“We know that the students like technology, they like music, right? So you put those both together and the students are learning,” said Lolita Jackson, principal of KIPP Bridge.
“There’s such a dramatic difference when you can create something like this, that’s really professional, that makes an impact,” McFadden said. “That students get to see themselves as part of the fabric of culture and of the Internet and of education and creators. That has a big impact on anybody, especially students.”
Another anecdote supporting the idea that the number of educators teaching science through music is larger than anyone realizes: This spring I was forwarded an email advertising a talk by about educational science songs … to be given at the University of Washington … by a UW professor who wasn’t me, and whom I had never heard of before.
To make a long story short and then long again, I went to the talk, which was great, and then conducted the interview below. (Photo of Dargan Frierson by UW College of the Environment.)
Sing About Science & Math: Tell us about Atmospheric Science 111 at the University of Washington, the course in which you sing regularly to students.
Dargan Frierson: ATM S 111: Global Warming is a survey class about the science of climate change. It’s a large lecture (240 students) with two hour meetings, so anything I can do to break up the lecture and keep everybody awake helps. I sing at least a song a week, sometimes two, on topics ranging from climate feedbacks (to the tune of “Get Back” by the Beatles) and ocean acidification (to the tune of “Californication” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers), to green roofs (“Paint it White” to the tune of “Paint it Black” by the Rolling Stones) and living a carbon neutral lifestyle (“Carbon Zero” to the tune of “Zero” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs).
SAS&M: You write original music as well, but for this class you mostly sing parodies of popular songs. Why?
DF: I think the concepts are more easily remembered when it’s part of a melody that people know. So for the students’ learning, I think parodies are better.
SAS&M: Your parodies tend to be of “classic rock” songs. Do today’s undergraduates seem to like these oldies, or do they groan with dismay (or shrug with ignorance) when you launch into a David Bowie tune? Do you feel any temptation to parody current artists in order to connect with students better?
DF: The students seem to know most of the old songs pretty well. Some have said that their parents played these tunes while they were growing up, so they know them pretty well. I can’t help doing a deep cut every once in a while though — like “Man Who Sold the World” by Bowie (which I learned from the Nirvana Unplugged album) or “Rain” by the Beatles.
Every once in a while I’ll do a newer song, but it has to be something I really like. I would love to do some rap (I even half-wrote a parody of Kanye West’s “Power” about the electricity grid), but unfortunately my rapping skills are neither funky nor fresh…
SAS&M: What do you consider your best atmospheric science song, and why do you consider it the best one?
DF: I’d say my best is “Albedo” written to the tune of “I’ll Be There” by the Jackson 5. It’s simple, and gets across the concept of albedo in a fun way. Songs where the hook is the scientific term you want them to remember = great for education.
SAS&M: Have you made any attempts to quantify the educational impact of your songs?
DF: I haven’t done too much in terms of quantifying the impact, but I have some good evidence about the Albedo song. The first year I taught this class I didn’t sing the song and about 70% of the students got the albedo question right on the test. The second year, after I had sung the song, over 95% of the students got it right!
I also surveyed the class this year on whether they learned from the songs, and 75% said they did learn substantially from them, beyond just enjoying them.
SAS&M: Your department, Atmospheric Sciences, has a holiday party that includes live musical and quasi-musical performances. Have your classroom songs, and students’ positive reactions, inspired other UW atmospheric science faculty to try singing to their own students? Have any colleagues reported whining along the lines of, “Why can’t YOU sing to us the way Prof. Frierson does?”
DF: Actually the parody songwriting in our department predates me! Profs. Mike Wallace and Dennis Hartmann were writing songs for our departmental winter party years before I got there, and their songs really inspired me to take it up myself. I sing songs written by both of them in my class. For example, one of Dennis Hartmann’s best songs is “Surface Pressure.”
I’m the only one who sings in class in our department, but I have gone in to several other profs’ classes to play songs though. I’ve told my colleagues that I’m always available for guest singing appearances in their lecture.
SAS&M: As mentioned by an audience member at your recent Sandbox presentation, a few researchers have sonified their data, i.e., converted it into music, either to help them detect patterns in the data, or to highlight such patterns for others. Your own research includes a lot of mathematical modeling of circulatory processes. Can you imagine sonifying your own data?
DF: I think sonification is really cool, but I can’t imagine doing it myself any time soon. My music is mostly acoustic instruments and singing, so I don’t have much experience with digital music or construction of sounds.
SAS&M: Finally, I believe that you are working on some sort of climate change video game. What can you tell us about that? Will it include a Bowie-esque theme song?
DF: Our video game project is still in the early planning stages, so there’s not much info to give just yet. I do hope to write some music for it eventually though!
For years, I’ve been intending to interview Steve Rush, a.k.a. funky49. He’s an anomaly among anomalies: a science music guy who’s not a scientist, science teacher, or full-time musician. Plus he’s super-friendly on Twitter. After one of his recent re-tweets of my attempts at humor, I resolved to finally give him the interview that he deserves — or an interview of some sort, at least. Read on to find out how he pays the bills, what his next album is going to be like, where the handle funky49 came from, and more.
[Steve Rush in action at the 2012 Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC.]
SAS&M: When I interviewed Kate McAlpine (creator of the “Large Hadron Rap”), she named you as one of her favorite science rappers. She said, “I like Steve Rush for pure enthusiasm. He’s not a scientist or science communicator by training – he just thinks science rocks and wants to share it.” So … you’re not a scientist. What are you? A professional musician? Some corporate guy with good hair and a good mixing board?
SR: I AM SO HONORED! I’m just this guy, you know? My day job is an IT guy. I have 2 credit hours of music theory and a few electronic music classes under my belt. It’s mostly experimenting with software at home and learning things on my own. For me, music started in the early 90s with using MOD trackers on the PC. As music making software became more dangerous, so have I. I have learned a LOT of music production from my friend, John Sexton aka @redvoid. Over time I have acquired the gear to do basic home recording. I should read more manuals and watch more tutorials. By the way, ladies have found my hair soft and nice to touch.
SAS&M: Most people singing or rapping about science are science teachers, but you are not. What prompts you to create a science song — some concept that you just find interesting? Or is most of your work done on a contract basis? And who is your main target audience, if not students per se?
SR: Good question. I want to make things that sound good to me and are smart. I recently dropped a song called “Go for Launch.” It was inspired by a trip to Space Camp. For a few days, the nice folks at Space Camp USA had me and some other folks on Twitter come by, experience Space Camp, and tweet about it. (I proudly served as COMMANDER of the ENTERPRISE and successfully brought my crew home.) Some of us had our picture taken at the rocket garden at the nearby Marshall Space Flight Center. In that picture we were posed with our hands in the air like we were rockets. That picture inspired the song.
I honestly do not have a target audience. I would have to guess my audience are fans of both hip-hop and science. Creation comes from inspiration. I wanted to write a sexy song and mention sexual things so I made “Gene Swap.” I heard the local science museum, Tampa’s MOSI, wanted more social media reach so I made an EP tribute album for them. Everything I do as been incredibly selfish, except for the song for Fermilab. That was the one request I have taken on. The St. Petersburg Science Festival is having me back for the third year in a row. I want to come up with new songs to do live for them. The St. Pete Science Festival is really awesome! It is geared for kids but is a true treat no matter your age.
SAS&M: What is the story behind your rapper name, funky49? And how should people address you? Should we say, “Pleased to meet you, funky49?” Or can we shorten that to “funky” or “funk” or “f”?
SR: People should address me as Steve. I have been called funk, funky, and funky49. They are acceptable ways to address me. :) Good eye on you for noticing the lower case f. The story: While working at the IT call center for a large accounting firm, my friend assigned the password ‘funky49’ to an employee. This was hilarious because 1) it was policy for the employees to come up with their own passwords, not us; 2) this employee was failing to come up with a password that had the right number of letters and special characters; 3) this was the first time I heard my chill friend was exasperated. I took the name ‘funky49’ and recorded a cassette tape with all of the mini musical projects, ideas I had been playing with. I gave him the tape after titling it the ‘funky49 mix tape.’ A smoothie was spilled on it and it has been lost since.
SAS&M: It appears that you have a new album, “Area 49,” coming out in October. What non-classified information can you share about that?
SR: I’m excited to collaborate with Coma Niddy. I think our song is going to be about the sun. I want it to sound really awesome live, just in case we share the same stage one day. He’s really terrific, please check out Mike aka Coma Niddy! So far, a lot of the songs are going to be NASA/space-inspired. I have this idea where I fly across the country with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in his personal T-38 visiting NASA facilities and rapping about them. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have his own personal T-38, which is a shame but good for NASA budgetary purposes. I also plan to rap about brain chemistry because dopamine/serotonin means so much to our lives. I have a song about the different Apollo missions. I LOVE SPACE. I LOVE SPACE. I LOVE SPACE.
SAS&M: If you could work with any musician or band on a science-themed album, who would you work with and why?
SR: This is going to be very polarizing. I would work with Kanye West.
First, because I never heard back from his PR people when I invited him to Chicagoland’s Fermilab where I shot the video for Particle Business. Second, he is fellow a rapper/producer and I greatly appreciate that. Being able to blast a rap and a track is not common. He’s reinvented his sound multiple times in excellent ways so I figure I would learn a lot from him. If I could harness some of his enthusiasm he has for fashion and threesomes into science… I know we would edutain a lot of people. I don’t care about his non-musical shenanigans, just his creative output (just like John Lennon).
“Dad, when are you going to come to my school to do science music?” asked my 7-year-old.
“I don’t know, Phil. I would need to get permission to come, and I haven’t been able to get permission yet. Plus I really should focus on the things I’m paid to do, like teaching.”
“How much do you get paid to do science music?”
“But Dad, you love science music!”
“Yeah, but it’s something I just have to fit in when I have time.”
At that, Phil grabbed four quarters from his Easter money and plunked them down on the kitchen counter.
“I’ll pay you, Dad!”
Is there any possible response to that that doesn’t involve a hug?
When I tell people that I have a free online database of science, technology, engineering, and math songs, they often think I’m kidding.
Last month, I completed my first decade of these incredulity-inducing conversations.
Yes, the database initially known as “MASSIVE” (for Math And Science Song Information, Viewable Everywhere) was launched in March of 2004. Below are screenshots of the search page and a search results page from around that time.
Not exactly a thing of beauty, was it? Yet I was immensely pleased with myself. I had taught myself (just barely) enough MySQL and php to make the thing work, and now teachers around the country and perhaps the world could easily search for educational music to support their lessons.
While the database itself has changed a lot since 2004, my irrational pride in it has not. And so, in celebration of the 10-year milestone, I offer the following notes:
• Educators and others who have not done so already are encouraged to check out my article in Biochemical and Molecular Biology Education (freely available to all as of January 2014), my blog post on incorporating the database into classroom activities, and/or my brief video tutorial.
• Thank you to those who have encouraged my development of the database over the years — especially Do Peterson, Wendy Silk, Brian Glanz, and Katie Davis.
• Thank you to Steve Nakazawa Hewitt, Kate Clark, and Andrea Mina for improving the appearance of the database’s user interface.
• Thank you to the many writers and bloggers who have taken an interest in the database and spread the word about it.
• Last but not least, thank you to everyone who, at one time or another, sent suggestions of songs to add to the database: Adam D. Philippidis, Alicia Volkheimer, Angela Brett, Antoinette Powell, Benedict Leigh, Bob Vitray, Chandra Senan, Daniel W. Yates, David M. Bott, David White, Deirdre E. Welton, Derek Habermas, Do Peterson, Elaine Fingerett, Gail Marcus, Helen J. Ougham, James D. Brooks III, Jennifer van Sickle, Jenny L. McFarland, Jeremy Fox, Joseph R. Conrad, Judy Molnar, Kathy Barker, Kevin Bourrillion, Kirk L. Van Scoyoc, Lasse Folkersen, Leonard Braun, Lynda Jeanne Jones, Martin Zitter, Mary Rodgers, Michael Lindner, Michael P. Williams, Michael Peacy, Myron F. Uman, Tonya Hennen, Tyler J. Mott, Wendy K. Silk, Will Johnson … and others whose names I no longer have.
As a 10th-anniversary tribute to these “star volunteers,” their song suggestions are now marked with orange stars in search results pages. Mousing over a star reveals who brought that song to my attention.
My lab works in part on high-throughput screening (HTS) of small-molecule libraries. Here is my low-budget tribute to the high-tech machines that facilitate this work.
Fundamentally, music is an auditory channel of information, so podcasting about music is a logical thing to do. I have no special expertise in audio recording or producing, so I’ve been slow to attempt this, but today I present an MP3 file of a 45-minute conversation that others may find interesting. It’s with Monty Harper, a previous interviewee who is now in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to support a new children’s science music album. Listen in as Monty and I discuss the distillation of science into song, possible uses of non-”litany-of-facts” songs in the classroom, and much more!
Many thanks to Monty for help with the processing of the audio files … and to David Newman for the Sing About Science theme song.
With the encouragement and assistance of colleagues in the UW School of Nursing, I contributed a short piece to their American Biology Teacher series on the neurobiology of learning. The article is called “Making material more memorable … with music.” It’s meant as a concise guide for teachers rather than as a comprehensive literature review. Check it out!