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'Professor Dave' Explains How He Attracted 345,000 YouTube Subscribers

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Science educator Dave Farina developed the eponymous YouTube show, Professor Dave Explains, to teach high school students and undergrads subjects from astronomy and biology to mathematics and physics.

Now his full-time endeavor, the channel has evolved from a few classes to an extensive library of educational videos that have convinced more than 345,000 individuals to subscribe. 

Farina, who taught in high school and undergraduate classrooms for 10 years before turning into a YouTuber, received a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Minnesota's Carleton College and a master's in chemistry and science education at California State University. His career included a full-time position teaching chemistry, biology, and physics at a private school in Hollywood, and substitute teaching in the San Francisco Bay Area, before transitioning to lecturing at a trade university.

In the following interview with Education Week, Farina explains how he made the transition from teaching in a classroom to creating content online, why he thinks more Gen Z students prefer to learn by YouTube than books, and his advice for other educators interested in making a similar move.

Why did you want to become an educator?

I suppose it was just really my best skill set. Coming out of undergrad, I started grad school, and so there I would TA and tutor. Moving through my 20s, I found that the best way for me to earn income and what I was best at was explaining science to people. It just seemed to be the best way to earn a living and also feel like I was contributing.

What eventually led you to YouTube?

I was teaching organic chemistry at this trade university, and I had developed my course, so I had made all the resources. After teaching that course a number of times, I really got some effective lectures going, and I didn't want to lose them, so I recorded them and put them on YouTube. I was very pleased with their reception, and that inspired me to do more topics with greater production value.

Is your YouTube show a full-time venture?

As of very recently, it pretty much is all I'm doing. As the channel was growing, I was pulling away from teaching. Then, once the channel got some momentum, I started getting attention from websites [outside YouTube] that I was doing freelance content creation and curriculum development for. Now, I've been pulling away even from that to really double down on the channel and just try to get that going as effectively and as quickly as possible. So, I really work about 70 hours a week on the channel and do almost nothing else.

Did you apply for the YouTube Learning Fund, last year's $20 million call for entrepreneurs to create educational content?

I did indeed apply. I apply for every grant, funding, incubator--whatever I can find, and I have been very disheartened to receive none of them.

Since you're working so much, how are you supporting yourself with YouTube? How would you say your income compares to that of a high school teacher?

I am very pleased that after four years of relentless effort, the income I bring in from YouTube is finally approaching or comparable to that of a high school teacher. In addition, it shows great promise to grow far beyond that, and being completely passive income, will free me up to do a number of other things.

How would you say your videos compare to the ones out there by YouTube educators Veritasium or Vsauce?

When I got started, I glanced at what was out there, and I saw two paradigms. I saw edutainment--the sort of one-off, grab you with a hook and teach you a little nugget of something [that's] interesting to the common public--and then I saw on the other side Khan Academy-style learning--very long lectures basically like a tutor helping you on a piece of paper and a pen. I saw a chasm in between, and I really wanted to fill that [by making] educational content that would be very rigorous and aligned with curricula like the blackboard-style learning, but have it be a little bit more visually palatable. Edutainment [draws] people in, and then the blackboard style is very thorough, and rigorous, and helps students actually prepare for exams. I really wanted to split the difference.

Where do you think other educators fall short when they try to teach on YouTube?

If you are trying to dazzle, you're probably going to fall short on depth, and that's fine. That content is very important in terms of generating interest. It's just that once that interest is generated, there needs to be follow through. Most people don't make the leap from one of those channels straight to Khan Academy or something like that because it's too much like a textbook. There needs to be something in between that nurtures that creativity and offers the next step up the ladder of complexity.

What have been some of your biggest challenges as a YouTuber?

Managing workflow is a monumental amount of work when it comes down to writing, shooting, editing, animating. Not only I do all of that, but I also have to manage all aspects of running my own business. I work an unbelievable amount--12-, 14-hour days almost every day just to keep up with five tutorials a week.

Are the "non-science" parts of your work like video editing and animating, entirely self-taught? How did you learn these skills?

I did have to teach myself the editing/animating software. I have a friend that knows how to use it who gave me a few tips at first, but from there it's quite easy to Google whatever you are trying to do and figure it out pretty quickly--in addition to just experimenting with the programs. My animation skills are by no means incredible, but I've grown enough over these past few years to be able to illustrate concepts the way I visualize them in my head, which I feel has been very effective.

Last year, Harris Poll researchers found that Generation Z prefers to learn by YouTube (59 percent) compared to learning from books (47 percent). What do you think of this finding?

I don't think it's surprising at all. I lament the fact that this resource was not available to me when I was studying. YouTube came out shortly after I graduated from undergrad. It's a very effective tool. It acts as a catalyst for learning because it lowers the activation energy of consuming content. If you're reading a textbook, the amount of focus that you have to bring to a study session is very high. YouTube definitely has the potential to make learning easier and more efficient.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


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