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How do you combine hip-hop music and science teaching?

USC Rossier professor Chris Emdin on working in service to youth, teaching as performance art and hip-hop’s transferable skills.

By Ellen Evaristo Published on

Chris Emdin joined USC Rossier in January 2022 as the Robert A. Naslund Endowed Chair in Curriculum Theory and a professor of education. His research focuses on democratizing science and transforming urban education. A scholar, best-selling author and impassioned advocate of educational equity, Emdin brings a unique approach to schooling, incorporating hip-hop music and culture to transform science teaching. He discusses the importance of student engagement, STEAM, and the art and legacy of teaching. 

You’re a science educator first. You earned your PhD in urban education, your MS in natural sciences and your BS in physical anthropology, biology and chemistry. How do your studies shape your approach to education?

As a person who has expertise in the sciences, I learned to think in a very particular way. I initially approached science education as a scientist. Everything was about the data, the numbers, and the inputs and outputs. It was about getting young people to memorize content. I wanted to be a good teacher, but I was trained to look at the world in a particular way. I have since discovered how incomplete that approach is. The desire to be effective was not enough if I relied solely on delivering my content without understanding context. It required a radical departure from my training to delve deeply into understanding human beings.

Today, I would call myself equal parts scientist and sociologist. Equal parts interested in the cognitive dimensions of teaching and learning, as well as the effective and emotional dimensions. I found myself as a scholar when I learned to resolve the tensions that always existed between my scientific training and my more humanistic experiences as a teacher.

How do you use hip-hop music and culture to transform science teaching, and why is this important?

Hip-hop is not just a musical artform. It’s a culture, a way of knowing and being, and a tool for transformation. Folks use it as a way to orchestrate their existence. Once you recognize that it’s not just some random artifact but a culture, then you have to engage with it as such. Once I recognized the power that hip-hop has on the lives of young people, I had no choice but to utilize it in teaching and learning.

Science has always been perceived as being out of reach of most young people. These are young folks who society says are not the best. They are not smart or valued. I see them engaging in hip-hop and expressing the same skills, traits and dispositions that I see in the most brilliant scientists. They’re curious and make keen observations. They’re thinking and speaking through metaphor and analogy and deconstructing complex ideas. I’m like, “Whoa! You’re a scientist.” But they believe that they’re not. My work is to remind or inform them of who they are, and show them and their teachers how the skills they have, just by virtue of their engagement in hip-hop, can be applicable in spaces like science.

Then there’s also the cool level, right? You could write a rap about anything in the world. You can certainly write one about science. We’ll try it. Let’s hold high academic and cultural expectations and remove the perceptions of what smartness is or should look like. Let’s experiment with cool ways to help youth latch on to content. Then you watch magic happen. Science Genius BATTLES, the project I started when I was in New York City, is now in Toronto, Canada. It is in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It’s in Houston, Texas. It’s in Calgary, Canada, with Indigenous populations where they’re writing science raps. This shows the universality of not just science, but also hip-hop. There’s a misperception that this is just for Black and Latinx kids. All young people benefit from utilizing and connecting to hip-hop, and if you can get them to do that with science, the possibilities are endless.

You are director of youth engagement and community partnerships at the USC Race and Equity Center. Tell me more about your role.

Connecting with young people, valuing them and making them feel as though there’s a pathway for them to higher education must be the central focus in all our endeavors. Working in service of young people and their futures requires direct engagement with them about what they need to be their best selves. This requires all the adults who are connected to young people to understand that they are in service to them.

Youth engagement is practical. It begins with conversations and co-creation while maintaining high expectations. It’s about creating opportunities for youth voices to be heard. This requires teachers and other education stakeholders to meet youth where they are. My role is to help those who work in schools to develop the strategies needed to do the same. The goal is to develop a youth engagement ecosystem where access to excellence is maximized because all youth-facing adults are equipped with the tools and trained with the strategies to help youth to be fully actualized. 

Young people can only reach their full potential when the entire community supports their intellectual, psychological and emotional growth. One of the essential pieces of our work at USC Rossier is to support the community in fulfilling its potential to support young people. My work is to let the community know that we are accessible and willing to be in direct relationship with them. That’s what community partnership looks like.

USC Rossier is not just a school of education. We are a place where innovation, creativity and imagination abound. We’re interested in engaging with the community off campus and exploring ideas that are not traditionally perceived as having anything to do with education and seeing how they can impact change. Learning can happen in a coffee shop or barbershop as well as in a classroom. I’m the person who helps to envision what that may look like.

How do you engage in critical conversations about race and train teachers on the most impactful way to convey serious and challenging issues to their students?

You cannot begin and then leave the conversation by invoking guilt, grief, hurt or harm. Too many people start and end there. We have to recognize the negative emotions as they emerge and have strategies for lingering there till the harm is understood, but we cannot languish in them.

I feel that most teachers want their students to be whole, to be full, to be well, to feel loved. Most teachers get into the field because they want to do good. They’re good people and they want the best for students. I begin there. When you ask educators what their hopes are for their students, the responses are often lofty and beautiful. Then, I ask, why we can’t get there? Why do we have the challenges that we have to get there? You help folks discover on their own that it’s because of unlimited ways that bias and racism permeates our society. Teachers will soon uncover that their dreams for children are stymied because of anti-Blackness and attachments to White supremacist practices. You don’t start with “You’re a White supremacist, and you’re problematic.” You help folks discover on their own that this is the cause for some of the challenges, that these belief systems are ingrained in them. These are the roots of your goals not being met—not just mine, but yours. You start working from there to interrogate and deconstruct systems and structures.

We must begin with radical dreaming about a world that we all want to live in. Then, identifying and addressing the reasons why we haven’t gotten there. Sometimes addressing those reasons means facing issues around race and class and equity head-on and developing strategies in our everyday work with young people.

You discuss cogenerative dialogue in your book For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too. Can you tell me more about that and its importance in student engagement?

Cogenerative dialogues are conversations that a teacher may have with a young person, a professor may have with a student or a school leader might have with teachers. They are also conversations people with institutionally endorsed power have with those who have been identified as marginalized or not quite engaged. They create a structure that allows people to engage in critical conversations about shared experiences so that they can understand each other’s vantage points. But the important thing, the distinctive thing, about cogenerative dialogue is that each of the participants can cogenerate or construct together a plan of action for improving the situation that they share.

The teacher can be teaching and feel like they’re doing a great job. A young person can be in the classroom and may be frustrated with that teacher’s teaching. Then, we take both people out of the classroom. The power differentials are shifted, and the teacher says, “I want to learn from you about how I’m doing as a teacher.” And then, the teacher might realize, “Oh, wow! I didn’t realize you were experiencing it that way,” and ask, “How can we co-construct a plan of action to make our next experience together better? How do we co-construct the plan of action for making sure our next experience together makes you feel better?”

We forget that at the core of connecting to other people is shared humanity, which cannot be found unless we strip ourselves of our roles. We must be humble enough to engage in conversation with people who we’ve been trained or taught to believe that they don’t have wisdom, and then we must help one another see their inner wisdom and learn from it. The anchor of any good leadership or service begins by radical listening. Cogenerative dialogues are a mechanism for radical listening. 

In an EdWeek interview you said, “The most valuable thing any urban educator can do before working in urban communities is to engage in deep reflective work about who they are, what biases they hold, and why they have chosen to work in these communities.” How can teachers do that?

I think that cogenerative dialogues help us to delve deeply into who we are. Through our conversations with others, we can learn more about ourselves. I address this a little bit in my book Ratchetdemic—but the work is also about literally taking time to engage in dialogue with yourself. Internal cogenerative dialogue is just as important. Can I have a conversation between myself as teacher and myself as suburbanite? Myself as a person who grew up around racist family members, and myself as a teacher in urban spaces? Just as I advocate for cogenerative dialogue with others, I’m also advocating for cogenerative dialogue with oneself. Take a timeout in your schedule and write a letter to your former self and say, “What from you am I bringing to my next chapter? What part of me am I going to let go if I try to become an educator or become a better person?” I’m the kind of person who thinks about research, but also practice. Cogenerative dialogues are a research practice but also a practical thing, a tangible thing, that you must and should do. I hosted a professional development seminar with a bunch of teachers; I handed everyone a mirror and said, “Take the time off and look at yourself.”

You were a STEAM Ambassador for the U.S. Department of State, and a Minorities and Energy Ambassador for the Department of Energy. Can you tell me about your experience with those organizations?

I’ll start with the Minorities and Energy Ambassador for the Department of Energy. It was such an amazing opportunity as a person who has an interest in the sciences to learn about and share information about energy and related fields. The Department of Energy recognized, at the time in 2014, that most young people are not at all interested in energy consumption, energy use or energy jobs. They had no idea about careers in energy, in solar sources and wind sources. There is an endless sea of information that would be fascinating to young people that they simply had no access to. For example, they had no idea about how well petroleum engineers do, as far as compensation goes, and the good they can do in the world. They tapped me to be an ambassador to share this information, and I loved it. I got to talk to young people about careers in energy and the sciences. I hosted a symposium at the White House. I had conversations with the former secretary about his work and how to create strategies that make this aspect of science accessible to children. It was an opportunity to be a teacher, not just in a classroom, but to have a platform that allowed me to teach in multiple classrooms and spaces. I still hold it dearly to my heart. They would have me in for a convening, and they would say, “Chris, just talk to people about energy.” It played to my strengths as a teacher. I still carry the responsibilities of that role in my work today.

The Department of State work was just cool because it took me places. I was able to go to Portugal and represent the United States, and speak about STEM and STEAM education at universities and conferences. I was able to go to South Africa and drum up interest in STEM. I was a STEM ambassador initially, and I pushed them to name it STEAM ambassador because of my interest in the arts.

One of the things that we are working on at USC Rossier is the possibility of a STEAM center. I think that we must anchor STEM in the arts. When we say the arts, we mean arts and culture, ancestry and authenticity. Those worlds should not be divided. They should be working hand in hand. It’s not just a random incorporation of the arts for the sake of it, but utilizing the arts as the glue through which we engage in STEM work. At the very least, it’s a method for communicating STEM ideas to folks who don’t have backgrounds in STEM. My most recent book, STEM, STEAM, Make, Dream, is about recognizing that the arts are at the anchor of science and math communication.

What’s the most challenging job you’ve had?

The most interesting job was when I worked as a security guard while I was completing my undergraduate degree. I’d be up all night while everybody else was asleep. At one point, I worked at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York. For a short while my job was to be the security guard in front of the cadavers. That was the hardest job I ever had, but it also afforded me so many opportunities. I think I fell in love with science then through engaging with and observing the medical students. They passed down their chem books, and I’d look at them and realize I could do what they do in science. Working there during my undergrad led me to become a science major.

What are some of your current research projects?

I’m continuing Science Genius BATTLES, which is a science rap competition. It’s science education meets American Idol and rap battles, where we challenge young folks to write raps about science, compete in their classrooms and battle to see a winner. The winner from each school then battles winners from other schools, and those winners go on to a citywide competition. It’s all over the place now. My favorite version of it is in Kingston, Jamaica, where they have reggae and dancehall science battles, which is just amazing to witness. That project is expanding, and it has immense potential for teaching, teacher training and even the creation of musical products.

I’m working on a project now building post-pandemic classrooms that I call Collider Classrooms. The project recognizes that the pandemic was not all bad for children. Some young people had the best educational experiences of their lives in Zoom classrooms. Instead of rushing back to normal, let’s glean wisdom from young people about what worked via Zoom and create hybrid learning spaces that consider all these possibilities. My new tagline on my Instagram is “Designer of places, spaces, things and experiences.” I’ve been designing and drawing up sketches of classrooms with architects and young people. We built a prototype classroom at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York, and two of the classroom prototypes are in public schools. I’d love to bring this classroom design work to Los Angeles.  

I’m also designing a certificate program for teachers. It draws from my TED Talk: “Teach teachers how to create magic.” The goal of the certificate is to teach teachers the performance art of teaching. That includes watching videos of the best performers, like Misty Copeland, and watching how she enters the stage and then asking, “How can a teacher enter the classroom the same way?” I’m excited to expand that work at USC because we’re in the middle of an institution and city that centers on creative arts. My doctoral students and I are developing a set of courses for teachers, and they will graduate with a certificate in teaching as a performance art.

What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of Sydney and Malcolm Emdin. Sydney, my 9-year-old, is an artist, philosopher and designer. Malcolm, my 5-year-old, loves anything related to dinosaurs or cars. He wows me every single time he gives me a car fact that I did not know. I’m most proud of my children. 

I’m also proud of my work. I’ve written a few books now and edited a few volumes. Ratchetdemic was my favorite because I got to pour my heart out onto the page and share where my soul is as it relates to education.

Lastly, what advice do you have for teachers entering the field?

Teachers, despite what politicians say, despite what it seems like the public sentiment is, despite what newspapers say, are doing the most essential work on the face of the planet. There is no other profession where doing your job the right way can equate to transforming the lives of children. There’s no work that I know of other than teaching where you can construct a legacy that is timeless. There’s no job that I know other than teaching where you can live today and concurrently shape the future. Where the general public sentiment is, does not at all reflect the beauty and power of our work. It is the ultimate profession. It is the ultimate legacy. And if you do it the way it’s supposed to be done, you get to be eternal.

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