CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. For the next 15 minutes or so, we want to talk about ideas for using hip-hop in education. So in a few minutes, we'll learn about the Hip Hop Sisters Foundation and the scholarship it offers to students who are studying urban art. But first, one woman is using hip-hop to build excitement about STEM classes. That's science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Joining us now is Danielle Lee, a post-doctoral research associate who uses hip-hop to connect the dots between culture and science for young people of color. Danielle, it's so nice talk to you.
DANIELLE LEE: Thank you. Thank you very much.
HEADLEE: It makes sense to me of course to connect hip-hop to culture, right? That's a no-brainer...
HEADLEE: ...And it makes sense to me. I was a music major. I totally get the connection between music and math. Music is entirely based off of math. But then, how do you get music to connect students to technology and engineering?
LEE: Well, I mean, first of all, you need these skills to even produce music these days and to distribute it and to create new sounds. And so I know many of my friends who are more on the physical science side and the engineering side have successfully used that. One of the communities I belong to is the Hip-Hop Ed community, and there's a weekly Twitter chat. And so we have all types of educators who come on board, and they talk about using hip-hop, you know, in understanding engineering and technology as well as all types of lessons, including the social sciences and language arts.
HEADLEE: OK, now, Danielle, I just want to be the devil's advocate here because one of the biology teachers at my son's school tried to teach about genetics and he was a - you know, full disclosure - he was, like, a 55-year-old white guy, and he wrote this rap about genetics, and the kids could not have been more turned off. They thought it was the lamest thing they'd ever seen. So how do you use hip-hop, but when it comes from a professor's mouth, isn't it automatically not cool?
LEE: It depends. So this is what it's based about. It's about cultural relevancy. So simply co-opting hip-hop or in this case creating a rap isn't good enough. That's just putting it to rhyme. It's no different than "Sesame Street" or anything else. I can't spit a rhyme to save my life. I can't. That's not what I do. 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.
HEADLEE: OK. So give me an example of a song that you could use in a science class.
LEE: An example of a song. So a very common - since you said genetics - a very common misunderstood lesson is the difference between inheritance and heritability in genetics. So how you inherit traits or how traits come to be in families, and so I usually give a lesson explaining the difference. Inherited means that 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 environmental factors or cultural factors, and so I like this song. "I Got It from My Mama," is a really good way to introduce it to students to help them understand.
LEE: And so by listening to the lyrics of the song, we then deconstruct it to go, OK, you know, how does she get it from her mama? You know, how does - what are the rules of inheritance and heritability of how we inherit certain physical traits? In this case, a woman 'cause that's what the song is focusing on. You know, those things can be genetic as well as environment. And then understanding that, you know, what we see as a phenotype is the combination of those environmental traits. And so it reinforces vocabulary. It gets us into topics, you know, that's personally interesting and relevant to students.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT IT FROM MY MAMA")
HEADLEE: You know, Danielle, I want to ask about a controversy that you were a part of recently.
HEADLEE: You had an exchange with the Life Science's blog "Biology-Online," and you were asked if you would be a contributor to the blog. And you asked about what the compensation was. You found out it was unpaid, and you declined. And then they asked if you were - and I want to quote here - an urban scientist or an urban whore. Do you feel like that's an individual experience, just something that was a unique experience that happened to you, or do you feel like this is part of the problem we've been having with women in STEM sciences, period?
LEE: I think my experience was very extreme, first of all. But, yes, it is something, sadly, that women do tend to experience - this notion that we don't have the right to negotiate for ourselves, and when we do, you know, we're called out of our name. Most people tend to use the B-word whenever we're assertive...
LEE: ...And stick up for ourselves. But, yeah, sadly, I do think this is a problem in some of the STEM fields, particularly - most of my experiences are in academia. That, you know, you get sideways looks if you're too assertive.
HEADLEE: So then how do you translate that since part of your mission is to bring kids, especially kids and girls of color, into the STEM sciences? Do you prepare them for experiences like that?
LEE: As they get older, and if the conversation comes up, I absolutely do. I will, at least one-on-one, have some real talk conversations with young people that, you know, that have expressed an interest in really, really going full-on into the sciences. It's important for them to brace themselves. Yes, I believe the culture needs to change, and I think some very important strides are being made. But it would be disingenuous of me to not prepare them for what to really expect.
HEADLEE: So how does one - you know, all we hear about it seems like lately in the school systems is how difficult the task is to get kids prepared, and especially kids in urban districts such as you're focusing on - the underrepresented, as you describe them - who maybe are not getting great - they don't have access to labs. They're not getting the kind of - the preparation for the STEM sciences that other kids in other districts may. How do you connect with them? How do you make it interesting? Is it just through the use of hip-hop music?
LEE: No, I mean, that's what I do. I don't think that's the whole answer. It's a complicated answer. We didn't get ourselves in this situation overnight, and we're not going to dig ourselves overnight. It really will take a concerted, comprehensive effort. And one of the things that 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, and it takes the parents to either shuttle them back and forth between their programs or relieve them of household duties that many of them have responsibilities to. So we're going to need the adults in their lives to really, really, you know, take a stand and perhaps even a sacrifice that this young kid isn't going to take a summer job this summer. They're going to work in a lab, and 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. Think about this. If you work in a lab for even a summer, your letters of recommendation for college are going to come from college professors, not just high school teachers.
HEADLEE: That's probably worth a summers' worth of unpaid work, I would imagine.
HEADLEE: Danielle Lee is a post-doctoral research associate at the Department of Zoology at Oklahoma State University and a blogger for Scientific American. She joined us from her office there. Thank you so much, Danielle.
LEE: Thank you.