31 July 2020

#AGURocks: Rocking natural history, ecology and evolution

Posted by Shane Hanlon

#AGURocks is a series of posts by musicians who create science-inspired music and explain their process and inspiration while also showcasing their pieces. Learn more about contributing. The views and lyrics expressed in this post and song do not reflect those of Sharing Science and AGU. This week, Gary Grossman.

Is it unusual for a Boomer full professor to pick up a ukulele and learn how to play – I can’t really answer that question but I can tell you it’s been a fun ride…

I’ve always been interested in music and have sung informally my whole life. I have several academic friends who would bring their ukes to Happy Hour and when I saw them play I thought “I might be able to do that”.  At the same time, I was teaching a general education, non-majors science course entitled Natural History of Georgia. When teaching non-majors one has to constantly be on the look-out for ways to better engage the students in the course material. My students did not know it, but besides being able to identify 200+ species by sight, they also were learning upper-division ecological/evolutionary theory.

My employer, the University of Georgia is located in Athens, Georgia, USA, and the town has spawned many famous bands including the B-52s, REM, Widespread Panic, Pylon, and the Drive-by-Truckers. Many students and faculty are in bands and the town in rife with music venues, open of course, when we’re not quarantined for C-19.  The convergence of the factors above made me fairly certain that music would provide the perfect pedagogical instrument for UGA students.  Consequently I started writing ukulele songs based on ecological/evolutionary theory, Georgia habitats and species’ biology; the idea being that if students learned the lyrics they would know everything they needed to know for exams. With the help of a local producer/backup musician, and some minor funding from UGA, I created both a series of music videos and a CD with these songs songs that are also available as MP3s. Surveys of students indicated that the use of songs in class helped them increase their engagement and studying (see Grossman, G. & E. Watson. 2015. The use of original music videos to teach natural history. J. Nat. Hist. Ed. & Exper. 9:1-7). The song concept then evolved into student-produced, active learning, karaoke video exercise, which also was a success (see Grossman, G. D. & T. Simon. 2018. Student perceptions of an inquiry-based karaoke exercise for ecologically oriented classes: a multi-class evaluation. J. College Sci. Teach.47:92-99.).

Example of my music videos include Natural Selection, Speciation Stylin’, and King Philip:

I would strongly urge any instructor to consider using music as a pedagogical tool for STEM education. Do not worry about quality or talent given that students love to see both faculty and fellow students step down off their pedestals and have fun.

Gary Grossman is Professor of Animal Ecology in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, University of Georgia. He has many interests including poetry, sculpture, painting, fishing, gardening and running. His publications and other activities may be viewed at www.garygrossman.net .