Science Genius Rap Battles

Hip-hop and science join forces to create an undeniably effective educational tool.


Photo of Dr. Christopher Emdin by Trevor Lalonde

Written by Laurel McLean

At first glance, Wu-Tang Clan seems like an odd match for Beakerhead, but, as it happens, they actually go hand-in-hand. In fact, Grammy-nominated rapper and science advocate GZA of Wu-Tang Clan even headlined Beakerhead’s opening night in 2015.

Hip-hop is all about storytelling . . . and so is science. After all, science is full of compelling stories of human achievement and universal mysteries.

As a result, 2017 marks the launch of Science Genius Rap Battles in Calgary. Beakerhead, in collaboration with the National Music Centre and GlobalFest, is bringing the program to Calgary to provide an opportunity for youth to experience science in a unique, artistic way.

Science Genius Rap Battles is an initiative created by Dr. Christopher Emdin, a professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science, and Technology at Columbia University, that uses hip-hop music—and a little bit of friendly competition—to engage students in the world of science.

Over the course of eight to 10 weeks, two hip-hop ambassadors from GlobalFest along with an emcee and DJ will visit participating schools for four, three-hour sessions. During these sessions, they will work with students and teachers to introduce basic music theory and incorporate science vocabulary and definitions to create science-themed raps aligned with the curriculum.

Each participating school will hold its own school-wide competition that will result in the selection of a winner to compete in a championship rap battle at the National Music Centre in May. The finalists from the rap battle will perform on stage at Beakernight in September.

Rebecca Dawn, urban arts director at GlobalFest, attended Beakerhead’s training workshop for Science Genius Rap Battles last September and instantly fell in love with the concept.

“[Dr. Emdin] did his workshop and it just blew me and my team away,” raves Dawn. “We thought he was awesome and the work he does is so meaningful and effective.”

“We’ve always been working in local schools trying to innovate and be creative using urban arts to give youth the sense that anything is possible. [Dr. Emdin] just articulated it so perfectly [that] we realized it was a fit and wanted to work with this person and this movement.”

Dawn believes rap is an effective educational tool because speaking words to a beat is a natural process for human beings.

“It has to do with our heart beat and tribal roots,” explains Dawn. “[Creating raps is] different than just studying on your own. Exploring language in creative ways activates different parts in your brain and solidifies information through an experience, so it’s more long-lasting and meaningful.”

Dawn says she and the other urban art instructors at GlobalFest are excited to implement the Science Genius program in Calgary.

“I hope that we can just model positive, respectful hip-hop culture to the youth and empower them to know that, regardless of what style they prefer to learn in, they’re intelligent and capable. I want them to believe that learning is fun and science is for them.”

2013 Science Genius Rap Battles winner Jabari Johnson.

Warren Lake, a biology and natural science teacher at Robert Thirsk High School, also attended Beakerhead’s Science Genius workshop in September, and has since helped implement the program at his school.

This year at Robert Thirsk High School, the program is specifically targeting students from Biology 30, Science 20 and 30, and the First Nations population, covering topics ranging from endocrinology to physics.

“We’re just trying to get a broad range [of students] for this year,” says Lake. “We want to make sure we get somewhere between five to eight kids so we can at least have some legs under it. Once you have legs on these things, they tend to take off.”

Lake says the students at his school who are participating in this program are students struggling to grasp science concepts in a regular learning environment, as well as honours students who are looking for creative ways to expand their knowledge.

“I think [rap] is topical for kids,” states Lake. “We have a lot of kids who are into that genre of music and it taps into a level of creativity that they don’t get to use in a regular school setting.”

Lake believes the Science Genius Rap Battles program creates an opportunity for students to improve their scientific literacy and partake in something that’s out of their comfort zone.

“As much as the competition is important, [Science Genius Rap Battles is] about having the kids grow in a way they hadn’t or couldn’t and gives them the chance to see they can actually learn these science concepts and get a handle on material that challenges them in a creative and unique way.”

In 2016, Beakerhead engaged nearly 25,000 students in science, engineering, and art-related programs. To help support Beakerhead’s K-12 education initiatives, you can donate here.