The McMaster course aims to simplify the science. Now the YouTube channel has 124,000 subscribers

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A complex subject explained in a simple and engaging way.

That’s the gist behind a budding YouTube channel that doubles as a seminar series for undergraduates at McMaster University.

Appropriately called Demystifying Medicine, the channel is a collection of short videos made entirely by students that bring contemporary perspectives to connect the connections between science, medicine and disease.

Consider: obsessive compulsive disorder told through the eyes of someone living with it; a walk in the shoes of a young adult with ADHD; the ins and outs of sleep paralysis, anorexia nervosa, cocaine use, color blindness and sex chromosome abnormalities; the science of getting drunk; why people bite their nails; whether milk is actually good for you.

These videos – and some 1,100 others like them – have amassed over 31 million views worldwide and garnered a massive subscriber base of over 124,000 in just eight years.

“I didn’t think it would get this big, no,” said a sheepish Dr. Kjetil Ask, an associate professor at Mac Health School who ran the channel in 2014.

Indeed, the hugely successful channel had much more humble beginnings.

The idea for a series of niche, informative seminars at McMaster originated when Ask took a similar type of course while working at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland a decade ago.

“They also held a seminar series on demystifying medicine, where students gave themed presentations, including a clinical overview from a doctor, an interview with a patient, and then a scientist who explained how to solve the problem,” says -he. “I thought that was the best way to learn something about a subject you weren’t familiar with.”

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

“Some students started saying, ‘Why not make videos instead of standing in front of a PowerPoint presentation?’ “, he recalls. “We had no intention of doing it initially, but we said why not?”

The rest is history.

Demystifying Medicine has become so popular at McMaster that the school now offers four courses per semester. Each has about 24 students with a broad background, from arts to biochemistry, who are separated into six small groups. They are required to make four videos on any current scientific, medical or educational topic within three months.

The course is rooted in experimental learning and emphasizes creativity. There are no exams or mid-term marks. Instead, students are judged on a number of assignments, 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 expected to try crazy things that they don’t know will work,” says Ask. “If they want to unleash their creativity, saying ‘I’ll grade you’ is not good, because they dare not try.”

Each week, groups present updates on their videos to their course host and peers, getting feedback on what looks good and what doesn’t. And at the end of the semester, there are exit interviews where students suggest how the course can improve.

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

“In addition to the learning component, what has contributed to its popularity are the other skills students develop,” Ask says, pointing to teamwork, risk-taking, conflict resolution and personal responsibility. “Certain skills are badly needed for what is required in today’s workforce.”

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