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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And now to a classroom in the San Francisco Bay Area, where seventh graders have turned another controversial early chapter in genetics into a battle with a beat - a rap battle - as we'll hear.

NPR's Adam Cole reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROSALIND FRANKLIN VS. WATSON & CRICK")

RAY GOFF: (Rapping) (as James Watson) OK. I'm James Watson...

JABAR MURRAY: (Rapping) (as Francis Crick) And I'm Francis Crick, Crick, Crick, Crick.

RAY GOFF AND JABAR MURRAY: (Rapping) (as Watson and Crick) And ain't nobody fresher than Watson and Crick, Crick, Crick.

ADAM COLE, BYLINE: Watson and Crick - they're the guys who first figured out that famous spiral structure of DNA. Before they came on the scene, no one knew what that important molecule looked like.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROSALIND FRANKLIN VS. WATSON & CRICK")

MURRAY: (Rapping) (as Francis Crick) Don't tell nobody, but we're gonna solve DNA hereditary molecules under our name...

MURRAY: (Rapping) (as Watson and Crick) We're making models man, doing things our way...

COLE: That beat comes from Kanye West's song "Clique," but the performers are seventh graders Ray Goff and Jabar Murray. Along with their classmates at KIPP Bridge Middle School in Oakland, California they've been working for months - researching the story of DNA, writing rhymes and filming a music video.

Tom McFadden led the project. Equipped with degrees in biology and science communication, he's spent the past few years traveling around the world - visiting classrooms with his own brand of science-infused hip-hop.

TOM MCFADDEN: It's part of an every day thing that they do after school, during school, at recess, whenever. And if you can bring that into the classroom and connect that to other things that they're learning about, that goes a long way towards hooking students in.

COLE: With McFadden's help, students at five schools in the San Francisco Bay area have created rap battles about everything from plate tectonics to Pluto. And these are battles - lyrical arguments between ideas or people.

At KIPP Bridge, the fight really gets going when Rosalind Franklin, another DNA pioneer, shows up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROSALIND FRANKLIN VS. WATSON & CRICK")

MILAN GIBSON: (Rapping) (as Rosalind Franklin) Oh Crick.

GOFF: (Rapping) (as James Watson) Here she comes. Run.

GIBSON: (Rapping) (as Rosalind Franklin) You showed my data behind my back, so it's not just going to happen like that. Let's recognize Rosalind Franklin. All eyes on Rosalind Franklin.

COLE: That's Milan Gibson playing the role of Rosalind Franklin. Franklin took some X-ray pictures of DNA - and they showed that everyone had shape of the molecule all wrong.

Seventh graders Ray Goff and Kephra Shaw-Meredith explain.

GOFF: At first they thought the phosphate was inside the DNA strand.

KEPHRA SHAW-MEREDITH: And she figured out that there is phosphates on the outsides of it and it's BETA.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROSALIND FRANKLIN VS. WATSON & CRICK")

GIBSON: (Rapping) (as Rosalind Franklin) And I'll show it was a helix with phosphates on the outside. Calculating helical dimensions, and without my...

COLE: And here's where things get unpleasant. Watson and Crick used Franklin's picture to build their Nobel Prize-winning model of DNA, but they did it without her permission or even her knowledge - and they didn't give her much credit. It's a still a controversial subject, even in KIPP Bridge's schoolyard.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: It's not really stealing because it says like...

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: I know, but he showed the picture, so like...

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: I know listen, that's stealing. That's stealing from what she did. And even though she was...

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: Claiming it as theirs?

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: Yeah, that's kind of stealing in a way.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: OK. I see where you're coming from.

COLE: Watson later derided Franklin as a belligerent feminist in his best-selling book "The Double Helix." Franklin couldn't respond because she had died of cancer years before. But in the song, she gets her say.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROSALIND FRANKLIN VS. WATSON & CRICK")

GIBSON: (Rapping) (as Rosalind Franklin) It has not escaped notice that you're a jerk. Shoulda got a Nobel for my work.

COLE: There's some uncertainty about whether rapping in school improves learning, but science rapper Tom McFadden believes it helps students find a way into the material.

MCFADDEN: When you talk to the students about the science and the content covered in these songs, they really, really have strong opinions about it.

COLE: And McFadden hopes that kind engagement will spread. With funding from Hewlett-Packard and hundreds of Kickstarter backers, he recorded and filmed a song from each school. The videos go up on YouTube this week. McFadden hopes these science rap battles will make there way into other classrooms, and other students will argue about Watson and Crick on the playground.

Adam Cole, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROSALIND FRANKLIN VS. WATSON & CRICK")

GIBSON: (Rapping) (as Rosalind Franklin) Let me hear you recognize Rosalind Franklin. F-R-A-N-K-L-I-N. Recognize Rosalind Franklin. F-R-A-N-K-L-I-N.

MONTAGNE: Classrooms all over the country are blending hip-hop and science. You can hear more songs and watch students in New York City battle for the title of Science Genius on our website, npr.org.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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