TOPICS > Science

Songs in the Key of Biology: Students Write Hip-Hop to Learn Science

March 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In a New York City classroom, teachers use rap songs to teach complex science. Playlists are used as a metaphor to convey natural selection, and students compose raps songs to reinforce concepts. Ray Suarez reports on the effectiveness of this strategy and interviews hip-hop legend (and science geek) GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan.

RAY SUAREZ: Now two stories about finding ways to engage students from low-income households.

We begin with a new way to learn about a nucleus and other science concepts.

I recently visited a New York classroom where they’re using rap music to teach kids science.

CHRIS EMDIN, Columbia University Teachers College: The characteristic of the organism that is more beneficial for the environment is what gets passed on.

RAY SUAREZ: Teaching a morning biology lesson in any high school is hard. In underperforming urban schools with low tests scores, it’s even harder.

CHRIS EMDIN: What was the point of that lab that you’re going over right now? Who can tell me what was the point of that lab was, of the simulation? What was the point? What was the point? What was the point of the simulation? Was there a point to it?

STUDENT: To figure out how to come up with natural selection.

CHRIS EMDIN: To figure out how to come up with natural selection. What is natural selection, though?

RAY SUAREZ: The challenge has brought Chris Emdin, a professor from Columbia University’s Teachers College, back into the classroom. Emdin’s mission: to find a way to make science something these kids can relate to. His idea: to use Hip-hop music to unlock science ideas, use the iPod to help you get natural selection.

CHRIS EMDIN: What happens if a song is just not popping anymore? Then you won’t select it to be in your new playlist. If an attribute of an organism, right, if it’s not needed anymore, then it won’t get passed on to the next generation. In other words, it wouldn’t make the new play list. Does that make sense?

RAY SUAREZ: Emdin has partnered with 10 New York City public high schools like this one, Bronx Compass, for a pilot project using Hip-hop to engage low-performing students, particularly minorities.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, only four percent of African-American seniors nationally were proficient in sciences.

CHRIS EMDIN: The basic concept is, they love Hip-hop, they don’t like science. Let’s find a way to figure it out.

RAY SUAREZ: The new-model curriculum requires students to write raps about science, reinforcing vocabulary and the concepts covered in class. It’s called Science Genius.

CHRIS EMDIN: And you got mutation and adaptation and then work backwards. Think you got it. I’m going to leave for like two minutes and I’m going to come back and see what you got.

What the best science educators have told us for a very long time, that the best-case scenario in science classrooms is that it’s interdisciplinary. So they’re learning the science content, but they’re also learning to write, and they’re also learning reflection, and they’re also learning critical thinking, and they’re also learning revision, and they’re also learning performance, all while learning science, as opposed to the traditional classroom, where they’re just learning to soak in the information, and hopefully give it back, you know, a couple days later on a quiz or an exam.

RAY SUAREZ: Under the direction of Emdin, Columbia University graduate students visit a regular science class once a week to help craft raps.

STUDENT: I do this and I get it. Natural selection, we talking about a rabbit, it’s adaptive like its parents.

CHRIS EMDIN: This is not just kids rhyming. There are rubrics for assessment. A kid can’t come in there and just have a really simple, superficial rap and saying, you know, I’m here to play, this is DNA. That wouldn’t work. That kid wouldn’t pass a Science Genius class.

You have to be able to understand the nuances, what does DNA stand for, you know, what are the base pairs, you know, what’s the history of DNA — to create a rap about DNA, you’ve got to know the content.

RAY SUAREZ: A surprise visit from Emdin’s most important collaborator and co-founder of the Science Genius Hip-hop science experiment creates the biggest stir.

The rapper GZA from one of the greatest rap groups of all time, Wu-Tang Clan, is a 10th grade dropout turned science geek. He adds star power to the project and shows the students how it’s done.

GZA, Wu-Tang Clan: Gravity that’s gone mad, clouds of dusts and debris, moving at colossal speed. They crush an M.C. Since this rap region is heavily packed with stars, internal mirror in the telescope notice the guards. From far away, we blink as the light, the strobe with great distance of space between precise globes.

When you bring an artist in that is a Hip-hop artist, and children are so consumed with Hip-hop music, then it’s a way for them to let their guard down, or at least be comfortable enough to give it an ear or a listen.

CHRIS EMDIN: For young people whose voices have been silenced, they’re forever in search of an opportunity to be heard. And you don’t have the tool to be heard in schools necessarily all the time, and so they look to Hip-hop to have a voice.

And what we’re doing now is saying, OK, you have a voice in Hip-hop, and Hip-hop is separate from schools, but now we’re giving you a voice in the classroom. And that changes everything, and that’s what GZA does.

RAY SUAREZ: It seemed to change everything for student Keegan Dillion.

KEEGAN DILLION, Student: He walks through rapping. I was like, is this for real? I really asked somebody to pinch me.

RAY SUAREZ: But Keegan says even without a visit from a famous rapper, the Hip-hop Science Genius class is motivation enough.

KEEGAN DILLION: I lost my passion for science, so when I came here and everything, I was, like, oh, I’m going to bomb it, definitely. But now that they’re mixing it up with music, I feel like I can get like an A-plus.

RAY SUAREZ: Does it help you actually learn the science? I’m sure it’s more fun, but are you actually learning more science?

KEEGAN DILLION: Oh, believe me, I am. I actually sit home, looking up different science terms before we actually learn them, and then I actually like read the definitions and all that. And then I put them into my raps and everything. So it really is helping. I’m starting to get back on track with my science.

RAY SUAREZ: The Science Genius project will finish with a battle of the best raps between the 10 pilot classrooms at the end of the school year.

GZA will judge the raps, and the best ones will appear on the Web site Rap Genius.

And I could take what I saw earlier today, and show it to science teachers around the country, and certainly science department chairmen across the country, and they’d say two things: It’s a gimmick, and are they learning any science?


So I will start off with the gimmick. Everything in education is a gimmick. The present world, particularly of urban education, is filled with gimmicks. Unfortunately, those gimmicks have no grounding in the youth understandings and culture.

You know, every single day, there’s a new curriculum, there are new standards. But I want to talk about the larger issue. And the larger issue is the fact that there is an obsession with these metrics that in reality don’t tell us anything about teaching and learning.

They really, really don’t. They tell you how much a kid can soak in information, but — and spit it back out at you, but they don’t tell you anything about the kid who through being in this classroom finally sees himself as a scientist.

KEEGAN DILLION: You see, I’m an organism, changing every minute. I’m not too good at science, but I’m a still get in it. I remix my lifestyle, change it through my lifeline. I mutate the flow and I go with instinct as a lyricist. My mind is a cave, Darwin turning out in his. I’m keeping it in motion like human evolution.

CHRIS EMDIN: How do I measure Keegan, who came in the beginning, and was bored to death, and didn’t like science, and has his head down for the entire academic year, who all of a sudden is opening up his book, and doing homework and crafting science rhymes, and saying, you know what, I can declare a science major?

There is no test that exists right now that can measure that, and that is more powerful than any metric that anybody can use to measure what happens in classrooms.

RAY SUAREZ: Emdin says that for many inner-city youth, science, technology, engineering and math will continue to remain elusive without interventions like Science Genius.

CHRIS EMDIN: What we’re doing here, at the very least, is allowing kids to see that they can be brilliant, that what they know already is intelligent, that they can see new possibilities.

If we really want to change STEM education, and we talk about as a nation that we don’t have enough people to fill those kind of STEM jobs that we have, then what we have to do is focus on the folks who’ve been pushed out, because they’re the numbers that we need to push back in.

RAY SUAREZ: Emdin says he’s confident that, at the end of the year, attendance will be up, and grades will be up, and that the Science Genius model is easily scaled up from a handful of New York schools to students around the country.

And we have more from the Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA. Watch him perform material from his upcoming album, “Dark Matter.” And create your own science rap for a chance to win a shout-out from the legendary Hip-hop artist. Instructions for composing and submitting a video for our contest are on our website.