Friday, September 7, 2012

Stem with no root bears no fruit: Dr. Chris Emdin challenges instructors to think outside the box

Dr.Chris Emdin, September 5th

How can our education system engage students in science? This is the question Dr. Chris Emdin asked himself when he was in seventh grade and interested in science, but discouraged by the interactions in the classroom. In the years since junior high, Dr. Emdin, among other pursuits, has set out to find a better way to draw students into science, and his journey brought him to hip hop.
“The culture of young people, whether you like it or not, is hip hop,” Dr. Emdin told Utah teachers and researchers on the CI-WATER grant Wednesday night. “Hip hop is a cultural phenomena and it’s not going away.”
Dr. Emdin’s speech Wednesday night was part of the CI-WATER Symposium in Salt Lake City, Utah September 5th-6th. During the day, while researchers, industry leaders and EPSCoR personnel gathered at the Natural History Museum of Utah to discuss particulars of the grant, Dr. Emdin visited local schools to encourage students and instructors alike to reconsider their approach and views on science education. His speech later that night focused on showing how students can be engaged in science through hip hop, social media and the culture of the youth’s generation.
“I am purposely here to challenge,” Dr. Emdin warned his audience, and acknowledged that at some point in his talk he would probably offend everyone. And from there in launched into an anecdote that emphasized the problems our current education system has with engaging students in science. He called into question the practices of classrooms and the purpose of research.
“Why are we talking about this stuff?” Dr. Emdin asked, after telling his audience about a local girl, in a good school, who did not want to be there because she wasn’t engaged in classroom activity. “We’re talking about this stuff because we can do all the science we want to, create the most amazing models that we like, and if we’re sharing those models and those innovative ideas with other people like us, who are able to succeed in school, in spite of school, not because of it, then what’s the point?”
For the researchers on the CI-WATER grant, this question rang home. Part of the grant’s focus is outreach and education, and sharing research findings with the public, from elementary school students all the way up to parents and grandparents.
The purpose of research, Dr. Emdin said, should be to share the passions the researchers have, with students like the girl at the local Utah school, who felt distanced from her science education. Sharing the passions and positive aspects with students is essential.
“The reality is that a lot of people who are successful have been successful not because they are super special and smart,” Dr. Emdin said. “It’s because they’ve had a couple of experiences with a couple of people that allowed them to see themselves as scientists.” Researchers and teachers alike need to encourage these experiences to happen in the classroom.
How can teachers do that though? Through hip hop.
A stem with no root bears no fruit, Dr. Emdin said. Our current science education bears no fruit because it ostracizes creative and artistic minds and it weeds out students who aren’t good at math or who think in different ways. About this, Dr. Emdin asks, “Who is going to innovate? Who is going to be creative? Who is going to be the Einstein with the crazy hair who walks around and just doesn’t care?”
In order to find a root, hands are going to have to get dirty. Teachers and instructors are going to have to change their perceptions about what makes a successful teaching environment. “A quiet class is not necessarily a good class,” Dr. Emdin said. “What I’m telling you is that the most dysfunctional classrooms and the most effective classrooms look very, very similar.”
What’s the difference between a dysfunctional, loud classroom and an effective, loud interactive classroom? The focus of the interactions. This is where hip hop comes in.
Hip hop can help create this root by making science cool. “The general perception of scientists has to shift,” Dr. Emdin said. We have to eliminate the nerd perception and allow students to embrace the scientist within. More than changing the perception of scientists, hip hop offers teachers and researchers four hip hop elements than can drastically change science classrooms.

1. Mc (emcee) - voice inflections, gestures, metaphors and analogy on the part of the teacher; be the rapper and focus on engaging students with body language
2. Gr (graffiti)- graffiti can be a form of art and is a form of visibility, so bring art into science  and fame; give students school wide visibility for their accomplishments in science
3. Br (break dancing) - movement is essential; have students get up and move, even for just 35 seconds
Hip hop dancers preform at the CI-WATER Symposium
4. Dj (deejaying) - let students play with the technology and tools of the science lab; let them play and experiment with the tools before having students use them in an assignment

“I argue that each of these elements has to be part of every single lesson,” Dr. Emdin said. In addition to incorporating these elements into every lesson, Dr. Emdin challenges teachers to reconsider their position in the classroom. “Often times we categorize ourselves based on where we’ve been positioned...(teacher, researcher, scientist, innovator)…We fail to recognize that in order for us to really get to the point where we can disseminate scientific ideas with a kind of passion, we have to be all of those things at the same time.”
In the course of an hour and a half, Dr. Emdin showed teachers and scientists alike ways to improve science education and engage more students in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields. He left his audience with his challenge: meet this generation of students on their cultural terms, not the cultural terms of the instructor,
More on Dr. Emdin’s ideas about science education and hip hop can be found in his latest book Urban Science Education for the Hip HopGeneration

By Kali S. McCrackin

Photo credits Kali S. McCrackin

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