NASA Engineer Dajae Williams Is Bringing Math & Science To Hip Hop : Short Wave NASA engineer Dajae Williams is using hip hop to make math and science more accessible to young people. We talk with Dajae about her path to NASA, and how music helped her fall in love with math and science when she was a teenager.

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This NASA Engineer Is Bringing Math And Science To Hip Hop

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

Dajae Williams does something very, very cool. She's a quality engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab.

DAJAE WILLIAMS: My job is to ensure the safety and the quality of everything that we build.

SOFIA: So you're making sure everything is, like, on the up and up before it goes into space.

WILLIAMS: Mmm hmm. So I get to get in the cleanroom every day and do a lot of inspections on how tight a screw is being tight or how - are we keeping this hardware clean so that we don't get our germs into space? We make sure this thing actually works once it is launched.

SOFIA: She loves her job, but it didn't start that way. When Dajae got to NASA in 2018, just out of college...

WILLIAMS: It was very exciting, a little bit overwhelming. I suffered from a little bit of imposter syndrome, for sure - and a bit confusing, I will be honest.

SOFIA: What do you mean by a bit confusing?

WILLIAMS: There's no women in my group. There are only a few African Americans in my group or people of color, for that matter. So nobody looks like me. No one acted like me. So it was definitely different, and I did not fit in.


SOFIA: That feeling of not fitting in at a place like NASA is something that Dajae is working to change. And she's doing it in kind of an awesome way, a way that helped her fall in love with math and science when she was a teenager.


WILLIAMS: (Singing) Energy of force, mathematics, studying the Big Bang. I'm observing something, and it may be nothing. A hypothesis could change the game, OK.

SOFIA: I'm Maddie Sofia. Today on SHORT WAVE - Dajae Williams' path to NASA and how she's rapping about science and math to make it more relatable and memorable, especially to kids of color.


WILLIAMS: (Singing) ...Reason it like ay (ph). If this statement's OK, OK, yeah, we switching up the game to educate.


SOFIA: NASA wasn't necessarily a childhood dream of Dajae's. She was struggling a bit in school, and NASA wasn't even on her radar.

So tell me a little bit about - you know, what was your relationship with math and science when you were younger?

WILLIAMS: It was not a good one. I was a part of this desegregation program as a child. I started in third grade. And the desegregation program, basically, it sent kids that were from underprivileged areas to schools that had bigger budgets and better curriculums and things of that sort. So going into a school where the kids were essentially smarter because they had more resources, it was really tough for me to feel like, oh, this is something that I can do. So it wasn't very good until I got acclimated into, you know, how - their teaching style and how to study.

SOFIA: What changed that for you? Was there, you know, like, a specific turning point you can think of?

WILLIAMS: I would say my seventh-grade teacher. She was willing to stay after school with me to help me figure out, you know, these topics that I was having difficulty with. And I ended up getting my first hundred on a test, and it made me so happy. It made my teachers so happy. It made my mom so happy. And once I - just that positive reinforcement, it made me want to study harder and, you know, take the extra mile to figure out these things that were difficult for me so that I could feel good about doing math.

SOFIA: So she started coming in early and staying late, studying on the weekends. And then she got an assignment, one where math and music - which Dajae loves - came together.

WILLIAMS: One of our assignments was to create a song about the quadratic formula, and the one that she presented to us was really - it was real bland, you know. (Singing) X equals negative B, plus or minus the square root of...

SOFIA: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: ...(Singing) B squared minus 4AC, all over 2A.

SOFIA: It's not great (laughter).

WILLIAMS: That wasn't the song for me. So when I took it home, I may have been probably listening to Soulja Boy on the way home on my MP3 player or something like that, and I just started saying, like, you know...


WILLIAMS: (Singing) X equals in this, oh, negative...

And then literally just made the chorus in one night at home.


WILLIAMS: (Singing) Find the root over 2, hey - root over 2, hey - root over 2, hey.

And I went and sang it in class the next day, and the whole class was like, oh, my god, like - everybody - you know, everybody else probably picked, like, nursery songs and things of that sort, and I came from a whole different angle, and the class literally went wild. I was like, oh, wow, this is pretty cool.


WILLIAMS: (Singing) You may not get it right away, but you can practice every day. Don't be getting mad 'cause all you got to do is say, X equals in this, oh...

I didn't think of it as a potential career at the time at all.

SOFIA: Right.

WILLIAMS: It was just a fun project. I was trying to get an A.

SOFIA: Yeah.

WILLIAMS: And continued to use it, like, throughout high school, throughout college because, you know, finding the root of something is something that you have to do over and over again throughout your math classes. So it definitely helped.

SOFIA: And so you also came up with, more recently, some more, like, middle-school math music...

WILLIAMS: Exactly.

SOFIA: ...About the order of operations, which is basically the rules you use to solve, like, an algebra equation, right?

WILLIAMS: Exactly.

SOFIA: And so I'm just going to say it the boring way, OK?


SOFIA: Solve the parentheses first, then the exponents, then you do multiplication and division and then addition and subtraction. And you know what they told me to remember - to memorize that, Dajae?


SOFIA: Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally.

WILLIAMS: Exactly.

SOFIA: OK. So now I'm going to play your version of that.


WILLIAMS: (Singing) OK, we solve from the left to the right, parentheses, exponents, multiply, then divide, then add and subtract.

SOFIA: It's so good.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.


WILLIAMS: (Singing) ...That. OK, we solve from the left to the right...

SOFIA: Tell me a little bit more about, you know, how you're using music to reach out to kids and try to get them interested in science and math.

WILLIAMS: Well, I saw that the most challenging thing for me was that the way that these topics were being taught, it was not relatable at all. And if it's not relatable, it's not memorable.


WILLIAMS: (Singing) What's the order of operations, you ask me? Well, parentheses and brackets...

A huge thing I always heard growing up was like, oh, my God, you know all these words to the songs, but, you know, how are you doing in school? So I figured, OK, why not mix the two? If you can remember the words of a song, maybe we can use that as a tool to help you do good in school. And I know people are so emotionally attached to hip-hop music. It's the most streamed genre at this moment in time. So I wanted to use something that touches the world, to be able to teach it in a fun way and make the topics relatable and memorable.

SOFIA: And so you - basically, are you sending these songs out to, like, high school teachers and that kind of stuff?

WILLIAMS: So the teachers actually find me, which is crazy. So I'm trying to organize it a bit better and make songs to go directly with school systems' curriculum so that maybe this could be in a classroom one day.

SOFIA: So, you know, what kind of struck me when you were talking to me earlier about the desegregation program, you know, that - it's, like, a lot of time and money and energy just trying to like get access to a solid education and opportunities, not to mention all the work that comes in after. Like, does that take a toll on you?

WILLIAMS: Oh, most definitely. It was just surprising how much harder I had to work to, you know, succeed...

SOFIA: Right.

WILLIAMS: ...Just to get an A on a test, you know?

SOFIA: Right.

WILLIAMS: But seeing my mom, how hard she worked, it definitely motivated me to just keep going. And I knew that this would pay off in the end. I didn't know exactly how, but I knew that not blowing off my homework or just focusing on the things that I shouldn't be focusing on - let me try it differently and see where it takes me.

SOFIA: And I mean, it definitely did pay off, right? So after high school, you went to Missouri S&T. Then you got this internship at NASA during college, and then NASA recruited you to work there, right?

WILLIAMS: So they reached out to me through email - like, hey, we saw that you're going to be at this conference, the National Society of Black Engineers conference; we would love to interview you there. And I thought it was fake at first. I was like, what? OK, wait - what?


WILLIAMS: Until I heard the phone call, and they're like, yeah, so your interview time's going to be at, you know, 1:00 p.m. And the next week I had an offer.

SOFIA: So Dajae starts her job at NASA, and like she said earlier, it's a little overwhelming, a little confusing. Her first team - no women, just a few people of color. She feels out of place but tries to fit in.

WILLIAMS: I tried to lower my accent. Like, I tried to say more intelligent - or what people may think are more intelligent - words, just using the jargon that they use. So I have to switch my whole vocabulary to be able to connect with a whole different group on top of doing my job.

SOFIA: Right. Right. And that takes - that's another - like, that's a cost, right?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, for sure. You have to become a master code-switcher, not only trying to do my work and learn all the things that I don't know but also trying to relate and be palatable, I would say. But I've gotten to a point where I am bold about it. I try to let my culture show through different, just subtle things. Like, I'll wear a huge chain to work, or I'll wear, like, a shirt with Tupac on it or just little, subtle things like that to let you guys know that I'm here, I'm present, and there's nothing you can do it.


SOFIA: So you - (laughter) I like that. So you said in the beginning, it was kind of tough to fit in at NASA. What about now? Do you feel like you're more comfortable there? Are you with a group that you feel more comfortable with?

WILLIAMS: With the quality group, I definitely feel a lot more comfortable. They have shown a lot more trust in me. I'm out there on the field learning things day by day and becoming a better quality engineer by the second, I would say. So I'm super excited with this new team that I've been working with, and I feel proud to say, you know, I work at NASA JPL now.

SOFIA: What do you think specifically changed that made you feel more comfortable at NASA?

WILLIAMS: I would, first off, say time, and then also leadership totally matters, just that constant communication, them checking in with you to see if you need anything. They are allowing me to ask the questions that I need to ask. I'm not scared to ask a question and be thought of as, oh, maybe she shouldn't be doing that job. They are - they would just tell me the answer and, like, thanks for asking. Thanks for catching that. I'm glad, you know, you felt comfortable to let me know that you didn't know that and didn't make a decision without us - you know, just willing to help.

And it's an amazing feeling that they want me to succeed. They see my success as their success. So it's a definite team environment that I didn't have at first.

SOFIA: Yeah. What advice would you give for other young folks of color that are excited about math and science?

WILLIAMS: First off, listen to my music so that you can...


WILLIAMS: ...Have fun and learn it. Two, don't be afraid to ask questions in the classroom. If you have a question, there's somebody probably next to you or behind you that has that same question. So don't be afraid to ask questions. What I did when I was in the classroom is, the first day, I would see who's, like, the most eager to raise their hand; let me sit next to them and try to absorb all that I can. And eventually, we become friends. Eventually, we study together. That was a huge strategy of mine. And I would say that's - those are the key things.

SOFIA: All right, Dajae Williams, NASA engineer, thanks for talking to us. Why don't you play your way out?

WILLIAMS: (Singing) OK, we solve from the left to the right, parentheses, exponents, multiply and divide, then add and subtract. No, I don't think they heard me. Let me run it back. OK, we solve...

SOFIA: This episode was produced by Brit Hanson and edited by Viet Le. I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

WILLIAMS: (Singing) No, I don't think they heard me. Let me run it back.

SOFIA: (Singing) Let me run it back.


SOFIA: Yeah, that's...


SOFIA: All right. Thank you, Dajae. This was really fun.

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