How the Hip Hop Scientist empowers minority students in STEM
How can science communicators rise above the noise and connect with large audiences on social media? For Maynard Okereke, founder of Hip Hop Science, forging a better connection between science and the arts is key │3 minute read
“I look up to people like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson,” Okereke told The Brilliant. “But it’s been a long time since we’ve had an impactful educational science platform that reaches a large global audience. That’s something I’m really trying to do with my hip-hop scientific platform.”
Okereke is part of a new generation of science communicators who aren’t waiting for mainstream media or universities to play catch up. Instead, they’re investing in and launching their own communication channels.
Like peers such as Alie Ward, Natalia Reagan and Vanessa Hill, Okereke was drawn to both science and the arts as a child. He particularly loved producing videos and being in front of the camera. But it wasn’t easy to pursue both passions early on in his career.
Okereke was raised by a Cameroonian Mother and Nigerian Father and spent his early childhood in Cameroon before moving to the United States as a first-generation American. “I came with my parents’ African mentality, which was the expectation that you are going to be an engineer, lawyer or a doctor,” Okereke told The Brilliant. “I never thought of my entertainment pursuits as feasible things that I could pursue.”
So, he completed an engineering degree at the University of Washington in Seattle and started working as an engineer.
Finding his authentic self
While Okereke loved his job, after hours he was also indulging his passion for entertainment. “I was acting, I was working on music, I was working as an artist, and I was getting heavily involved in a lot of the creative elements that I’d always wanted to do, but I was doing them kind of as a pastime,” he says.
After a couple of years of juggling his full-time job and part-time passion, Okereke made the choice to pursue the arts. He moved to Los Angeles, where he worked on commercials, movies, short films, sketch comedy and writing music. But he realised he was still a “science nerd” at heart.
“I was always that guy who would randomly talk about crazy science subjects in probably inappropriate situations, where people would be like, ‘How do you know this?’” he recalls.
Okereke conjured up the character of the Hip Hop MD, which he saw as a reflection of himself. “He’s a kind of awkward nerd, who was in entertainment, but was completely immersed in this love for science and wanting to explain different science topics and curious about nature and the world around them,” as Okereke puts it.
In 2017, Okereke launched his Hip Hop Science platform. He uses pop culture, music, entertainment and comedy, to educate audiences on different science subjects, with a focus of encouraging minority and youth involvement in STEM. His approach is engaging and approachable, but he doesn’t shy away from explaining things that are complex or technical. In his video, ‘What Happened to Bobby Shmurda’s Hat?’, for example, he uses rap to explain concepts in maths, atmospheric science and physics. He now has over 14,000 followers on Instagram, has received the Asteroid Award from Skeptoid Media for Best Streaming Content and was featured in Scientific American Magazine.
As African American students, especially, we feel that we have to be one thing or the other,” says Okereke. “What I try to showcase, by representation, is myself as an African American, who is doing this work in these fields, showing that you can be interested in all sorts of different areas – pop culture, fashion, dance and music – and still have a love for the science. You can be multifaceted, you can have an interest in all sorts of different spaces, and still be authentically your true soul.”
The importance of representation, particularly at a time when African American students are graduating in STEM fields in proportionally low numbers, are strong motivators for Okereke.
“My goal is to focus on underrepresented youth, and youth that come from diverse Black and brown communities, because that’s a direct reflection of myself and something that I’m passionate about. That’s something that I directly connect with, because I had that same experience while I was pursuing STEM,” he says. “By the time I was working as an engineer, I was only one of a few who looked like me at my company.”
Okereke cites social media movements such as Black Birders Week, Black in Neuro, and Black in Outdoors as crucial in helping young Black scientists and science communicators find each other and build community. He’s active, too, as a co-organiser of the STEM Success Summit – an annual virtual aimed at empowering young STEM professionals – for the same reason.
“That’s so important for young individuals who are pursuing STEM, or who are already in these fields, to be able to see that there are others like them in these environments,” he says. “It keeps them motivated, it keeps them empowered and it encourages them to continue doing the work that they’re doing.”
Another shift that Okereke has welcomed and fostered is the integration of the arts into STEM education. “Creativity drives a lot of what we do in science – the ability to think outside the box,” he says. “Being able to incorporate that artistic and creative element in science communication is so important, because we have to be able to use social media and different platforms to connect with people, so that they not only understand the material, but also get excited about it, and want to participate,” he says.
Okereke can see that it’s working. He’s been contacted by parents from around the world who say that his content is helping them engage their children with science. Okereke is also collaborating with museums and science organisations on workshops and outreach activities, and hopes to work with a production company to develop Hip Hop Science into a major television program.
“The earlier that we can get students excited about STEM, the better,” he says, “because they’re able to see the connection in their day-to-day lives, and can start implementing things in their own environments and in their own communities to keep them engaged and invested in pursuing those fields.”
Article by Kylie Ahern
Photo Credit: Photo supplied
Originally published by The Brilliant.