What Rhymes With Science? Education Professor Puts Students to the Test

Columbia U.

Christopher Emdin takes a novel approach to scientific literacy.
July 15, 2013

Christopher Emdin, 35, an assistant professor of science education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a researcher of issues in urban classrooms, has developed a competition to engage New York City high-school students in the sciences. Rather than taking a test, the students prove their knowledge by rapping about science. Here is his story about those efforts, as told to Allie Bidwell.

I came into the world of education as a teacher. I taught math and science in an urban middle school where students were struggling to succeed, and many of the approaches that I tried to get the students engaged were not successful.


To understand their lifestyles, I began studying my students outside of the classroom. I observed them in the cafeteria. I watched how they communicated with each other after school. What I found was that different expressions of hip-hop culture made them engaged and excited in ways that I wanted to see in the science classroom.

I would see them creating complex rhythms by banging on the lunchroom tables that served as the backdrop to their conversations, or creating elaborate handshakes that were unique to young people from a particular neighborhood. I then tried to incorporate some of those cultural dimensions into the classroom. I played the music they listened to in the background as I taught or as they completed lab assignments. When a student got an answer right, or described a scientific concept accurately, we would create a handshake.

The classroom became my laboratory. We would try using hip-hop to explain scientific concepts. We would look at the jewelry rappers wore and discuss whether they were alloys or pure metals. This work eventually led to the creation of the Science Genius Project, which started last year. I identified 10 schools in New York City, and after partnering with the rapper GZA from the Wu-Tang Clan, a former New York City public-school student and self-proclaimed science enthusiast, I found a way to transport the idea of using hip-hop as a tool for engaging young people in the classroom. In the project, students participate in a rapping competition, judged by both hip-hop artist and scientists, to see who will be New York City's "Science Genius." They have to be excellent performers, but they also have to be excellent scientists.

This is promoting not only a change that happens in classrooms. It also generates the idea of the public's engagement in science, as the students' science raps are shared in the community. This doesn't benefit just the students in public schools. It also helps us create a more scientifically literate populace among those who traditionally wouldn't be intrigued by or curious about science at all.

We're hoping to expand to more schools, but we're also looking to create other ways in which we can engage the hip-hop generation in the STEM disciplines. The hope is that eventually, Science Genius will become STEM Genius, with the competition expanded to include technology, engineering, and math. We also have a goal to make this be a project that occurs in schools across the country.