In addition to its reporting on the White House and other serious matters, the Washington Post runs something called the Style Invitational. The 1235th edition of this contest, running through July 24, asks readers to address the topic of science (broadly construed) in a song parody. So get to it, science songsters!
A quick Facebook exchange with Pat Myers, the Empress of the Style Invitational, clarified that previously written songs may be entered as long as they have not yet been widely distributed. For example, a song should not have appeared in a book or have thousands of YouTube views.
The winner of the contest is Mary Williams (@PlantTeaching), who correctly identified “Fermat’s Last Tango” and “Les Phys” as the real musicals. The former was loosely based on Andrew Wiles’ quest to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem; the latter was created by Peter Dong, now a high school science teacher, as his undergraduate thesis.
The other three titles were based on real plays (“Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk”; “Hedwig And The Angry Inch”; “Cats”) but, to our knowledge, do not actually exist.
Congratulations, Mary! You will receive a free t-shirt once the shirts themselves exist.
Just tell me (email@example.com) which of the five STEM-themed musicals pictured below was/were real. If you answer correctly between now and June 11 16, you’ll be entered into a drawing for a free VOICES t-shirt!
STEM music insiders may be aware of the research team of Larry Lesser (UTEP), Dennis Pearl (Penn State), and John Weber III (Perimeter College of Georgia State U.). Last year they published a study in which online students were exposed to statistics songs (and other “fun” items) in a truly randomized fashion. They also have a National Science Foundation grant on statistics songs: SMILES (Student-Made Interactive Learning with Educational Songs) in Introductory Statistics. That grant is now sponsoring what must be the first-ever national or international conference series on the theme of using music to teach STEM. Since everybody loves acronyms, this new conference series is called VOICES: Virtual Ongoing Interdisciplinary Conferences on Educating with Song. As the name indicates, the conferences will be “virtual,” i.e., held online, which will facilitate international participation (e.g., there will be at least one invited speaker who will be videoconferencing in from the UK). Anyway, here are the essentials: the conference will be held on Sept. 27-28, it is open to everyone, it only costs $10, and it is currently accepting presentation proposals! For more information, go to the VOICES website. Thanks to my co-organizers, Nyaradzo Mvududu of Seattle Pacific U., Rabindra (Robby) Ratan of Michigan State U., and Walter Smith of Haverford (and PhysicsSongs.org).
The United States Conference on Teaching Statistics, USCOTS, is held on odd years (in alternation with the Electronic Conference on Teaching Statistics, eCOTS, which occurs on even years). USCOTS is once again holding an “A-Mu-Sing” competition (mu being the Greek symbol for the mean, a statistics term), which includes categories of Jokes/Cartoons, Poetry, Songs, and Videos. So visit the official rules page and get cracking; the submission deadline is March 10th! Winners will be notified on April 1 and will be showcased at the May 18-20 USCOTS meeting hosted by Penn State. Cash prizes of ~$200 are expected to be awarded in each category.
Thanks to Dr. Larry Lesser of UTEP for the reminder and invitation to participate.
Almost exactly three years ago, Sing About Science & Math diverged from its usual science songster interview format to do a podcast with Monty Harper. Here now is the second podcast — no more professional or polished than the first one, but featuring another musical guest who I really enjoyed talking with!
Sing About Science & Math: Let me start by making sure I’m saying your name right. Is it “Reh-mee Rah-den”?
Remy Rodden: Close enough. Yes! [Laughs.] “Reh-mee Rah-den” — that works.
SAS&M: Because you’re Canadian, I’m tempted to give it a bit of a French lilt, like “Ray-MEE!” But perhaps that would be wrong.
RR: It would not be wrong. It would not be the way I’ve been raised to call it, but that’s definitely the proper French pronunciation. My ancestral background is French, so eef you want to call me Ray-MEE, zat is OK, ah?
RR: We could do the interview in French, too, if you want.
SAS&M: [Laughs.] I’m trying to think of a funny quip in French, but, sadly…. Anyway, moving right along…. So, Remy, the people who will be listening to this podcast probably don’t know much about you. You could be defined as a science songwriter, but you’re certainly more than that. Tell us a little about you — about your life, and where science music fits into that.
RR: OK! Well, professionally, my background is in biology and environmental education. I was a part of a rather unique cooperative program at Queen’s University (in Kingston, Ontario) in outdoor education and experiential education, which included the environmental component. That kind of led me to a career over the last several decades in the Yukon Territory, right up in the far northwest corner of North America, right beside Alaska. And I was able to find a job there that fit my talents and interests so well in environmental education, and being able to take an interest in music and environmental music into the classroom and as part of my job, sort of integrating the work and non-work parts of my life, has been great.
And, musically, I’ve been writing songs since I was a little kid, but, as the legend goes, my mom insisted on buying a guitar when I was 16, and suddenly I had this tool, and I was able to write all sorts of songs. And when it came to environmental stuff, I was in with that crew at Queen’s, sharing songs and so on. I started collecting songs that had some sort of environmental nature or earth connection, and went on to do other things with that over time.
SAS&M: OK. So it sounds like your work as an environmental educator has both musical and non-musical components to it. Is that right?
RR: Correct. The musical part is, I guess, almost a sideline, in a sense, although I integrate it into my work, and, currently, as we speak [i.e., in late November], I’ve taken some time from my day job to concentrate on the music a little more. Through a couple of recordings — a couple of albums I’ve done that have had quite a good success around and about. But foremost I’m, at this point, an environmental educator that uses music to get across environmental concepts.
SAS&M: OK, super! So let’s talk more about that. When you are music to get across environmental concepts, I’m thinking that there are a bunch of things that you might want to communicate to listeners. Some of it is factual content, and some of it may be more policy-related, or may be even, kind of, emotions related to the environment. What are the sorts of things that you yourself are trying to communicate with your music?
RR: Well, it does vary quite a bit, actually. It incorporates both the head and the heart, as I like to say. I think working with a younger audience, and particularly with an educational bent, there are songs that I do that have quite a bit of factual content in them and get them across in a hopefully entertaining and amusing and interesting way that will stick in young people’s minds — and older people’s minds. And, at the same time, there are songs that I do that tend to aim directly at the heart and have a little more emotional content to them. So I guess environmental education does have both those aspects, although it depends which bent you take. Traditionally the environmental science approach has been there, but often those kinds of approaches can scare people off, and so we try to hit all the different aspects of the being.
SAS&M: Great! Can you maybe bring us into one particular song that you’ve written that you’re proud of — that you think is effective in distilling some ideas down into a catchy nugget that people seem to respond to?
RR: Sure. In terms of the factual side of things, if you will, one of the songs that I’m most proud of, or at least has had the greatest success — the biggest hit [chuckles] is a song called, “What’s That, Habitat?” which gets its title from the Project WILD activity of the same name. Part of my day job is coordinating Project WILD; some of your listeners will be familiar with that activity guide. And from Project WILD, they talk about habitat having the four components of food, water and shelter and space, four things we all need to survive. So I’ve been able to present that in a fun way, with the call-response for audiences, with some actions, with some repetition, and a little bit of humor in there too. And you mentioned the Canadian content; in the particular recording I did have French included as well. So that’s one that’s worked really well, and was honored somewhat. It got selected a number of years ago to be part of a compilation that the United Nations did to celebrate the Earth Charter that was signed back in the ’90s.
SAS&M: Yeah — terrific!
RR: Pretty excited and proud of that one.
SAS&M: Yeah, absolutely. Do you have a corresponding example of a song of yours that’s aiming more for the heart, where you feel like, yeah, when I sing this song, or when I play it for people, they seem to be moved, or they seem to be spurred to action, or something like that?
RR: Yeah. There’s another song that appeared on the “Think About the Planet” album that I did quite a while ago (but still out there) called “Three Simple Rules.” And I took those three simple rules — I jokingly sometimes say that I got it from a fridge magnet, but they were words that were iterated by a First Nations elder, a friend of mine, in the Yukon at a public meeting where they were talking about hunting and fishing regulations. And I was able to take that and put it into a piece of music — those three simple rules. And the feedback has been great. I know that it gets used in national and provincial parks by the interpreters. One time I was performing it for an audience in Calgary, Alberta, and some kids started singing along with it! And they go, “Oh, we learned that in a summer camp that we did.” Those are the little things that encourage us as musicians, because when we put music out in the world, we never know where it’s going to go. And from that, the three simple rules — I’d like to share those. Respect all life. Take only what you need. And use all that you take. The idea was for hunting and fishing, but I thought, “Hey, that could fit for any of our daily life.” When we go to the grocery store, let’s not buy stuff we don’t need. So I like that one. And it’s not very science-y at all.
SAS&M: No, not in the sense of a textbook laying out the definition of a habitat, for example.
As I mentioned in the email, one of the things that interests me about this realm of environmental music is that you are preaching, in a sense, in that in some cases you want to change people’s behavior, but you also don’t want to sound overly preachy, right? “Preachy” is often heard as a negative adjective. Do you have any strategies for trying to be understood but not to come across as overly preachy or dogmatic or finger-wagging? And I’m talking about your music, particularly, but maybe you have general strategies as an environmental educator that you apply to your music.
RR: This is a dilemma that all environmental educators face, and I suppose anybody that’s involved with some kind of social change or trying to get ideas out in the world. It’s that balance between blasting people with the facts and all the scary stuff, and also inciting them to make some change. Going from getting totally apathetic — “Oh, I can’t change anything [or] make any changes here” — to actually having some agency in the world. You know what I’ve found, actually, personally, is humor — using humor and fun to approach these kind of scary issues with a little bit of tongue-in-cheek humor. And I think people get the point without getting all the doom and gloom. And hopefully it reinforces an idea they’ve already had, and maybe with that bit of humor and a little lightness to it, there might be an ability to make some change. Just an example: One of the ways I got into singing environmental music — I was in the middle of composing a song called “Better Living Through Chemistry”….
SAS&M: I was about to bring that up!
RR: …And it was kind of cool, because it was early on in my performing career, and I had auditioned for a local festival in Whitehorse, Yukon, and, being accepted, they put me into a workshop-type situation, which was great by me, but … Our national public radio network, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) — the local [affiliate] phoned me up and said, “Hey, we’re doing a live broadcast from the festival. Would you like to be on air?” And I said, “I don’t know if I can do that or not!” [Laughs.] And I said, “I’ll call you back. I’ll think about it.” But then I was writing this song; I said, “This is great; I’ll get some air time for this song, which I think has got a valuable message.” So that encouraged me to finish it, and as it turned out, there were some folks from the national office in town, and they heard the song and whipped me down to the studio — this was before Internet — but they recorded it, sent it off by satellite to the main offices in Toronto, and got it broadcast all over the country. And I said, “Whoa! The power of a song! How great is that?!” [Laughs.] But that particular song has that ring to it, because it does talk about toxic chemicals that are in our environment. But in the end, there’s the little mess of, well, you know, if we leave everything up to science…. And I’m not dissing science in any way, but I think there’s a tendency [to assume] “Well, there’ll be a technological fix to everything; we don’t have to do anything [or] change anything in our own lives because somebody will come up with some way to mitigate the problem.” And I don’t believe that, necessarily. I think we all have our part to play, even it’s encouraging those people to make those changes. You know, “those people” [laughs] — the folks that are making legislation and policy and so on.
SAS&M: I appreciate the point that humor is a way of making things a little more comfortable for people and reducing the tone of preachiness. Of course, humor also introduces, potentially, the ability to be misunderstood, if someone doesn’t get the joke. Have you ever run into that, where you’re trying to be funny about something, just having a little fun with something, and then people just misunderstand what you’re going for? Like, for example, “Better Living Through Chemistry” — as I understand it, you mean that title semi-ironically, right? That, on the one hand, chemistry is very useful, but that we can’t solve all our problems with chemistry. Have you ever been misunderstood in that way as a result of trying to be humorous?
RR: I can’t think of a specific example where somebody got up and started screaming at me, or something. Hmmm. I see your point, though. Maybe I do preach a little bit to the converted, in some cases [laughs] because my typical audiences are at environmental educators festivals and so on, so they’re in on the joke. And if I do play it in public, generally audiences are generally in the know, too. But I understand the point. Certainly that happens on larger scales in other venues.
SAS&M: Yeah. I guess I’m just thinking out loud here, so maybe we should cut this entire section of the interview, but I’ve heard that kids in particular sometimes don’t really understand irony when we adults say things ironically, and that can be very confusing to kids. And so, since you are often working with kids, I wonder if that might trip them up. On the other hand, you have the benefit of talking to them in between songs, right? So maybe you could make your meaning extra-clear, if necessary, in that kind of a scenario.
RR: Exactly. It’s about knowing your audience, like any good education, good interpretation, good marketing — you know who your audience is and make sure those misunderstandings aren’t there. I guess, on a larger scale, it’s not always easy to know who your audience is.
SAS&M: So the real problem is when you become a big star and your song is on the radio or on Spotify without any context. Then the gross misunderstandings will just start piling up [laughs] because you’re not there to put it in context for everyone.
RR: Yep — that is true. And unfortunately I have not had the misfortune of having my songs be on the Top 40 for any length of time. [Laughs.] So I don’t have that issue. But I think we may be talking about the Playlist for the Planet masters thesis that was done a while ago, but that issue did come up within that thesis. Many or most or all of your listeners know about Bruce Cockburn, our famous Canadian singer-songwriter, who does bring that issue up a little bit. At least it’s quoted in the thesis.
SAS&M: Yeah, so let’s go there, if you don’t mind. I wanted to talk about “Playlist for the Planet” and the thesis that Jennifer Publicover did on that. So can you first introduce us briefly to the contest, run by the David Suzuki Foundation, and then we’ll go from there, I guess.
RR: Yeah, sure. So this was a competition or a song search that happened in 2011. It was proposed and cosponsored by the David Suzuki Foundation, and then our CBC Radio 3, which is the Internet branch of CBC, got involved with that, and basically asked people from across the country to submit songs that are environmental-type songs. The whole idea had come from David’s wife, Tara, who had said, “You know, we need some rallying songs for the environmental movement.”
I was one of the 600 or so submissions, and they chose people regionally, from each of our provinces and there was one for the north. There was an online voting process and the selections made, and at the end they created a compilation CD and an iTunes playlist (which is still available), that has those twelve winners — or eleven, I guess — plus a number of bigger names that you might have heard of, like Bruce Cockburn, and Tanya Tagaq, and Gordon Lightfoot — people like that that were included in that compilation. So I’m proud to say I’m in a compilation with Bruce Cockburn; that’s kind of cool.
So basically what happened: this woman, a musician herself, Jennifer Publicover, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the far east coast of Canada, was looking at doing a masters thesis on environmental education and music, and narrowed it down to interviewing a number of us from that “Playlist for the Planet.” And she sent out the invitation to all 30 of the people on that compilation, including some of the bigger names that I mentioned, and I think about half of us responded on a whole range of topics related to environmental education music. Environmental messaging; about creating change; about authenticity in our own lives, like what do we do in our own personal lives? How do we deal with the music business — all the traveling we do? What do we do in our own lives to reduce our own environmental impact? So quite a wide-ranging masters thesis, and I thought it really interesting.
SAS&M: So you’ve looked over that thesis. I’ve very quickly looked through it. Can you tell us what you had to say in your interviews that you thought reinforced what other people were saying well? And perhaps things you brought up that were NOT reinforced by others, where you had a different perspective, perhaps related to the fact that you’re working with children more than most of these other interviewees?
RR: You know, there weren’t a lot of differences. I think that because my songs aimed more at children, largely educational in the sense of getting across factual information, I think that’s a big difference. Most of the other artist were mostly full-time performers. There were a few others, like myself, that had educational day jobs, so they’d be a little closer to align with me. So, I guess content-wise, many of the songs I do … were trying to get across factual ideas. Most of the others had more emotionally stirring songs to try to encourage some kind of change. That being said, though, all of us said that it was important to be true to our own experiences and our own ways of being in the world, and it’s important to have a good song, a good melody, and a good way of bringing people in, or else nobody’s going to listen to it anyway. Again, maybe that’s a difference because I do have captive audiences when working with younger people. [Laughs.] But I like to think that my music is somewhat musical as well and has some quality to it.
The things that Jennifer came up with in the end — it’s kind of five points that were common amongst all of us. It’s important to make high-quality art. It’s important to make it relevant to the audience, as discussed earlier. Recognized there’s a number of “hooks” — ways to bring people in to your messaging. And as I said, write from what you know and believe; you sort of have to be authentic and not just be riding some kind of green bandwagon, because that happens from time to time. Artists get criticized; “Well, you know, you’re just making these statements to have a little bit of publicity, or make some money from it.” And that whole thing you brought up about the preachiness. You really can’t preach because it turns people off. So you have to make your messages a little more subtle than obvious.
SAS&M: Right. So, on this facts-versus-emotions thing — clearly I’m fixated on this [laughs] — as you said, you’re working this kids, so your songs tend to be fact-based, getting across information. Most of these other performers are targeting adults more and are not trying to deliver facts to the same extent. I’m wondering if that’s because — again, thinking out loud here a little — I’m wondering if that’s because adults know all the facts they need to know. Perhaps not. Or they don’t want to be subjected to factual information in a song; maybe they would feel like they’re being patronized? I don’t know. Thoughts on that? Should there be more factual, fact-based songs for adults? Or is what the adults really need this motivational and relevance piece?
RR: As an educator [laughs], I think all of us could use more information — more factual information — but it is also a question of what you do with it. Going back to the “Better Living Through Chemistry” thing, I think we need to take some personal responsibility. I think, generally, the way music is distributed in our society — and especially now, with all the different modes — how do you reach different audiences? Songs that are entertaining … entertaining and moving in that kind of way. I don’t know that many of us go out to seek songs we’re going to learn from. We want to be entertained and inspired in some other kind of way, you know, at a different kind of level, rather than just factual. So that’s where I see the difference and the challenge being, I suppose. You turn on whatever your favorite source of music is these days, and — I know you and anybody else listening to this podcast are, “We like those science-y, factual songs” — but the mainstream is not going to be searching out or listening to that kind of thing…. And that came up in the thesis as well. We do have to make a living. Even though we might like to sing songs about this and this and this all the time, it doesn’t mean that it will be listened to or help us make a living in the world. So it is a balance between your convictions and what the audience is willing to hear and tolerate and so on. I don’t have a specific answer for you, but that’s the way I would see it.
SAS&M: Fair enough. So, to the extent that facts could be presented in a really entertaining way to adults, then you think that kind of music could succeed quite nicely and be popular. But if it’s facts without any particular hook, then why bother making a song about that because people aren’t going to gravitate toward it.
RR: Well, that’s obvious. Coming back to this, you’ve got to have a good hook, you’ve got to have good music, you’ve got to have something that people can relate to. I guess what I’m saying is, how much factual material are we willing to tolerate, as opposed to something that moves us in some way? And maybe the factual stuff can. It’s just that I don’t see a lot of it out there.
SAS&M: Yeah. I’m reminded a little bit of the nature documentaries, where what you’re seeing is facts, in a way — like, this is actually a snake chasing this lizard. But the visuals are so amazing that you are compelled to watch it. I wonder if there’s growth for music in that area, where the facts are covered in such an inspiring way that people just want to hear more of that. But, personally, I don’t really know how to do that.
RR: Well, you’ve thrown me out a great challenge. Thanks! [Laughs.]
SAS&M: Can we come back to the Bruce Cockburn thing? He was, as you say, one of these more well-known people who was involved in “Playlist for the Planet,” and I think you were saying that maybe one of his songs was trying to use humor and maybe being understood? But I didn’t quite catch that. Can you connect those dots for me?
RR: Well, the specific song that came up in the thesis [was] “If a Tree Falls.” If a tree falls in the forest, does anybody hear? He does talk about the Amazon rainforest. This is a song that’s come out quite a long time ago, about the rainforest being cut down, and some of the effects of that, and so on. In his typically wonderfully poetic way, presenting that information. But, again, as context, he used the example of performing somewhere in northern Canada, where there are a lot of loggers, you know? And that became an issue in that area. And it comes back to what you were saying about misunderstandings. We’re not dissing logging completely here, you know, it’s just how it’s done in different places. And yet some of the local folks that depended on logging for their livelihood would have challenges with that.
And that same sort of thing comes up in Canada with our large oil sands development, which has become a cause celebre for many celebrities, as you know, and that’s an ongoing issue here — the whole jobs versus environment issue. And many performers do take a stand on that, but sometimes to their peril, commercially. It often depends on how advanced you are in your career, and that did come up as well in the thesis, that, once you’ve gotten an audience, and you’ve reached a certain level, then you can afford to make some more controversial stances.
SAS&M: Mmm-hmmm. So with “If a Tree Falls,” it wasn’t humor that was an issue in muddying the waters; it was just the compact phrasing — “if a tree falls” — people think about logging and then people perhaps don’t fully understand the intent of the song. Is that what you’re saying?
RR: Yeah. There’s not a lot of humor in that song, I’d have to say [laughs], from what I remember of it; I haven’t listened to it in a while. Now there’s another fellow who was in the Playlist, a guy named Todd Butler, and I had the opportunity to perform beside him at an environmental festival in Lethbridge, Alberta a number of years ago. A hilarious guy; he’s a comedian, actually, primarily, although incredible musicianship, and he’s able to combine the two with funny songs. And so he’s on the “Playlist for the Planet” as well, and he talks a little bit about that as well.
He gets a lot of corporate gigs; you’ve got to be a little careful about what you say, but he’s able to throw the occasional dig in, because it’s humorous, to the folks that are paying him. But he says, “I don’t know if people aren’t hiring me because of my humor — because they just don’t hire me; they don’t contact me to tell me that.” And he seems to think it’s important for him to speak out on what he believes in, in his humor, and it may or may not affect his career. But if you’re interested in that particular aspect, Todd would be a good guy to talk to.
SAS&M: Yeah! I certainly gravitate toward humor myself, so I wonder if I could get ahold of him.
RR: Yeah, he’s just a hilarious guy to talk to and hang around with.
SAS&M: Cool. Well, Remy, I think we are almost out of time, but I want to give you a shot at any closing thoughts on anything that maybe you were hoping I would ask about but I didn’t. Final thoughts, perhaps, on the future of environmental music, either for yourself or perhaps more broadly, or both?
RR: Well, you know, I’d really like to mention this Songs for Environmental Education project that I started a number of years ago. Actually, in ’97 I think it was, we had an environmental education conference hosted in Vancouver of the North American Association for Environmental Education and our national group called EECOM, the Canadian Network for Environmental Education and Communication. And one of the things that we always do at these events is get together and sing environmental or other songs. And we created a little group called Songs for Environmental Education, and, with the technology of the day, were able to create a little website on GeoCities. People may remember that.
RR: GeoCities, yes! It lives on under ReoCities; you may or may not know that. If you look up any address from GeoCities, and just put ReoCities, with an R instead of a G, you can find all that old stuff that was on there.
SAS&M: Oh, really? No, I didn’t know that.
SAS&M: Yeah. So when that got phased out — the actual web presence faded out for a while, but last spring I got motivated to get it going again through a WordPress site and Facebook page, and just creating community to folks that are interested in using these topics we’ve been talking about, using music for environmental education. So the website is SongsforEE — EE, short for Environmental Education — SongsforEE.wordpress.com. And if you look on Facebook, there’s a Songs for Environmental Education Facebook group as well. So I invite anyone to join us and share anything that comes up for you, about artists that are doing this kind of thing, or exemplary use of environmental education in the classroom using songs for environmental education, whatever!
SAS&M: Terrific! And among the things you’ll find at that URL is a link to Jennifer Publicover’s thesis, which I think is fully available online, so if you were interested by that segment of this podcast, you should go there and check that out for more.
All right — thanks so much, Remy! It’s good to spend a little more time with you, talking as opposed to emailing. It’s fun to hear your voice.
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.
Eva Amsen, a prominent science communicator/outreach person, has launched a quarterly science-music newsletter. You can sign up for it at her website, EasternBlot.net, and/or follow her music-science Twitter account, @musisci.
• 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 StarTribune.com]. “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.)
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 LinkedIn.com, I would not hesitate to hire him again.