Mark Rober has created a swimming pool filled with Jell-O, the world's largest Nerf gun, and staged an Olympics-style competition for squirrels. As the host and creator of some of the wackiest viral videos on YouTube, Rober's videos receive tens of millions of views, and his channel has more than 23 million subscribers. Some of the outlandish gadgets and pranks include glitter bombs, toothpaste massive enough for an elephant, and a liquid sand hot tub.
What may not be as obvious is that his videos are chock full of science and engineering lessons, as Rober explained to a packed auditorium at Caltech on Monday, January 30. In his Caltech Management Association talk titled "Hiding the Vegetables: Mark Rober's Artform of Science Communication," Rober, who previously worked at JPL for nine years, discussed how he sneaks science and engineering education into his videos. For instance, in this video about creating massive amounts of "devil's toothpaste," one learns about the square-cube law, which explains the relationship between the volume and surface area of an object.
"Being a nerd and somebody who can influence is a superpower," Rober said. "It's a really powerful combination."
Rob Manning (BS '82), chief engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is managed by Caltech for NASA, introduced Rober, explaining that they both worked on the historic landing of the Curiosity rover, which touched down on the Red Planet in 2012. It was during this time, in 2011, that Rober created his first viral video: a close-up look at his "gaping hole in the torso" Halloween costume, made with two iPads. After JPL, he worked at Apple for four years as a product designer.
Now, Rober is a YouTube star, and he even has a television show called Revengineers in development with Jimmy Kimmel. He also co-founded Team Trees, a fundraiser in support of the Arbor Day Foundation, which raised enough money to plant 20 million trees; and Team Seas, a project that has raised $30 million to clean up the oceans.
In his talk, Rober explained that one secret to capturing audiences in his videos is to tell stories that emotionally connect with viewers, sparking laughter, wonder, sadness, and even anger. "They might not remember the specifics, but they'll remember how they felt," he said. "I love getting kids addicted to that feeling of learning something new and having that ‘aha' moment."
Drawing on examples from his own work, Rober emphasized to the audience that there are three important steps to telling impactful stories: Pack them with real value; make them matter; make them authentic.
In his own craft, Rober said, he devotes hours upon hours to each video, loading every moment with value. He makes eight to 10 videos a year and "swings for the fences" on each of them. For instance, he said he spent a year and a half planning a 26-minute video describing an elaborate prank on an illegal scamming call center—one that included glitter bombs, fart sprays, and cockroaches. Currently, he said he already has his next 14 videos planned out.
During the Q&A that followed the talk, Rober was asked about the importance of failure. He said he does fail along the way and explained that this is why he makes so many prototypes—to see what works and what doesn't. "That's where you learn," he said.
Many kids who were in attendance lined up to ask questions, such as "Can I be in your next video?" When asked why he likes Mark Rober's videos so much, attendee Bowie Schackne, 9, commented that the videos were so creative, such as the pool filled with Jell-O. "Who thinks of that?" he said. His brother Flynn, 11, said of Rober, "He makes science fun and funny."