Christopher Emdin found his eyelids drooping and his mind wandering one day while doing research for one of his six academic degrees.
"The only thing I could think of to wake up was the right song," Emdin told students at the Salt Lake Center for Science Education on Wednesday. So he cranked Rick Ross' rap hit "Hustlin'" and found the motivation he needed to keep working.
"I'm like, 'Yo, I'm about to hustle too,' so I started hustling in my science," Emdin said.
The song, of course, wasn't about science, but Emdin cited it as an example of how science and hip hop can connect. Emdin, an education professor at New York City's Columbia University, is visiting schools across Salt Lake City this week, trying to get teens excited about science by showing them how it relates to rap, break dancing, graffiti art (the legal kind), DJing and MCing in short, hip hop culture.
"Hip hop gets a bad rap, pun intended," said Emdin, who teaches a class at Columbia about hip hop and science education, "but for us to be able to look at a phenomenon created by young people and see it as an asset instead of a detriment, that's really important."
At first, the audience of teens at the Salt Lake City charter school in which nearly half the kids are minorities and half come from low-income families seemed wary Wednesday morning. Was Emdin just another adult pretending to be cool, trying too hard to relate and awkwardly misusing slang?
But within a couple minutes, the teens warmed up, laughing at Emdin's jokes, cheering at his freestyle rapping and to their surprise, his correct use of terms like "swag" "B-boy" and "ill."
Emdin explained that, like rappers, successful scientists have "swag" or a certain style and attitude. Look at Einstein's hair and outrageous ideas, he said. He also told the teens that, like rappers, scientists have keen powers of observation. He asked senior Anthony Fierro, who goes by the hip-hop name B-boy Alien, to join him onstage to demonstrate moves and explain hip hop values.
Emdin asked Fierro, who wore a white cap and a T-shirt bearing the name of his break dance crew, to do the wave a smooth, flowing movement of his arms. Emdin then analyzed the wave in scientific terms.
"The wave is actually how sound waves travel," Emdin told the teens, going on to explain crests and troughs. "Did you know that what Anthony did is actually incorporating a little bit of science into a little bit of hip hop?"
After Emdin's presentation, a number of teens said they related to his message.
"I thought it was really cool and it was amazing how he mixed hip hop with science," said sophomore Isaac Jones. "That was something I never really thought about until today. That made me look at science in a completely new way."
Senior Mary Christensen said Emdin seemed to genuinely know what he was talking about when it came to science and hip hop.
"A lot of times people say, 'Oh yeah, I'm a hip hop guy,' but actually, they're nerdy," Christensen said. "This guy was actually kind of cool."
Universities and the Utah Education Network brought Emdin to Utah this week to discuss his work as part of their collaboration on a water research project that also aims to increase understanding of science, technology, engineering and math.
"People think science is this scary thing," said Laura Hunter, director of instructional services at UEN. "We're trying to show it bridges all cultures."
After Emdin's presentation, he took questions from the teens, who later lined up to take pictures with him. Questions included science inquiries, but students also didn't forget to quiz Emdin about his hip hop preferences.
"Tupac or Biggie?" one student asked from the audience, referring to two legendary 1990s rappers.
"That's a tough question, man," Emdin replied, "but I'm from Brooklyn so I have to go with Biggie."
"That's like saying Einstein or Newton," he added.