STEM songster interview #19: Professor Lesser

Lesser at MoMath
November 2015: Larry Lesser prepares to play “The Gambler,” one of his winning entries in the 2015 Museum of Mathematics (MoMath) song contest.

One of the only people in this world who devotes as much time as me, or more, to writing educational STEM songs and thinking about how to use them effectively is Prof. Lawrence M. Lesser of The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). After years of occasionally corresponding with Larry via email, and reading his papers, I was excited to meet him in person for the first time when he recently visited Seattle — a visit which led to the following interview.

Sing About Science & Math: This interview, conducted via email, is an extension of a conversation we began in Seattle. Larry, visiting me was NOT your primary reason for coming to Seattle. Please tell our readers what you were doing out here.

Larry Lesser: Hanging out with you was icing (actually, ice cream) on the cake, but I booked my Seattle trip to participate in the 2016 Joint Mathematics Meetings with 6100 folks in the mathematical sciences. I co-organized an evening of mathematical poetry and art (the art supplied by Seattle-based painter Michael Schultheis) and I gave a talk on my two current NSF [National Science Foundation] grants related to the use of educational fun (especially songs) in helping college students learn introductory statistics.

SAS&M: I am always impressed when people are able to get grant money for projects on educational music. Can you tell us a bit more about these proposals? Why do you think they were successful at a time when the vast majority of NSF proposals are turned down?

LL: Those of us exploring the pedagogical use of fun sometimes hear the sentiment that you need special talent to use fun effectively. Fun would be of limited value if this were true, so Dennis Pearl (Penn State) and John Weber (Perimeter College at Georgia State University) and I wrote an NSF grant (Project UPLIFT: Universal Portability of Learning Increased by Fun Teaching) to implement a randomized experiment in the virtual environment of a learning management system, thus taking teacher effect or special talent out of the picture. The study’s statistics students were all given access to a dozen self-contained mini-readings on various pieces of content, with half of the students randomly assigned to also have a “fun insert” (e.g., song or cartoon) in each of their readings. There were no significant differences between the two groups in terms of attitude or anxiety, but it was interesting that the experimental group did significantly better on the embedded midterm items that were related to the six fun inserts that were songs. This past September, we landed a second NSF grant (Project SMILES: Student-Made Interactive Learning with Educational Songs for introductory statistics) that lets us focus on songs and on how interactive they are. I’m happy to say that during the fall 2015 semester, a diverse collaborative of internal and external professionals with working knowledge of both statistics and music created 21 content-rich songs — high in aesthetic and pedagogical quality — purposefully designed with places for students to supply examples or concepts, loosely inspired by the Mad Libs word game. Later, we’ll conduct a randomized experiment to see if students have greater learning gains and anxiety reduction when they encounter readings without song inserts, readings with a completed song inserted, or readings with an interactive song they help complete. I’ll conjecture that reasons our grant proposals were funded include: the rigor of the randomized controlled experiments, our track record of publications and creativity in the field, and the potential of our model to have broad impact given nearly 1 million annual introductory statistics students and given how readily our model could transfer to other STEM disciplines as well.

SAS&M: So, in this latest grant, is your hypothesis that students will learn the most from the interactive songs that they help to complete, rather than the completely pre-written songs?

LL: Basically, yes. We conjecture that the interactive songs may yield a greater quantity and/or quality of student engagement which in turn may yield more learning gains. We’ll see!

SAS&M: OK. Let’s back up to the stage at which you yourself first merged music and math. What was your mathematical training and musical training like up to that point, and what prompted you to combine them?

LL: ​I had some guitar lessons as a kid, but learned at least as much from my more musical friends (now I learn from YouTube!). I became a math major and began writing songs after my first year of college (Rice), writing several dozen before I finally took a class in music theory to understand why certain chord progressions worked better than others. In college, my songwriting was more of a raw vehicle for personal growth than as art to share, but while obtaining my graduate degrees (MS in statistics, PhD in mathematics education) at UT-Austin, I began to explore the craft and business of songwriting​. I served as Austin Songwriters Group Vice-President, released a (cassette!) album of 9 original songs, interviewed a major-label artist, and had some local airplay and song contest awards. Then I began teaching college classes and was hungry for ways to engage my students and make math class more interesting. While teaching a precalculus class at Southwestern University in 1992, I created a project in which student teams explored mathematical connections in the structure of music. While teaching calculus at the University of Northern Colorado in 1994, I wrote and performed in class my first math song, a parody (of an Eagles song) called “Take it to the Limit.” The surprisingly positive response to those initial efforts encouraged me to do more of it.​

SAS&M: Since then, you have written many parodies as well as original tunes. From a teaching perspective, what do you see as the most important pluses and minuses of each of these types of songs?

LL: Great question! I explain in Journal of Mathematics Education that most of my mathematics songs are parodies because “they are quicker to write and easier for listeners to follow (since familiar melody and structure are already in place), and have the dimension of added humor based on what changes to the lyric are made (or not made).” That said, I have found certain math topics just can’t be readily put into a song parody (I’m picky about making sure the song being parodied is not unduly profane, sacred, or obscure) and in those cases I embrace the challenge to write a song from scratch and I think many students appreciate that their instructor is trying something with greater risk and revelation. By the way, when I do parodies, I don’t feel bound to preserve the entire length of the original song. As I say in Journal of Mathematics and the Arts, “Because class time is precious, it is preferable to streamline songs rather than indulge in a parodied song’s extended introductions, solos, or a large number of verses and choruses…. This approach suffices to evoke the original song, while focusing more on mathematical content than on musicianship.”

SAS&M: Among the many STEM songwriters that I know of, you are very unusual in publishing many of your songs in peer-reviewed journals, rather than simply posting them online. Why do you do this? That is, what do you and/or others gain from this more formal route of dissemination?

LL: In a parallel universe, I’ve had the time, talent, and resources to put out many albums and I’m a rich, nationally-touring star! But in the universe I actually live in, the next best thing has mainly been just getting many lyrics published in outlets more visible and enduring than my homepage. (And the lyric is all you need for parodies to visualize the song since the music is already familiar.) Another benefit of periodically placing a lyric in a regular periodical in the field is that it can get the attention of many readers who might not otherwise ultimately become aware of the existence of a critical mass of discipline-specific songs to enhance instruction and outreach. Some material I’ve published has attracted some neat invitations or correspondence from people that might not have ever stumbled upon my website. And then there are the general benefits of going through peer review (even when the review is not an external double-blind review) in that I’ve often used peer feedback to improve my lyrics just as I do to improve my articles, and having the lyric published in a journal that has a vetting process gives the lyric (and perhaps STEM songwriting in general) a bit more legitimacy in many people’s eyes.

SAS&M: Speaking of revision, tell us about a song that you are really proud of, but that took you a long time and/or a lot of effort to “get right.” What was problematic about your early versions, and how did you improve them?

LL: “Taking a long time to get right” is an interesting and humbling thing because sometimes I write a song and think it’s as good as it can be and then years later (sometimes prompted by prepping the song for performance or publication), I think of a lyrical improvement that the song should have had all along. One concrete example is “The Gambler” (my lottery outreach song parodying the same-titled signature song of Kenny Rogers), in which my initial version had too many verses and a chorus that did not do as good a job of incorporating the setting of buying lottery tickets and mimicking the phrasing of the original song. Sometimes I get caught up in the cleverness of an idea or try to stuff in as much content as I can and forget that it’s often true that “less is more” when it comes to songwriting (and teaching!). Another example is that my first version of “American Pi” not only lacked the “Prologue” section but also had inadvertently used a different rhyme scheme from the verses of “American Pie.” I’m glad these (and other things) are fixed in my “current final version.”

SAS&M: Yes, I agree that it’s easy to lose sight of “less is more.” Some of my own early song parodies were essentially attempts to cram lots of puns, funny rhymes, etc. into a small space. (Ironically, this was true even of a song in which I used the phrase “less is more.”) In any case, you and I are both more skilled as songwriters than as performers. If you could hire anyone in the world to include one of your songs on their next album, which song and which artist would it be, and why?

LL: Fun question! Well, as a (totally unrealistic) daydream, I’d fantasize that one of my parodies gets covered by Taylor Swift or any of the other megafamous artists whose songs I’ve parodied, or maybe by all-time parody king Weird Al Yankovic. Or I’d dream that one of my songs gets covered by an artist or band (They Might Be Giants, Trout Fishing in America, etc.) that has their own “regular” repertoire but also releases albums of educational music, so there would be a market niche in place. Of course, my immediate goal is not fame and fortune, just an effective quality product, and my region is blessed with many quality (but still affordable) musicians I can tap to make solid recordings as needed. Indeed, my NSF-funded Project SMILES we discussed earlier taps the talents of my university’s amazing music majors and state-of-the-art recording facility. That said, I’d never want to give up my occasional performing because it’s fun and helps keep me honest and sharp as a songwriter! As G. K. Chesterton said, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” Don’t we want our non-major STEM students to feel similarly empowered to enjoy and learn our subject even if they don’t master it fully or perfectly?

SAS&M: Indeed! Any final thoughts on the future of teaching STEM with music?

LL: I predict the current interest in using the arts to turn STEM into STEAM will yield many neat innovations and attract more people to learn content in our discipline. It’s an exciting time to be in this intersection, now that there is an emerging critical mass not only of high-quality STEM songs (and not only songs for children) but also of papers on their usage. But it’s nice that we’re still small enough that it’s not too hard to keep up with what our talented kindred spirits are doing in their respective areas. And I want to express my appreciation to you, Greg, for honoring me with this interview and for all you do to promote and organize STEM songs for the benefit of all. I invite readers wanting “more Lesser” to visit my math song website.

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New science music projects from Master Tom and Doctor Eva

Eva Amsen, a prominent science communicator/outreach person, has launched a quarterly science-music newsletter. You can sign up for it at her website,, and/or follow her music-science Twitter account, @musisci.

Tom McFadden, whom SingAboutScience has interviewed, has just launched a Science With Tom web show aimed at middle-school and high-school students. It includes a rap video with a space for students to write their own 2nd verse! The show has a series of segments whose playlist is for the general public; a teachers’ edition is available at

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Links: math song contest and more

MoMath Song Contest 2015. “The only rules are that the lyrics must be original and must be about math or a mathematical concept.” Deadline: October 9.

Andover [MN] math assignment turns numbers into music [from]. “Last school year, as Carda tried to find a way to pass on to her geometry students some of the fascination she has with math, she asked students to figure out all the prime numbers up to 500. Then she added that it would be pretty cool if someone could compose a song using the gaps between those numbers.”

Working Life: Songwriting and Science [from Science magazine!]. C. Neal Stewart Jr. lays out the parallels between songwriting and grant-writing/paper-writing. (Thanks to Marc Servetnick for this one.)

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STEM songs: not just child’s play

When I got the opportunity to fill a UW-Bothell display case with materials relating to educational music, I knew I would need some artistic help … so I enlisted my 8-year-old son.

We were both pleased with the end product, and had fun creating it together. It wasn’t just fun, though; it felt like a genuine collaboration. Phil asked LOTS of pertinent questions about my preferences; for example, “Should each student have their own desk, or should they share big desks?” Moreover, he demonstrated genuine technical skill. That speaker next to the singing teacher is his design, as is the computer on the teacher’s desk (hard to see, but elegantly simple) and the Lego-font N’s (which replaced my inferior ones).

As I said on, I would not hesitate to hire him again.

overall display

Legos close-up

classroom close-up

a conceptual model of how music might aid learning

student-written songs

the critics

example of ongoing research

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Shell #makethefuture music contest


From the Shell oil company comes the following STEM music contest….

Can you write a song that inspires others to #makethefuture better? If so, you could win $15,000!

Shell challenges musicians to write an original song using creativity, talent and the unique Sounds of Energy to help inspire others to reach their full potential and make a difference.

At Shell, we’re inspired by what is possible through creative and innovative people working together to make the future better. That’s why we’re celebrating them with the first ever Shell Make the Future Music Contest.

  • Submit your song in your profile between March 3, 2015 and May 15, 2015
  • Let the public vote your song to the top 10! Share your song with the public via Facebook and Twitter, May 4 – May 29, 2015
  • Top ten songs will go to a judging panel
  • Winner will be announced June 17, 2015

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JME Special Issue: Music in Math Education

Just received this from Larry Lesser, the Mathemusician of UTEP….

JME Special Issue Call for Papers:
Music as a Theme for Contextualized Mathematics Education

Guest Editors:
Song An, Daniel Tillman, Larry Lesser, & Andrea Shaheen
The University of Texas at El Paso

This Special Issue in Journal of Mathematics Education explores the affordances and constraints of employing music as a context for mathematics education, especially in the K-12 grades. We welcome articles that provide diverse perspectives on utilizing music and music-themed activities within any facet of K-12 mathematics instruction, preservice teacher education, or inservice teacher professional development. The Special Issue will primarily highlight empirical articles, although innovative theory or practice-based articles will be considered as well.

Extended abstracts (of up to 500 words, not including references) should be sent electronically (as a Word document) to: Song An at as well as copied to Daniel Tillman at by June 1, 2015. Accepted abstracts will be notified by July 1, 2015, and full papers will be due by September 1, 2015. The Special Issue is scheduled to be published in December 2015. Please see full version of this Call for Papers at

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YouTube’s auto-transcription needs work

Many science songs posted to YouTube (and other sites) don’t come with lyrics in text format, which renders these songs all but invisible to users of our database. Unless someone searches for a keyword that is in the song’s title, or searches for the specific artist who did the song, the song remains undiscovered.

I just noticed that YouTube now offers auto-transcription of many videos. Could this help us harvest previously unavailable lyrics?

Well … yes and no. YouTube does attempt to auto-transcribe lyrics from some music videos. However, its interpretations of those lyrics are reminiscent of the autocompletion guesses of a so-called “smartphone.”

As an example, let’s take Glenn Wolkenfeld’s Electron Transport Chain song, released last month. Here are the first two verses, according to Glenn.

Welcome to this story about cell energy
The goal is explaining how cells make ATP
It happens in the mitochondria which you can think of
As the cell’s energy factory

Mitochondria are double-membraned organelles,
An inner membrane and an outer one as well
The mitochondrial matrix is the fluid inside
It’s where reactions like Krebs cycle reside

And here they are according to YouTube’s auto-transcription.

welcome to the story about self-energy
called with explaining how cells make ATP
it happens in the bayou country which pick it
as a self going to back to work

by the country are couple members organelles
any demand plane however one as well
the mitochondrial matrix is the food inside
three reactors like Rip Micheals

I love that ATP production is said to occur “in the Bayou country.” It’s also interesting that comedian/actor Rip Micheals is involved somehow.

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Singing about science: father-son edition

On Tuesday evening my son Phil and I headed to the University branch of the Seattle Public Library for “Sing a Song of Science” with veteran children’s musician Nancy Stewart. Most of the kids there were very young — at 7, Phil might have been the elder statesman of the bunch — and he initially lingered by the stairs rather than joining the others. But after he answered one of Nancy’s first questions and she recruited him to hold up a picture of the sun for her solar system song, he was in. Before long, he was wiggling and dancing on cue.

Nancy’s show was filled with questions and puzzles. Her backdrop included a box for each letter of the word S-C-I-E-N-C-E, and inside each box was another word beginning with that same letter. Most were straightforward, but the second “C” turned out to stand for Cephalopod, a nice curveball reminiscent of They Might Be Giants. Also reminiscent of TMBG was her skillful reinforcement of her lyrics with musical elements. For instance, a song about a pulley had a melody that climbed up the scale as the pulley rose upward.

Nancy asked us to complete the sentence, “Science is …” Phil shouted, “Surprising!” I offered, “Rigorous!” Which isn’t a bad two-word summary of the joys of science. If you do something rigorously, the surprises are more interesting (to me, anyway) because they are more likely to be “real.”

Toward the end, Nancy introduced a fanciful dinosaur counting song with the words, “Dinosaurs are not around anymore, but if they were, I think they’d want to drive cars.”

“Not pteranodons!” Phil countered. Presumably his thinking was, why drive when you can fly? Note, however, that pteranodons aren’t dinosaurs. Nice try, wise guy.

By the way, several of Nancy’s science songs are available online through her website, A search of the database reveals that some even come with online sheet music! (Note the “score” buttons in the Links column of the search results page.)
Nancy Stewart

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Spring-to-summer link roundup (Updated)

From moths to music: Life for PhD biologists isn’t all science (Montana Kaimin)

[Keaton Wilson] is a member of The Whizpops, a children’s band that focuses on elementary education and science curriculum as the basis of their lyrics. One of his favorite songs on their new ocean-themed album is “Dolphin Disco.” The founders of the band, Casey Schaefer and Kevin Cashman, are elementary school teachers. The song-writing duties fall on them, but they often run lyrics by Wilson to ensure scientific accuracy.

Daytona teacher’s song-and-dance program helps kids absorb lessons (Daytona Beach News-Tribune)

The former cheerleader and Miss Bethune-Cookman University started developing the math and reading programs — including software and videos being used in classrooms at other Volusia schools and across the country — 10 years ago while teaching fifth grade in Broward County. Frustrated when her students had trouble grasping the concept of division, Pasley-Henry tried creating songs and dance moves to capture the children’s attention and help them remember the math rules to follow.

Communicating science through hip-hop (PLoS Blogs)

Ethan Perlstein: “…I think every seminal paper in the history of science should be immortalized and popularized in rap form. Someone needs to call Kanye’s or Eminem’s agents and see if they’re interested in bringing science to the masses. There are lots of papers to go around!”

Brotherly punk duo writes music for stage (The Western Star)

Being asked to write a song on relatively short notice is a tall order for nearly any artist. Asking a punk band to write a tune about mathematics for a stage play doesn’t make the task any easier.

10 awesome pieces of astronomy-inspired music (Astronomy magazine)

“Talent is an Asset” [is] the coolest song about Einstein ever. Example: “Look at Albert, isn’t he a sight; growing, growing at the speed of light.”

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Quick media roundup

I was pleased to be profiled by my local Fox News affiliate recently, and also by German radio station WDR. But Tom McFadden topped me by getting onto the national ABC News!

“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.”

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