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Students 'Rap' Their Minds Around Science

September 23, 2008 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- This summer Evanston students used rap and hip-hop to teach local youngsters about speech and cell phone technology, with support from a Motorola Foundation Innovation Generation grant awarded to Northwestern University's Institute on Complex Systems (NiCO) and the Tiz Media Foundation.

Using a Tiz Media multimedia program called "MindRap," students from Evanston Township High School (ETHS) translated math and science lessons into interactive rap and hiphop for younger children from Project Excite, a partnership between Evanston Skokie School District 65, ETHS and Northwestern.

The students' "MindRap" performances and experiences were captured in a documentary, which will be completed later this fall. CDs, DVDs and streaming audio of the songs the students created will be distributed, and NICO/Tiz Media "MindRap" organizers will host an opening night to celebrate the summer collaboration's success in early 2009.

The project's success largely was the result of solid relationships formed between ETHS students recruited by Tiz Media and Northwestern researchers from NICO. The activities, overseen by the Evanston-based foundation, took place in research laboratories on Northwestern's Evanston campus.

An additional benefit: The students were exposed to cutting edge research and potential careers in science that they could not have learned about otherwise, said Tiz Media CEO Melanie West.

"Using science, storytelling, poetry and music, the students created a hip-hop song that included facts about speech and technology," West explained. "They did this by studying hard and creating a story board, which was the basis for the lesson that they used to teach younger students."

According to Janet Pierrehumbert, the Motorala grant principal investigator, Northwestern professor of linguistics and NICO's director of language, music, and communication, the ETHS students' unforgettable performances boosted the younger children's enthusiasm for science.

It was Pierrehumbert's desire to find an innovative way to teach science to youngsters that led her to Tiz Media. Co-founded by West, Tiz is dedicated to educating young students about technology and culture using music, art and hands-on learning. "Janet approached us after hearing about MindRap," said West. "We combined our creative ideas and came up with the speech and the cell phone project."

"MindRap" is the conception of West, who has built a career around finding ways to fuse education, science and multimedia. Her father, James West, co-invented the modern microphone, and West herself spent 10 years working as chief engineer of a multimedia studio at Bell Laboratories.

The collaboration between Northwestern and Tiz Media was nothing if not symbiotic. "We were really happy to have worked with them," West said. "Northwestern provided the scientific expertise and administrative structure," added Northwestern's Pierrehumbert, calling the collaboration "an absolutely equal partnership."

Pierrehumbert looks forward to other NICO/Tiz Media collaborations, and hopes to create additional "MindRaps" that cover more specific topics. Future projects seem likely.