Does Comedy Add Interest, or Does It Distract from Scientific Rigor?

[A guest post by Matt Taylor]

The COVID-19 pandemic got me thinking about how difficult it can be to engage biology students, especially nonmajors learning in an online environment. An especially challenging area for me to teach is animal diversity. I struggle to help students find the relevancy in it. And I get their point: Why should they care about the difference between a planarian and a nematode? Will it affect their health? Unlikely. Will it affect how they vote? Almost definitely not.

On the other hand, I know I want to include some amount of diversity instruction in my course. From a macroscopic view, I want my students to have an appreciation for the astounding diversity and beauty of life.

(Side note: I often find it comical to see “appreciate” in a learning objective. “By the end of this course, students should be able to appreciate the diversity of Arthropoda.” As if I would dock their grade if they fail to appreciate arthropods’ evolutionary success. “You don’t find it remarkable?! That’s an F for you!”)

Videos can help students get a feel for animal diversity—in ACTION!—instead of bogging them down with a laundry list of characteristics for each phylum. Don’t get me wrong. Laundry lists have their place in the biology classroom. After all, many nonmajors enter on day 1 with the notion that biology is “all about memorization.” It would be rude to prove them completely wrong.

But should we leave a little more space for the intangible and un-assessable “appreciation” of biological diversity? If so, what’s the best way to do it?

In this blog post I am sharing two video resources with you, both because I think you might enjoy them and because I want your feedback. Which type of video do you think is most appropriate for a college biology classroom? Which type of video is most likely to help students build that coveted “appreciation” of biology?

The first resource is KQED’s Deep Look videos. They are scientifically rigorous, entertaining, beautifully filmed, and cover an astonishing array of animal life (and some plants, too!). Here is an example about sea stars:

The second resource is slightly different. The YouTube channel “zefrank1” has a popular line of animal videos called “True Facts.” These are *mostly* scientifically accurate, with maybe a few mistakes such as suggesting that need-based evolution is possible (“[The animal] said, ‘I want bad-ass scales’ and evolution said ‘no problem'”). Of course, asking students to identify these scientific inaccuracies could be a good challenge.

The main difference between these videos and the KQED Deep Look videos is that these are meant to be outrageous and funny, but they still teach about biological diversity. Here’s one about anteaters, pangolins, and similar animals; be warned, it frequently strays into topics and language that many consider impolite or even offensive:

Of course, the point of these videos IS their questionable taste. If the following frequently up-voted comment below is any indication, many students might like to see True Facts videos in their college classrooms:

I feel conflicted about which type of video would be best for nonmajors: the traditional but beautiful educational videos of Deep Look, or the somewhat scandalous but entertaining True Facts videos? Either way, the videos couldn’t stand alone as animal diversity instruction. I’d have to supplement with other materials.

I would love any advice you have! And if you’re like me, you’ll find these videos an entertaining way to spend your Friday afternoon. Enjoy!

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