Artists, scientists, and educators collaborated on the World of Viruses comic book, which appears in print and on the Internet.

Artists, scientists, and educators collaborated on the World of Viruses comic book, which appears in print and on the Internet.

University of Nebraska press

Here's what happens when you combine science with hip hop, comic books, and zombies

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA—Remember when the first life was cells in soup? Now they’re everywhere from my brain to the chicken coop. Those were lyrics a middle school science teacher threw down at “Comics, Zombies, and Hip-Hop,“ a session today at the annual meeting of AAAS (which publishes Science). 

The teacher, Tom McFadden of the Nueva School in Hillsborough, California, explained how he builds enthusiasm for science by having his students write hip hop lyrics and then make videos. In a packed room at the meeting, he danced through an evolution song his students wrote, “This is How Life Builds from 3.5 ’Til,”—a send up of hip hop act Souls of Mischief’s “’93 ’Til Infinity.” McFadden chanted:

So there’s this is little theory, some people fear it,

But if you want to know the history of life, you gotta hear it.

McFadden, who had the audience rap with him, says students are always interested in music and watching YouTube videos. “As a teacher you’re always trying to connect with students,” says McFadden, who says he has a lot of love and respect for hip hop himself. “If that’s common ground for you, that’s the common ground.”

In another presentation, Judy Diamond, a curator at the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln, explained how she has led a project that used comics to engage kids in science. In the book World of Viruses, which exists both in print and in an interactive incarnation, students meet viruses portrayed as a buxom vixen (human papilloma), thuggy prisoners (foot and mouth), and a green monster (emiliania huxleyi). In one sketch, different viruses flag down taxis.

“OK virus, where to?” asks the cabbie. The feet, says one. The hands, says another. The genitals, says a third. “OK, mind if I tag along and watch?” the cabbie asks.

A third presenter, Julius Diaz Panoriñgan, described a game called zombie tag that he uses to teach science at 826LA, a nonprofit that offers after-school writing and tutoring lessons in Los Angeles, California. Students run around and try to put stickers on each other to spread a “zombie” pathogen. “Some students naturally figured out that, ‘Hey, if I isolate myself I’m not going to get infected with zombie-ism—or measles or whatever,’ ” Panoriñgan says. He adds that there are a lot of connections between zombies and the science, technology, engineering, and math agenda. “By the end of it, students just want to do it more and more.”

At the session, audience members had a chance to write hip hop songs about the definition of life, which several performed at the end, including one who broke it down like this:

Cells are a molecule, live in every thang

When you think about what goes on, it is just insane.

The session ended with some mad props to all the presenters.

Check out our full coverage of the AAAS annual meeting.

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