U-M professor feeds hunger for online education with bite-size science

December 24, 2012

(Phys.org)—Today's Risk Bite brought to you by the University of Michigan School of Public Health: Does wearing a hat keep you warm when the rest of your body is exposed?

Sometimes cheeky, perhaps even quirky, and occasionally focused on a trending topic, these mini-lessons posted on YouTube take interesting facts about risk science—defined as the science of existing and emerging human health risks—and presents them in small, relatable and easily digestible video segments to help answer the question, "Just how risky is this?"

Like many scientific concepts, risk science is not always easy to understand. So, inspired by Sal Khan, Henry Reich and Vi Hart—all of whom can be found on YouTube scribbling as they explain physics and math—Risk Bites creator Andrew Maynard takes a white dry erase board and a black marker to doodle lessons on gun control, asbestos, and tryptophan. Some of his more provocative topics: Ten Ways Water Can Kill, Could Eating Chocolate get you a Nobel Prize? and the recent Poop and Cell Phones.

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Maynard, director of the U-M Risk Science Center and professor of , says he wants the series to provide credible and timely information that will help people better understand human health risks. Risk Bites takes advantage of a growing hunger for digestible, informal online education.

"Increasingly sophisticated educational material on YouTube and elsewhere is being consumed by ever-greater numbers of people," said Maynard, incoming National Science Foundation international chair of environmental health science. "The most successful content generators are people with a passion for knowledge and an ability to connect with their audience. And in this new medium they are leaving professional educators in the dust.

"I'm particularly interested in how this gap can be closed. How can someone like me who teaches for a living achieve relevance to a wider audience through using YouTube more effectively?"

We never see Maynard in the videos. Only his hand is visible, as he draws objects, stick figures and words, while he narrates each story with his distinctively British accent. The drawing appears to come naturally, but don't call him an artist.

"I'm amused when people tell me I draw well, because I really don't. But I think that this is perhaps part of the charm of the videos," he said.

Reaction to the series since its official launch in November has been positive from professionals who teach about risk, some of whom already are using the videos in their courses, Maynard says, but he hasn't yet reached his target audience of young people.

And to any critics who say you can't explain complicated science in a 60-90 second video:

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Does wearing a hat keep you warm while dancing naked?

"If we are going to communicate effectively, we need to be where people are, not where we think people should be," Maynard said. "With social media we need to think of education as a conversation. Risk Bites does this by creating a complex tapestry of understanding, one thread at a time."

In addition to the videos, the center has started a blog called Risk Sense that features experts who write about their research or about emerging issues. Maynard has a blog called 2020 Science, which is about developing new technologies responsibly and safely.

He also has created a Mind the Science Gap blog that challenges Master's of Public Health students to post 10 times each semester on health topics, with a goal of helping them learn to translate complex science to a broad audience.

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3.4 / 5 (5) Dec 24, 2012
It is an interesting idea, presenting science education and risk education in sound bites, but, like tweeting communication, artificial boundaries on a bite are a matter of personal prejudice.

For instance, in the "doodle lessons on gun control," presented as though it is on risk, is a sly plea to further infringe the Second Amendment Right to Keep and Bear Arms.

Lessons on risk caught my eye particularly for being a fan of N. N. Taleb and his insights into the failures of post-modern education on risk and iatrogenic intervention. Read Black Swan and Antifragile.
Andrew Maynard
5 / 5 (2) Dec 24, 2012
@Doug Huffman Thanks for your comment. I agree that the boundaries here are a challenge. With anything like this, you need to frame a small part of the question so that you have a coherent sub-narrative. But that also means that you are using a separate set of rules/guidelines to determine that framing and the story that is told as a result.

My meta-narrative is the relevance of evidence to decision-making and the importance of science in generating defensible evidence. So on the gun control piece I was emphasizing the need for decisions to be made on evidence rather than speculation, and that barriers to developing science-based evidence are not helpful. However, the piece is also framed within a public health perspective rather than a second amendment perspective.

In the long run, the hope is that there are some viewers who begin to develop a sophisticated understanding of the "elephant" through many small glimpses - we'll see how well it works!
1 / 5 (1) Dec 24, 2012
I'll watch the other video offerings with interest. Thanks, Dr. Maynard, and best wishes.
1 / 5 (1) Dec 24, 2012
What about the risks of microwaves / radio waves? These would be interesting topics. I wonder if microwaves have any benefits whatsoever? Maybe if used in the right way.

Anyways I think these videos are great, the more clear and concise knowledge that people can point to the better.
not rated yet Dec 25, 2012
Heh, "concise knowledge," ignores the effect of Procrustes Bed.

Procrustes was an Ancient Greek rogue and innkeeper with one iron bed, to which he fitted all of his guests, the long, the short and the tall, he fitted them all, with axe or windlass. Bloody and uncomfortable.

Or a different metaphor. Benoit Mandelbrot (Julia roughness and fractal geometry) demonstrates that reality is fractally complex. To excise one 'mot' destroys its context. Imagine trying to describe one region of the complex field map that is just as complex as the whole.
1 / 5 (1) Dec 25, 2012
Everyone is retarded about something. For me one topic is VOIP. Even cartoons would be invaluable
1 / 5 (1) Dec 25, 2012
Maybe more than merely VOIP technology. Risk Bites is (to be) bite sized introductions into the science of risk. Risk as in what Taleb writes on in his The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable



not rated yet Jan 03, 2013
This is interesting and a unique way of presenting the health risks. I'm not really a science wiz but your ideas are amazing.

1 / 5 (1) Jan 08, 2013
At first I don't understand most of what's been taught and said on risk science but it got me interested. There is really so much to learn about science that I haven't learned way back in college.
Ferdie of Begincollege.com

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