The McMaster course works to simplify science. The YouTube channel now has 124,000 subscribers

A complex topic, explained in a simple and fascinating way.

This is the essence of a budding YouTube channel that doubles as a series of seminars for students at McMaster University.

Appropriately called Demystifying Medicine, the channel is a collection of short videos made entirely by students who hold contemporary perspectives on the links between science, medicine and disease.

Think of: an obsessive-compulsive disorder told through the eyes of a person who lives with it; a walk in the shoes of a young adult with ADHD; the subtleties of sleep paralysis, anorexia nervosa, cocaine use, color blindness and sex chromosome abnormalities; the science of drunkenness; why people bite their nails; whether the milk is really good for you.

These videos – and about 1,100 others like them – have garnered north of 31 million visits worldwide and gathered a solid subscriber base of more than 124,000 in just eight years.

“I didn’t think it was going to be that big, no,” said puzzled Dr. Kjetil Ask, an associate professor at Mac’s health school who headed the channel in 2014.

Indeed, the extremely successful channel had much more modest beginnings.

The idea for a niche and informative series of seminars at McMaster was born when Ask attended a similar type of course while working at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland a decade ago.

“They also had a series of demystifying medical seminars where students made up-to-date presentations, including a clinical examination by a doctor, an interview with a patient and then a scientist talking about how to deal with the problem,” he said. “I thought this was the best way to learn something you weren’t familiar with.”

When Ask returned to Hamilton in 2011, he piloted the series at McMaster, first getting students to give class presentations to high school students.

“Some students started saying, ‘Why don’t we make videos instead of standing in front of PowerPoint presentations?'” He recalls. “Initially, we had no intention of doing that, but we said why not?”

The rest is history.

Demystifying Medicine has become so popular at McMaster that the school now offers four hours per semester. Each has about 24 students with extensive educational experience, from the arts to biochemistry, who are divided into six small groups. They are required to make four videos on each current scientific, medical or educational issue within three months.

The course is based on experimental training and gives priority to creativity. There are no exams or intermediate grades. Instead, students are assessed on a number of tasks, such as class participation and self-assessment and peer assessment.

“We don’t give intermediate grades because in the middle of the course, students are supposed to try crazy things they don’t know will work,” Ask said. “If they want to develop their creativity, saying ‘I’ll give you a grade’ is not good, because they don’t dare to try.”

Each week, groups present updates of their videos to their course leaders and peers, receiving feedback on what looks good and what doesn’t. And at the end of the semester there are initial interviews where students suggest how the course can be improved.

It is designed for a student-led course, unlike anything else in Canadian academia.

“Apart from the learning component, what has contributed to its popularity are the other skills that students develop,” says Ask, referring to teamwork, risk-taking, conflict resolution and personal responsibility. “There are skills that are very necessary for what is required in today’s workforce.”

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