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Science Superstars: Social Media Makes Science Come Alive

Social media that makes science come alive

Rebecca Hill

Published on: July 26, 2016

Physics Girl | Photo credit: Erika Johnson

Editor’s note: Science, technology, robotics, engineering, arts and math: In our schools and communities, there is more demand than ever for STREAM. Yet only about a third of eighth-graders score “proficient” in math and science. In this first installment of our ongoing series, sponsored this month by Kids Science Labs, we’ll explore how schools and organizations are approaching STREAM in new, game-changing ways. 

When Dianna Cowern was in her final year of high school, she had to do a senior project. A fan of Mythbusters, The Science Channel and podcasts, the clever 17-year-old took a cue from her reality TV-loving friends and combined reality TV dating with science to create the one-time wonder, The Science Dating Show. And Cowern? She aced that senior project.    

Now 27, Cowern writes and produces the highly successful Physics Girl YouTube program, which has more than 19 million views. With its plugged-in feel and lively social media presence, Physics Girl is just one example of how social media can help, rather than hinder, education.

From Tumblr to YouTube, Facebook to Twitter, kids can find entertaining and diverse science programming from science stars like Emily Graslie, Hank Green, Anna Rothschild, Vi Hart and others. Unlike the sometimes stodgy science textbook lessons kids find in school, these programs share a wide range of science topics: the gross, the fascinating, the animated. They’re great tools for kids who are hardcore science fans, reluctant learners or just plain confused.

With a new school year on the horizon, the time is ripe for getting kids back on track after the lull of summer. So be tricky. Be sly. Sneak in some educational videos, blogs or tweets. They’re a fun way to get your kids back into the swing of things.    

Introducing Physics Girl!

As a young girl, Cowern always thought of herself as a closet nerd who loved science. “I would go home from school, and the first thing I would do is my math homework,” she says. “My parents would try to watch TV, but I would always yell at them to turn it off because I was doing my math.” 

That passion continued long past adulthood. She is a graduate of MIT in physics and computer scienceand and did a post-baccalaureate fellowship in low-metallicity stars at the Harvard- Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. She has worked as the science outreach coordinator for the Cool Star Lab and University of California, San Diego Department of Physics but now concentrates full-time on Physics Girl for PBS Digital Studios.

Cowern started Physics Girl shortly after she graduated. “[Physics Girl] gets me curious,” she says. “It drives my desire to work.”

Covering basic physics principles, the program features graphics, animation and Cowern’s quirky energy. One week she’ll talk about pool vortexes, the next week color, exploding cans or electromagnets. She also interviews scientists. Her goal: Take a physics problem and make it fun.

In 2014, Physics Girl won the Flame Challenge, an award given by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, while U.S. News & World Report has called Cowern the “quintessential role model for STEM education.”

She loves to hear from fans, especially kids and parents and often connects with them via Facebook, Tumblr or Twitter.  

Grossing out with Gross Science

Gross Science is exactly that: Gross. Created and hosted by Anna Rothschild and produced by Nova, the show (and Rothschild) love slimy, spiny, smelly and stomach-churning science. 

Five years ago, Rothschild was making web videos for Nova when she decided to pitch a web series on gross stuff in science. Gross Science officially launched in April 2015 and now has more than 64,000 subscribers. 

Rothschild’s not surprised by the higher viewer turnout despite her show’s often disgusting topics (example: bot worms that grow inside humans). She believes everyone has a secret love for gross.

“It’s quite normal to be fascinated by this side of life that we are so desperately trying to hide,” she says.

Viewers can find Gross Science shows that range from parasites to fungus to, yes, bot worms, all of them done with simple scientific explanations and animation, which Rothschild creates. How does Rothschild know that it is gross enough? “For me, it’s a gut feeling. It’s intestinal really!”

Find Gross Science on Twitter and on Facebook.  

Getting the scoop on Brain Scoop

Emily Graslie never imagined herself as chief curiosity correspondent of The Field Museum in Chicago. As a University of Montana student, she’d planned to be a studio artist. Then she interned at the Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum in Missoula and fell in love with zoology. She began pursuing a master’s degree in museum studies from Johns Hopkins University’s online program. 

Through her work at Wright, Graslie met Hank Green, one half of the pioneering video blogger team, VlogBrothers. Graslie’s video tour of the museum impressed Green, who offered her a chance to do her own show. And so The Brain Scoop was born. 

Graslie now produces The Brain Scoop through her work at the Field Museum, where she’s worked since 2013. The YouTube show covers natural science and history; past shows have focused on topics as diverse as the trees of the Amazon to how to skin a wolf. In each, Graslie interviews a research scientist to show viewers what a real scientist looks like and how he or she works.

“Our scientists need outlets for their research,” Graslie says. “We’ve been able to have a mutually beneficial relationship that shows viewers the kind of research that our scientists are doing.”

To prepare for videos, Graslie reads research papers and interviews scientists. “Science was never anything that I would have leapt out of bed about before,” Graslie says. “It was never taught to me in a way that I felt like I should be excited about.” Now, she says, just knowing that she can inspire wonder of the natural world in others brings her joy. 

And she’s a female role model for girls who love science. This “unwitting feminist science icon,” as the Chicago Reader once called Graslie, makes promoting science for young girls a priority. In her Ask Emily series, for example, she fields questions from young viewers. In one, a young girl and member of an all-girls science club tells Graslie she’s often asked why girls “need” their own club. Graslie agreed it’s important for girls to have their own positive, encouraging science-based outlet because so few women are involved in science at all — a response, she says, viewers called “sexist.”

“People making these comments just prove exactly why we need [these kinds of clubs],” she says. Unfortunately, Graslie’s no stranger to this kind of sexism. She’s fielded comments like “weirdest lesbian porn I’ve ever seen,” “I’d still totally do her” and “this is a man’s job.” In response, Graslie made a show that specifically addresses such comments and advocates for a greater female science presence both online and in the lab. That powerful video, “Where My Ladies At,” has more than 927,000 views on YouTube.

Viewers can contact Emily and ask questions through Ask Emily. You can find her on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook

Reading science on ReadScience!

By day, Joanne Manaster is a faculty lecturer in biology for the University of Illinois School of Integrative Biology. By night, she’s Science Goddess. As moderator of YouTube’s ReadScience!, Manaster combines her love of science and, you guessed it, reading. 

“I have a real affinity for books,” says Manaster. “They’re a great way to lose yourself or gain the ability to focus and concentrate for long periods of time.” 

On ReadScience!, Manaster interviews various science authors including Mary Roach, E.O. Wilson, Temple Grandin and Chris Hadfield.  She also sometimes features an experiment such as freezing gummy bears with liquid nitrogen.

Manaster believes all her videos show how valuable it is to see a female scientist in a public forum like YouTube. Doing so, she says, makes it more acceptable.

Manaster blogs for Scientific American magazine. Find her on Twitter.

Bonus reads (a few more we couldn't fit in print)

IFL Science

Written by Elise Andrew, IFL Science covers a number of science subjects for its millions of fans. In fact, Andrew’s social media programs have pulled in more followers than Popular Science, Discover, Scientific American andThe New York Times combined.

“I just keep sharing things I think are amazing, and people keep agreeing with me," Andrew once told OZY.

Each IFL site includes science news that is weird, fresh and exciting with terrific graphics and a very readable format. Check out the IFL Tumblr and Facebook.


One half of VlogBrothers, Hank Green lives in Montana (his brother is The Fault in Our Stars author John Green). In addition to his many video programs, teaches online educational programming such as Crash Course Anatomy and Physiology through PBS Digital Studios.Green hosts the popular SciShow, 10-minute YouTube videos on chemistry and everyday science. With cute graphics, a rapid pace and quirky script, the show covers topics from why cats purr to why we have butt hair. Kids can also check out the SciShow Quiz Show where guests such as the previously mentioned Emily Graslie compete against Green on science quiz questions.

The spinoff SciShow Kids is hosted by Jessi Knudsen Castaneda and her robot rat, Squeaks, and explains science for a younger audience. For space nuts, there’s another spinoff, SciShow Space, which features videos on space.

On the SciShow Tumblr page, kids can ask questions about science. Check out the Facebook page and Twitter.

Minute Physics

Created and animated by Henry Reich, Minute Physics videos cover everything physics from gravity to dark matter. Reich narrates while time-lapse animations illustrate the day's topic. The videos break down physics into manageable and easy to understand bites.

Check the Facebook page and Twitter. You can find the videos at YouTube or on the website, MinutePhysics, which lists and links to all of the videos. 

ViHart Mathematical Videos

When she was 13, Vi Hart's father, the former chief of content at the National Museum of Mathematics, took her to a computational geometry conference. She was hooked. This self-described "mathemusicina" has a degree in music but it's her love of math that inspires her YouTube program. In her videos, Hart’s hands doodle away as she creatively explains the basic concepts of math and geometry.

Check out her Facebook page and Twitter. Her website lists all of her videos.  

5 questions with Physics Girl's Dianna Cowern

1. How did you discover your love for physics?

I always liked math and science as a kid. I was such a nerdy kid. I was really into thinking logically and into STEM subjects. I was really curious about the world.

2. Did your parents support your interest in science and math?

My parents were great. My mom ran a B&B and my dad is a tree farmer. They would always encourage me to go for what I wanted. By the time that I was 8, though, they told me to stop asking so many questions because they no longer knew the answers. They told me to go ask my teachers or look it up.

3. How do you feel about being a STREAM role model?

I think that it is nice to be able to inspire girls in science and that is one of my goals. I think that if they can look up to someone who loves math and science, then that is really cool.  

4. How did you feel about winning the 2014 Flame Challenge?

It was a huge moment for me, an amazing experience. I called my mom and told her that I won the Flame Challenge and she said, 'What’s that?' After I told her that she would get to meet Alan Alda if she came with me, she was excited. It was an incredible experience to meet him. 

5. Who sends you fan mail?

My favorite emails are from kids or parents — especially those parents who tell me that their daughter didn’t like science until she watched my channel and now wants to take physics! I also hear from teachers and often ask them what I can do to help make the videos more useful for their classrooms.

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