Tom McFadden of San Francisco is teaching Bay Area middle school students about science through rap. At one San Jose school, the students rapped about Pluto. Damian Trujillo reports.
Middle school students in low-income neighborhoods are answering some epic questions in an unusual form — rap.
Is Pluto a planet or a “dwarf” in space? And what was the Nobel Prize controversy involving the late DNA scientist Rosalind Franklin?
Yes, these are weighty questions for anyone.
But how about for 6th and 7th graders in the San Francisco Bay Area, who are jumping on a hot trend where young people tackle the universe’s mysteries, all with a beatbox beat.
This isn’t science fiction.
It’s reality, masterminded by Tom McFadden, 27, of San Francisco – a Stanford University graduate and Fulbright scholar – who used a Hewlett-Packard grant and nearly $13,000 in Kickstarter funds to launch his project: Battle Rap Histories of Epic Science.
“It’s been crazy,” McFadden said. “But I am so proud of the kids. In every case, we had a blast, and the kids have had a powerful experience.”
This powerful experience is being played out by nearly 100 middle school students at five charter and public schools in San Jose and Oakland.
The students grapple with whether Pluto is a planet or a member of the Kuiper belt - all in punchy rhymes.
McFadden asks viewers to pose their science thoughts in the "comments" section of the video to hopefully spark an international, online discussion.
By mid-morning, legendary American Museum of Natural History astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson had tweeted about @Tomcfad's Pluto video.
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) August 16, 2013
Maybe it’s a surprise to some, but for the San Jose 6th graders, learning about science was just as fun as grabbing a mic and acting like Ice T and Lil Wayne.
“I never knew Pluto was in the same rotation as Neptune,” said Daisy Carmona, 11, a sixth grader at KIPP Heartwood. “I love science.”
“I want to be a scientist AND a rapper when I grow up," added Daniel Reyes, 11, another KIPP Heartwood student who raps about Pluto.
The Pluto video follows on the heels of McFadden's first science-rap release this summer.
That was produced and performed by students at the KIPP Bridge Charter in Oakland. They battled over whether scientist Rosalind Franklin deserved the Nobel Peace prize after her death and did her colleagues use her data without permission.
WATCH ROSALIND FRANKLIN VS. WATSON & CRICK
Science rapping is taking off in other parts of the country, too. New York’s Columbia University hosted the Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S. for public school students in December.
The love of both science and rapping came to McFadden when he was a student at McClatchy High School in Sacramento. He loved AP biology. And he loved the rap group, Wu-Tang Clan, from Staten Island. Then, for fun, in 2008 while at Stanford University as a Human Biology major, he began making parody raps about rims of cars and turning them into songs about RIMS, or reproductive isolating mechanisms.
After college, McFadden set about traveling, from Ixil, Mexico to Dunedin, New Zealand, where he taught young people to explore science through music. He earned a Fulbright Scholarship and part of his thesis included the “Fossil Rock Anthem,” a music video detailing research into learning and motivation. He was also inspired by a popular phenomenon on YouTube known as the Epic Rap Battles of History, where historical figures battle each other through song.
He came home from his travels in November and wondered how to put his ideas to work.
He contacted some teacher friends he knew. And he started writing grants. He was able to find some money from HP where Global Partnership Manager Marlon Evans agreed to finance and even set up shooting some video for the project, and the Silicon Valley Education Foundation gave him some funding, totaling $25,000 between the two groups.
And he raised nearly $13,000 through Kickstarter, where he detailed that he was spending $10,000 on video production to pay 3MotionMontage in San Francisco, and $1,000 for gas, since he was traveling from San Francisco down to Oakland and the South Bay. Then, there was persuading the schools that students should spend their lunch time or after-class hours putting scientific discourse to a hip-hop beat.
“Our kids are super excited,” KIPP Heartwood science teacher Christina Foust said. “They made this awesome video after learning how to rhyme, pick a topic, choose lyrics and put their research into a rap battle form. This just brings science to the next level.”
For now, McFadden is pleased that his student YouTube science raps are gaining some traction. In the meantime, he has found a fulltime teaching job at The Nueva School in Hillsborough teaching 8th graders biology.
You can be sure they’ll be learning to rap.
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