Why you should care

Because the geeky science teacher who rapped the periodic table could have held the secret key to your learning.

The performances would make a hip-hop artist or rock critic cringe. The videos shared by University of Washington professor Greg Crowther on his Sing for Science website are infinitely mockable; performers wax on about liver disease, 16th-century astronomers and shark repellent.

But the uncool factor has a point.

It’s so funny, it’s cool. And it may be the key to learning science.

Crowther’s colleague, assistant professor Katie Davis, studied audience reaction to the videos — and she found that no matter the taste level, when music was involved, kids and adults learned more. A lot more.

There has to be some kind of audience if Crowther, who’s taught since 2002 according to his online CV, has managed to collect more than 5,500 science and math related music videos in one place, right?

It all started about a decade ago, says Crowther, emailing from the Pacific Northwest. “I was just out of graduate school at that point, and I found myself doing some teaching with content-rich music, and I found that a surprising amount of science-based music existed, but was not easy for teachers (or others) to find.”

Why it works:

  • Music videos focus our attention and trigger an emotional response.
  • Repetition promotes retention.
  • The more senses we engage, the more likely we are to remember something (although, Crowther notes, this hasn’t been formally studied that much).

Best practices:

  • Pick songs with simple rhymes and rhythm.
  • Watch music videos so you can see and hear.
  • Use videos sparingly — so they remain novel — but reuse the ones that resonate.

So he made the site for teachers — full of quizzes and lesson plans alongside the videos.

Davis, also of U of W, recently put Crowther’s songs to the test. She gave basic science questions to more than 550 subjects, had some of them watch songs about science videos and then re-tested everyone. Did the songs really help test-takers learn more?

According to the presentation she gave last month at a national conference in Philadelphia, the answer is yes.

Screen time correlated to higher test scores. Even videos that the test-takers rated as middling (2.6 out of a possible 4 for entertainment excellency) still helped them score better in the long run.

And Crowther, a biologist, practices what he posts online. The videos aren’t just for others — he inflicts the same on his own students. (OZY uses “inflicts” teasingly — being a scientist, Crowther solicits student feedback, and the undergrads say they dig it.)

“In the 570-person physiology course I’m currently teaching, for example, we’ve done songs about animals’ surface area-to-volume ratio,” Crowther says. This from a man with admittedly rudimentary piano skills.

“The sickest mustache in the 16th century” staged as a rap battle with two overly costumed pubescents isn’t exactly Oxfordian in execution (or elocution).

But if they help kids — and adults — learn the finer points of STEM, maybe that’s something to sing about.

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