Hip Hop Inspires Kids’ Interest in Science









Rachael Brady, Robi Roberts and Scott Lindroth


On Sept. 28, middle school students in two states took part in an experiment combining an artist’s images, a rapper’s music and the students’ movements.

The joint interactive performance, called MiX TAPEStry, took place in Duke’s Fitzpatrick CIEMAS studio and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Krannert Art Museum.

The name of the project plays on the “mix tapes” of hip hop culture and is part of an effort to interest middle school children in science and technology.
“The point is to not only show them cool stuff, but to show them that it isn’t rocket science. The fact that we’re using webcams makes it very accessible,” said Rachael Brady, Duke research scientist and director of the visualization technology group at the Pratt School. Watch a video of the experience.

At Duke, students spent the day in the CIEMAS studio, a windowless black box of a room developed by Brady; Scott Lindroth, chair of the music department; and systems engineer Steve Feller.

The room has computer monitors along the walls and 20 sensors wired to the ceiling. The sensors capture motion and channel it through computers to trigger sounds. The result is a room you can “play” like a musical instrument, just by moving around.

Hip hop recording artist Robi Roberts, who teaches hip hop in Duke’s music department, contributed an original rap called “Lemonade.” At the Illinois site, artwork by graphic artist John Jennings was projected on an interactive 3-D canvas.

Meanwhile, students in both locations could see the images, hear the music, communicate with each other and manipulate the resulting “tapestry” of musical and visual elements using motion sensors, webcams and the Internet.

The MiX TAPEStry Project will be repeated in April. It is being staged as part of a year-long initiative by the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), which promotes greater integration of new technology in the humanities. Duke and UIUC are members of HASTAC.

Roberts – who goes by J Bully as a rapper – is also a WXDU radio DJ. He said he’s excited about the mixing of hip hop and science.

“If these kids can find an interest in science, if it gets them interested in the practical applications, then great,” Roberts said. “I have a solid, applied understanding of these things, but if I had gone to school for it, I would be that much better at everything that I do.”