One of the many pleasures of my job is bumping into other Americans doing interesting things here in New Zealand. Perhaps my most unique new American acquaintance is Tom McFadden, whom I met last year when he came to Otago University as a Fulbright scholar to pursue a Master’s degree in science communication. Known around the ‘hood as The Rhymebosome or the Science Rapper, Tom certainly has a special way of talking about things like cell differentiation and organic chemistry.
An instructor in human biology at Stanford University before being awarded the Fulbright, Tom is passionate about stimulating interest and enthusiasm in science, particularly with students not naturally drawn to the subject. Conveying his course material in rap form was an experiment in focusing attention and improving recall, and it worked exceedingly well according to his former students, some of whom were known to tap their feet, rock side to side, and mumble rhymes during examinations.
And that’s a useful lesson for all of us. Science is all about understanding ourselves and the dynamic world around us. Even for those of us not in university or pursuing careers in science, understanding various science topics including things like anatomy, nutrition, biology, and technology can extend our lives and make our time on Earth much more happy and rewarding. In addition, understanding scientific method and basic concepts will make us more informed voters and citizens, less likely to be hoodwinked by fear-mongers and political tricksters.
For those reasons and others, I believe that credible science education should be a top priority for every student. Too often, though, traditional curricula kick the life out of science and turn students off. That’s why jazzed-up, over-caffeinated, non-traditional sci-high folks like Tom are so important.
Only those with their own passion for science can infuse the life and energy back into the subject for the rest of us. Only those who view science as a big shiny wild pile of games, toys, puzzles, songs, dances, and curiosities can make science engaging and accessible, particularly for small children just starting to learn.
So naturally I’ve been looking for opportunities to leverage Tom’s talents. Fortunately, he decided to stay on for another year in Dunedin after his Fulbright scholarship ended in order to complete his degree.
The extra time has allowed us to arrange and schedule a tour of primary and intermediate schools in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin this month, during which Tom will teach a variety of science topics to kids using music and rap.
While on tour, Tom will also be promoting “Science Idol,” which challenges students to write and perform their own songs with science themes, culminating in a competition at the International Science Festival in Dunedin.
I’ve been polishing up my own rap about the characteristics of heterocyclic molecules, set to Dr Dre’s “Nuthin but a G Thang,” but Tom tells me that I’m over the age limit.
That’s fine. It’s probably best for everyone if I’m in the audience rather than on stage. Tom’s the performer. I’ve heard him rap a few times, and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing him again while he’s on tour. If you get the chance to attend a performance or class of his, I bet you’ll enjoy the experience as well.
If you are interested in hearing more about Tom and his work, take a look at his Facebook page or search for more of his videos on YouTube. And, of course, do share Tom’s music with the youngsters and students in your family. You and they will be glad you did. His passion and energy are infectious. In a good way.