A makeshift laboratory inside a Boulder City home, where a liquid solution has turned to slime and DNA has been extracted from a strawberry, has garnered international attention.
Students attending a science camp in Paraguay have watched the science demonstrations happening in this room. A French nanny and the children in her care have done the same. So have spectators from India, Tunisia and Australia — all observing the chemical reactions and physics feats from thousands of miles away.
A small bedroom with an intergalactic-themed sheet covering one wall serves as the headquarters for the YouTube channel that enables this global viewership. Here, Jenny Ballif, who’s known as “Science Mom” to her fans, conducts demonstrations that she hopes will foster a scientific curiosity among children. But she’s banking on continued growth and funding to keep this particular experiment — science-themed educational videos — around for the foreseeable future.
“Because it’s always been my favorite thing and I love science, I tend to err on the side of having a bias that there’s no such thing as too much science,” she said. “I think it’s such a great tool to bring all of the subjects together. You can do a science project and you can write about it and it can relate to history and social studies.”
Ballif’s journey to becoming a YouTuber didn’t grow from dreams of social media stardom. Instead, it started with a volunteer trip to her son’s second-grade class in Boulder City a few years ago. She overheard his teacher lament how little science instruction she could provide because of state testing requirements that emphasize other subjects. The statement crushed Ballif, who has a master’s degree in plant science with an emphasis in molecular biology.
She offered an enrichment opportunity: Would the teacher spare 15 minutes each week for Ballif to visit and conduct short science demonstrations?
“She said, ‘Of course,’ and it grew really fast,” Ballif said. “Other teachers saw me coming in with these supplies and said, ‘Well, if you’re already coming in, do you want to swing by my classroom, too?’”
Within a year, the mother of three found herself visiting 10 classrooms a week in the Clark County School District. Three years ago, she quit her part-time job at Nevada State College and decided to pursue the “Science Mom” gig full time. She launched her YouTube channel from her daughter’s bedroom, using a point-and-shoot camera, a cart full of science props and iMovie editing software.
Since then, the fledgling operation has grown to more than 5,800 YouTube subscribers and 64,000 page views per month. While her experiments have reached a global audience, Ballif’s channel pales in comparison to other YouTube stars. Forbes recently named 8-year-old Ryan Kaji as YouTube’s top earner in 2019. His “Ryan’s World” page, which has 23 million subscribers, raked in $26 million this year, according to Forbes’ estimate.
As of mid-December, Ballif’s page had only grossed $157 during its three-year existence.
A recent YouTube policy change could make growth difficult. In September, the Federal Trade Commission levied a $170 million fine on YouTube — which is owned by Google — for allegedly violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act by collecting personal information without their parents’ consent. The video-sharing platform, in turn, announced that it would turn off comments and stop serving personalized ads on children’s content, the latter of which is expected to decrease ad revenue for creators like Ballif.
She considers most of her “Science Mom” videos geared for children between the ages of eight and 12.
“If I mark my videos as being for kids, which I have done, then I’m losing monetization,” she said. “I’m losing comments and notifications, and that’s really going to hurt the future growth of the channel.”
Ballif has hired three other moms to help her produce “Science Mom,” and so far, their $1,000 a month pay has come from her family’s savings or paid school visits. She launched a Kickstarter campaign last month and, as of Dec. 20, donations totalling $10,051 had rolled in, exceeding the original $9,000 goal. The money, she said, should keep “Science Mom” afloat for another few months and help with the production of an atmosphere-focused video series. But she’s eyeing other sponsorship opportunities that could pay for school visits, as well. (She donates two free school visits per year to the Clark County School District.)
“This year is sink or swim,” she said. “So 2020 we’ll either bring in enough funding to make it work or we’ll retire the channel this spring.”
As her internet persona remains in limbo, Ballif said it should serve as a cautionary tale for others — especially children — who have visions of turning self-made YouTube videos into a prosperous career.
“This is a hard job that includes a lot of hours and very little return for the first couple years while you’re building your audience,” she said, emphasizing that it has no guarantee. “They see the big YouTube stars that have millions of followers… Obviously, they’re well off, but it’s a bit of a shot in the dark as to whether you can reach that size.”
The freewheeling digital age makes competition inevitable, and, while the popular “Bill Nye the Science Guy” show predates YouTube, Ballif said she wishes there were more household names like that spreading science enthusiasm on one platform or another.
“I don’t think you can have too many science communicators,” she said.
Which is why jars with water and duckweed — an in-progress science experiment — decorate her front window. The prototype experiment may appear in a future “Science Mom” video.