After weeks of receiving national media attention, Science Genius BATTLES, a New York-based pilot project seeking to merge hip-hop music with science education in school classrooms, officially launched Wednesday at a press conference held at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

The program offers an innovative approach to addressing the underrepresentation of African Americans and Latinos in science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. 

There are countless benefits to using hip-hop to engage young people in a multitude of academic disciplines. The program will challenge educators nationwide to better think about the role hip-hop can play in public education.

Christopher Emdin, an assistant professor of science education at Columbia University’s Teachers College and author of “Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Education,” is at the forefront of the pilot’s launch. Partnering with GZA of the hip-hop group Wu-Tang clan (who he calls a “true collaborator”) and the popular website Rap Genius, Emdin seeks to expose students of color to science in a way that is not detached from their day-to-day realities.

Through this model, his students will have the opportunity to reflect what they have learned about subjects in the classroom through written rhymes that would be judged by GZA. The winning student/lyricist would then have their work featured on Rap Genius. According to Emdin, this marriage of hip-hop and science education is a natural one.

“The revelation through my research is that all of the skills, dispositions, and attributes of the most prolific and brilliant scientists of our time (who happen to not be men of color) are exhibited within youth who are deeply immersed in the hip-hop generation and who are rappers,” Emdin said in an interview.

It’s uncommon to hear educators speak of the brilliance exhibited within rap freestyles. It is even more uncommon for teachers to ask students to bring those skill sets into the classroom with them. But Emdin doesn’t believe that young people should have to “turn off” who they are during the learning process. He instead asks them to apply the same level of critical thinking put forth in a hip-hop cypher to their schoolwork. 

“I look at their keen observation skills, the ability to use metaphor and analogy, the ability to take ideas that no one ever thought of and connect them to something that all of a sudden has relevance to a community - the engagement, the skepticism, the criticality,” Emdin said. “Those are all things that made Einstein great. When I look at those skills, I find them in rappers like Nas and Mos Def. But most importantly I find them in the young people in our classroom.”

The idea is an important one - we must value the culture of this generation. We must also value what they have to say and how they want to say it. If they can be analytical about social inequities in their neighborhoods while rapping, then surely they can do the same in the classroom.

Martha Diaz, founder of the Hip-Hop Education Center at New York University and the hip-hop scholar in residence at the Schomburg Center, believes that the success of this project has the potential to curtail society’s resistance to hip-hop and be groundbreaking for education. “I will like to see the outcome this has because I know if this works, then we can probably do many more competitions with all the elements of hip-hop in different disciplines across curriculums,” she said.

As loaded as mainstream hip-hop is with negative portrayals, it’s radical to think that the genre and the excitement it derives from young people may offer solutions for some of our country’s greatest educational challenges. 

Diaz’s statements about societal resistance to hip-hop echoes one made by Edmin: this pilot also has political implications. It’s success is not limited to academic test results; it’s also about empowering young people and families of color to speak up and be heard. But because hip-hop has transcended cultural barriers, this work goes beyond any one particular group and has the potential to benefit communities across the board. One can only hope that by taking back the mic in their classrooms, these young people of color are also reclaiming their futures.

Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp , an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT.

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