The Secret Society of Science Song-Writers at Germantown’s Northwest High School is proving that great chemistry can be made by a diverse group of high school students working in harmony to create science-related music videos. The award-winning club, known as 4SW for short, is comprised of “members from different backgrounds, yet they all seem to meld together for a sole purpose,” said Kaylan Battle, club president and Northwest senior.
Junior Rahwa Ghenbot, in her second year with 4SW, said people in the club “are so diverse, but we’re coming together to make music regardless of who’s who or who’s friends with who. Outside of learning about science, the club opens up my friend group.”
Noting the congenial collaboration of the group, teacher-advisor Avi Silber said the club members are “kind of like a super organism. … They’re like bees.”
Several of Silber’s colleagues participate as sponsors for 4SW and “fact-check to ensure all the material we publicize is correct to our best knowledge,” Battle said. “Although the need for an authority figure is very low, the presence of a teacher almost always helps to keep our members focused. Our student members produce the songs from scratch, compose video concepts individually, and they choose when to publicize them. We are a heavily student-run and facilitated club.”
Silber credited Battle with much of the club’s growth and progress during her four-year tenure as president. Under her leadership, Battle established club procedure and identity. Silber said the club has “gone from a frequency of two songs per year to 35-plus songs and eight-plus videos per year.”
Most of the verses are written in rap format because “rap allows you to get more lyrics in … it’s more efficient, so there’s singing on choruses and rapping on verses,” Silber said.
Northwest media specialist Lilly Greenlee and special education teacher Rashida Banks are club sponsors. Banks said she taught in Philadelphia and had her students “do a DNA rap and I saw their focus. … It was a different way to take ownership of their learning because what they’re rapping is what they’re learning.”
Sponsor and English teacher Ryan Acosta-Fox said his favorite aspect of teaching is “seeing kids engaged in something where there is meaning to them and it’s especially cool when it’s not for a grade. … Here they’re doing some things often more complex than their classes and something they find joy in.”
“A lot of times we think of things as being either art or science, but a lot of good art has some science in it and a lot of really good science has some art in it as well. A lot of times we don’t make that connection and this club allows them to explore this path,” sponsor and environmental chemistry and honors biology teacher Tim Muhich observed. One of his roles in 4SW is offering technical guidance for the accuracy of camera shots and true statements in lyrics “to keep the amount of errors in the movies down,” he said.
The idea for the club, which meets every Thursday after school and has attracted 60 student members, came about in April 2013 when Silber, coordinator of the Academy of Biotechnology at Northwest and AP biology and molecular biotechnology teacher, was assisting with the school’s musical. On the eve of opening night, the director asked the cast to record backing vocals in the small studio Silber had established in a workroom in the back of his science lab. Several cast members suggested “starting a club to write songs for Mr. Silber’s science classes” and 4SW was born.
Silber’s interest in music began in childhood when he attended a filmmaking camp. He began writing raps in high school and later produced beats on a computer. In college, he ran a recording studio from his dorm room for artists, and while student teaching, he made his music video, “Myosin is Thick,” which he said is “now my one-hit wonder. It has about 250,000 views on YouTube and is used to teach in med schools nationwide. I love music, I love media, and I love science.”
On the website titled Video Homeroom, Battle noted that the club welcomes anyone with “a passion for music and science” and focuses on “developing musical production skills as well as strong scientific knowledge.”
Silber added that the club is “primarily to make songs and videos to teach people science. It could be for academic reasons … humanitarian reasons. Our audience could be anyone. Secondary purposes of the club are for students to have a place to develop their creative skills in a safe and supportive environment.”
Freshman Tim Nwogu, who lines up still and video shots, said he is a “true lover of science” and intends to follow that field “when he grows up.” His sister, junior Deborah Nwogu said she loves to write music and the club “is a great outlet. I’ve met so many friends. I’ve learned so much about myself and I’m getting smarter as I do so.” Nelson Hernandez, Daniel Sanchez and Mansi Sundrani focus on editing the footage and adding animation to the videos for the final cut.
The first Thursday of every month is known as Challenge Thursdays where an entire music video is created “from the ground up in one afternoon session. … Members will likely stay as late as 9 p.m. to complete the project,” Silber said.
This past August, in collaboration with Professor Zeev Rosenzweig, University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) chair of chemistry and biochemistry, club members created songs inspired by labs focused on research about non-toxic nanomaterials, HIV research and nanoscale electrochemical sensors research to monitor cell-to-cell communication. One of the videos produced from the UMBC experience is titled, “The HIV Life Cycle.”
In the spring of 2016, several club members won a national “Listen Carefully” video competition conducted by the Starkey Foundation regarding hearing loss awareness. Their video, “Give Your Ears a Rest” was awarded first prize from among more than 5,000 nationwide high school entries.
And the beat goes on. Silber is writing a curriculum for a music technology class “that will utilize a lot of the learning methods and techniques that I have found to be so successful in 4SW. Kaylyn and I will be presenting a workshop for educators on how to do what we do at the MAEOE (Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education) conference in February.”
View 4SW’s videos at www.youtube.com/thefoursw.