Frontiers: Science communication

Frontiers Round-Up, beginning with MinuteEarth

YouTube is usually a one-stop shop for movie trailers, music and cat videos. But one family is using the popular website to educate viewers on earth and climate science, one video at a time.

Portraits: Henry, Peter and Alex ReichLast March, brothers Henry and Alex Reich, along with their father, IonE resident fellow Peter Reich, created the YouTube channel MinuteEarth, featuring one- to three-minute animated videos focusing on topics ranging from fisheries management to atmospheric science. The three shared their experience at the Institute on the Environment’s first Frontiers in the Environment presentation of the semester – “Science Communication: Teach, Entertain or Inspire?” – Wednesday, Jan. 29 at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul.

The family moved forward with MinuteEarth after Henry Reich’s channel, MinutePhysics, started gaining viewers around the world.

“Henry was in his bedroom in Los Angeles making videos that were being seen by tens of thousands of people,” Peter Reich, a Distinguished McKnight University professor, said. “So I started doing the math. I would go give a talk at a university or an environmental group and speak to 40 or 60 people or, at best, several hundred. He was reaching hundreds of thousands with his videos over time, and that’s only grown.

“The light bulb went on that maybe we could take this magical elixir – this Internet elixir that Henry had come up with for MinutePhysics – and apply it to environmental themes so we could get people enthused about and learning about the environment.”

The plan worked. In its first year, MinuteEarth has produced 31 videos and gathered more than 720,000 subscribers. Henry Reich attributes the channel’s success to its simple, lighthearted approach to complex issues.

“We don’t think that making really fancy stuff is necessarily the way to go,” he said. “You can spend a lot of money on fancy graphics and production and mess things up. So for us, it’s much more important to get the content right than to get the graphics to be flashy.”
Peter Reich agreed, saying the key to capturing the audience is keeping the videos short, interesting and fun.

“We don’t want to sound preachy and/or bore people who know a lot about these topics by just telling them the same things they’ve already heard over and over again,” he said. “So we try to come up with some new angles on science, we try to come up with some nuanced aspects of science. We actually try to inject humor into even the most serious topics.”

While the videos are simple, the production process is far from it. The three work entirely online, communicating with a writer and musician in New York City and an animator in Venezuela to turn their ideas into reality. But even though the work isn’t always easy, the finished product is rewarding.

“The reasons that I feel it’s worth spending my time and energy on MinuteEarth are because I think it’s important to try to help other people become aware of their place in the world and how they relate to things around themselves,” said Alex Reich, who is a graduate student at IonE. “And then there’s the idea of trying to make some sort of positive impact and try to do something with my very privileged and fortunate life that seems worthwhile to do.”

Watch the Reiches’ full presentation online.

John Sisser is a communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment.