I-MRSEC’s Musical Magnetism Curriculum Uses Hip Hop to Teach Science

Two Franklin STEAM Academy eighth graders record the rap they wrote about magnetism as part of I-MRSEC's Musical Magnetism curriculum.

March 12, 2019

It’s not your mother’s science class…or music class, for that matter! The goal of I-MRSEC’s “Musical Magnetism” curriculum was to expose Franklin STEAM Academy eighth grade students to materials science and magnetism, but also to another of the center’s main emphases: scientific communication. What’s unique about the lesson plans is that they embraced a medium today’s kids can probably get into: hip hop or rap. So, after a number of Illinois researchers, students, and staff, who also served as role models, had exposed the students to multidisciplinary lessons in several related areas, the kids teamed up to create then present raps about specific areas of magnetism.

The curriculum was the brainchild of Physics Professor Nadya Mason, the PI of the NSF-Funded I-MRSEC (Illinois Materials Research Science and Engineering Center), who explains how the idea for the unique curriculum came about.

Nadya Mason (center, standing) introduces I-MRSEC and the Musical Magnetism curriculum the first day of the 8-week unit. (Image courtesy of Pamela Pena-Martin )

“This was an idea that I had to incorporate science and technology into something that was fun and educational for the kids,” she shares, with the goal of helping them “learn without realizing that they were learning.”

She admits that she was inspired by the musical, Hamilton, which she says her kids were singing all the time. “I realized that they were learning history by singing and having fun and didn't even realize it. So I thought, ‘If we could do something similar for science, then it would be a great project, everyone would enjoy it, and we could maybe spread that sort of idea.’ So that’s how this program started.”

And while the focus of the curriculum was to encourage the youth to learn some science while communicating about it, all the participating adults had a chance to sharpen their own science communication skills as well. For instance, I-MRSEC faculty and students visited the school and via hands-on activities, demonstrations, and presentations, taught the students about material science and the star of the show, magnetism. Plus, during Franklin's visit to MRL, research scientists introduced the students to some of MRL's high-tech equipment used in materials research.

A Magnadoodle. (Image courtesy of Amazon.com)

For example, presenting about materials early in the curriculum was Materials Science and Engineering Professor Pinshane Huang, who calls herself an atom photographer and uses very expensive, several-million-dollar electron microscopes able to see single atoms within materials. Huang indicates that the goal of her presentation was to give the students an idea of what materials are and how a material scientist might operate. “So the things that we care about,” she explains, “are the structure of materials, their properties, how you process them to change those properties, or how you might apply that.”

During her presentation, Huang addressed all of those things in the context of materials meant for outer space, looking at, “What kind of materials that are special do you have to design to do that?” and “Why can't our normal materials just be sent into space and operate the same way?” So at the beginning of the session, she did videos and activities to introduce those different ideas; then at the end, she showed off some exciting modern materials with unusual properties.

Another fun, hands-on activity that taught the students a lot about magnetism was taking apart a magnadoodle to see how it works. According to Nadya Mason, taking apart the magnetic toy was one of the highlights for the students.

Adam Kruse (right) records an eighth grader as he performs the rap he and his teammate wrote about magnetism as part of I-MRSEC's curriculum.

“They were so excited about ripping it apart and looking at the inside and testing it and figuring out what it did,”she shares, then goes on to share about the benefits of the multidisciplinary emphasis of the curriculum:

“I think having [the magnadoodle activity] in the same class period where they have music and songs and lectures about technology and taking things apart, it combines everything in a really fun way so it's no longer just some dry science lecture that they have to learn, but something that's actually incorporated in fun ways into their lives.”

Key in teaching the music components of the curriculum were Music Assistant Professor Adam Kruse and three of his students, who visited the school several times to help students write their music. They were also on hand to help with the recording, did the mixing, and helped during the final presentation of the raps on March 8.

Jamie Roundtree explaining to a Franklin STEAM Academy class how they can use Hip Hop to communicate science.

Pishane Huang discusses the impact of extreme cold on materials, as a Franklin STEAM Academy eighth grader helps with a demonstration by dunking a rose into liquid nitrogen.

A highlight of the curriculum was the February 25th visit to MRL (the Materials Research Lab), home of I-MRSEC, where eighth graders experienced some high-tech science, such as a scanning electron microscope, dynamical mechanical analysis, x-ray diffraction, the cleanroom, and even virtual reality.

In addition to the demonstrations, hands-on activities, and tours, students also learned some science as a result of creating their rap. First they decided what their rap would be about by choosing from among a suggested list of topics related to magnetism, including refrigerator magnets, hard drives, SQUID magnetometers, cow magnets, MRIs, compasses, generators, electrical motors, lifting/sorting, credit cards, Magna-doodles, magnetic stirrers, speakers, microphones, mag lev trains, and wind turbines. Then they did their own research to learn more about how their chosen topic works, and to make a “word bank,” which they would find useful when rhyming.

Also, in addition to teaching the youth about science, the multidisciplinary curriculum also helped them hone their communication skills and prepare for writing their rap by emphasizing aspects of English Language Arts, such as rhyming and figurative language, as well as components of music, such as meter and rhythms.

Another unique lesson was presented by Champaign Unit 4’s Director of Elementary Teaching and Learning, Jamie Roundtree. Formerly a hip hop artist, Roundtree, as an educator, believes hip hop can be used to connect with kids: “It creates spaces where they're learning academics and builds bridges and connections,” he explains, further claiming that if educators can identify with their students’ stuff (music, rap), the kids might identify with their stuff (academics, learning about science). “So if you can find value and show value for what students value, then they are going to find value in the things you are asking them to value.”  

Two eighth graders perform their rap in front of the class and other visitors during the March 8th final event, the last day of the curriculum. (Image courtesy of Pamela Pena-Martin.)

The pièce de résistance of Musical Magnetism was its March 8th final event where students presented their creations. However, while some of the more intrepid students were willing to present their raps live in front of an audience of students, teachers, and I-MRSEC folks, others were somewhat nervous about doing so. So the day before, Adam Kruse brought his recording equipment to the school so he and some of his students could record the students' raps, which added still another dimension to some of the students’ experiences—what it’s like to record in a recording studio.

Regarding the rewards of working with middle school students, Pinshane Huang, calls outreach activities like Musical Magnetism one of the best parts of her job.

“We get to interact with young students who get really excited about getting into science, and it's really important to talk to students when they're still excited and deciding what they want to do later in their careers.”

MRL research scientist Honghui Zhou leads a Franklin STEAM Academy student in an activity during the students' visit to MRL

Franklin STEAM Academy students try out some of MRL's equipment during their recent visit.

Huang, who teaches a course introducing incoming freshmen to materials science and engineering is excited about recruiting students early, before they’ve decided on a career path. “They come in, and have this wonderful energy. They're so excited about learning about how materials shape our world.” But she says that when students don't hear about materials science until they are in college and have already declared another major, it’s too late. That’s why she’s excited about the Musical Magnetism project, which exposes students to her field early on. “This is a really great opportunity to recruit that next generation of people who will be coming to the University of Illinois and being trained as our next generation of materials scientists.” 

An eighth grader experiences virtual reality during the students' visit to MRL.

Also crucial to the program's success were key Franklin educators who envisioned what kind of impact partnering with I-MRSEC to develop a multi-disciplinary program could have on Franklin students. For example, one key player was Zanne Newman, the school's Magnet Site Coordinator who first connected with I-MRSEC and helped make the project happen. She organized meetings between I-MRSEC and Franklin teachers and also visited I-MRSEC to help plan the activities.

Newman discusses the impact the currciulum had on the Franklin students.

I-MRSEC PI Nadya Mason chats with Franklin students about MRL during their visit to MRL.

MRL Postdoc James Lee interacts with Franklin students during an X-ray diffraction activity he led during their visit to MRL.

"I have been so impressed by our students' new knowledge through this project. They got to work with scientists and musicians to learn about both magnetism and hip hop. A greatly engaging combination for 8th graders. The field trip we got to take to MRL was an amazing and eye-opening experience for all of us. We are so thankful for this opportunity for Franklin STEAM Academy through I-MRSEC."

Regarding the program’s impact on her students, Principal Sarah Saunders says one indicator is that the kids had been talking about the project. Regarding the excitement of some of their 8th graders, whom she calls “too cool for school sometimes,” she shares that it’s been great to “watch their faces just zone in and attach themselves to these demos, and volunteering, and this information. It just warms my heart!”

In regards to Musical Magnetism being a multidisciplinary program, Saunders shares that it fits perfectly with her school’s STEAM focus. Formerly Franklin Middle School, Franklin STEAM Academy became a magnet school focused on STEAM in 2017, and the principal reports that one of the main goals of their STEAM grant was to “connect education to each other within school and outside of school and to make education and learning relevant to our students. That's what it's all about, right?” She reports that they’ve done several multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary units at this point because of STEAM. “Because now we have this blessing with this funding, then we're able to do more and our kids are able to see the connections more.”

She adds that once her students see the connection and know it's not just silos of instruction, it all ties together more for them. Regarding projects that incorporate arts, like Musical Magnetism, she claims,“It was really important for us to put the A in STEAM and not just have it be STEM. It’s really intensified their experience.”

The principal believes emphasizing arts is important because they have some “gifted and talented musicians and artists and thinkers and visionaries at their school. I think society doesn't always think that when they think of middle school or preadolescence or adolescence, and they are just amazing beings that are going to shape our future. So bringing in arts and music and hip hop has been that edge.”

She adds that the traditional silo approach to education doesn’t usually connect science and the arts.

“We're thinking outside the box, and our staff has been just incredible. They have been risk takers; they have been collaborators, and they are really the reason that things like this are happening in our building because they are totally open, and they're amazing. And because of that, our kids are open and our kids are able to experience things like this and partnerships like these.”

Is there any potential for having these raps used down the road, perhaps in other scenarios, so other schools and teachers might be able to incorporate them into their science instruction?

“Oh, we’d love to!” I-MRSEC's PI Nadya Mason acknowledges. “We would love to have them performed; we would love to have them uploaded onto YouTube; we’d love to continue to do this every year and have a series of raps about different science topics that the students create.”

According to Mason, the goal of all of its outreach programs is not just “a one-time, one-shot, we’re-going-to-try-this-and-then-we’re-going-to-be-done thing. The goal was to have pilot programs like this curriculum, plus the film series, plus other things, in order to “see what works, what really engages students, what do they remember at the end?”

She says the idea is to evaluate the different programs to see what is most effective, and then based on that, to make each of them better.

“We can fix it, and change it, and optimize it for the best educational experience for the students, the best experience for the teachers, for the students here and the staff who take part in it. So the goal is, at the end, as a part of this grant, to have a bunch of programs like this that are really effective that we can bring to different schools that have products at the end which are things like raps and curricula…and students who want to keep learning in science.”

Story by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative. Photos by Elizabeth Innes, unless noted otherwise.

For more I-STEM web articles about I-MRSEC, see:

More: 6-8 Outreach, I-MRSEC, 2019


Pishane Huang (right) heats a tile with a blow torch to illustrate how certain materials designed to clad the outside of space vehicles are impervious to high temperatures.
Above: Nadya Mason (right) watches as a student helps with a magnetism demo. (Image courtesy of Pamela Pena-Martin.)

MRL research engineer Tao Shang explains to Franklin students the importance of MRL's cleanroom to researchers.