Archive for September 10th, 2013

September 10, 2013

Bringing Hip Hop into the Classroom: Multidisciplinary Learning in Action

by Melissa Harding

Sometimes, to get kids excited about science, you need to experiment. Tom McFadden, an eighth-grade science teacher from the San Francisco Bay Area, knows all about that. Author of the blog Science with Tom (formerly, The Rhymebosome), McFadden has been gaining notoriety for his inventive use of hip hop music in the classroom – first during his tenure as a Human Biology professor at Stanford University and now as a middle school teacher. His most famous work involves a rap battle between Watson & Crick and Rosalind Franklin over who first developed the DNA double helix; most impressively, the entire video was written and performed by middle school students. His blog details the process he uses when teaching science through rap, giving other educators the ability to learn from and emulate his success.

Of course, McFadden is not the only teacher to think about mixing beats with science; the Science Genius BATTLES (Bring Attention to Transforming Teaching, Learning and Engagement in Science) competition, sponsored by Columbia University, teaches New York City youth to combine art and culture with science to create amazing music. Created by Dr. Christopher Emdin, a professor of education at Columbia’s Teacher’s College, the Science Genius BATTLES brings together students from all over the city to present their best science raps. Students write rhymes about everything from DNA to gravity; not only that, but that are really good at it.

This is a great accomplishment, because one of the toughest challenges that many teachers face today is getting students interested in science. This is nothing new; the media is filled with reports about widening achievement gaps in STEM subjects and declining numbers of students (especially girls) pursuing science careers. The efforts of both Emdin and McFadden get students really excited about science by using alternative teaching methods; in other words, this is the essence of multi-disciplinary learning. Multidisciplinary learning is really just using art to teach science, poetry to teach history, science to teach photography – mixing up subject areas and melding them together to create exciting and engaging learning opportunities. Multidisciplinary learning works because it meets students where they are. Not every student is good at or interested in every subject; creative teachers know that by reaching out to their student’s hobbies, interests and skills, they can be more effective educators. Hip hop education reaches students through their culture and the art that culture creates.

Dr. Emdin is interested in the future of urban education and has made using urban youth culture as a teaching tool the focus of his research. According to Emdin, “By engaging in a concerted focus on hip-hop culture, science educators can connect urban youth to science in ways that generate a genuine recognition of who they are, an appreciation of their motivation for academic success, and an understanding of how to capitalize on hip-hop culture for their identities as science learners. Such efforts can eventually lead urban youth to become “the best and brightest” in the science classroom and pursue careers in science-related fields.”

While hip hop is not the right way to reach every student, willingness to think outside the box is critical. Pushing boundaries in education is what teachers need to become more effective. Reaching out to students where they are, using tools that they recognize, is a way to make real strides. The term “multidisciplinary” can be a buzz-word used in the education field as a way to sound impressive; sometimes a concept becomes talked about more than practiced, especially when teachers are expected to incorporate every new idea into their curriculum at one time. Fortunately, there are many incredible teachers (and their supportive administrators) who are able to take a leap of faith and try something new, whether it is hip hop education, gardening in the classroom, or starting a business with their students. This is not easy, and sometimes it can take dedicated teachers years of hard work to get their ideas recognized, but it’s effective. Real multidisciplinary learning helps students to make complex connections and expands their minds so that they can see a new world around them. When it’s real, it works.

To read more the Science Genius BATTLES recently held in NYC, check out NPR’s great video story on the competition.

To read more about hip hop education and Dr. Emdin’s research, check out his website.

To learn how Phipps using multidisciplinary learn to teach botany, check out our post on the importance of art in science.

The above videos are courtesy of Tom McFadden and Dr. Christopher Emdin.


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