Newly-minted Doctor Mixing Hip-hop and Science

by Lois Elfman

NEW YORK — For Dr. Christopher Emdin, watching his former student, Edmund Adjapong, receive his doctoral hood from Teachers College in a ceremony Wednesday was one of the most rewarding moments of his life. The two men share a love of science, teaching and finding innovative ways to engage students of color by using hip-hop and urban culture to forge a connection to the subject matter.

Dr. Christopher Emdin (left), Dr. Edmund Adjapong (center) and Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, who received the Medal for Distinguished Service, celebrate on Wednesday.

Currently, a sixth-grade science teacher in the same Bronx, New York neighborhood where he grew up, Adjapong had an early love for science, but negative and dismissive behavior from a middle school science teacher made him push it out of his consciousness. As he detailed in his doctoral dissertation, “Bridging Theory and Practice: Using Hip-Hop Pedagogy as a Culturally Relevant Approach in the Urban Science Classroom,” being in Emdin’s science class in ninth grade reconnected him to the subject.

“He [Emdin] brought science alive for me utilizing hip-hop concepts and bringing hip-hop culture within the classroom,” Adjapong said. “I got to see myself as a scientist, really become engaged and gain the confidence that I could pursue a career in science.”

Emdin transformed abstract concepts into material the students embraced by using creative approaches and showing his students intellectual respect. Adjapong saw himself in the subject matter. It was a class where he and his classmates could be themselves and engage with each other as part of the learning process.

Now an associate professor of science education at Teachers College, Columbia University, Emdin spent a decade teaching in New York City public schools. He experimented with his teaching techniques, initially not knowing how it would impact his students.

Clearly, his concepts worked and Adjapong’s interest in pursuing science in college was cemented. Originally intending to earn a degree in pharmacy, Adjapong switched in his junior year of college and decided to become a teacher.

“I wanted to change the experiences of people just like me in my community and encourage them that they can become scientists and they can engage in science if they so choose,” said Adjapong.

In his classes, Adjapong looks at the five elements of hip-hop: deejaying, emceeing, break dancing, graffiti/visual arts and knowledge of self, noting that students engage in these elements consciously and subconsciously outside of school. He connects these elements to teaching practices, and uses that to connect his students to science.

“The students also curate playlists that we play during independent and group work activities,” he noted. “Students do a lot of visual graffiti art pieces that demonstrate their understanding of science concepts. I’m trying to figure out how to engage students more using…

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