they realize how hard it is to hit the essential points of a paper in a short time and not get hung up on details. Next year I am going to get them all to do 3-5 minute “elevator” talks as well.

  20. says

    Bill Rolland: Those are nice videos, and I’d like to know more about the tech behind them. In particular, I’m struggling to master that lighting stuff — I know it’s important. I tell my microscopy students that the most important part of getting a good image is mastering the condenser…and weirdly, macro video photography is totally lacking in condensers!

  21. says

    Andy, oh, yes. In several of my classes, I have them do the under 10 minute presentations: I also have a format where they have to do it with no more than three powerpoint slides, including the title slide. All of my colleagues require students to do presentations in class as well, so they’re getting it multiple times from multiple angles.

    What I like about the video format is that it forces students to watch themselves, and requires multiple tries to get it just right in the final version (unless they’re naturally talented at this, in which case I’m not worried about their skills). It also gives me a semi-permanent record of their work.

  22. billrolland says

    You can call anytime (I’m PDT); my website with all contact info is We’re planning now to create a series of maybe 10 videos, each one really short and not selling anything (that’s really key) that steps through the entire process of creating in-house corporate videos (but that would also pertain to educational) from budgeting and scripting to post production. So mostly for non-professionals. We can chat. But don’t bother with the hardware store type set up. 1. I tried it when I first started and it offers more grief than gift and 2. there’s an old saying in video production, “everyone buys their gear twice – the first time because it’s cheap the second time because it works.” I’ll be happy to share what I know about lighting that’s quick, cheap, easy, effective.

  23. pHred says

    My college has an initiative to make all online course materials 100% accessible by Summer 2013 (we are not going to make it) so this has been a real headache for me.

    Instructional Design is pointing us towards this …

    “ is a free, cloud-based closed captioning & hosting service. Users can upload video and produces captions by allowing the user to play back their video and transcribe what they hear.”

    I haven’t tried it yet but have about 10 powerpoint video presentations that I have to do something about in the next two months. Sigh.

  24. Dean Pentcheff says

    I have a strong suggestion: look into what Randy Olson is doing. He’s a marine biologist-turned-filmmaker and does excellent education on how to make science videos that work. Workshop examples to check out:
    And also his book: “Don’t be such a scientist”.

    When he took a scientist’s mentality to modern film/video-making (at USC’s film school), he quickly got the crap beaten out of him by the filmmakers. What he was eventually able to do was take the core of the film industry approach (the important storytelling parts, not necessarily the technical parts) and figure out ways to get that across to scientists.

    You can learn a whole lot about how to do good science videos from Randy’s blog and book (and examples from his workshops).

  25. David Marjanović says

    Students come out of high school with an ability to read and do basic math (at least the ones we admit to college!)

    I laughed till I coughed.

  26. says

    I’ve got Olson’s book already, and I agree with part of his thesis — I’m trying to get students to think outside the traditional scope.

    I don’t want them to go off and make movies, though. That’s a full time profession, as Olson knows — I want them to be full time scientists who are able to pick and choose from the toolkit of professional film people.

  27. Dean Pentcheff says

    I fully agree (very very few students will end up as fulltime filmmakers).

    We (scientists) can all learn a lot from Randy about how to get science across to non-scientists in a broader sense. His messages apply directly to video/film, but also to other media, such as popular publications, interviews, presentations, and everything else that isn’t a peer-reviewed publication.

  28. ChasCPeterson says

    As w/ AE (most of whose #8 I could have written myself)(but not, for example, the “now that I have tenure” part, alas, but anyway), if I had known your motives in the first place I would’ve just said “good idea”.

    We (scientists) can all learn a lot from Randy about how to get science across to non-scientists in a broader sense.

    Yeah? Olson discussed stuff and was himself discussed around here a lot back in the day, and to be honest all I remember of his message is “yer all doin it rong!!!”

  29. says

    No One said, #18:

    consider some form of white balancing. Your skin tone is distracting.

    Agreed. I noticed that your eyes were red, and wasted listening time wondering if you should have been asleep, or had been drinking too much.

    My camera has a problem with white balance. (Or, maybe, I have a problem with the setup.) I deal with this by changing light sources. An LED light adds blues, reduces reds. Or there are cool light bulbs available. Experiment.

  30. Dean Pentcheff says

    But he’s right :)

    Clarifying… I don’t at all mean to imply that 1-minute videos are the way to do all university teaching (and neither, I think, was that the point PZ was making). What we’re talking about are ways to better get some science information across to some audiences. Randy’s core point is that scientists tend to communicate on the idea that persuasion is achieved by careful delivery of evidence and data (that’s kinda why we’re scientists…). But people (including scientists!) are persuaded on a personal/emotional level first; data come later.

    Filmmakers totally get that: story is all. Scientists tend not to. And scientists are in a double-bind because we want to persuade (which works emotionally and on the basis of a good story), but we also have to maintain the integrity of the data — we don’t have the luxury of changing the data to make the story better. But that’s the challenge in really persuasively communicating science.

    That said, I completely agree that university education must include a broad suite of ways of learning. A great 1-minute video in class can work wonderfully to get a cool factoid across, but nothing can replace careful, extended, contemplative intellectual work. I’m completely with you there.

  31. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    The one thing that I learned from Olson’s book was that every 15-18 minutes of lecture, I need something to regain the attention of an undergraduate classroom. Hence all the fire-dancing and chain-saw juggling.

  32. brendano says

    Yes, students love their cell phones and cameras. I have been running a 60 second Science video competition which challenges particants to condense an idea, concept or experiment down to 60 seconds of video. With over 2000 student videos on the site, some of the winning videos are amazing for the clarity of thought presented.

    I have tutorials and a ‘How to Win” section

    The judges are awesome:, you will recognise some of them:

    I’m looking forward to giving away $10,000 in cash prizes in lots of division in December this year, so plenty of time for PZ’s students to enter any of the divisions

  33. llewelly says

    “PZ consider some form of white balancing. Your skin tone is distracting. Try using daylight lamps.”

    I guess you were not around when PZ admitted he was brought back from beyond the dead by things which man was not meant to know.

  34. says

    A good model might be Tony Darnell’s Deep Astronomy channel on YouTube. He does a variety of things, including thematic videos with high production values, weekly Space Fan News segments, and more recently google hangouts. I think the content is king, but the casual, friendly style of his Space Fan News segments is very inviting.