As science teacher Henry Oston queued up the backing track on a nearby laptop, eighth-grader Tahj Cargle motioned for his three friends standing behind him -- Eric Kelly, Jamaal Ward and Jamichael Wilson -- to join him at the front.
The four Dalewood Middle School students comprise the rap group Re-Generation, and Wednesday afternoon they were performing for the seventh-grade students at their end-of-the-year awards ceremony in the school's media center. The group has gained some fame of late, appearing on local radio and winning a regional competition at Chattanooga State Community College. But it's not slick production or ridiculous rhymes that's getting the group recognized. It's the content.
Tahj goes first. Expectations hang thick in the air among the scrutinizing seventh-grade audience. The first curve Tahj throws is his soft, high R&B croon. Then comes the second.
"This is our science rap/this the one you've been waiting for," he sings. "Listen to us now/we finna kill it/and we going hard."
Then Jamaal, Eric and Jamichael each take turns, flowing fast and assured as they break down periodic elements, natural selection and genetic variation.
"I'm thinkin' 'bout science/it takes concentration/with internal-external fertilization," Jamichael says. "Asexual reproduction consists of one parent/it's the opposite of sexual now let's compare it/sexual reproduction needs eggs and sperm/while the other makes many in only a short term."
Re-Generation grew out of a program called Science Genius that Oston implemented in his science classes at the beginning of this year. Oston found that a lot of his students weren't engaging with the content, so he tried to meet students on their level, trying things like "flocabulary," where he and his students rap words and their definitions back and forth.
"I've always tried to incorporate rap into teaching," Oston said.
Then he discovered Science Genius, a program developed by Dr. Chris Emdin, a professor at the Teacher's College of Columbia University. Emdin created the program for students in "under-resourced and under-performing schools" to change students' perception of the science, technology, engineering and math disciplines.
"STEM is always perceived as something that's just for the best and brightest," Emdin said. "This is the opportunity to combine those skills with something they're good at. If it's different and strikes the kid in the heart, that's where magic happens."
The program calls for participating schools to design raps over their choice of five different hip-hop instrumentals, and the raps have to cover topics that align with state standards. Oston has incorporated the program into his science lessons, beginning each class with flocabulary, conducting his lesson, then turning students loose to work on their raps. The final part of the class consists of mini rap battles, which Oston grades against a rubric, checking for substance more than style.
"I'll call them on it if it's incorrect," Oston said. "I'll tell them, 'Hey, this doesn't make sense.'"
The new take on learning has paid off for the members of Re-Generation, in more ways than one. Besides a free trip to New York City to compete in the NYC Science Genius Battle in June, it has sparked an interest in science that most of them didn't have before. And, all of the boys said the program definitely helped them on the TCAP test they recently took.
"I was always confusing assistive and adaptive technology, but I thought about the rap in my head and got the answer," Jamichael said.
Dalewood principal Christian Earl said the program and the positive attention have given the students a focus he hadn't seen before.
"It's motivation for them, and it's lifted the community," Earl said. "It's given everyone a good sense of pride."
Contact Will Healey at email@example.com or 423-757-6731.