Thoughts on the BrainSTEM Unconference


Making educational videos on YouTube, as you might expect is a solitary, experience. And that's great for me because I'm a solitary guy: happiest when walking through city streets in anonymity.

But many months ago Henry Reich, who runs Minute Physics on YouTube, encouraged me to travel across the ocean and come to a conference to meet with some of the best YouTubers to talk about the changing world of science education.

At the time, I had yet to make a video that could really be considered science education -- I wasn't sure what to expect and pretty sure that I wouldn't belong. I anticipated being the odd one out and the requisite awkwardness that would follow.

What I got instead was a life-changing few days I will never forget.

The conference was called BrainSTEM and hosted in Waterloo, Canada at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

I've rarely seen a building that so perfectly matched my sense of aesthetics: purposeful minimalism. The building maximizes the productivity and interconnectedness of its inhabitance with its big, clean, open spaces bridged by unexpected stairways and passages. Walls are either glass to view the outside world or blackboards to write the formulae that explain it all.

It was in this magnificent setting that I had the privilege of meeting the YouTubers who are doing some of the best education videos on the site and whose minds I most wanted to understand.

But it's strange to meet someone you've only known through the screen. There is a false, asymmetric closeness you feel that the other person cannot reciprocate. But, it's doubly strange when you each have that asymmetric feeling toward the other.

However, in my experience, this foreknowledge of life and work turbocharged conversations -- allowing everyone to skip the preliminaries and run full speed through three days of whirlwind discussions. Not just with YouTubers but also with brilliant researchers, educators, producers and PhDs. All of us exchanging ideas on how to improve what we do.  In that environment I fought my instincts to fade away, instead driving myself from 7:00AM to midnight three days in a row so as not to miss a thing.

And then, all too soon, it ended and I found myself on a flight to the United States -- completely and utterly drained, requiring days to recover and process my thoughts.

But, while the BrainSTEM conference lasted, it was glorious.

Thank you to Henry, the Perimeter Institute and Communitech for making it all happen.

If, like me you are interested in how other people get work done, take a look at this video by Brady Haran on how Henry makes his MinutePhysics videos: 

Also, Derek Muller from Veritasium captured the behind-the-scenes mood of the conference perfectly in his video:

Header photograph by: Andre Recnik