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Combating ‘chemophobia’: York chemists use YouTube to become global educators

Posted on 10 June 2014

YouTube videos created by a University of York chemist and his students are attracting a global audience keen to learn more about how chemistry controls everyday life.

Alerted by the educational benefits of YouTube chemistry channels such as ‘Periodic videos’, the Department of Chemistry’s Professor David Smith initially made a series of videos explaining organic chemistry and the ‘amazing molecules’ that can be found in everyday life.

Explaining the chemistry behind various subjects, from painkillers and curries to television shows Breaking Bad and Wonders of Life, Professor Smith aims to minimise the perceived distance between scientists and everyday audiences and to help combat chemophobia – the view that chemicals, and chemistry, are bad things.

Students who make videos are more positive about their learning experience than those who choose to write articles, and also have better recall of the material...

Professor David Smith

Helping to dispel the notion that chemistry is separate from day-to-day life, the videos are used for student revision but have also seen international success, as the audience also includes a non-academic online community. At present, the YouTube channel ‘ProfessorDaveatYork’ has gained more than 400,000 views, 1000 subscribers and 1000 comments.

Professor Smith said: “Importantly, the comments feature of YouTube enables a real dialogue with viewers, which makes it a far more democratic mechanism for outreach than traditional lectures. It reaches people in their own homes, and provides them with a voice to interrogate the source of information to deepen their understanding.”

In an innovative step, Professor Smith decided that making videos, rather than just watching them, could have significant benefits for his own students at York. As part of a first year unit on polymer science, students can opt to present an aspect of chemistry from a range of topics, such as polymers in aviation, fashion, sport or medicine. Projects are then assessed on the basis of the video’s creativity and scientific accuracy.

Professor Smith added: “Rather than just asking students to passively digest content, getting them to actively create content enhances their communication skills, creativity and evaluation of chemical principles in context. Students who make videos are more positive about their learning experience than those who choose to write articles, and also have better recall of the material than other topics learnt through traditional methods.  Students’ confidence increases as they see people interacting with their work all over the world, turning them into global educators in their own right.”

Videos made by students in the Chemistry department are uploaded to YouTube playlists for easy navigation, building an online chemical community. At present, student videos have been viewed tens of thousands of times, providing a diverse range of student voices speaking on important chemical topics, directly to an audience in their own homes.