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Rapping Biology? Why Science And Hip-Hop Works

Filed by KOSU News in Science.
November 4, 2013

Science and technology are often hard sells for students. But according to a research scientist at the University of Oklahoma, hip-hop might be the missing link for making science both relevant and engaging for students.

Tell Me More guest host Celeste Headlee speaks with Danielle Lee, a post-doctoral research associate at Oklahoma State University, who uses hip-hop to connect the dots between culture and science.

“It’s about cultural relevancy,” Lee says. “I listen to enough rap music and I dance to it and I love it and so I inherently get it. The only thing I do is just simply go, this song that I hear — this song that all of us can sing the words to and dance to — I hear something in it that reminds me of the lessons that I’ve learned in my biology classes or that I teach to my students. And I use those lessons as a springboard.”

Interview Highlights

On being asked, “Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?” after declining to work for free and the challenges women in science face

I think my experience was very extreme, first of all. Yes, it is something sadly that women tend to experience. This notion that we don’t have the right to negotiate for ourselves. And when we do, we’re called out of our name. Most people tend to use the “b-word” whenever we’re assertive and stick up for ourselves. But sadly, this is a problem in some of the STEM fields. You get sideways looks if you’re too assertive.

On using hip hop to explain science

A very common misunderstood lesson is the difference between inheritance and heritability in genetics. So how you inherit traits or how traits come to be in families. And so I usually give a lesson explaining the difference. Inheritant means you actually genetically pass it on. Heritable means it runs in families. Yes, it could be genetically related, but it just simply could be because of environmental factors or cultural factors. And so I like the song, “I Got it from my Momma.”

By listening to the lyrics of the song, we then deconstruct it. How does she get it from her momma? What are the rules of inheritance and heritability of how we inherit certain physical traits, in this case, a woman, because that is what the song is focusing on.

On getting underrepresented students in urban districts prepared

One of the things I’ve come to realize in working with young people is that it is imperative that we involve the adults in their lives in this mission. Because at the end of the day, if you want them to really have a leg up they need to participate in these summer academies, these authentic research programs. We need to give them permission and the time available to go after school and work in labs. Some of these lab programs are paid, many of them are not. But the benefits of working in a lab and working with a scientist is a complete mind blower … If you work in a lab even for a summer, your letters of recommendations for college are going to come from college professors, not just high school teachers. [Copyright 2013 NPR]

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