September 2010

How YouTube Is Changing the Way Science Is Learned


With digital cameras, computers and smart phones in hand, science gurus are taking advantage of YouTube by posting videos that illustrate techniques as simple as casting an agarose gel to methods as complicated as antibody purification. (Titled "YouTube: Broadcasting Your Technique? How YouTube Is Changing the Way Science Is Learned" in print version.)


Sci.Comm---YoutubeWe are fortunate to live in a time where there is no limit to the knowledge that is readily accessible. A simple search through the most popular websites can unleash vast amounts of information on any given subject. One such site is YouTube. Founded in 2005 by three former employees of the PayPal division of eBay, YouTube serves as a video-sharing website, which allows users to upload and view videos ranging from music videos to sports clips to family events.

YouTube users have taken sharing science one step further by literally broadcasting laboratory techniques. With digital cameras, computers and smart phones in hand, science gurus are taking advantage of this website by posting videos that illustrate techniques as simple as casting an agarose gel to methods as complicated as antibody purification. YouTube is now virtually changing the way science is presented, taught and learned in classrooms and labs everywhere.

A New Dimension in Learning

Five years ago, the scientific community probably had no idea how “YouTube” and “laboratory techniques” could end up in the same sentence. However, utilizing YouTube to post videos offers a new dimension in learning. The strength of these videos is that they allow the person in the video to demonstrate, verbatim, how a specified technique is performed, including all of the little details we often overlook when using a written protocol.

Utilizing such avenues of exposure makes science an open forum, allowing groups that have developed certain techniques to easily share them with interested colleagues. Viewers can pause, rewind or restart the videos as needed to further familiarize themselves with the techniques. With the convenience that laptops and cell phones offer, these videos easily can be viewed anywhere from the comfort of a couch to a busy airport to the lab. One literally can prepare for the next experiment without carrying around a bulky lab notebook filled with protocols.

Teaching Tools

Scrolling through these videos, one notices that research labs are not the only ones taking advantage of YouTube. University teaching laboratories also have realized the benefits of this form of media. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has long tried to make all curricula available online through its OpenCourseWare initiative. OpenCourseWare is now readily available through MIT’s channel on YouTube. The channel features MIT’s “digital lab techniques manual,” which guides entire lab lessons.


Using these types of “how-to” videos in teaching labs offers an alternate approach in presenting lesson plans. The videos can be used to guide labs from the convenience of a student’s work bench, possibly keeping them more engaged in learning. This offers students an opportunity to learn independently, giving them easy access to the material covered. It also reduces the burden on instructors, allowing them to prepare lesson videos that can be reviewed by students before or after lab sections. The videos also can be used in K-12 science classes, giving younger students the opportunity to learn and experience science hands-on.

Product Demonstrations

Biotech companies such as Fisher ScientificAbnova and Invitrogen also have joined the bandwagon by posting videos that illustrate the utility of their products. Anyone who has ever worked in a lab can relate to the confusion encountered when using new products. These companies have tried to eliminate this issue by posting product demonstration videos. The videos describe the principle behind the product, show how to use it correctly and explain the product’s benefits.

For example, Abnova’s channel features videos that illustrate an array of laboratory techniques such as RNA extraction, dialysis and purification. This can help viewers who are interested in purchasing the featured product to become familiar with it before investing in it or to compare the product’s utility with that of competitors’ products.

To determine the utility of science technique YouTube videos, I performed a simple gel extraction using Abnova video below that demonstrates how to use a Qiagen gel extraction kit.

I am very familiar with this technique, having performed more than my fair share of gel extractions. However, when I followed the video, I noticed some details in the demonstration that were not mentioned in the protocol that accompanies the kit; these were details that I never have paid attention to nor performed. Although this technique is relatively simple, following the video revealed a few fine points that may be overlooked when following a written protocol— details that potentially can affect the quality of data produced. In my case, including these details actually made a difference in the amount of DNA I recovered from the extraction.

What to Expect

After watching several of these “how-to” videos, one soon comes to the conclusion that some of the videos are more helpful than others. Some videos are vague, whereas others require the viewer to have some background knowledge. The best-prepared videos are those that easily can be used by someone who is not familiar with the techniques described.

The most informative videos contain four parts: an introduction, a list of items required, an explanation of the technique and a demonstration. This layout is beneficial because it allows the user to determine the requirements and feasibility of the experiment before performing it. The explanation of the technique and its supporting principles is an invaluable aspect of these videos, in that it teaches the viewer the basis of these methods instead of allowing them to blindly follow the demonstration. Agreeably, these videos offer much more than a protocol— they give the user step-by-step by guidance, making it easier to learn techniques, and they allow the researcher to quickly identify where mistakes may have been made.

With science and technology constantly advancing, it will be interesting to see how YouTube and videos impact science in the future. Videos demonstrating techniques may accompany the methods section of journal articles or lab textbooks, entire lab sections could be taught by video and written protocols could become obsolete. The possibilities are endless.

In the meantime, enjoy viewing and sharing your favorite techniques from the comfort of your computer screen.

Lola Olufemi ( is a doctoral candidate/NSF BRIDGE fellow at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.

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