Plants Are Cool Too is “the web series acknowledging that animals are pretty interesting – but plants are cool, too!” Created and hosted by Dr. Chris Martine of Bucknell University, the series is co-sponsored by the Botanical Society of America. I spoke with Dr. Martine about the creation and production of Plants Are Cool Too; the following is an edited version of our conversation.
What can YouTube do for Museums and STEM Education?
“I think that the paradigm has shifted in terms of the way people watch video, watch TV-type stuff,” says Martine. “My university students don’t bother with televisions anymore. They watch all their content on their laptops or handheld devices,” adding that his teenage daughter is the same way. “So if you want to reach people… that’s the place to go. And it’s obviously not the case that everyone can visit a given museum… so it’s a way to reach out literally to the entire planet as long as people have devices they can watch streaming video on. It’s a no-brainer to do these things. It’s extending far beyond the walls of the physical structure museums are held in.” One potential stumbling block, he says, is that some aspects of online STEM education are “just not measurable. How many students have seen [my videos] in the country? I have no idea. Some of it’s a little undefinable.”
What made you decide to create Plants Are Cool Too?
“I was trying to think of ways to tell stories about cool plants and about the field of botany and about the individuals who are doing the science of botany. We talk a lot in our field about [the] general populace … having plant blindness. We see this green stuff all around us [but don’t necessarily know what it is]. It has led to sort of less of an appreciation for how important plants are in the world. I’ve been thinking a lot over the years [about how] students who sort of knew things about general natural history often had learned that stuff by watching things like Animal Planet… so when I’d speak to children’s groups [I’d ask] Where did you learn that? It was often those sorts of answers.” Martine began to develop a sense for how powerful medium of video could be for reaching people.
“There’s just not a lot of content out there that’s plant related.” He began to look for a way to create his own videos. “I knew that I could talk about plants and I had had some experience on camera and on stage” (at one point, he thought about pursuing an acting career) “but I had no idea how to actually produce videos.” Deciding that it was important to find someone who could handle the video production end of things, Martine hired two freelance videographers. “It can be pretty expensive–you’re paying people what they’re worth,” he says, but notes that you’re paying to borrow equipment as well as expertise “I think that it can be seen as maybe a little expensive and not exactly DIY [do it yourself] but we end up with a product that looks really good.”
How to Come Up with Topics…
“I go to the national botany conference every summer and I go to talks [and] generate a list of potential topics and potential scientists to highlight,” says Martine. “For me it’s sort of [doubly] important that the topic is interesting but that the scientist… is also a good speaker who will do well on camera. I want it to be about selling both the story and the scientist who’s doing the work.” Martine says he doesn’t have a formal strategic plan, but has a lot of conversations with his co-producers (the freelance videographers) about the format and direction of the show.
“Once I have a sense for a good topic and a good scientist… [I’ll reach out to the scientist and explain] here’s my vision for how we might tell the story of the work you’re doing. Does it jive with your vision of what you’re doing?” Together, Martine, his co-producers, and the scientists “hash out what kinds of things I would want to say and what things they want to make sure are represented in our coverage of their work.” In putting together the story for each video, Martine explains, “I really want to generate a sense for discovery and adventure in science. I want someone who watches the show to think wow, this is a new discovery that’s happening in cool places. So we think a lot about location.” That means raising some money just to get people to the location of the video shoot. “We try to keep it efficient,” says Martine: they shoot film for each video within a three- to four-day span including travel time. This includes two full days shooting for each of the video. “I do tend to keep it kind of informal in terms of the [script] writing until we’re on site and then let things develop and prompt the guest [scientist] in ways that… get them to tell [a] story,” says Martine. He explains that he developed the style of the videos by closely watching videos he wanted to emulate, and that other elements developed over time. “It’s really helpful to have the production team that I have because they’ve done this stuff before and … they know what works. It’s been great to have them.”
…and How to Make the Videos
“I come up with an outline for how I think an episode could run, including what I might say… intro and outro… I’ll often start to write some of the voice-over stuff, although a lot of that happens on the back end. And then I present that material to the production guys [freelance videographers].” They discuss, “Here’s the topic, here’s the outline of how I think this might go, and here’s the shots that might be required and animations…. What do you think?” He adds, “One of the places we could really improve is through thinking how to animate the stories better. If we were really to hire someone to really do soups-to-nuts animation it would be another additional chunk of money we’d have to raise. [But] I think some of the best science video … has a lot of animation [which enables you to] show people the things they can’t see with live video. Explaining complex concepts in the sciences is so much easier when you can generate a really effective animation.”
“My advice… find that one person who actually makes videos and… start asking questions about what it would take to work with them.”
How Much Does This Cost?
The cost to produce a Plants Are Cool Too video ranges from $8,000 to $15,000 all in. “A lot depends on how far we have to travel,” explains Martine. “There’s a per-day cost that video production just [requires],” giving a rough estimate of about $1,000 to $2,000 per day.
The first episode of Plants Are Cool Too was essentially a pilot funded by the Botanical Society of America. “Once we got that first episode up and I was able to show that to other people, it really became part of my job as a co-producer to raise the money for each individual episode,” says Martine, noting that securing funding is “one reason we’ve only had around 10 episodes.” Different episodes receive support for a variety of institutions, including from the Botanical Society of America and the home institutions of his on-camera guest scientists, for whom these videos act as public outreach. Martine’s own university houses a herbarium, plant conservatory, and a zoological collection, which provide some resources. “[Funding] has been a big challenge for us, too. To do it right is gonna cost money and the biggest limiting factor is being able to pay for production. Personally I don’t think it’s a sustainable model … to be spending as much time as I often do to track down the money [for each individual video].”
Don’t Forget About Promotion
“One of the issues I’m having [is that] it’s hard to get people to know about [our videos]. We can make this product and put it up but there’s the entire other leg of it… promotion.” He adds, “In the time crunch of producing the series and then actually making [the videos], the thing that often falls behind is the ability to really, truly promote it. I think that’s where being connected to a museum would be really great.” Martine says the majority of their viewers find them through social media. “We’re building but it’s taking time. The channel right now has 1,000 subscribers. … We get to the first 1 or 2 thousand views within a few days.”
“I would say that I could be better at [engaging with social media]. I’ll spend some time watching the comments… if people ask questions… I’m happy to do that but I’m not engaging as much as I probably could with people. We tend not to get that many comments.”
What About Data and Demographics?
Their videos are on the long end of what’s recommended for this sort of outreach: between 8 and 14 minutes. 60% of their viewers are in the 18-34 range and 60% are male, although that percentage changes depending on the age group. Viewership for Plants Are Cool Too videos varies depending on how long the videos have been available online. “We haven’t hit a point where anything has gone viral,” says Martine. “Early stuff is in the 4 to 5 thousand range. We have 2 now that are at 20,000 views.” He notes that it’s difficult to count how many people actually see each video because a teacher playing the video to a class full of students is still counted as just one view. He knows that the videos are being used in classrooms, however, because he gets emails from teachers.
Should Museums and Institutions Collaborate?
“The botanical research community is beginning to embrace [Plants Are Cool Too] as a way to disseminate their research findings. People are now writing our series into their NSF pre-proposals and that would mean part of their award would then fund the production of an episode. … If that works, that would be outstanding.” He adds, in regards to museums sponsoring or collaborating to create videos, “When there is an infrastructure already in place to promote the stuff that a museum is doing, it becomes less daunting. You can say, Well we already have a staff that promotes [things and manages] media relations…. Those things are already in place.”