Hip Hop Opens a Door to STEM Learning

Rapper GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan melds science topics to Hip Hop beats in his music. He has guest-lectured at Harvard, MIT, and NYU, and is a key partner in the Science Genius program run out of Columbia University.

Rapper GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan melds science topics to Hip Hop beats in his music. He has guest-lectured at Harvard, MIT, and NYU, and is a key partner in the Science Genius program run out of Columbia University.

Worlds apart

White, nerdy, boring, solitary, established, dry, staid – these are just some stereotypical attributes of study and work in STEM fields, especially the hard sciences and technical areas.

Black, cool, exciting, communal, rebellious, profane, violent – Hip Hop, a different set of words associated with a very different kind of activity.

Devotees of STEM and Hip Hop would seem to share almost no common ground. As the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine put it in Barriers and Opportunities for 2-Year and 4-Year STEM Degrees:

“Researchers have characterized the language of STEM as reflecting white, middle-class, masculine norms, which may be at odds with norms of expression more likely found among women and students from historically underrepresented groups; this disconnect can prevent them from identifying with STEM.”

Not so fast

Chris Emdin begs to differ. The presiding spirit at HipHopEd and a Columbia University teacher educator, Emdin and a clutch of like-minded thinkers in the U.S. and Canada find deep, philosophical affinities between STEM and Hip Hop. Emdin himself is an inexhaustible, riveting speaker on the topic, with numerous online videos to prove it. If you’re going to watch one, go here.

Founder of HipHopEd, Chris Emdin is also the author of Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation.

Founder of HipHopEd, Chris Emdin is also the author of Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation.

Busting stereotypes on both sides of this unlikely pairing, Emdin makes a convincing case for locating STEM and Hip Hop within related pedagogical schemes. In the view of Emdin and others mining this vein, the problem-based, constructivist model of STEM learning “rhymes,” if you will, with a Hip Hop ethos.

How’s that, exactly?

Rapping is the primary discourse of Hip Hop. It follows a pattern familiar to practitioners of problem-based learning. The speaker starts by naming a problem in his or her own words, speaking the problem within a community of critically minded listeners or “cypher,” reflecting on feedback from the audience to make improvements, and issuing a finished “product” to inspire others and provoke change in the world.

Problem-based learning invites students to define the nature and scope of their task, collaborate with their peers to identify and develop solutions, test for viability, and incorporate their experiences into the resulting, refined piece of work.

To change the world

In both cases, the goal is to introduce something new and ameliorating into the world that emerges from an unpredictable, shared enterprise. And in both cases, the work is grounded in the larger, sociocultural context of participants’ lives.

In their best moments, STEM and Hip Hop both want to impart to their audiences alternative understandings of the world as it is and show another world as it might be.

This impulse to overturn prevailing assumptions about reality can seem threatening to people. Science-based assertions about, say, climate change and evolution can provoke reactions as fierce in their own way as people’s responses to the themes, images, words, and behaviors associated with Hip Hop.

Science in rap

The STEM thread of Emdin’s HipHopEd project works explicitly to open up spaces within STEM learning for minority kids to appropriate as their own. The Science Genius program, for example, uses rigorous science learning as the basis for staging school-to-school rapping competitions based on STEM vocabulary and lessons. The video below shows how it works.

And the rest will follow

Inspired by Emdin, a group of teachers from the Toronto District School Board launched a series of annual “Hip Hop Education STEMposia” under the title of Free Your Mind.

The meetings, begun in 2015, aim “to mobilize the power, popularity, and potential of hip hop culture, as well as the effectiveness of student inquiry, problem-based learning, and technology as a platform for transformative education and re-education.” Professional development in the Canadian standards-aligned “Rhymes to Re-education” curriculum, student performances, speeches, and workshops are all on the agenda.

Deep connections

A hallmark of outreach to groups under-represented in STEM is to engage these populations of students on terms important and meaningful to them. Scott Heath, a scholar of Hip Hop culture at Georgia State University, states, "Hip Hop is an area where we might see theory and practice coming together . . . where we might see an attempt to develop innovative approaches to using Hip Hop as a method for organizing African-American youth around issues that are important to their survival.”

More than just a hook to get students’ attention, Hip Hop serves exactly this “organizing” function in Emdin’s Science Genius program and the Toronto group’s Free Your Mind project. It becomes a kind of “21st-century learning skill,” a template for learning in which kids are already expert that happens to transfer readily to STEM education and ultimately work.

Science Genius BATTLES are high-profile events in urban education settings. Students show off their science and rapping chops in front of their peers and get judged on the academic heft and musical impact of their work.

Science Genius BATTLES are high-profile events in urban education settings. Students show off their science and rapping chops in front of their peers and get judged on the academic heft and musical impact of their work.

High stakes all around

Projections about the growth and expected pay of STEM careers leave no doubt about the importance of these areas of work to minority students’ future livelihoods.

These students, though, are also important to the future health of STEM fields. As all engineers know, the greater the diversity of the solution set, the better the ultimate solution ends up being. Leveraging the appeal of Hip Hop to make STEM possible for populations of under-represented students serves all sides’ interests.

Go watch some of Chris Emdin’s videos and see if you find him persuasive. The fit is not perfect, to be sure. Associations with violence and drugs in Hip Hop trouble fans and observers alike; sexism in both realms is problematic.

The mash-up of the two is intriguing, though. Finding similarity where difference seems the rule is a gateway to creativity and new worlds of thought and action.

Comments below, please, if you have them. And share with your interested or, even better, skeptical friends and colleagues.


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.

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