Hook kids into science with music: “Songs from the science frontier”

by Stephanie Chasteen on March 25, 2011

I was just sent a charming CD to review — an album of music for elementary and middle-school age  kids about science by children’s songster Monty Harper.  This is an interesting album because it’s not just about the standard stuff — stars, rockets, DNA, dinosaurs (well, there is a dinosaur on there) but his songs are actually inspired by the work of current scientists, like work on pest-resistant wheat, or bacterial biofilms.  That’s got a good side and a bad side — the good side is that the album is really true to what science really is, in a way that most kids’ albums aren’t.  It’s not just about the cool/wow factor, but the strong, pervasive theme is that scientists are curious about the world, trying to figure things out, and solving real problems.  “Science frontier” is an apt name — Monty is trying to get across that science is a living, breathing, evolving thing, with plenty of questions left unanswered.  I particularly liked the song “Ain’t it Beautiful”, about how farmers work with nature to grow crops, and scientists work with farmers to feed the earth.  But my real favorite was “Super Scientist” (and thank you, Monty, for making the ‘super scientist’ a “she”!) — the image of scientists as curious and devoted and working to improve the world is welcome — and much more inspirational for young folk than the standard “hey, cool” factor that is often played up.

But I did say there was a downside to focusing on cutting-edge research, and the downside is that there is quite a bit of vocabulary in the songs that is beyond the level of kids of the age level to which this album seems pitched.  There is a bit of a mismatch in terms of the down-to-earth, fun tone and the use of high-falutin’ words like ‘microscopy.’  I imagine the aim was to make kids curious to look up the words and learn something more, which I hope would be the case, but I wasn’t sure why the vocabulary was necessary all the time.  Couldn’t some of it have been described with metaphors or analogies rather than jargon?

But, really, that’s my only beef with the album.  It’s cute and fun.  If any other bloggers would like to review it, I’m sure Monty would be happy to send you a CD.

Oh, and here’s a cute picture of him.  Sorry, other geekgirls — he’s cute, but judging from one of the names on the album, I think he’s taken.  🙂

Monty’s website:  http://montyharper.com

The CD itself is on CD Baby

{ 4 comments }

Monty Harper March 25, 2011 at 5:20 pm

Hi Stephanie,

Thanks for reviewing the CD! You invited me to make a comment, and now I think I can guess why – to address the “downside” of using science jargon in my songs for young kids. Happy to! Get comfortable… 😉

I’ve been writing songs for kids since 1989 or so, and I’ve never shied away from using vocabulary. Kids love to be challenged, and I want to honor their intelligence by challenging them. Over the years I’ve developed my own guidelines for use of vocabulary, and when I took up scientific research as a topic I applied these guidelines same as always.

Basically, if I’m going to use a word kids won’t know, it either has to be directly explained in the song, or non-essential to a basic understanding of the song. In other words, I don’t mind a listener missing details, but I don’t want to completely lose them either.

For example, in “Super Scientist” I describe the scientist’s process like this: “She wants to stop them forming biofilms. To stop the biofilm she’ll block their secret signal. To block the signal she needs to know their pathway. To know the pathway, she needs to find the proteins. To find the proteins she must test a list of suspects knocking out one gene each time to form a mutant PA spy.”

I’m supporting two points with this lyric. First, that she’s trying to “fight the badguys” by stopping them from communicating. Second, that it’s a long involved process. I don’t expect my listeners to necessarily know the words biofilm, pathway, proteins, suspects, gene, or mutant PA spy.

So to test this out, I replace all the questionable words with nonsense syllables, like so…

“She wants to stop them forming Blahdeblah. To stop the Blahdeblah she’ll block their secret signal. To block the signal she needs to know their Doodah. To know the Doodah, she needs to find the Gizmos. To find the Gizmos she must test a list of Zappies knocking out one Blip each time to form a Zippy Whappy Zam.”

Even though that last line is rendered into utter gibberish, the two points I wanted to make are still very clear.

One might argue that the gibberish is off-putting and distracting, and this may prove true for some adults, but I’ve never found kids to feel that way. As long as something in a song (or book or movie, etc.) attracts their interest and keeps it, they are fearless about knitting meaning out of context, glossing over the bits they don’t understand and making something out of the bits they do. This is how they learn language to begin with!

You guessed that I’m hoping kids will get curious and look up all those words. Well, it makes me gleefully happy when they do that, and sometimes they do. However, it’s not my primary aim.

Since scientists actually use these words, putting them into the songs is part of showing what science is like. But my really big hope here is that a kid exposed to words like “proteins” and “phototaxic” in a fun song when she’s eight will then feel excited, rather than intimidated, when she runs into those words again in high school biology class.

I do throw metaphor into the mix, by the way, perhaps subtly. “Super Scientist” is structured entirely around the metaphor of scientist as super-hero, and bacterial biofilm as a gang of thugs. The “secret signal” is metaphorical shorthand for some unknown biological mechanism by which the individual bacteria seem to communicate in order to come together as a biofilm.

I’m sure as I continue writing science songs (this is my first CD of them) I’ll also gain a keener sense of exactly when to use jargon and when to use metaphor to best effect. But the feedback I’ve gotten from kids so far is that they love it. Nobody has reported any distress from exposure to big words.

Thanks for letting me blah blah blah!

P.S.

Yes, I’m happily married – sorry!

Yes, I am still sending review copies out for interested bloggers.

You’re welcome – As the father of a nine-year-old girl, I was deliriously happy to stay true to life and make the “Super Scientist” a female. Four scientists’ genders are revealed in the song lyrics – two are male, two are female, and these are the actual genders of the real scientists who inspired the songs.

sciencegeekgirl March 25, 2011 at 9:56 pm

Hey Monty,

I’m glad that you felt compelled to weigh in — as I knew you would have some thoughts on this. Children’s songwriting is not, obviously, my main area of expertise. I do like your point that you are trying to tell a story, with the authentic words as placeholders for things that kids don’t necessarily need to understand to follow the story. I could buy that. We’ve always been taught in science writing to avoid jargon, because it’s offputting and alienating. But, perhaps, it is different for adults than for children — children don’t expect to understand every word, whereas adults feel annoyed if they don’t.

Your “gibberish” sentence makes me think of the Montillation of Traxoline. Do you know this one? http://blog.mytko.org/2007/05/monotillation-of-traxoline.html
I don’t bring that up as a counter-point, but as a interesting related note. In fact, it perhaps supports your point — science as process, rather than as vocabulary, whether or not you use the authentic vocab words or not.

Again, nice work!

Monty Harper March 25, 2011 at 11:08 pm

Stephanie!

Thanks for your thoughtful response. It’s funny – in songwriting, I’ve been taught that jargon can be a great source for colorful / playful language! And yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head about why kids and adults might respond differently.

I ABSOLUTELY agree with the point made in the Traxoline article, that teaching science cannot be just about memorizing facts and definitions. That’s why I chose not to write songs that teach facts about the world (which you can find plenty of out there already), but rather songs that explore active research and celebrate the process of science, the goals of science, and the people who do science.

BTW, thanks for turning me on to Traxoline! I had no idea it was monotilled so close to my hometown. And I always thought bracteration only worked to quasel quasisemiotomes. Silly me! Perhaps there’s a song in there somewhere. 😉

sciencegeekgirl March 26, 2011 at 2:34 am

If you made a song about Traxoline, I can guarantee that a bunch of geeky educators would be all over it! The Traxoline thing is kind of a code word in our biz.

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