A Hip-Hop Experiment
By JOHN LELAND
Published: November 16, 2012
They are an unlikely team of educational reformers. Christopher Emdin is a Columbia University professor who likes to declaim Newton’s laws in rhyme.GZA is a member of the Wu-Tang Clan who left school in 10th grade. When the two men met this summer, at a radio show hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, they started talking about science and education — particularly, why science classrooms were failing to engage many African-American and Latino students, who together make up 70 percent of New York City’s student body. Only 4 percent of African-American seniors nationally were proficient in sciences, compared with 27 percent of whites, according to the2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Christopher Emdin, a Columbia University professor, is launching a pilot project to teach science using hip-hop in New York City schools. Above, a student worked on rhymes.
GZA, 46, who was born Gary Grice, had just finished anextraordinary round of meetings with physicists at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, culling ideas for a coming solo album about the cosmos. Dr. Emdin, 34, an assistant professor of science education at Teachers College, was a lifelong hip-hop fan. They discovered a shared interest in merging their two worlds: GZA by bringing science into hip-hop; Dr. Emdin bybringing hip-hop into the science classroom.
Next month, the two men, along with the popular hip-hop lyrics Web site Rap Genius, will announce a pilot project to use hip-hop to teach science in 10 New York City public schools. The pilot is small, but its architects’ goals are not modest. Dr. Emdin, who has written a book called “Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation,” hopes to change the way city teachers relate to minority students, drawing not just on hip-hop’s rhymes, but also on its social practices and values.
Rap Genius, which recently received a $15 million investment from the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, hopes to expand its site, where users annotate lyrics, into education. And GZA saw a potential hit: “You never know,” he said of their collaboration. “This could turn into something in the future as big as the spelling bee.”
Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
On a recent afternoon in his office at Teachers College, Dr. Emdin likened the skills required for success in science to those of a good rapper: curiosity, keen observation, an ability to use metaphor and draw connections. Moreover, he said, the medium itself provided a model that could be more effective than traditional science instruction, in which teachers stand in front of classes delivering information, then judge students by their ability to repeat it on tests.
By contrast, in what is known as a hip-hop “cypher,” participants stand in a circle and take turns rapping, often supporting or playing off one another’s rhymes.
“A hip-hop cypher is the perfect pedagogical moment, where someone’s at the helm of a conversation, and then one person stops and another picks up,” Dr. Emdin said, his checked bow tie bobbing under his chin. “There’s equal turns at talking. When somebody has a great line, the whole audience makes a ‘whoo,’ which is positive reinforcement.”
He added, “All of those things that are happening in the hip-hop cypher are what should happen in an ideal classroom.”
Starting in January, the 10 schools, with support from Dr. Emdin and his graduate students, will experiment with cyphers and rhymes to teach basic science concepts — one class per school, one day per week. The students will write rhymes in lieu of papers; the best rhymes, as judged by GZA, will appear on Rap Genius, beside the lyrics of popular hits. The program fits into a broader educational movement to use students’ outside interests to engage them in class work.
When GZA (pronounced JIZ-ah, a play on “genius”) heard Dr. Emdin’s spiel, it resonated with his own school experiences. Growing up in the Park Hill Houses on Staten Island, he was curious about the physical world but bored with school. Hip-hop became his outlet for showing off intellectually.
“It was always about crafting the best rhyme in the most articulate, witty or smart way,” he said. “For us, it was always about educating the listener.”
It took him more than two decades to develop his curiosity about science into “Dark Matter,” an album now in the writing stage, which he hopes will bring his fans to astrophysics, starting with the Big Bang.
David Kaiser, a physicist at M.I.T. who met with GZA in December and again this spring, said he was impressed. “He’s read a lot of books and asked really well-informed questions,” said Dr. Kaiser, 41, who is not a fan of rap. “It was fun to see how excited he was about science.”
More than that, Dr. Kaiser said, GZA might attract African-American and Latino students to the sciences, where they are strongly underrepresented.
“It’s a topic of steady attention at M.I.T. and around the country,” he said. “When I see someone like GZA, who is excited and has a voice and is looked up to, I’m delighted that he wants to communicate that excitement to people who might not be pursuing it.”
Dr. Emdin, too, is hoping that GZA’s presence — appearing in a video for students, possibly visiting a few classrooms, judging the students’ raps — will undercut the students’ fear of science, or the stereotype that scientists are all white people.
During a lunch hour counseling session at the Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts in Harlem last week, Ian Levy, 23, one of Dr. Emdin’s graduate students, led nine high-school students in a hip-hop cypher designed to further their emotional development. The students stood in a circle and took turns reciting rhymes about their lives.
Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
Unique Clay rapped about hearing gunshots while he wrote his rhymes; Michael Johnson rapped about an abused 6-year-old; Cai Moore punned on the name Peter Piper, but fizzled after a few lines; Anna Zivian, a teacher, rapped about having three mothers. Mr. Levy rapped as well.
Dr. Emdin, who was visiting, liked what he saw: the eye contact, the effort behind the writing, the peer support.
“Kids relate best when they’re standing up,” he said. “The teacher can measure engagement by the hand gestures and head bobs. And when the last kid couldn’t finish his verse, everybody gave him encouragement. In a traditional school, he’d have failed. We need to expand the notion of what success is.”
For schools adopting the program, though, Dr. Emdin’s approach is as yet unproven. And Rap Genius has recently drawn criticism for racist comments posted in a chat forum by two of its editors.
Rodney Fisher, the principal at the Marie Curie School for Medicine, Nursing and Health Professions in the Bronx, where Dr. Emdin developed his methods as a young high school teacher, spoke highly of Dr. Emdin’s classroom record. He had improved his students’ assessments, pass rates and attendance levels, Mr. Fisher said, though he added that this might simply be because Dr. Emdin was a good, passionate teacher.
“Science and math are the hardest to get students interested in,” Mr. Fisher, 44, said. “His students became invested in physics, able to identify terminology or vocabulary, and also able to use that to apply scientific formulas.”
Dr. Tyson, the planetarium director, said he saw a thread of science geekery lurking in hip-hop, where delivering knowledge is called “dropping science.” A few songs — by PiGPEN, among others — even mention Dr. Tyson by name. GZA compared this latent interest in science to interest in chess — an early Wu-Tang obsession that has recently flourished in city schools.
If that proves to be the case, Dr. Tyson said, Dr. Emdin’s experiment might have broader implications.
“It’s clear that Chris has a vision and energy level,” Dr. Tyson said. “To the extent it’s transplantable, that can make what he’s up to quite fertile and important.”