Jay-Z, Science, and Empathy: A Lesson for Customer Engagement

Posted October 11, 2013 By Anne Dougherty

What can we learn about customer engagement from science education in the Bronx? Everything.

A recent study shows that students of color are disproportionately unrepresented in careers related to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In the Bronx alone, dropout rates are sky high and public schooling appears to be failing on its mission. While this staggering gap in achievement is likely due to a large number of factors, there are educators working to develop curriculum with the express goal of balancing this disproportion. These educators are using a truly empathetic approach to engagement: teaching science through hip-hop.

What do I mean by an “empathetic approach?” Empathy requires that you abandon your preconceived notions of what your customers want and need, and instead truly place yourself in their world and attempt to answer questions like: What captivates me? Who are my idols? What is preventing me from taking action? What would make me feel comfortable and safe taking these actions? What would make me feel proud?

Educators in the Bronx took an empathetic approach to education and the results will inspire you. Take a moment to watch the video below and then this one. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

Let’s examine how these educators leveraged core principles of empathy and customer engagement to inspire hard-to-reach youth.

Know your audience.  For youth in the Bronx, hip-hop is a strong cultural currency. It is a genre, but it is also a worldview, an identity, and an aspiration for many. Science is not. The educators understood this and took it to heart. They accepted this and leveraged it for their curriculum, As co-creator Dr. Chris Emdin explains in the first video, “Let’s focus on using culture as an anchor for instruction.”

Examine the barriers. For these kids, science feels irrelevant and difficult to understand. As one kid put it “I’m not good at science.” When asked why, he says, “I don’t know, it’s too much smartness.” So how does Dr. Emdin make science less scary and “smart”? He frames it in hip-hop terms.

Speak the language. Dr. Emdin goes on to explain that science is about learning about your world and your environment. Scientists observe. Dr. Emdin asks “Guess what MC’s do? They sit beside their widow and they look out and see what’s goin’ on in the hood. They write it down. They observe.” Hip-hop and science share “the same amount of smartness.” Dr. Emdin relates to the kids and reveals how they already share “smartness” with science in an art form they love.

Find the right messengers. In the second video, Dr. Emdin brings in GZA, a world-famous hip-hop artist to communicate the value of science. When he walks into the classroom, the children watch him with awe and inspiration. If they weren’t sold before, they clearly are now.

Deliver ancillary benefits. It’s not enough to say science and hip-hop are the same. This curriculum teaches science by asking the kids to write their own raps. Throughout the lesson they are coached on how to do this well, and are simultaneously learning science and hip-hop. Hip-hop excites them and gets them engaged, and science concepts are learned in the context of something that matters to them: learning how to rap. Science is along for the ride. But who cares, the kids are captivated and they are learning.

Support and encourage.  Each student is supported and coached on science topics as well as hip-hop method. As they craft and build their raps, they receive one-on-one attention, affirmation, and support for their work. They learn about science, they learn about hip-hop, they learn about metaphor, music, and rhythm. Most importantly, they learn about themselves and their capacity for “smartness.”

Inspire an emotional reaction. As is evident in the faces of Keenan and other students, they are all in. They are emotionally engaged with their teachers and their science lessons. They are hooked.

These lessons translate well beyond the Bronx classroom and are something we should all take to heart when looking to connect with our audience, customers or whomever.

Want more to learn more about this empathetic approach to engagement? Check out this NPR story and this NYT article.