Teaching Newton's Laws Through Rhyme Science education professor Christopher Emdin knows how to get his students interested in science: Rap about it. Together with the hip-hop artist GZA and rap lyrics site RapGenius.com, Emdin founded the Science Genius competition, for which New York City high school students write rhymes based on their biology and physics classwork.
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Teaching Newton's Laws Through Rhyme

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Teaching Newton's Laws Through Rhyme

Teaching Newton's Laws Through Rhyme

Teaching Newton's Laws Through Rhyme

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Science education professor Christopher Emdin knows how to get his students interested in science: Rap about it. Together with the hip-hop artist GZA and rap lyrics site RapGenius.com, Emdin founded the Science Genius competition, for which New York City high school students write rhymes based on their biology and physics classwork.


Christopher Emdin, Author, "Urban Science Education for the Hip-hop Generation", Associate Professor, Science Education, Teachers College, Columbia University

Jabari Johnson, Winner, Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S., Senior, Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts in Harlem

Alicia Duncan, Finalist, Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S., Arts and Media Preparatory Academy


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Would you rather learn geology from this guy?


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: First of all, the substance of moraines are merely the rocks that have been chipped off from the sides of the containing rock mountains, let's say.

FLATOW: (Snoring) Oh, excuse me. Or this guy?


JAHLEEL CEPHUS: (Rapping) If we're talking rocks, let's talk metallic, metamorphic, cementation and compaction. If we're talking rocks, then let's talk organic, sandstone, coal and that inorganic.

FLATOW: Yeah, I'd like to go the second way. That, of course - that's a student here in New York, Jahleel Cephus, and he says that learning rap is much better way to learn than talking about science. You know, talking about physics, biology, geology, you name it, and they're turning it into rhyme. A couple of those musicians are here to perform their compositions, along with a Columbia professor who is the hip-hop star, GZA - who, with the hip-hop star GZA, found a science rap competition here in New York. Let me introduce them.

Christopher Emdin is the author of "Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation." He's also associate professor of science education at Teachers College at Columbia University, here in New York. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

CHRISTOPHER EMDIN: Thanks for having us.

FLATOW: And Jalib Johnson is the winner of the Science Genius battles, and he's a senior at Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts.

JALIB JOHNSON: I graduated.

FLATOW: You graduated?

EMDIN: He just graduated.

FLATOW: Congratulations.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

FLATOW: Wow, we just missed it. You're in Harlem, right here in New York. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.


FLATOW: And we're expecting Alicia Duncan, who was a finalist in the competition. She' probably stuck in traffic, like everybody else here in New York. How did you come up with the idea to do this, Christopher?

EMDIN: You know, Science Genius started about a decade ago, when I was a teacher in New York City public schools trying to find a way to get young people to be excited about science. I'm a science geek, conducted research for years on etiology of schizophrenia and, you know, extracellular matrix molecules. And then I was excited about it, and got to classrooms, and kids would snore, just not be interested.

And then I just started studying, you know, what do I need to know to get them to be engaged in science? What do I need to sort of study to get them to understand science? And it was hip-hop. Hip-hop was all around them. It's what they listened to. It was in the way they dressed and the way they spoke and the way they interacted with each other.

And so I started studying hip-hop more closely, and then I started seeing the connections between science and hip-hop. And once I saw those connections, I would bring them into my physics class, explore them with the young people, and that's where the pedagogical practice began.

FLATOW: I'm interested in learning: What connections did you see between science and hip-hop?

EMDIN: Dude, the connections are endless, right? So, you know, first thing is the iconic role that science has played in society, and it's almost analogous to the role that hip-hop artists play within the hip-hop community. You know, science is oftentimes the voices of the community, that they share the newest ideas. And it's the same thing that hip-hop artists do.

Scientists are increasingly more diverse in the way they share information, and so are hip-hop artists. Hip-hop artists use metaphor and analogy and story, and so do the best scientists, in how they relate their information. Hip-hop artist are anti-establishment. They have to have evidence for the facts that they produce.

And so there are endless lists of attributes, skills, dispositions, traits of the most prolific scientists of our time that are also shared amongst young people from the hip-hop generation.

FLATOW: Let's get right into it.

EMDIN: Let's do it.

FLATOW: Let's do it. We're going to start out with a hip-hop. What's the name of this piece?

JOHNSON: This piece is called "Quest for Joulery." We called it that because jewels is like the product of work, which is force equals distance - I mean, force times distance. So we decided to use a play on words and call it "Quest for Joulery."

FLATOW: Can you do hip-hop sitting down?

JOHNSON: Yes, I can actually.


FLATOW: All right. So, here we go. Roll 'em.


JOHNSON: (Rapping) Live performance. Jack, science genius. What's up Jonathon? What's up Roger? How you guys doing? Yeah. Yo, yeah. This concept is applied to all lives. We strive times distance, be a witness to the prize. Be a man and understand you comprehend that this is vital work equals FD, the equation for survival.

(Rapping) Your only rival is friction. Don't get caught up in the drag. You better prepare, 'cause obstacles fight back. When you get knocked down, though, please don't cry. Just get up and apply more force next time. One day, I was dreaming with a really strong hope that I'll make it, but to make it takes more than just believing. It needs resistance/demons were kind of holding me back, and I let them.

(Rapping) But the simple way to give me on track was force times displaced is work, no debate. I'll take that concept, apply it to my mistakes, and now I'm progressing a natural rap genius. I'm a get an A if I see this on the regent. Here's a lesson. I know it kind of hurts, but if you truly want to work, then there must be progression, 'cause FD equals W is rule and the unit measurement for the product is called joules.

(Rapping) Cool, I did the work. I'm going to try to let it flow. The more people I know, kinetic energy grows. So I'm a gonna go to work, convert all of my potential, and as my beat increases, then I'm a gonna go exponential. The verse has been applied, if my equations are correct, the energy that is left creates a domino effect.

(Rapping) My mass is what I'm bringing to the table. Underestimate you with that you brought a bigger dinner plate, separate me from the fakes. Let me educate. Velocity's my following, and that's what I'm a generate. Do these shows and gigs just overcoming all the friction to the point where friction doesn't even make a difference.

(Rapping) I feed my interest with the laws of physic. Whenever V multiplies the picture is painted vivid. The work was just something that got me inside the door, and now we squaring the V and it's exponentially more. I got a lot in store for the Vs, 'cause I'm progressing my M. And when you multiply them, there's no end to the kinetic energy.

(Rapping) You better be prepared. It's filling you up with MV, with my 1FMV squared. Yo, here's the lesson. I know it kind of hurts, but if you truly want to work, then there must be progression, 'cause FV equals W use the rule. Then the measurement for the product is called Joules, cool. I did the work, I'm gonna try to let to flow. The more people I know kinetic energy grows.

(Rapping) So I'm a go to work, convert all of my potential in. As my speed increases, then I'm gonna go exponential.


JOHNSON: Thank you.

FLATOW: Great.

EMDIN: If I may, Ira...

FLATOW: Yes, please.

EMDIN: ...because this may go over the head of a lot of your listeners. What he did in that verse was he took the formula for work - work equals force times distance - and a formula for kinetic energy, K equals half MV squared. He described each of those formulas in much detail, but he also had the sort of analogy weaving through it. So he was using a scientific formula to describe his life experiences.

JOHNSON: Yeah. And what I basically did with the equation was the first verse, I basically described the force times distance, which is equal to work. And I kind of applied it to my life and what I was kind of going through, like, through my senior year, you know, with my musical career and, like, school and stuff like that, you know, having to progress. And like if I don't, then I'm not really working.

And after is, like, the follow-up effect, like kinetic energy, you know, how my fan base is growing, you know, how my music is getting out there. And it just really relates to, like, science. So, you know, it's another way how, you know, science can relate to rap and, you know, like you were asking Chris earlier.

FLATOW: Yeah, we had Will.i.am on here a few months ago, and we talked about the same sort of thing.

JOHNSON: Oh, really?

FLATOW: Yeah. And did you learn - did you think you would take to liking science when you got into this?

JOHNSON: Well, I already liked science before I got into this program. So the fact that they implemented rap into it was, you know, just great. You know, I had learned about this in physics class. And, you know, in physic class - in every class, I would sit and, you know, write rap on the side while I learned at the same time. But the fact that I didn't have to hide it, and, you know, I could just merge them two together, it was just really great. So...

EMDIN: It's such a big misperception that young people in urban settings who are into hip-hop aren't into science. And once we give them a tool through which they can express their scientific knowledge, that innate need to be scientific and to think scientifically just comes out.

FLATOW: And we were talking to somebody, (unintelligible) who put this together, was saying - he was telling me before that he was talking to one of the students about rocks. His rap was about rocks and he said, I never knew that I could be so interested in a topic until I did the research to do the rap.

EMDIN: And that's the thing, you know. There's a misperception, again - I feel like I'm addressing misperceptions here - that there's no academic merit to it. But before you write a rap about a topic, you have to do your research. You know, rap, like science, requires a level of authenticity and a level of evidence for the claims you make. So if a kid came up and did a science rap, and it wasn't scientifically accurate, then they wouldn't get an A on the class. So it's just another form of assessment of scientific knowledge.

Sorry. And in the rap world, as well, when rappers stay stuff that they don't really mean or that they don't actually live and it's fake, they're looked down upon by other rappers and other artists in the game. So it applies, like, through science, in a sense, as well.

FLATOW: I know he's a tough act to follow, but I understand that you have a rap that you're going to treat us to.

EMDIN: I always do. I call myself the MC with the PhD. So I...


FLATOW: All right. Let's get that going. Go ahead.


EMDIN: (Rapping) All right, class, (unintelligible). Shout out to our partner in the project GZA, and rap genius. Also want to give a shout out to the homey Neil deGrasse Tyson. You know, if science was a cake, hip-hop would be the icing. All right. Check it. Set it off with the freestyle.


EMDIN: (Rapping) Yo, right here, chilling with Ira, spitting verses off the top. It's straight fire. Yep, you can call this freestyle. Meanwhile, hope you listen. MCs, I'm not dissing. So let me get back to the topic, Newton's Laws of Motion. Let me drop it. I'm a physicist/lyricist, I smash ignorance. It's a miss when I'm spitting this.

(Rapping) Newton's laws of motion be the topic of this course, because things in motion stay in motion unless they hit an unbalanced force. And next stop is the second law situation, and summation force equals mass times acceleration. That's the second law to Newton's force, so if y'all want more then the third law is in store, uh.

(Rapping) See, every force has an opposite force, and every action has an equal plus opposite reaction. The sum of all objects at rest is zero, unless that object is no longer relaxing. I mean, in motion. That's change in location, till it hits traction, (unintelligible) friction. Then it all comes to a full stop, and there goes Newton laws over hip-hop.

(Rapping) Hold up. I'm off Newton. I'm on to Einstein. I like Einstein, 'cause Einstein's mind is like mine. His formula was E equals MC squared, which is weird, 'cause me is your favorite MC squared. Yeah. E is energy, M is mass and C is the speed of light, which is a constant that stays the same, whether day and night, which means if I split the speed of light, it could create enough energy for palladium to possibly blow up a stadium or even a city, uh.

And that's it. (unintelligible)


JOHNSON: Yeah. That's what I'm talking about.

FLATOW: That was great. Thank you for working me in there.

EMDIN: No problem, Ira.

FLATOW: That's - now you have a contest, right?

EMDIN: Absolutely.

FLATOW: And how often do you have the contest? Once a year?

EMDIN: The contest is once a year. We had our inaugural one this year. It's the one that Jalib won so brilliantly. We're going to do this next year with more New York City public schools. We're going to have young people lay down the challenge to write raps about their science topics. The winners from each of the schools will then come up to Columbia University Teachers College...

FLATOW: Right.

EMDIN: ...and they will perform their raps, and then we'll crown our next science genius and, you know, Jalib will have to give the crown over to a new person definitely.

JOHNSON: Definitely. I have to be present for that.

FLATOW: All right. Now, how do we crowd-source this? We have hundreds of cities listening to us now.

EMDIN: Yeah.

FLATOW: How can we move this out to everybody?

EMDIN: Every city, you know, please contact me. My website is www.chrisemdin.com, and there's a way to contact me on that website. My handle on Twitter is @chrisemdin. And we'll just go that route. If you send me a message on the website, send me a tweet about your school, and if - whether or not you're interested in this project. We'll find a way to get you guys all, you know, all participants.

FLATOW: Can you make a national contest out of this?

EMDIN: Well, you know, GZA, who is our partner on this project - he wanted to be here so badly today, but he's touring in Europe. You know, his vision is that this becomes like the National Scripps Spelling Bee. You know, we envision it to be that big. We know that hip-hop is - has sort of infiltrated Americana, and we know that science needs to. And so we're trying to bring these two things together, and hopefully make it as big as the spelling bee.

FLATOW: Now, Jalib, where do you go from here? What's - you've graduated?

JOHNSON: Yeah, I've graduated. I'm attending Hunter right now. I got into the SEEK program a couple of weeks ago. But I'm planning on transferring to Bard, which is kind of like my dream college. And I'm also pursuing my musical career, as well. And, you know, if you guys want to check my music out, you know, I have a whole lot of tracks. I just dropped a new track the other day that Chris Emdin seem to like, so check it out.

My twitter handle is @jalibjo. That's @J-A-L-I-B-J-O. And I also have kind of like a band, you know. We're pretty good. We have a show later on today. It's www.wearebeatniks.tumblr.com. So check us out, and yeah - well, so yeah, there's a lot in the works.

FLATOW: A lot in the works. I'm Ira Flatow, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR, with Christopher Emdin and Jalib Johnson. How hard is it to come up with - you're sitting here like it's coming out of your head. I could never do any of that stuff. How hard is it to come up with the lyrics for a science rock? Is it just any - is it just the same thing as the kind of rap?

JOHNSON: Like anything, it takes practice. You know, like, you definitely have to work at it. Like, I say this a lot in, like, all the interviews. I say that I've been doing this since I was nine years old. So, you know, it comes as a surprise to people, but it doesn't really come as a surprise to me, because I have been doing this for a while. So, like everything, it takes practice. Even freestyling, like, when it comes off the top, you have to learn how to do that. And your brain gets used to it, and then it just becomes natural.

FLATOW: But don't - and all kids start out as scientists. They're all inquisitive about how things work.

EMDIN: Absolutely. And then young people from urban settings, you know, are born into hip-hop culture. And so if they are sort of, by nature of being in the world, you know, interested in science and born into a cultural space and place where hip-hop is where, you know, is part of who they are, you know, merging the two is just absolutely natural. And then there's been - there's some recent, you know, sort of neuroscientific research that talks about the fact that when people are engaging in hip-hop and freestyle rap, you know, their - parts of their medial prefrontal cortex is activated, and so they're more apt to learn and more apt to be engaged.

So, you know, this isn't just, you know, a cultural practice. It's also something that sparks the brain in very interesting ways. We also know about how important music is to learning and retaining information. And so, you know, utilizing hip-hop sort of knocks all those things out at once. So, it uses all those things all at once to get kids to be interested in science.

FLATOW: And what's the biggest - what's the single-biggest piece of advice you can give to someone who wants to get into doing this?

EMDIN: You know, it's don't look down on hip-hop. Recognize that it requires an immense amount of skill to be good at this...

JOHNSON: And intelligence.

EMDIN: ...intelligence to be good at this, you know, brilliance to be good at this, but with practice, you can, and knowing that this is just an additional tool to get you or any other person to be interested in science. And, you know, we'll hear from you on the website and we'll hear from you on Twitter, and we could talk to you about the details about how you can be part of the competition.

FLATOW: Is there a test, any sort of - still a test?

EMDIN: Well, you know, for the kids who are in school in this project, we've had regular tests. We don't change the assessments. The assessments remain the exact same. The difference is the way through which they gain the information to be successful is different. What we've had so far in our preliminary studies with Science Genius is the kids either score the same as, or higher than their peers who taught - who learn in traditional classrooms. They also show up to school more often. They also are more likely to declare science majors in the future. So we've got all this research indicating that this is just best practice in schools.

FLATOW: But you also bring it into the mainstream of what - of celebrity, right?

EMDIN: Yeah.

FLATOW: Very important for kids.

EMDIN: You know, not only important for kids, but important for adults. I think what the challenge of science is it's not relatable not just to kids but to the public. You know, part of the issues we have is also public engagement in science, and scientific literacy across the board. And so if Jalib's creating this science rap, and then it goes onto a website that is partnered with rapgenius.com, you know, Jalib's audience can now go to Rap Genius and read his lyrics.

And then they have to try to annotate his lyrics, which means that they have to try to make sense of it. So the kids who are writing the raps benefit, but also the people in the public who go in there to try to annotate the raps benefit. And the idea is to make science a part of just regular, everyday discourse.

FLATOW: And if rap music is part of that everyday discourse, why not have it about scientists?

JOHNSON: Definitely.

EMDIN: Especially since rap is oftentimes viewed as so negative. And because a lot of rap does have misogyny and does have violence and - you know, rap isn't the problem. It's the content of the raps that's the problem. And so with a tool like this, we can have the raps have more edifying and more intelligent, more academic content. It almost battles against the, you know, the superficial, nonsensical rap that sort of infiltrated, you know, radio.

JOHNSON: Definitely. But there's also, you know, rappers who aren't even, you know, doing that, speaking about that - those kinds of things.


JOHNSON: Like, you know, artist like Lupe and GZA, that people don't even know about. Like, you know, so this will shed light on some of those artists that people should probably listen to and, you know, check out.

FLATOW: We're going to check it out more. Thank you.

EMDIN: It's been a pleasure. Thanks for having us.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Are you performing anywhere in public that we can see?

EMDIN: Well, you know, Jalib is performing tonight.

JOHNSON: Oh, yeah.

EMDIN: And, you know, stay on the Twitter feed.


EMDIN: Also, we have a hashtag, #H-I-P-H-O-P-E-D, hiphoped. And if you follow the hiphoped hashtag, you'll find out about all the shows and performances.

FLATOW: All right. All right. Thank you, both of you.

JOHNSON: No problem.

EMDIN: Christopher Emdin, author of "Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation," also associate professor of science education at Teachers College at Columbia. And Jalib Johnson, winner of the Science Genius BATTLES contest. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

JOHNSON: No problem. Thank you.

EMDIN: Thanks for having us, Ira.

FLATOW: We'll be listening. We're going to take a break. We'll be right back after this break. Stay with us.

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