Learning Science through Videos

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The PBS NOVA series The Elegant Universe helps views picture six-dimensional Calabi-Yau shapes.The PBS NOVA series The Elegant Universe helps views picture six-dimensional Calabi-Yau shapes.

The PBS NOVA series The Elegant Universe uses CGI to help viewers picture difficult concepts like six-dimensional Calabi-Yau shapes.

As a homeschooler, I tend to shy away from textbooks. And it’s not just because they’re boring. According to many experts, even newer textbooks often contain information that’s outdated or inaccurate. On the other hand, it’s very hard to get my kids to read “real” science books, even ones written for a lay audience – and if I’m forcing them, how much will they retain? Instead, I’ve found that videos are an effective way of imparting information in a way that my kids are more likely to actually absorb. Most of the time we can stream them online for free or borrow them on DVD from the library. (For some reason we never manage to watch or record relevant specials when they’re actually broadcast.)

One area where we use videos a lot is science. For chemistry, we watched a series from 1990 called The World of Chemistry on learner.org the website of the Annenberg Foundation. (Yes, I know I just complained about out-of-date textbooks, but this series came highly recommended, and it was only one of a number of sources that we used.) Just this week a friend mentioned that he watched the series with his 6-year-old, who apparently really liked the lab explosions!

For life science we focused on microbiology, so the series Unseen Life on Earth, also on learner.org, was very helpful. The series was expanded from a PBS series called Intimate Strangers, which we did not see but which I suspect was probably more interesting without the added “lectures.” From the library we borrowed the interesting PBS series Evolution, which also has a useful companion website. But the video which stuck with me the most was something I happened across on the library shelf called Death by Design. It was an unexpectedly fascinating look at how cells die. I was particularly inspired by the work of one scientist profiled, Rita Levi Montalcini, who celebrated her 101st birthday on April 22 – so much so that a children’s book about her life is high on my to-do list of future projects.

What I really started out to tell you about, however, is the PBS show NOVA. As it happens, all the videos we’ve watched this year as we study Modern Physics have been from this series. Their use of story-telling, biography, and special effects have gone a long way towards helping us grasp the weird concepts involved in relativity and quantum mechanics. And the shows each have a companion website which often includes related experiments or activities we can do at home. We started off with Einstein’s Big Idea, which dramatized the work of earlier scientists (including quite a few women) leading up to the formulation of E=mc2. We particularly liked recreating some of the experiments using instructions from the website’s teacher guides. The CGI in The Elegant Universe (which you can stream online at the PBS site ) helped us picture the meaning of string theory. And Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives used more artsy animation as it followed musician Mark Everett’s search for an understanding of his aloof late father Hugh Everett, the inventor of the “Many Worlds” theory. The companion website touched on such fun topics as parallel universes in science fiction. More than 70 videos, including short “Nova Science Now” episodes, can be streamed at the PBS NOVA website. really deserves a tip of the hat for helping round out my kids’ science curriculum.

More physics videos are listed in the sidebar of my blog Home Physics. Other suggestions are welcome!

If you’re interested in what experts have to say about textbooks in science, history and math, see my 2004 article Why Textbooks Stink.

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