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Teacher Who Collected 7,000 Nerdy Science Songs Studying Their Teaching Power

Gregory Crowther
University of Washington assistant professor Greg Crowther performs in "Money 4 Drugz," a music video about funding malaria research.

Remember that biology chapter on how muscles contract? Probably not. But what if your professor had rapped it to you, or belted out the lesson to the tune of a popular song? 

That's how Greg Crowther got started on a quest to collect music that explains science. Set to the tune of '70s hit "My Sharona," Crowther's original song "Myofibrils" breaks down his lesson on muscle physiology.

Crowther played "Myofibrils" for a biology class he was teaching at the University of Puget Sound. To his surprise, he says, the students really liked it. But there were some problems.

"One, I didn't want to have to write a new song any time I covered something that seemed worth singing about. And two, I discovered there were a whole lot of other people out there, much to my surprise, who were also creating science-related songs," said Crowther, who is now at the University of Washington. 

He wanted to make those easier to find. That was back in 2004, before the dawn of YouTube, when finding songs meant sorting through a lot of CDs. Now that he’s gathered more than 7,000 songs on, Crowther wants to find out just how much they actually help students learn.

While the database is a nice resource for teachers, “I think the enthusiasm for science music has rapidly outpaced data on whether these songs are actually useful in teaching," Crowther said.

He and colleague Katie Davis have been devising studies to figure out when music can be useful, and under which circumstances a visually-engaging music video proves more effective. In a survey of about 550 mostly school-aged participants, he played music videos like "Fossil Rock Anthem":

Crowther found that the music videos helped people understand and remember scientific concepts, which they tested with pre-video and post-video quizzes. Davis presented the study at a conference this month, and has submitted the results for publication.

"I think we’ve made a pretty good demonstration that people can learn science material from these music videos," said Crowther. "But we haven’t shown that they can learn better from music than from any other modality, like just watching a video without music, for example."

Crowther's research is still in its infancy. But one thing seems clear to him: Oldies won’t always work on a younger crowd. A professor’s gotta stay hip.