Use Video to Enhance Class Lectures

Video is a fantastic way to augment class lectures and let students see examples of habitats, organisms, and various physical/chemical/biological phenomena. Instead of just listening to a lecture about mangrove forests, students can go on a virtual field trip by watching a video. Quite a few educators are now using videos routinely to illustrate scientific concepts. The number of videos suitable to accompany science lectures is growing (here is a great list of videos for teaching ecology). Many of these are produced by professional filmmakers, but some are created by science practitioners and students.

Ecologists who work in different types of ecosystems and study various processes can make an important contribution to science education by making short documentaries (three to five minutes) focused on a particular topic. You may be doing research in an alpine forest, a grassland, or a coral reef. Or, you may teach a field course in a tropical rainforest or a desert. By shooting some footage and putting it together with a brief explanation, you can provide a unique insight into that ecosystem. If you get into the habit of creating short videos during such excursions, you will eventually build up a library of footage to augment class lectures. Students who take field courses or who are conducting field research can also produce informative videos in which they share their experiences and insights with other students or the general public.

I recently visited a unique ecosystem in southern Japan and decided to make a short video about it. I spent about two hours at the site shooting footage with my iPhone (attached to a monopod). I would have spent that much time anyway taking photos and just exploring the site. I additionally spent about five hours over the subsequent three days editing the clips (with iMovie) and incorporating information from the literature. Whenever I had a few minutes during my travels (waiting for a plane or bus), I trimmed the footage or searched the internet for information to include in the video. I did most of the initial editing on my iPhone, but finished the video on my computer using the desktop version of iMovie.

The resultant 4.5-minute video would be suitable to show in a lecture about climate controls on plant distributions or a more specialized lecture about mangrove ecosystems.

Now, some of you may be hesitant to make such a video, thinking that it will take a lot of time or will never be as good as professional science documentaries. Well, your videos don’t have to be of BBC quality to be effective. Also, you don’t need fancy equipment or a film studio to produce an informative and high-quality video. I used an iPhone 6 to film this video, which was rendered in high definition (1080p). As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the iPhone is easy to use to capture video, especially if you know a few basics. Movie-editing is also quite easy with applications such as iMovie. Video-sharing sites allow creators to easily upload their videos online where they are readily shared with others.

The main point here is that with a little effort, I was able to create a mini-documentary about a topic of interest to students and researchers studying mangrove forests. Students may read about the distributional limits of mangroves, but text descriptions are dry and often not very interesting. A video, on the other hand, takes the viewer across oceans to a remote site they will likely never have the opportunity to visit and creates a memorable example of mangroves growing near their northernmost limit. The video is also understandable by non-specialists who might travel to southern Japan and want more information about unique coastal vegetation found there.


The_Great_Wall_of_China_at_Jinshanling-edit“If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.” That was a favorite saying of Deng Xiaoping, who was referring to China’s economic reform that would ultimately transform the country. China’s decision to open its doors to foreign investment and western knowledge also let in the Internet and foreign ideologies. To keep those “flies” away, the Chinese government has implemented The Great Firewall of China—an Internet censorship and surveillance program.

I’m currently in China where access to social media (Twitter, Facebook), YouTube, Google, and many other sites is blocked. A number of media sites such as CNN and the New York Times are also blocked (you can test whether a website is blocked by using Update 5/25/16: if previous site is unavailable, try this one Not only that, the government surveillance encourages self censorship because Internet users believe they are being watched and could potentially suffer legal and economic consequences if they do not adhere to the government policy. The blockage of sites I take for granted at home means I cannot (easily) get to my g-mail, Twitter, and YouTube accounts. In addition to the inconvenience, such censorship is quite disturbing to someone accustomed to Western freedoms and beliefs.

The irony is that it’s possible to jump over the Great Firewall, and many people here do. How that’s accomplished requires an understanding of how the Great Firewall works, which is technically quite interesting. There are three main ways Internet access to certain sites is blocked. The first is IP Blocking, which works by blocking all access to a known IP address. For example, (a domain) maps to a known IP address; any attempt at connection is immediately disconnected (I would get messages saying that the server was unavailable, or the connection attempt would time out). The second way is called IP Address Misdirection, which does exactly what the name suggests. You might type in a url,, but the Firewall will send you to a fake address, The final method is called Data Filtering, in which an Internet search involving certain keywords (e.g., Tiananmen Square) will be intercepted and the content of the resulting URLs examined. If the URL is on the censored list, then access to that site is blocked.

Through the use of VPNs (virtual private networks) and other proxies, Chinese citizens and visitors like me can circumvent the firewall. These work by routing information through a server located elsewhere, for example, California. Your IP address is thus changed so that it appears you are located in the US, and your web activity is also encrypted. This change bypasses the various blocking procedures described above. However, Chinese authorities have begun identifying and blocking some of the more popular VPNs, making it a bit more difficult for the average person to jump the firewall. I found one that is currently working and is allowing me to (so far) post things on banned sites such as Twitter.

I knew about the firewall prior to this trip (having visited China before) and had assumed that Chinese viewers were unable to see my YouTube videos. Chinese colleagues also had mentioned to me that YouTube was not accessible in China. I now know that is not entirely true. In fact, a friend who is from China but lives in the US said that her friends back home told her about “The Scientist Videographer” and video tutorials. They were talking about using a GoPro to capture video, and her friends mentioned a tutorial showing how to shoot and edit a slow-motion video, which showed a hummingbird. After a moment’s confusion, she realized they were talking about someone she knew—me and my YouTube tutorials.

There is much, much more to this topic (see this NY Times article for an in-depth description) than I could cover in a brief post.

Image Credit: Wikipedia Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0, uploaded by Brandmeister