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Want to Create a Boredom-Beating Science Video? Take Tips from Geoscientist Robert Stern

Robert Stern. Photo by Melissa Fenton.
Robert Stern, Ph.D. Photo by Melissa Fenton.

What do pop songs and science videos have in common?

Geoscientist and AAAS Member Robert Stern says it usually takes about three minutes before either of them start boring their audience.

“[With a Youtube video] all you have to do is push a button and, you know, you get to watch the Kardashians instead,” Stern says. “If you're trying to interest somebody in a topic, you've got to be cognizant of the fact that it's pretty easy to get bored.”

That’s why the University of Texas at Dallas professor has made it his mission to teach the next generation of geoscientists how to become better science communicators. Since 2016, Stern has directed his efforts to heading and developing the UTD Geoscience Studio, a place where his students learn to create and animate engaging videos that illustrate complex science topics.

The projects range from explainer videos on the origins of trilobites — a group of funky-looking, extinct marine invertebrates — to educational clips on nuclear waste disposal. Videos from the studio’s Youtube channel have been viewed more than 200,000 times.

While the animations are relatively simple — “We’re not Pixar,” adds Stern —  the video-making process is a first-rate experience for new geoscientists who want to learn how to transform research from high-level jargon into digestible bites.

“They’re motivated, some of them, to develop a job skill that makes them stand out, and they want to tell the story,” he says, adding that while the videos aren’t going to earn anyone a Nobel Prize, they still have value beyond the studio. “It's very challenging work, and at the end of the day they've got this product that's not just turned in to a professor for a grade nobody will ever look at.”

In addition to heading the UTD Geoscience Studio, Stern, a Geological Society of America and American Geophysical Union Fellow, directs his university's Global and Magmatic Research Laboratory.

For his contributions to geological research, including his work on how plate tectonics evolved and study of the formation of new subduction zones — the areas where tectonic plates collide — Stern was awarded the 2019 International Prize of the Geological Society of Japan. His work has been used to explain the surface of the Earth and the impact of climate changes over time. 

One of the perks of his job, he says, is getting to escape the politics which now suffuse fields that once existed autonomously. Chatting with Stern, you’d be surprised to believe there was a time when he couldn’t get enough of them.

The UC Davis alumnus, who initially began his undergraduate degree in political studies, swapped his Political Science major for Geology after hitching a ride to Death Valley with a group of fossil collectors in the spring of 1971.

“They found something interesting, so I tried to see what was interesting, too,” Stern says of the hitchhiking adventure that changed the course of his career. “When I came back to Davis, I started taking more and more geology classes and thought, well, political science can take care of itself.”

What had looked to Stern like a bunch of rocks at the time served as the inspiration for his more than forty-year geoscience career as an explorer of Earth’s exposed crust in the world’s largest desert and underwater volcanoes in the ocean’s deepest parts.

In the coming years, he hopes to develop the UTD Geoscience Studio further with his students as they work with middle school teachers to create videos that will teach geoscience to K-12 classrooms.

“I'm looking at the end of my career and the question is, what do I want to do,” Stern says. “Do you want to do just the same old thing, or do you want to do something new? I want to do something new.”

Ultimately, he says there’s a lack of incentives and funding opportunities that exist for creators of such content. The value of a video with strong content and informative animations is incomparable. As teachers work to navigate a new era of online learning, videos aren’t just an important educational resource — they make classrooms fun, and they’re key to beating boredom.

“I think the most boring thing in the world is a Zoom class with an old professor,” Stern says. “[When students] show up, they don't show their face, they're doing something else in the background, [so] mostly, they're bored. But these videos, if they're put in, they have a chance to capture the viewer's attention.”

Animated videos that illustrate the processes behind grumbling earthquakes, bubbling volcanic magma, and the fossilization of creatures from the past can form what he calls the spice in the recipe for engaged learning.

“Videos can't be the main course,” Stern says, “But they sure can make the meal more appetizing than nothing but the meat and potatoes.”