Science Rap B.A.T.T.L.E.S. Bring Hip-Hop Into The Classroom

Aug 8, 2013
Originally published on August 8, 2013 11:48 am

This story comes to us from our friends at the science desk. They produced the 7-minute video documentary you see above.

"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]."

Jayda Neor and Kephra Shaw Meredith, seventh-graders from KIPP Bridge middle school in Oakland, Calif., perform a rap song about the discovery of DNA's structure in front of a green screen.
Tom McFadden

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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And now to a classroom in the San Francisco Bay Area, where seventh graders have turned another controversial early chapter in genetics into a battle with a beat - a rap battle - as we'll hear.

NPR's Adam Cole reports.


ADAM COLE, BYLINE: Watson and Crick - they're the guys who first figured out that famous spiral structure of DNA. Before they came on the scene, no one knew what that important molecule looked like.


COLE: That beat comes from Kanye West's song "Clique," but the performers are seventh graders Ray Goff and Jabar Murray. Along with their classmates at KIPP Bridge Middle School in Oakland, California they've been working for months - researching the story of DNA, writing rhymes and filming a music video.

Tom McFadden led the project. Equipped with degrees in biology and science communication, he's spent the past few years traveling around the world - visiting classrooms with his own brand of science-infused hip-hop.

TOM MCFADDEN: It's part of an every day thing that they do after school, during school, at recess, whenever. And if you can bring that into the classroom and connect that to other things that they're learning about, that goes a long way towards hooking students in.

COLE: With McFadden's help, students at five schools in the San Francisco Bay area have created rap battles about everything from plate tectonics to Pluto. And these are battles - lyrical arguments between ideas or people.

At KIPP Bridge, the fight really gets going when Rosalind Franklin, another DNA pioneer, shows up.


COLE: That's Milan Gibson playing the role of Rosalind Franklin. Franklin took some X-ray pictures of DNA - and they showed that everyone had shape of the molecule all wrong.

Seventh graders Ray Goff and Kephra Shaw-Meredith explain.

: At first they thought the phosphate was inside the DNA strand.

KEPHRA SHAW-MEREDITH: And she figured out that there is phosphates on the outsides of it and it's BETA.


COLE: And here's where things get unpleasant. Watson and Crick used Franklin's picture to build their Nobel Prize-winning model of DNA, but they did it without her permission or even her knowledge - and they didn't give her much credit. It's a still a controversial subject, even in KIPP Bridge's schoolyard.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: It's not really stealing because it says like...

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: I know, but he showed the picture, so like...

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: I know listen, that's stealing. That's stealing from what she did. And even though she was...

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: Claiming it as theirs?

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: Yeah, that's kind of stealing in a way.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: OK. I see where you're coming from.

COLE: Watson later derided Franklin as a belligerent feminist in his best-selling book "The Double Helix." Franklin couldn't respond because she had died of cancer years before. But in the song, she gets her say.


COLE: There's some uncertainty about whether rapping in school improves learning, but science rapper Tom McFadden believes it helps students find a way into the material.

MCFADDEN: When you talk to the students about the science and the content covered in these songs, they really, really have strong opinions about it.

COLE: And McFadden hopes that kind engagement will spread. With funding from Hewlett-Packard and hundreds of Kickstarter backers, he recorded and filmed a song from each school. The videos go up on YouTube this week. McFadden hopes these science rap battles will make there way into other classrooms, and other students will argue about Watson and Crick on the playground.

Adam Cole, NPR News.


MONTAGNE: Classrooms all over the country are blending hip-hop and science. You can hear more songs and watch students in New York City battle for the title of Science Genius on our website,

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.