Notes from UTeach Nation: Brianna Rapini of the Amoeba Sisters

Notes from UTeach Nation: Brianna Rapini of the Amoeba Sisters

08.31.2016

When people think of UTeach graduates, they probably have an image of an enthusiastic and engaged teacher in a high school classroom, inspiring youth to pursue their passion for chemistry or calculus. They might not envision someone starting a YouTube channel featuring animated explanations of life science that are funny in addition to being informative and cute, but that’s exactly where Brianna Rapini (BS Biology, 2005) has taken the skills she acquired in the UTeach program. 

Brianna Rapini of the Amoeba SistersBack in July of 2013, Rapini, who was then employed as a technology specialist and now teaches Pre-AP Biology part-time at Klein Collins High School, was talking with her sister, Sarina Peterson, about how much she missed teaching. “I wanted to find a way to take what I had been teaching and preserve it in a way that would be fun and useful in the classroom,” Rapini recalls. “My sister suggested that I do a minute of what I’d been teaching and she would do an illustration of it.”

The result was the Amoeba Sisters’ first video, which explains how enzymes are like Pac-Man.

In the ensuing three years, the Amoeba Sisters have produced about three dozen videos -- one per month -- which have been viewed, cumulatively, more than seven million times. The Amoeba Sisters YouTube channel has 66,000 subscribers, which comprises both students and teachers. The feedback on the YouTube channel underscores the value people find in the videos:

“I'm in college currently studying for my next bio test. Cannot tell you how much this helped in summing up ONE whole chapter! Definitely a good way to study when combined with chapter readings and vocab flashcards.”

“In 7 minutes you explained meiosis in a much simpler, easy, and efficient way than my science teacher did in 3 weeks.”

“I absolutely love the Amoeba Sisters videos. They are so well explained and my 5th graders love them!”

The Amoeba Sisters high five at the Region 4 conference

Not only do the Amoeba Sisters videos explain scientific concepts and misconceptions for learners, but they also inspire and encourage youngsters to make their own videos. While the production values of the videos have increased over the past year or so, Rapini and Peterson started out using Microsoft Windows Paint and Moviemaker, two programs that can be downloaded for free from the internet.

“We wanted to show that you don’t have to have the fancy technology to create something like this,” says Rapini. “We do believe in encouraging students as creators.” The Amoeba Sisters provide several handouts on their website to support the content on the YouTube channel; they have also participated at various education-centric conferences including SXSWedu and the UTeach Alumni conference.

Rapini, who entered the UTeach program at UT Austin during the second semester of her freshman year, credits her experience with UTeach as the driving factor for her fusion of creativity and science education. “UTeach really helped me develop a way to connect to students,” she says. “It made me much less of a textbook person. I want to take the content and make it meaningful to the teenagers who are in my classroom, and my UTeach professors were always supportive and made me feel empowered when I wanted to do something creative.”

And it wasn’t just her classroom experience with UTeach that had a profound influence on Rapini’s career: it was also the internships she had through UTeach Outreach, particularly with Austin-based Girlstart.

“I got to see that you could apply education in so many ways. It made me see that I could innovate and do something outside the classroom as well.”

Each semester, UTeach students can apply for paid internships that place them in nonprofits, schools, and other STEM-centric education programs that offer potentially life-changing experiences while also helping kids learn how to see the world scientifically. Brianna Rapini is proof that inspiration can come from unexpected places, and with far-reaching effects.

UTeach Outreach hosts its annual internship choice fair on Tuesday, September 6, from 1 – 4:30 p.m. in Painter 4.18.