Edmund Adjapong looks at how his high school science teacher, Chris Emdin used hip hop as a foundation to unlock a love for science.
It was a calm and crisp day; the morning breeze was cool and pleasant. Signs of fall were approaching steadily. It was my first day of high school at the Marie Curie High School for Medicine, Nursing, and Health Professions, which was located in the Bronx. I always found science fascinating, but was never fully engaged. In the 4th grade, my wings as a scientist grew consistent with the wings of our classroom butterflies, and although my interest in science was evident, my engagement in the classroom was not. On the first day of high school, I walked into my conceptual physics class and met my teacher, Christopher Emdin. I was surprised to have a teacher who looked and talked like me. He even enjoyed Hip-Hop as much as I did. I was immediately engaged in that physics class because Emdin embedded Hip-Hop education in his daily instruction, and it was only the beginning. Using elements of Hip-Hop in the classroom made learning science fun, but more importantly every student, including myself, felt a familiar connection to the science content and leaned into the instruction. This was first time I identified as a scientist. I saw myself in that science classroom. I felt like a scientist.
I recall learning Newton’s third law of motion using the call and response method where Emdin would shout out, “an object in motion” and the class would respond, “stays in motion.” Emdin would then shout out, “and an object at rest…” again the class would respond, “stays at rest.” Emdin mimicked how rappers/MC’s interact with crowds at their shows. After an entire school year of conceptual physics, my confidence and interest in science was at an all time high. I found myself making real world connections and creating analogies, as a Hip Hop artist would, about everything I learned to better understand science content.
During my freshman year, Emdin and I developed a great relationship. He was not only a science teacher, but he served as a big brother and mentor. He genuinely cared about students and would stay after school to talk and offer his advice. I started referring to Emdin as my mentor; he was someone that I looked up to. Emdin was the first man of color that I was exposed to who joined the academy. As a high school student, I had the perception that individuals from low-income communities didn’t become professors and didn’t have platforms to share their knowledge, but watching Emdin do it made me believe it was possible and that I could do it too. When Emdin became an associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia University he brought me to his classes and made sure that I was exposed to graduate student discussions and experienced an Ivy League institution.
A few years later, I attended the State University of New York at Plattsburgh with aspirations of becoming a pharmacist. Choosing to study biochemistry wasn’t the smoothest of routes for a young black man, so when I felt discouraged, Emdin was a phone call away, ready to charge me with motivation and inspire me to not give up and to always remain focused. After my junior year of college, I lost interest in pharmacy and decided that I would study science education in graduate school. I wanted more urban students to have a similar science education experience as myself. Because of this, I feel like I have a moral obligation to give back to students in my community. Had I not met Emdin during my freshman year of high school, I do not believe I would have reached or exceed my potential as a professional and as a young man of urban society. I think about the first day of the fall semester of my freshman year of high school every start of a new school year, and I think of how I walked into a classroom not knowing or understanding how my life would change.
I graduated from SUNY Plattsburgh with honors. I now attend Teachers College, Columbia University, where I study science education as a masters student. Eventually, I plan to pursue my PhD in Science Education with the purpose to study science education in urban areas to develop innovative ways to engage urban youth in science. I plan on engaging my students by practicing Reality Pedagogy and using Hip Hop Education, both as a means to better engage students in the sciences as well as making the classroom feel like a safe environment for the purpose of developing meaningful relationships with students. Currently, I continue to study with Emdin, who convinces me that there is always more to learn and who never fails to teach.
Photo: Flickr/AmyLoves Yah