In the classroom, STEM meets hip hop

What do STEM and hip hop have in common? For Christopher Emdin, a science educator at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, the answer is: a lot. Emdin has teamed up with rappers to co-design a hip hop inspired science curriculum.


What do STEM and hip-hop have in common?

For Christopher Emdin, a science educator at Columbia University's Teacher's College, the answer is a lot.

Emdin has teamed up with rappers to co-design a hip-hop-inspired science curriculum.

He joins us now.

So, how do these two things intersect?

I just love the way you asked the question, like, 'How does this--' 'cause that's the reaction I get from everyone, right?

And I think it connects on a very fundamental sort of pedagogical space, right?

It's this notion of science being a subject area that young people are sort of least likely to be interested and passionate about, hip-hop being this cultural phenomenon that they're all consuming and really getting emotionally connected to and wanting to see the same type of emotion and response and energy that happens in hip-hop spaces within science classrooms.

And so the natural idea was, well, bring the science of the hip-hop into the science classroom and use that as a tool through which we discuss scientific phenomena and interrogate scientific questions and ideas.

And that's the fundamental idea behind it.

So is it about taking science teaching and turning it into rhyme?

Or are we talking about finding scientific ideas in existing lyrics?

So, it's all of that.

It's really, really layered.

So, an example would be one, identifying a lyric that might have some sort of scientific connection within it.

You know, Lauryn Hill will say, you know, 'Two emcees can't occupy the same space at the same time.

It's against the laws of physics.'

So why is she saying 'two emcees'? What does that connect to scientifically, right?

And then, it could be, well, scientists are, in many ways, the people within our society that gives us an idea about how the world works and the ideas about how to sort of navigate spaces and tell us about new things.

And for those in the hip-hop community, the hip-hop artists do the same thing.

So if we can make connections between the hip-hop artists and the scientists as these sort of, like, the spokespeople for the community, then we can draw these connections.

And then, another piece of it is pedagogical, right?

How do the science teachers learn how to teach it more effectively by using the hip-hop artists as role models with the call and response and their stance and their presence and their confidence?

And then, there's another layer of it, which is having youth use hip-hop music as a tool through which they describe scientific phenomena, writing raps about science.

So it's a sort of multi-layered process that, if all enacted, particularly with young people who are deeply embedded in hip-hop, transforms the nature of how they learn science but how they feel connected to the discipline, as well.

Because, right now, there is that gap, that lack of connection, especially with math and science.

Yeah, I mean, I would make the argument that the most significant issue, when it comes to having certain or particular populations engage in science, is not about the content.

It's not about the intelligence.

It's not having sort of the intellectual ability.

It's more of them not seeing themselves in the discipline or believing that they can do it.

This sort of STEM-phobia is a disease.


And young people catch that disease from as early as third, fourth, or fifth grade.

As soon as you get out of playing in kindergarten, you start thinking of it as only for the best and brightest.

And if somebody tells you or makes you feel like you're not part of the best and brightest, you sort of disassociate yourself with these disciplines.

And so part of my task is to make the reconnection present, so we can activate a passion and then connect that to learning and connect that to sort of rigorous interrogations of science and scientific phenomena.

What's a math or a science teacher in high school supposed to do?

What's something they can actually institute in their classroom?

So, there's a couple of things.

I think one thing you can do just, you know, on a sort of basic scale is have kids present or describe their science ideas and what they're learning in science in different ways including art, including hip-hop.

You know, online, there's exemplars of how we've done this project, called Science Genius, where the kids write raps.

So my new book is called 'For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood... and the Rest of Y'all Too.'

And in the book, I outline just strategies, like have conversations with young people in your classroom about how they're receiving your instruction and have them co-design a lesson with you.

'Well, Emdin, what if they don't understand the science?'

It doesn't matter.

They'll learn the science through the process of designing the lesson.

It's a really nouveau approach to just the whole teaching and learning exercise that I suggest should be happening in all classrooms but, in particular, in STEM classrooms because of the 'achievement gaps' that we find in these disciplines.

Well, that's interesting.

In the technology field, also design-centered, you know, kind of object creation is something that they think about in Silicon Valley.

Well, let's teach ourselves the process, think about what the end user has in mind, right?

And you hit the nail on the head.

It's really ensuring that teaching and learning practices in K-through-12 education actually replicate the type of creativity and imagination that happens with folks who are actually doing the scientific work.

You know, I make the argument that folks who use a hip-hop-based approach to teaching and learning are actually closer to what happens in STEM fields, in Silicon Valley, than what happens in traditional classrooms.

So we're essentially enacting approaches to teaching and learning that are so antiquated that it doesn't even really fully prepare the young people to have the kind of creativity and imagination and the marrying with the arts that actually happens with folks who are doing cutting-edge scientific research.

I've heard of Rap Genius.

What's Science Genius?

Science Genius is a competition.

And it is heavy.

And it's having young people write raps around what they're learning in science classes.

And that's easy enough, except now, we want them to be able to compete with young people in other schools across the city or even across the country.

And we're challenging young people to say, 'Listen.

We don't want the rap to sound great.

That's nice, but we also want to make sure that you have very rigorous science content.'

It's a really challenging rubric.

You have to have at least five scientific phenomena described.

You have to incorporate formulas.

You have to apply it to real-life experiences.

But you have to do all of this through rap.

And so, Science Genius is a city-wide competition where kids come together from across the city.

And they're gonna perform.

And they better rap and be good.

But they better have some scientific content in there, as well.

What does this do to a kid that didn't see themself as a scientist early on?

It changes everything.

You know, a young person who writes a Science Genius rap and gets to present at Teacher's College at Columbia University or at the Jacob Javits Center, they see themselves as being a scientist.

And this activates the resilience that you need for science, right?

So if you are deeply, emotionally connected to a discipline and you see yourself as being successful in it, you've been on stage performing science raps, and the whole audience says, 'Oh, my gosh. You're brilliant, and you're smart,' when you're in the classroom, and you face your first academic challenge, you activate a certain sense of resilience that comes from the fact that you've already built confidence around your ability to do well.

And so what it changes is we just have a whole new cadre of young people who want to be scientists, who want to have careers in a science.

And once you do that, we change the entire narrative.

And my argument is always this.

We are not going to be able to fill the gaps that we have in STEM professions in science and tech and engineering and math unless we change the big piece, which is the engagement piece.

Once you get people who have engagement and self-confidence around a discipline, and they feel like they can do well at it, you open up doors for new possibilities.

All right.

Christopher Emdin of Teacher's College at Columbia University, thanks so much for joining us.

Pleasure being here with you.