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February/March 2013

Diversity/Careers February/March 2013

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Rapper science: Learning in their own language

A new program will let talented minorities use their hip-hop skills to become “Science Geniuses”

When Christopher Emdin got to college, he found out that science does not have to be boring. Today, as a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, he’s taking that message to teachers and schools.

Using hip-hop to teach science can engage kids instead of turning them off, he explains. “They listen to hip-hop incessantly anyway. Let’s bring it into the classroom and involve science in the process.”

Science geek pays it forward
Emdin, a self-confessed science geek now thirty-four years old, attended Brooklyn Technical High School. He found it an excellent place to learn to memorize, but his eager questions, not always exactly on the subject, were often received as distracting and bad behavior. He retreated to hang out with the cool hip-hop kids with baggy jeans. “It’s an amazing school, but it didn’t foster my creativity and innovation,” he says.

Although his experience there turned him off technology and engineering, it got him into Lehman College of the City University of New York (Bronx, NY). There he connected with Professor Liesl Jones. Emdin worked in her research laboratory on the etiology of schizophrenia through studies of the brain. The professor welcomed his curious questions. Emdin’s enthusiasm fired up his academic work, leading him to complete his bachelors degree in 2000 with a triple major in physical anthropology, chemistry and biology.

Along the way, though, he realized that he was seeing less of his cool friends. By the time he got to graduate school, there were few faces of color among his colleagues. The students who experienced life the way he did had drifted away. The brilliant stars of high school hip-hop, with their energetic moves and creative use of metaphor and analogy, were gone.

“It fascinated me that the kids who were able to weave these raps based on what they observed in the environment around them, were not able to translate that into academic success,” he says.

Emdin set out to build a bridge between their creative intelligence and the academic world of science. He taught middle school science and math, then returned to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, NY) for a masters degree in natural sciences in 2003. He taught physics and chemistry at Marie Curie High School in the Bronx, while earning his PhD in urban education from CCNY in 2007. With that credential in hand, he started teaching the teachers, first at his alma mater Lehman College. He’s currently an assistant professor in the department of mathematics, science and technology at Teachers College, Columbia University (New York, NY).

Making the case for change
As a teacher, Emdin found ways to guide bright, creative hip-hop kids who were also science geeks into successful academic careers, so he knows it can be done. As a professor, he uses those results to convince teachers that there are ways to reach the kids who can’t stay in their seats, the ones they now might dismiss as disruptive problems.

Emdin’s book on the subject, Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation, published in 2010, examines the intersection of culture and education. Although teachers sometimes resist changing their long-held perspectives and methods, solid examples such as a student who recently graduated with a 3.7 GPA in biochemistry help make the case.

“I’m blessed to have plenty of those stories,” he says. “Teachers are more apt to support these changes if they can see the outcomes.”

He supports teachers by easing them into the process. Students who aren’t getting high grades on tests aren’t necessarily failing to understand the material; they just learn differently. There are always students who do well within the typical learning system. Emdin is focused on the many, including black and Hispanic kids, who don’t.

“Every teacher, no matter how boring and awful they might be, wants the kids to get it,” he says. “They just have a misconception of what it means to get it. I want to teach teachers to understand the potential of kids who are a little outside the norm.”

Emdin saw, in himself and his friends, that the same qualities that have made them good rappers would also make them good scientists.

“Artists are like the most brilliant and innovative scientists,” he says. “They need the same keen observation skills, they need to be a little anti-establishment, a little rebellious. These are inherently connected.

“I wondered, ‘How is everybody not seeing this? We are losing these great minds who could be great scientists.’”

He’s bringing his methods into ten New York City schools in 2013 as a pilot project. As an educational leader at Columbia University, he’s done the research: pre-tests and post-tests, interviews with students and teachers. Bringing the method into more classrooms will smooth out rough edges, and identify what works best.

Formidable allies sweeten the deal
Emdin has partnered with rap artists Wu-Tang Clan and one of its founding members, GZA (pronounced Geeza), another science geek who got discouraged in high school. In GZA’s case, he dropped out in the tenth grade but never lost his interest in science. For his latest album, he met with scientists from Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and others, including Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson. The resulting rap album, Dark Matter, scheduled for release later this year, will be science-inspired, focusing on the quantum world and the cosmos.

The connection with Wu-Tang Clan will boost credibility for Emdin’s Science Genius Battles among those discouraged hip-hop kids. These bright, energetic rappers are highly competitive, and spend lots of energy insulting each other for sport. Emdin intends to channel that into the Science Genius Battles, a competition to do the best science raps. “They can one-up each other with scientific knowledge,” he says.

Emdin and his Science Genius Ambassadors, who are graduate students and hip-hop artists, will spend one day a week in the ten schools, rapping with the students and getting them to rap back. There will be competitions for individual Science Genius and the best team in each school. The ten teams will then compete at a final event in June. GZA and other hip-hop artists will be among the judges.

The glitter of fame is part of the excitement. Emdin has attracted publicity from national media and will stage interim contests to build toward the June finals. The celebrity power of Wu-Tang Clan will help raise visibility.

“GZA also adds a layer of authenticity to the program and gives us street credibility with the kids,” Emdin says. “He’s one of the most authentic folks in hip-hop culture.”

Another partner in the program is Rap Genius, a website where rappers post their lyrics and explain the meaning. Students in the Science Genius program will be able to post their raps there and get feedback from the stars.

Emdin looks forward to Science Geniuses in every school system, with national competitions. Other school systems have contacted him for information. Making science feel possible, and as cool as hip-hop, can improve science education generally, especially among kids of color.

“We want to capture the beautiful thing about hip-hop: it’s all-inclusive and engaging,” he says. “This is beyond research. This is my life.”


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