Rapping About Darwin, for Knowledge and Glory
By JOHN LELAND
School was out for the week, but the lessons were just starting. Jahleel Cephus, 17, a sophomore from Validus Preparatory Academy in the Bronx, swayed to a hip-hop beat and dropped science: “Bioclast, foliation, and that granite,” he rhymed. “I can tell you something ‘bout an aphanitic.” On a screen behind him, the last word linked to a note explaining that it meant a volcanic rock. Students whooped in appreciation.
Jahleel was one of about 300 students from nine New York public high schools who participated this semester in an experimental pilot program called Science Genius, which used hip-hop to teach science to urban teenagers. On Friday night, the best students from each school met at Teachers College, Columbia University, in a final battle for citywide supremacy.
At stake were pride, bragging rights and some serious swag – the winner got a full day at the Museum of Natural History and a full day in a recording studio with the rapper GZA, of Wu-Tang Clan, who has been a vocal advocate of science education and a figurehead for the Science Genius program.
“Going into schools, I’m just as nervous to be around them as they are to be around me,” GZA said. “There’s no difference.”
Onto the stage the students filed, spitting rhymes about DNA, mitochondria, the big bang, natural selection, reproduction, digestion, the solar system and a “burner named Bunsen.” Lyrics for all the raps appeared on the popular lyrics Web site Rap Genius.
Tara Ware, 27, who teaches earth science at Validus, said she had hoped using hip-hop would help her students retain vocabulary, especially those who spoke English as a second language. But other benefits soon became apparent.
“They learned problem-solving skills,” Ms. Ware said. “And it really tested their work ethic. All my kids love rap, but some aren’t good at it, so they really had to work at it. It took more time to write a rap than write a three-page paper.”
The program was developed by Christopher Emdin, an assistant professor of science education at Teachers College, as part of what he calls “reality pedagogy” – reaching minority students through their culture. Eight volunteers, mostly graduate students, worked with teachers to incorporate hip-hop into the curriculum. In a very limited study, Mr. Emdin said the students in the classrooms that used hip-hop outperformed those who did not.
Musa Kaira, 20, an immigrant from Gambia, West Africa, was one of those who benefited. A senior at English Language Learners and International Support (ELLIS) Preparatory Academy in the Bronx, Mr. Kaira said he had not liked science and had struggled with the class work.
But once rap was added to the mix, “I started staying after school, and used the lab to make a rhyme about freezing and melting,” he said.
His teacher, Jeremy Heyman, 27, said his students learned as much about themselves as they learned about science. “But their enjoyment and appreciation of science were definitely improved.”
From Bronx Compass High School, three freshman girls calling themselves Dreams Divided were sure their rap about DNA and Darwin was going to win.
“We all hated our science class before,” said Victoria Richardson, 14. “Now I can’t wait till Friday to go to science class.” The challenge of writing credible raps – which require dense allusions – meant that they had to do extra research, and to work together. “You can’t just say, ‘DNA, I want to play,’” Victoria said. “You have to make sense.”
After the last rhyme, the six judges, who included GZA, deliberated long over the winner. Some students had been ragged but charming; some used elaborate metaphors, a trait shared by scientists and rappers, Mr. Emdin said.
Finally the judges returned with a winner: Jabari Johnson, a senior from Urban Assembly for the Performing Arts High School in Harlem, for a rhyme about the formula Work equals Force times Distance. With a derby hat pushed back on his head, he brought academic rigor with a touch of hip-hop braggadocio.
“I’ve been rapping since I was 9,” said Jabari, who plans to pursue a musical career next year rather than attending college. “It came naturally. When you put science and rap together, you get something beautiful.”
Or, as he rhymed it onstage:
“And now I’m progressing, a natural rap genius
And I’ma get an A if I see this on the regent”
Just in case anyone was wondering whether hip-hop would be on the standardized test.