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Beats, Beakers, and Sneakers

How hip-hop culture can get students excited about chemistry

By Jakyra Simpson

Fall 2023

When I was an undergraduate, I struggled in my chemistry classes because the pedagogical approach failed to engage me. Course materials were not inclusive and, as a Black woman of Filipino descent, I felt that they did not represent me or my culture. I rarely saw images of Black chemists in my textbooks, and classes did not incorporate the stories of scientists like Elmo Brady, the first Black American to earn a doctorate in chemistry. In addition, because few of my peers or professors were Black, I often felt as if I did not belong in these classrooms—making it that much harder for me to succeed.

Unfortunately, my experiences are not unique. Many Black students report feeling out of place or unwelcome both in chemistry classes and, more broadly, in the STEM fields. In fact, a 2019 Educational Researcher study of undergraduates showed that 40 percent of Black students switched out of STEM majors, compared to 29 percent of White students. To keep Black students in fields like chemistry—and to attract more Black students in the first place—as educators, we must look for innovative and culturally relevant ways to teach chemistry. Linking science and hip-hop culture, for instance, is one way to do this. In addition, incorporating hip-hop into my chemistry pedagogy not only helps Black students connect better to the science, it also draws in students of all backgrounds and helps them see how science is relevant to their lives.

I was inspired to use hip-hop in my teaching by the groundbreaking work of two Black educators: Sibrina Collins, executive director of Lawrence Technological University’s Marburger STEM Center, and Christopher Emdin, the Robert Naslund Endowed Chair in Curriculum and Teaching at the University of Southern California.

In two papers published respectively in the Journal of Chemical Education and in Chemical Educator, Collins describes using the popular Black Panther movie as a teaching vehicle to engage students and highlight diversity in STEM fields and careers. The film takes place in Wakanda, a technologically advanced fictional African country, and features Black scientists as its heroes. Collins developed hands-on classroom activities that use the fictional element Vibranium from the movie to teach chemistry. In one activity, students prepared compounds of copper and cobalt in a solution, called an inorganic complex, with the goal of replicating the vivid bluish-purple color of Vibranium. Afterward, Collins explained to students why the dramatic color change occurs. She found that including pop culture references in the chemistry curriculum resulted in a stronger relationship between students and instructors and better learning outcomes.

In a similar approach, Emdin collaborated with rapper GZA and the popular hip-hop lyrics website Rap Genius on a pilot project that uses hip-hop to teach science in ten New York City public schools. Among other goals, the project aims to change the way city teachers relate to racially minoritized students. Emdin believes that the use of hip-hop is more effective than the traditional approach of an instructor speaking while students passively listen.

Instead, Emdin uses a “cypher” in which participants stand in a circle and take turns rapping about different scientific topics, often playing off one another’s rhymes. Students also write rhymes in lieu of papers; GZA selects the best rhymes, which then appear on the Rap Genius website. Emdin has said that participating students now see that science is within their reach.

Building on the work of Collins and Emdin, I have created a pedagogical approach that uses hip-hop and Sneaker culture to teach chemistry. While many people associate hip-hop culture with music, art, and dance, it also has a significant relationship with the fashion industry. Sneaker culture, also known as “shoe game,” is a subculture centered on a passion for footwear and the stories, history, and hype behind them. It’s a continuously growing community of people who wear, trade, and collect sneakers as a form of self-expression and personal style. There’s long been a connection between hip-hop and sneakers. Rappers write songs about sneakers and fans want to buy, own, and wear the same shoes as their favorite rappers.

As someone who loves both shoe game and hip-hop, I realized I could use them to offer a culturally relevant way to teach chemistry. Guided by my personal experiences and by popular trends, I developed a workshop that features hands-on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) activities that highlight the chemistry of sneakers. Ten to fifteen students, the majority of whom are from historically marginalized communities, participate in each workshop. My STEAM sneaker art workshops take a simple but fun and effective approach.

To begin the workshop, I play a snippet of hip-hop, such as a rap by artist Nelly in which he mentions Nike Air Force 1 sneakers. Next, I discuss the various general, polymer, and material components found in those sneakers. My workshops also include chemistry demonstrations to illustrate my points. Finally, students design and create their own custom STEAM sneaker artwork.

Although I have only implemented my approach five or six times over the course of one year, the results so far are impressive. In qualitative follow-up surveys, racially minoritized students have said that the use of hip-hop and Sneaker culture makes them feel that their culture is represented in the chemistry classroom. Many students also responded that they liked science more by the end of the workshop. Other respondents said that the workshop helped them form new interdisciplinary connections between science and the arts. Although it’s too soon to measure the long-term effects of the workshop, one student recently emailed me to say that participating in the workshop led her to choose chemistry as her professional path.

A volunteer helps students prepare artwork. (Lauren Wilson)

I realize that hip-hop and Sneaker culture are not the right fit for every chemistry class or chemistry teacher, but there are countless other ways to use popular culture to make science more relevant to a more diverse range of students. Curiosity and openness to new approaches can help teachers find the right approach for their classrooms. Based on my experiences, I have learned three key lessons to keep in mind when implementing innovative ways to teach science:

  • First, meet students where they are. Pay attention to what your students are listening to and watching and relate that to what you’re teaching. For instance, I noticed that my students were often rapping or humming along to hip-hop music on their phones before class. After I heard some students listening to a rap by Drake, I created a workshop based on the chemistry of the Jumpman23 sneakers mentioned in one of his songs. Here’s another example: instructors can use the popular Barbie movie to creatively introduce students to polymer chemistry—polymers are found in Barbies and other dolls. Talk with your students to learn what they enjoy, and invite them to propose or pitch lesson topics. This empowers students and gets them more involved with their own education.
  • Second, do your research. To form stronger connections with your students, immerse yourself in current popular culture—listen to their music and watch the movies and shows your students love. Scrolling through social media sites and reading magazines, open educational resources, and other forms of media outside of traditional educational platforms can also help you find fresh ways to diversify your pedagogical approach.
  • Third, add your personal razzle-dazzle. Incorporating aspects of your personal culture can help your students relate to and identify with you. For instance, my favorite rap artist is J. Cole—he also has a sneaker line. I played one of his songs in class and then spoke about the chemicals used in his shoes. Sharing our personal interests also paves the way for students to feel more comfortable sharing their passions and aspects of their identity.

Regardless of the exact approach a given instructor takes, inquiry-based, student-centered, active-learning strategies can engage students from a wide variety of backgrounds. By implementing more effective, creative, and accessible pedagogy, we can make both chemistry and science education more inclusive for all students.

Lead photo: Jakyra Simpson connects chemistry to pop culture. (Lauren Wilson)


  • Jakyra Simpson

    Jakyra Simpson is a recent graduate of Indiana University Bloomington with a master’s in chemistry.