Science songster interview #18: Dargan Frierson

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.)

Dargan Frierson, Associate Prof. of Atmospheric Sciences

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!

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