SAN JOSE, California – Tom McFadden jumped up and down a chair as he rapped a line from a song about life (the biological characteristic, that is). “Is it living?” he chanted. “Is it made of cells?” the audience roared back.
The surrealness is routine for the former Stanford science tutor turned YouTuber. McFadden marries the intricacies of science with the liveliness of hip hop to create videos that explain concepts ranging from cataracts to plasma membranes. And that kind of eclectic skill set is why he was invited to a panel discussion on February 13 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting titled “Comics, Zombies and Hip Hop: Leveraging Pop Culture for Scientific Engagement.”
Naturally, the other speakers in the discussion were equally eclectic. Julius Panoriñgan uses Zombie apocalypses to help his students at 826LA, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center, write better. Judy Diamond, a museum curator, teams up artists and virologists to create comic books that explain viruses and the power they wield over us.
One of the themes that emerged from the discussion was that pop culture can be used to make kids feel that science was useful, practical, and yes, even cool.
Diamond discussed how novel approaches to teaching science could affect student interest in science. In a study, students read about viruses through traditional essays or through comics. Researchers found that while acquisition of content was same in both cases, interest in learning further about viruses was higher after reading the comics.
Panoriñgan said it’s important to make science more interesting for disadvantaged students, especially in a high-poverty school district like Los Angeles. His zombie narratives help students learn science and math while improving their writing skills. He said the freewheeling possibilities of creative writing were displayed in the students’ zombie stories, which were full of twists and psychological insight. It helps that zombies are having a cultural moment.
The panel also drew attention to the current state of science education in the United States, characterized by little practical and creative training in the sciences in schools.
“Time spent doing science in school is decreasing, and out-of-school initiatives using all kinds of media are now filling in that gap,” Diamond said.
For instance, graphic artist Martin Powell’s comic about the legend of Dede Koswara, the world-famous “Tree man” of Java, explains the science behind the sensationalism. The Indonesian man has been said to suffer from a disease similar to Epidermodysplasia verruciformis, also known as tree man illness, in which the patient is excessively susceptible to HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) infection, resulting in runaway warts, macules and other skin growths. The comic humanizes Dede, while explaining the true causes of his strange appearance. It’s an entertaining but educational explanation of a story that that kids might have seen online.
“Science education should meet students where they’re at,” McFadden said, adding that children and teenagers were more likely to be found on YouTube than near their textbooks.
His videos, judging from their YouTube comments, attract both students who are serious about science and those interested in creative uses of music. “My work in schools gets the cool students interested in science and gives students who are good at science cool credibility,” said McFadden.
While some might think that these new approaches to teaching science are not helpful, or worse, are fluff, McFadden’s videos seem to counter that notion. In the video titled “That’s Metal,” teenagers sing about the properties of metals. Exploring that topic in surprising depth, they talk about chemical bonding, malleability and electric conduction:
“All metals have things in common
It’s the middle of the table they belong in
Share electrons. Make metal bonds
Become stable that’s something you can bet on
Strong like a locker. Use ’em for your choppers
If you beat it up. You can mold it like copper.”
Sounds like a lot of knowledge packaged in one funky rap stanza.