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Teacher, rapper, space traveler

USC Rossier alum fills void for students

Ira Harden MAT ’11 took unorthodox teaching into a whole new stratosphere.

The science teacher became a YouTube sensation two years ago when he rapped about stoichiometry — a branch of chemistry dealing with the relative quantities of reactants and products in chemical reactions — for a high school class in Inglewood, Calif. He was subsequently named the charter school’s Teacher of the Year, earning a coveted spot on a team of teachers selected by NASA to travel to lower space.

“I just loved teaching since the first day of school,” said Harden, who moved to Los Angeles from Washington, D.C. “I knew I was where I was supposed to be.”

He later enrolled in the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program at the USC Rossier School of Education with the aim of perfecting his practice.

“I got so much more than I expected, and I still remember many of the lessons,” he said. “In every class, there was something I could implement into practice right away.”

Since the Inglewood school lacked music and theater classes, Harden saw an opportunity to fill a void and engage his students in a new way. Their assignment: perform a song or poem about stoichiometry.

“I had to model what they could do, so I decided to rap for them one day,” said Harden of the performance, which was posted online and earned more than 300,000 hits in three days. “They loved it, and I wouldn’t have done it without coming to USC. I really integrated the tools from the MAT into my classroom.”

The buzz inspired him to create a website devoted to science, technology, engineering and mathematics music videos.

“At first, I thought I was the first to do this, but there are hundreds of other teachers who are combining music with STEM education, and these can be tools for teachers in teaching and for students in learning.”

The creative class challenge was one of many Harden employed to engage his students in chemistry. And it worked. His students had the highest advanced and proficient score gains on the California Standards Tests for Southern California public schools for two consecutive years.

He also took two trips to the stratosphere in 2013 as an airborne ambassador, which he described as “exhilarating.” Twenty-six science educators were selected to fly with astronomers on NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy and bring the experience back to their classrooms.

Still, Harden said his greatest accomplishment is getting his predominately African-American and Latino students to consider a future in the sciences. “Minorities need to be exposed to other minorities in science fields other than medicine, and I would often invite my engineer and scientist friends who are African-American and Latino to come in and share what they do and inspire my students,” he said. “I believe that a student who is inspired will find a way to navigate through adversity to achieve success.”

He credits the MAT program for making him an exceptional teacher.

“Prior to the MAT, I thought that good teaching was the ability to explain content well. I now know it’s a lot more than that,” he said. “Teachers need interpersonal sensitivity, situational awareness, empathy, organization and the ability to communicate, evaluate, and inspire.”

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Teacher, rapper, space traveler

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