Hip-hop has fought hard to carve out a space for itself in the classroom. Today, some savvy teachers are “dropping everything” to teach rapper Kendrick Lamar’s new album, the Hamilton soundtrack is worming its way into American history classrooms and a handful of colleges are offering a minor in hip-hop studies.
Hip-hop has become an important teaching tool, as well as a rigorous and complex field of study for the humanities. But how often do we hear hip-hop echoing through the halls of science departments and math classrooms?
Science educator Dr. Christopher Emdin says that STEM* and hip-hop are “intimately linked.”
Dr. Emdin is a Math and Science professor at Columbia University, author of the 2010 book Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation and a hip-hop superfan.
So, when Emdin crossed paths with hip hop artist science enthusiast GZA in 2012, they hatched a plan to merge disciplines. Emdin and GZA partnered with the lyrics website Rap Genius to blueprint and teach a hip-hop-inspired curriculum in science classrooms across New York City. The program was designed to breathe new energy into STEM education, attracting a broader swath of voices to a field that is statistically whitewashed. “We cannot have the most diverse population in the country and then have a discipline that doesn’t reflect the complexities and the varieties of what we see in our community,” said Emdin. “It’s just not fair.”
In 2013, their team launched the pilot program. They called it Science Genius. Today, Science Genius is much larger, with shiny new iterations abroad in Canada and the West Indies.
Science Genius then and now
The idea in a nutshell: 10 New York City public schools, one course per school, and one class a week.
Students gather weekly to spit odes to Darwin and drop science-inspired raps about everything from friction to mitosis. “In physic class – in every class, I would sit and, you know, write rap on the side while I learned at the same time” said Science Genius student Jalib Johnson in an interview with NPR. “The fact that I didn’t have to hide it [anymore], and, you know, I could just merge them two together, it was just really great.”
But Science Genius wasn’t/isn’t just about the rhymes.
“In our work,” said Emdin, “we ask, ‘What can hip-hop teach us about teaching a class?’”
Science Genius instructors borrow from hip-hop culture, baking the practices and values of hip-hop into classroom etiquette.
“For example,” said Emdin, “take the hip-hop ‘cypher.’” In a cypher, participants stand in a circle and take turns freestyling and bouncing rhymes off each other. “It’s all about taking something that’s germane to hip-hop and making that a part of science teaching and learning,” Emdin said. “Why can’t kids stand up in a classroom and co-construct a scientific theory or idea together?”
“And it’s not just the young people either,” Emdin added. “There was one volunteer who didn’t graduate college, but he’s a rapper. He’s now entering into a community college. He wants to major in biology as a 28-year-old because he’s been involved in this project, and he feels like he can rewrite his own story.”
Emdin’s partner GZA dropped out of high school in the 10th grade only to rediscover his love for STEM years later. His lyrics betray a deep curiosity about the physical world, and he has devoted full albums to science education. “Everything we see around us/The sun, the moon, the stars, the millions of worlds that astound us/The universe inside is hard to fathom.”*
Emdin grew up in the Bronx and Brooklyn, New York. “In Brooklyn,” said Emdin, “hip-hop music would blast through the windows of our apartment.”
Emdin was a self-proclaimed hip-hop enthusiast and the kind of kid who disassembled the remote just to put it back together again. Outside of school, Emdin had no trouble reconciling his hip-hop fandom with his identity as a tinkerer and a student of science, but in the classroom, STEM became rote and hip-hop wasn’t even permitted over the threshold. “It was always like, ‘Don’t bring that hip-hop stuff in here!’” Emdin recalled.
“I fought my way through,” said Emdin. “I wasn’t a great science student until college when the boundaries were lifted a little bit.” In college, Emdin worked as a lab assistant. “The work was really quiet and dull, so I asked my professor ‘do you mind if I play some music?’ Hip-hop became the soundtrack to my scientific education once again.”
Through Science Genius, #HipHopEd, and teacher training initiatives, Emdin is working to make it so that young people “don’t have to leave behind their hip-hop identity to be in the sciences.”
“STEM and hip-hop have a lot in common,” Emdin said. “Take, for example, the story of Galileo.”
Galileo was a famous observational physicist and an avid champion of heliocentrism — the belief that the earth and planets revolve around the sun. His opinions rocked the Catholic church, and in 1633, he was put on trial for heresy.
“That’s the hip-hop story,” said Emdin. “That’s N.W.A.* in 1988 saying ‘look people are getting killed, I have the evidence to prove it and I’m going to put it in my music.’”
In 1988, the Compton, CA-based hip-hop group N.W.A., released Straight Outta Compton, an album protesting racial profiling and police brutality in the inner-city. Science icons and hip-hop artists have a shared history of operating in the margins, grappling with authority, and shedding light on difficult-to-swallow truths. Both Galileo and N.W.A. faced serious backlash for their truth-telling. Both found a like-minded fan base and accrued notoriety in their circles.
“Scientists and hip-hop artists are both communicators,” said Emdin. “They do it through different means, but they share a curiosity and an ability to communicate complex ideas.”
Science Genius is all about communication. “Scientific literacy is the goal,” said Emdin. “If we have folks who can understand the language of these disciplines then they can engage.”
The Future of STEM = STEAM
For Emdin, it’s about giving kids who have traditionally been discouraged or shunted out of the field, a clear point of entry.
“The way that we approach teaching STEM is fundamentally flawed,” said Emdin, pointing to “weed out” courses like Organic Chemistry which are often designed to discourage students who can’t keep up with a STEM major. “You’re weeding out folks who have the potential ability to move the field forward,” Emdin criticized.
The solution? Replace STEM with a slightly different acronym: STEAM. Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math.
“I am not at all saying that we should sacrifice the rigor of our discipline. I’m simply saying that we need to focus on arts and culture as a mechanism for teaching STEM.”
Emdin reports that participants in the pilot program had an attendance rate of 98% for each classroom session and that Science Genius students scored higher on STEM exams, asked more questions in class and completed homework assignments with more regularity than their peers.
“It’s all about making people feel as though science is something they can do.”
* Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math
* Excerpted from GZA’s new album Dark Matter