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Innovative Science Program for Children Blends Learning and Rap  - 2004-09-01

For most American kids, learning is the last thing they want to be doing in the summer. So, to get them to focus on academic subjects when they're out of school takes creativity and often, an unconventional approach. A collaboration based out of Olympia, Washington is finding success by setting summer science lessons to music.

Rap and hip-hop music often focuses on violence, sex, and gangs. Its lyrics appall some educators and parents. But what if the musicians rapped about trees and anthills instead? "When I turn around, another bug I found/People climbing up a rope, praying for hope/Not to fall down," sings a trio of young teens.

This little ditty grew out of an unusual collaboration of scientists, social workers and musicians. It started in the forest behind Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

A college scientist helps a visiting rap artist ascend on ropes toward a treetop research platform. When the rap star, named Caution, comes back down, he improvises a song about the experience for 40 watching students.

"From above the ground, the scene was smaller/But once back on the ground, the maple trees grew taller/Alders and hemlocks, cedars and firs/With the deers, mosquitoes, the rabbits and birds?" he raps.

The 12 and 13-year-olds who are listening come from some of the area's poorest neighborhoods. They're taking part in a federal program called Gear Up, to get them thinking about college from an early age. But to get middle schoolers to give up a week of summer vacation, you need more than a long-term goal.

"The flyer for this basically said, 'Do you want to record a rap record?'" asks program facilitator Todd Denny. He says it's not good enough to meet students halfway, somewhere between their world and that of adult teachers. Instead, the youth prison and school social worker strives to operate within the language, mindset and rewards of today's teens. And he says the approach works.

"This is the only project I've ever been involved with where we have to turn kids away who want to be involved with a project that involves vigorous writing, literacy, the language arts. That's very rare," Mr. Denny notes.

During their week as "Sound Scientists," the students take notes about the forest canopy, they find and map anthills, and wander a beach with a marine biologist. After three days of science, it's time to mold their impressions into music.

"I think y'all should do that 'Oooh-whee' thing altogether. Alright, you ready? I'll put the beat back in," instructs the producer.

These kids say they wouldn't be here if this had been promoted as a camp about science.

"Not really. No." the kids say.
Reporter: Why? Liz: I'm not good at math. I got a D in math, so you know, I'm not good at that. Careena: I'm not good at science because I don't like messing with nasty things. Like when we went to the beach, I didn't even want to pick up anything so I stayed up near the dry part. Tiana: I honestly love science. I wouldn't go to camp though. I don't know. But I love science. This inspired me to love science a little bit more. Careena: I don't like to get dirty?

While 13-year-olds Liz, Tiana, and Careena express little interest in becoming scientists, they do want to do more music recording.

"Caution really inspired me so I'll probably want to go to his studio to do rapping and stuff. Now I want to be a rapper," Tiana says.

This is the second experiment in Washington state blending learning and rap. In June, students on the Yakama Indian Reservation studied violence prevention and college planning? and produced songs like this?

"Hands up, everybody do it now/Make your family proud/Gear up with music, College is a plan/You need to choose it, Don't you understand?/Now we switch to Espanol [and they do?]" a rapper sings.

Organizers hope that with additional funding, the rapping of summer will continue as an after school enrichment program in the fall.