In the YouTube clip Rosalind Franklin vs. Watson & Crick, brilliant students dramatize how James Watson and Francis Crick received the Nobel prize for their breakthrough by using the stolen images of female scientist Rosalind Franklin. Only in recent years has Franklin received widespread credit for being central to determining the double helix shape of our genetic molecules.
These seventh graders from Oakland’s KIPP Bridge Charter School have stepped in to help set the record straight. Working with teacher Tom McFadden, who specializes in using rap to bring science to life, these tweens delve into the intrigue generated by British scientists Watson, Crick and their friend Maurice Wilkins.
Wilkins notoriously snatched Franklin’s critical research while she was working under him, and showed it to his male buddies. After Franklin had done all of the heavy lifting and made key determinations, the three men made their conclusions using her work and beat Franklin to publishing her findings — some say because of Wilkins’ direct sabotage.
Students shine a light on history
Watson, Crick and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering the molecular structure of DNA four years after Franklin’s death from Ovarian cancer in 1962. Unfortunately, the Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously.
As dark as these themes are, the students of KIPP Bridge Charter School bring lightness and humor to the story by taking the modern storytelling tool of hip-hop and infusing it with the details of science and history.
“The Watson and Crick rappers use Kanye West’s single ‘Clique’ featuring Big Sean and Jay Z, while the student playing Franklin borrows Gwen Stefani’s ’Hollaback Girl,’” according to EUR Web.
In this way, Rosalind Franklin comes “back from the dead,” as she raps in the video, to reclaim her rightful place as a key co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. “That’s my pic, that’s my pic,” she sings about her X-ray photo that Watson and Crick misappropriated.
Although they are the villains of the story, the students who play Watson and Crick have to get some credit for cleverly detailing the chemistry of DNA in their delivery — while name checking rap star 2 Chainz!
Rap in the classroom: Is it right?
One can’t help but bounce along to this entertaining video that marries science and history class, as well as providing a thought-provoking example of how sexism sabotages careers. Yet, these types of projects are not without their controversy.
“Hip-hop education is still in its infancy, and it’s gotten some resistance; teachers are hesitant to set aside class time for experimental programs,” reports NPR on this trend. Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S. (Bring Attention to Transforming Teaching, Learning and Engagement in Science) is a similar program.
Tom McFadden does not allow naysayers of this method to stop him.
“When you incorporate these stories, it allows you not only to make the scientific information much more fun to digest,” he told NPR. “It allows you to discuss scientific process.”
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.