This is a guest post by Prof. Kris Stanek, an astronomy professor at The Ohio State University (OSU). Kris works on a wide range of topics including stellar explosions (GRBs, SNe), transiting planets, and other variable objects.
I am on a much-needed sabbatical at the Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii Manoa, and I recently gave a short talk promoting the idea of OSU Astronomy “Coffee Briefs”. The idea seemed well received, and Jessica Lu suggested that I write something about it for AstroBetter.
OSU “Coffee Briefs” are relatively short (3 to 5 minutes) videos posted on the OSU Department of Astronomy YouTube channel to explain and disseminate papers written by the members of our department. When a new paper is posted on astro-ph (see example), the archive posting includes a link to the video. What is new here is that this is done for all the papers, not just for an occasional press release.
The first “Coffee Brief” video was made in August 2011 by Jennifer van Saders, an OSU graduate student, and has been followed by many others. As of January 2013, 31 such videos have been posted (with a combined length of 2+ hours), made by 20 different OSU students, including one by an OSU undergrad. The response of the astronomical community to this idea has been positive, but it has not yet been adopted by other astronomy departments. I hope to change that, hence my IfA talk and this post.
When the idea first emerged, I spent a few hundred dollars to buy a decent HD video camera, a tripod and an external mike. Since then, by popular demand I have also bought some lights, a better tripod and a lapel mike (but I have refused to buy a teleprompter). Students tape and edit their own videos, using public video editing software. After “vetting” them, we (one of OSU faculty members in charge of the YouTube channel) post them on YouTube, and while they have not been going viral yet, they usually get few hundred views, roughly half of them generated by the astro-ph link (the most viewed video has close to 2,000 views).
I asked Ben Shappee, a graduate student at OSU who made three “Coffee Briefs” so far, to share some of his video-making experience. Here are his thoughts:
“Making a video is generally a one person job that takes ~2 days the first time around. After becoming familiar with script writing, filming, and editing, a video can usually be completed in a single day. The keys to creating a successful video are to write a script broken into manageable bits, to include many diagrams and pretty pictures to accompany your monologue, and to use many arrows and other accents on diagrams to emphasize important features. Finally, to enliven the brief, one can film the introduction and conclusions somewhere outside on campus.
The only significant investment needed to begin creating quality coffee briefs is the purchase of a suitable video camera and camera stand. The additional equipment and software needed are minimal. There are even free video editors available on Windows, Mac, and Linux (Windows Movie Maker, Apple iMovie, and Kdenlive) that are all user friendly. I personally recommend the open source video editor Kdenlive because of its balance between usability and functionality. Adding arrows and other accents to plots is easily accomplished in PowerPoint or Open Office, saved as individual images, and then imported into a video editor. The only additional pieces of hardware I would recommend are a lapel microphone and a camera remote control. Creating a polished video is easier than one might think.”
So why would you adopt and then adapt this idea? I think there are at least three reasons to make these videos. One, in astronomy, it is an essential skill to be able to explain your science well, and to be concise about it. This is what AAS five minute talks are all about, but here you get to edit and tape again and again, as much as needed. Second, these videos are also a good astronomy popularization tools, and of the 100+ people who have subscribed to our YouTube channel so far, only relatively few are professional astronomers (as far as I can tell). Third, and as important, doing this gets your name and face “out there”: you are no longer just “student of Professor so and so”, you are now a researcher with a name and a face. Of course there is no reason faculty members and other senior researchers could not do one as well, but at OSU, at least so far, only students have been receptive enough to actually make a video.
“First, do no harm” applies to astronomy as well, so you do not want to post a poorly executed and badly edited video. Make sure your adviser and/or co-authors see the video in advance, so you do not say something that makes them upset or something that will be out there to embarrass you forever.
If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me (kstanek *at* astronomy.ohio-state.edu), or post a comment/question and I will try to answer it. I am looking forward to seeing many astronomy “Coffee Briefs” (or whatever you will call them in your institution) for years to come.