Teaching Science Through Hip Hop

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Danielle Lee i
Alecia Hoyt/Courtesy Danielle Lee
Danielle Lee
Alecia Hoyt/Courtesy Danielle Lee

Science and technology are often hard sells for students, and young people of color are under-represented in those fields. But self-styled Urban Scientist Danielle Lee says hip-hop might be the way to build a diverse new generation of scientists.

She spoke with Tell Me More guest host Celeste Headlee about using hip-hop to connect the dots between culture and science. Lee also talked about being the target of online attacks — including being called a "whore" — for asking to be paid for her work on a science blog.

Interview Highlights

On facing misogyny in the science world

I think my experience was very extreme, first of all. Yes, it is something sadly that women tend to experience. This notion that we don't have the right to negotiate for ourselves. And when we do, we're called out of our name. Most people tend to use the "b-word" whenever we're assertive and stick up for ourselves. But sadly, this is a problem in some of the STEM fields. You get sideways looks if you're too assertive.

On how can help teach genetics's "I Got It From My Mama"


A very common misunderstood lesson is the difference between inheritance and heritability in how you inherit traits or how traits come to be in families. And so I usually give a lesson explaining the difference. Inherited means you actually genetically pass it on. Heritable means it runs in families. Yes, it could be genetically related, but it just simply could be because of environmental factors or cultural factors. And so I like the song, [sic] "Get it from my Mama."

On why she leaves rapping to the pros

I can't spit a rhyme to save my life...But I listen to enough rap music and I dance to it and I love it. And so I inherently get it. The only thing I do is just simply go, "this song that I hear, this song that all of us can sing the words to and dance to, I hear something in it that reminds me of lessons that I've learned in my biology classes or that I teach to my students." And I just simply use those lessons as a springboard.

On getting under-represented students in urban districts prepared

One of the things I've come to realize in working with young people is that it is imperative that we involve the adults in their lives in this mission. Because at the end of the day, if you want them to really have a leg up they need to participate in these summer academies, these authentic research programs. We need to give them permission and the time available to go after school and work in labs. Some of these lab programs are paid, many of them are not. But the benefits of working in a lab and working with a scientist is a complete mind blower ... If you work in a lab even for a summer, your letters of recommendations for college are going to come from college professors, not just high school teachers.



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