I distinctly remember when I heard about Tom McFadden for the first time: he and his song “Regulatin’ Genes” were featured in the New York Times’ TierneyLab blog in March of 2009. I was impressed (and a bit jealous). Since then I’ve learned that, not only does Tom have a knack for creating funny songs, he is also incredibly passionate about biology and teaching. His recent involvement with the New Zealand’s “Science Idol” contest, in combination with his previous work at Stanford, seemed more than sufficient to justify an interview.
SAS&M: WHAT KIND OF MUSICAL COMPOSITION OR PERFORMANCE BACKGROUND DO YOU HAVE? DID YOU MAKE ANY MUSIC IN THE YEARS BEFORE YOU STARTED RAPPING TO YOUR HUMAN BIOLOGY STUDENTS AT STANFORD?
TM: My musical talents peaked in middle school. I played percussion in the school band and drums in some embarrassing garage bands. I listened to a lot of music even as sports edged out my music activities. High school was a big transition to hip hop. All of my high school friends in Sacramento recorded rap songs at some point. It was just the norm at lunch, in the hallways, after school. I made a song or two for school projects but never took it too seriously.
SAS&M: WHAT SORT OF RECEPTION DID YOU GET INITIALLY? WERE STUDENTS FAINTING IN THE AISLES? WERE THEY SUDDENLY ACING THEIR TESTS?
TM: The reaction from Stanford students to my first few songs was shock and awe. Here are some of the YouTube comments from students on the first song I made (a link was included on one of their online “problem sets”):
oh my god… CAs, you are ridiculous.
Impressive Tom. I’ll get your autograph in class.
Oh god, this absolutely just made my night. Absolutely amazing, Tom!!!!!
As the production values and quality of the songs increased, the reactions became even more favorable. Here’s one of my favorite reactions to Regulatin’ Genes:
You don’t understand how much I like regulating genes. It’s sad. It plays in my head all the time. Even when I go to sleep. I find myself reaching my mouse towards youtube to hear it one more time before I go to class. It has achieved a status in my mind as greater than I’m on a boat.
In some weird way…thank you.
I doubt there was any increase in scholastic performance that came directly from the songs. After two years of full-time CAing (like a fancier full-time version of TAing), I came to the conclusion that even teaching style has minimal impact on student exam scores. Students’ work ethic, high school background, extracurricular commitments, and enjoyment of material all were much more important predictors of exam performance. Though I liked to think that the songs could provide a small boost of enjoyment for students who were feeling stressed & overworked and not feeling particularly motivated to do their homework or study.
SAS&M: NOW YOU’RE IN NEW ZEALAND, STUDYING SCIENCE COMMUNICATION THROUGH MUSIC. EXPLAIN HOW THAT HAPPENED.
TM: I hadn’t gone abroad as an undergrad and I wanted to get out of the U.S. to get a different perspective. Despite an over-the-top passion for both biology and teaching, I wasn’t ready to commit at that point to a research career or a teaching career. So I googled the term “science communication” and the Masters program at Otago in New Zealand was the first thing that came up. I applied for a Fulbright scholarship to cover the costs and was lucky enough to get one.
SAS&M: YOU JUST FINISHED HOSTING SOMETHING CALLED “SCIENCE IDOL.” FOR THE UNINITIATED, WHAT IS THAT? DO YOU HAVE A CRANKY SIMON COWELL-LIKE JUDGE WHO DISPARAGES CONTESTANTS’ DATA?
TM: “Science Idol” was originally the brainchild of the New Zealand International Science Festival. When I first got to NZ in 2010 they had a vision for a series of workshops with middle school kids where I coached them through writing science raps. These kids then performed their songs live at the festival. That worked OK, but it was very labor intensive and only reached a small number of locally-based students.
When the festival came around again in 2012 I decided to crank it up a few notches. I made online video tutorials that would allow any student with an internet connection to get most of the advice that I would be able to give in a personal workshop. I toured around NZ schools (thanks to sponsorship by the U.S. embassy) performing live at schools trying to get students inspired about science itself, but also the use of technology and creativity to engage with science via the competition. Students could write about any scientific topic in any genre of music, and record their audio/video in as high-tech or low-tech a way as they saw fit. They were judged on scientific content, lyrical ingenuity, and “performance.” The finalists can be seen here, and the Grand Prize Winner got to professionally re-record his song. No cranky judges. Just a sleep-deprived me and festival staff.
SAS&M: WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM PUTTING ON THIS COMPETITION, AND WHAT SURPRISED YOU MOST ABOUT IT?
TM: I realized the importance of building longer term relationships with principals, teachers, students, and classrooms rather than just leaving it to a one-off visit/performance. I’ve also realized that there is a sizable activation barrier to getting students to follow through and create submissions. Getting teacher buy-in helps a ton. Having awesome prizes (we had iPads sponsored by KlabLab) does too. Meeting students face-to-face and then following up with encouragement helps as well.
I was really glad that I opened up the competition to older ages since so many stellar entries came from university students or teachers. I was relieved that students still collaborated a lot (even though there was only one iPad per winning submission) since I think collaboration between friends with different skills is a key part to these type of music activities.
Another takeaway is that sincerity (and production values) are key to educational songs. Songs will be more entertaining and less cringe-worthy if the student is creating a song in a genre that they are genuinely comfortable with. Almost everybody likes music, so best to pick a musical genre you’re genuinely a fan of rather than imitating another genre (which risks making it caricature-driven or even offensive). And if you’re making a song that you want to reach a larger audience than the student and their friends, production values of performance, audio, and video are critical. Just look at the success of Hot Cheetoes and Takis. Or smaller-scale (but far more awesome), Snakes are Born this Way.
SAS&M: YOU ARE WRITING A VERY AMBITIOUS THESIS. HOW DOES “SCIENCE IDOL” FIT IN?
TM: Ha! Thanks for recognizing the ambition of the thesis. It’s a little overwhelming at the moment. But one of my biggest questions is – what are the costs and benefits of having science content videos made by outside “professionals” (presumed advantages being that they will be more “scientifically accurate,” higher production values, will be fun to watch for a much larger audience) vs. getting students to write their own songs (far more processing and learning for the individuals involved, with bigger benefits for longer-term learning/memory, plus the benefits of learning new technologies, getting creative, learning how to work as a group, etc. – all at a much higher time cost). I have a questionnaire that I’ve sent out to the Science Idol participants and I’m hoping to scratch the surface of my reserach questions in that way. This will complement a randomized control trial of one of my own music videos.
SAS&M: WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU MUSICALLY AND PROFESSIONALLY?
TM: My current plan is to head back to California after I finish this masters thesis in November. I’m eager to get back into the world of doing science and not just getting other people excited about it. So I’m planning on applying to Neurobiology PhD programs this December. And for most of 2013 I hope to be involved in some mixture of science, education, and service. I am open to sticking with music but kind of eager to explore new challenges and develop new skills.
So if anybody wants to employ me, let me know!
[photo above by Carlos Selig]