Friday, June 19, 2015

Chemistry is Nuts

I'm going to keep with the theme of science videos as stories this week. As I've explained before, I think a good science explanation works like a story. The cause and effect present in a science explanation can act as a narrative arc, with a beginning, middle, and end. Some science videos are simply demonstrations, and are not stories, though they may still be be pedagogically useful.

The University of Nottingham in England has a chemistry department that is particularly wacky. Hands-on demonstrations are a mainstay of the department, and the professors and lab technicians are all interesting, even unusual, characters. The head of the department, Professor (and now Sir) Martin Poliakoff, thought it would be a good idea to record these demonstrations as videos and make them available online. All they needed was a videographer, and Brady Haran, a specialist in video communication, proved to be an excellent videographer, editor, and producer. He completely understood the characters in the department and brought them to life in the videos. He also captured the humor and wackiness in the work they did. The resulting videos, collectively called The Periodic Table of Videos, are quite popular in schools around the world. I have made use of them myself. I thought it would be a good exercise to evaluate one of the videos.

This is one of the early videos (2008), about Potassium. You'll see that the action moves back and forth from technicians blowing things up and doing other labwork to the mildly eccentric professor in his office (that's Prof. Poliakoff) explaining and telling stories. This video is less useful as explanation/narrative, but it is engaging enough to work well in conjunction with other classwork and instruction.

I referred to Jason Ohler's list of possible digital story evaluation traits to examine this story. I used three traits: economy, performance, and sense of audience.

Economy: Haran, as videographer, was a decent storyteller. In this early example of his work, however, his storytelling was not as economical as it could be (and would become). I thought the middle section about the potassium mirror was interesting, but almost beside the point. The ending seemed tacked on.

Performance: The outdoor scenes of potassium exploding were great theater, and here Haran completely captured the fun. The scenes with the Professor were also engaging in a different way. The Professor was presented as quirky, a little mischevious, yet lovable, and the close framing of his face was effective. Haran preferred to keep himself out of the action, but sometimes you could hear him guiding the Professor with questions.

Sense of audience: Haran clearly knew that his audience would be people interested in science but not necessarily knowledgeable. One could watch the demonstrations understanding what was happening, or one could watch and simply enjoy the fun.

An evaluation trait that I could easily add would be originality and voice. When introduced, these videos were a dynamic departure from the "professor at the blackboard" kind of science videos. The "voice" of the video was distinctive, and all Haran's.

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