‘Professor Dave’ explains how he got 345,000 YouTube subscribers

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Science educator Dave Farina developed the eponymous YouTube show, Professor Dave explainsto teach high school and undergraduate students in subjects ranging from astronomy and biology to math and physics.

Now his full-time business, the channel has grown from a few lectures to a massive library of educational videos that have convinced more than 345,000 people to subscribe.

Farina, who taught high school and undergraduate classes for 10 years before becoming a YouTuber, earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Carleton College in Minnesota and a master’s degree in chemistry and science education from 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 teaching in a commercial university.

In the following interview with Education weekFarina talks about how he transitioned from teaching in the classroom to creating online content, why he thinks more Gen Z students prefer to learn on YouTube than in books, and his advice for other teachers interested in a similar approach.

Why did you want to become an educator?

I guess that was really my best skill set. Coming out of undergrad, I started graduate school, and so there I would be TA and tutor. In my 20s, I discovered that the best way for me to earn an income and what I was best at was explaining science to people. It seemed like the best way to earn a living and feel like I was contributing.

What finally brought you to YouTube?

I was teaching organic chemistry in this college of trades, and I had developed my course, so I had done all the resources. After teaching this course several times, I had really effective lectures, 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 it inspired me to do more subjects with greater production value.

Is your YouTube show a full-time business?

Since very recently, that’s pretty much all I do. As the channel grew, I retired from teaching. Then once the channel got big, I started getting the attention of websites [outside YouTube] for whom I was doing freelance content creation and program development. Now I’m even moving away from that to really double channel and try to make it work as efficiently and as quickly as possible. So I really work about 70 hours a week on the channel and hardly do anything else.

Have you applied to the YouTube Learning Fund, last year’s $20 million call for entrepreneurs? create educational content?

I actually applied. I apply for every grant, funding, incubator – anything I can find, and I was very discouraged not to receive any.

Since you work a lot, how do you support yourself with YouTube? How would you say your income compares to that of a high school teacher?

I’m very happy that after four years of hard work, the income I report from YouTube is finally close to or comparable to that of a high school teacher. Plus, it has great promise to grow way beyond that, and being a completely passive income, it will free me up to do a number of other things.

How would you say your videos compare to YouTube educators Veritasium or Vsauce?

When I started I looked at what was out there and saw two paradigms. I’ve seen edutainment – the kind of one-off, grab you with a hook and teach you a little nugget of something [that’s] interesting for the general public – and then I saw on the other side Khan Academy style learning – very long lectures basically like a tutor helping you on a sheet of paper and a pen. I saw a chasm in between, and I really wanted to fill it [by making] educational content that would be very rigorous and aligned with the curriculum like blackboard-style learning, but would be a bit more visually pleasing. Ludo-educational [draws] people come in, then the style of the blackboard is very thorough and rigorous, and helps students to really prepare for exams. I really wanted to share the difference.

Where do you think other teachers fail when trying to teach on YouTube?

If you’re trying to dazzle, you’re probably going to lack depth, and that’s fine. This content is very important to generate interest. It’s just that once that interest is generated, there has to be a follow-up. Most people don’t go straight from one of those channels to Khan Academy or something because it’s too much of a textbook. There has to be something in between that nurtures that creativity and provides the next step on the complexity ladder.

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

Workflow management is a monumental amount of work when it comes to writing, filming, editing, animating. Not only do I do all of this, but I also have to handle all aspects of running my own business. I work an incredible amount – 12, 14 hours a day almost every day just to complete five tutorials a week.

Are the “non-scientific” parts of your work, such as video editing and animation, entirely self-taught? How did you acquire these skills?

I had to learn the editing/animation software myself. I have a friend who knows how to use it and gave me some tips at first, but from there it’s pretty easy to google whatever you’re trying to do and figure it out pretty quickly – in addition to just experimenting with the programs. My animation skills aren’t amazing by any means, but I’ve grown enough in the past few years to be able to illustrate concepts as I visualize them in my head, which I find very effective.

Last year, Harris Poll researchers discovered that Gen Z prefers to learn via YouTube (59%) compared to learning from books (47%). What do you think of this discovery?

I don’t think that’s surprising at all. I regret the fact that this resource was not accessible to me when I was a student. YouTube came out shortly after I graduated from undergrad. It is a very effective tool. It acts as a catalyst for learning as it decreases the activation energy of content consumption. If you are reading a textbook, the concentration you need to bring to a study session is very high. YouTube definitely has the potential to make learning easier and more effective.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


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