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"Modern-day rappers — all they talk about is money, and all these unnecessary and irrelevant topics," says Victoria Richardson, a freshman at Bronx Compass High School. Richardson's rhymes tackle a much less-popular subject: DNA.
Richardson and her teammates were finalists at the Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S. (Bring Attention to Transforming Teaching, Learning and Engagement in Science) competition, where she faced off against other science rappers from nine different New York public schools.
"Science Genius is about harvesting the power of urban youth culture," says Christopher Emdin, a professor of education at Columbia University's Teacher's College who created the program. "Once they are able to incorporate the arts and their culture into the science content, they take it and they run with [it]."
The students researched and wrote rhymes about everything from gravity to evolution. Each school sent one group to the finals, where they were judged by a panel that included Wu-Tang Clan's GZA. (You can check out the finalists' lyrics here. Jabari Johnson, a senior, won the competition with his rap "Quest for Joulelry.")
This program is part of a national push to boost science education among minorities. A U.S. Department of Commerce study found that blacks and Latinos are half as likely as whites to have a job in science or engineering. Some educators hope that bringing hip-hop into the classroom can help change that.
"Science is something I always failed, which prevented me from getting into the specialized high school I wanted to go to," Richardson says.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, Tom McFadden also teaches science through rap with a slightly different approach. His students pen rap battles about conflicts from the history of science.
"When you incorporate these stories, it allows you not only to make the scientific information much more fun to digest," McFadden says. "It allows you to discuss scientific process."
A group of seventh-graders from Oakland, Calif., worked with McFadden to create a music video about the discovery of DNA's structure. They nail the science, and also delve into the shady behavior of the scientists involved.
Hip-hop education is still in its infancy, and it's gotten some resistance; teachers are hesitant to set aside class time for experimental programs.
But Emdin says if the current system isn't working, you have to try something different.
"Not every student is going to be a straight-A student, and go on to college and declare a science major and be the next Einstein," he says. "But through this project we definitely are going to have more scientifically literate young people."
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