Background on Using Music and Humor in the Science Classroom

Why use music and humor in the science classroom?

A lot of people still think that science isn't supposed to be fun . . . or funny. But humor and music are ways of stimulating creativity, and surely we want our professional scientistis to be creative problem solvers.

Humor is an intellectual experience: it takes some "wit" (i.e., intelligence or special knowledge) to understand the point of the joke. For example, one of my favorite jokes:

Question: What is a warbler's favorite country/western song?

Answer: Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowbirds . . .

Understanding this joke requires two things: familiarity with the old Willie Nelson hit song (more recently recorded by others), and knowing that the brown headed cowbird parasitizes warblers' nests by laying its eggs in those nests for the warbler to hatch and raise.

Studies have shown that making music is a whole brain activity, and hopefully there is nothing wrong with getting people to use their whole brains. Together with humor, music allows for all sorts of creative, cross-curricular connections. And many employers these days are looking for people who can make those connections.

A few more cross-curricular, science music jokes:

What is an internal medicine doctor's favorite Paul Simon song?

There Must Be 50 Ways to Love Your Liver.

What is the Audubon Society's theme song?

Out on the bird walk, just my baby and me, out on the bird walk . . .

Why did the lion cross the savannah?

To get to the other pride.

Humor makes a class more user friendly; where would you rather be: with happy people or grumpy people? Humor invites playfulness and enthusiasm, the latter meaning literally "the god within you". Humor and music are both physically good for you: they get the heart and lungs going, and the increased blood flow and oxygen stimulate the brain. The rhyme and rhythm of music help memory. Who can say the words to The Star Spangled Banner without the tune going through their head?

You want to teach science to kids, but you have to get them through the door first. Making your science class fun and entertaining is one way of getting them through the door. But entertainment is no substitute for good content and teaching pedagogy. Music and humor in the science classroom are tools, just like a hammer is a tool. And a hammer can be used to build things or tear things down. Building things (like the Berlin Wall, for example) is not always a good thing; tearing things down (like the Berlin Wall, for example) is not always a bad thing. But the good teacher, like any good professional, needs a variety of tools at their disposal in order to produce a good and sometimes custom-generated product.

I was reading recently about how medical researchers think that within five to ten years they will be able to routinely transplant pig organs into humans. Kind of gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "bringing home the bacon". I'm a little skeptical myself; I figure you get one of those new pig hearts and you'll probably be in hog heaven before you know it. Of course, if the surgeon botches the job, you can always souie for malpractice. And don't forget to put that stuff on the incision to keep it from getting infected; you know, the oinkment! I hear someone's trying to get the federal government to pay for these transplants; sound like another barrel of pork to me. I don't know; maybe it will work as long as the surgeons don't go hog wild or whole hog into this business. After these transplants get real common, you'll be going to parties and everyone will be standing around talking about their new pig organs. Boaring! And all America will be singing:

Parts Is Parts
by Jeffrey B. Moran

My new heart used to be in a pig.
It's not too little; it's not too big.
It pumps blood OK from my feet to my brains
Through all my arteries, catepillars, and veins.
None of its semi-lunar valves leak,
And for its rhythm, it's got a good beat.
But I find now and then for truffles I dig.
My new heart used to be in a pig.


Now part of me's person and part of me's pork.
Not quite the same as was brought by the stork.
No sausage, no hamhocks, no spare ribs for me.
Pigs (hogs, swine) are now part of my family tree.

My new liver, it came from a hog.
Not from a horse or a sheep or a dog.
It fits just fine in my abdomen,
'Bout halfway 'tween my hips and my chin.
And it stores sugar, makes hormones and bile,
Just like the one I had as a child.
But often times through a barnyard I jog.
My new liver, it came from a hog.

My new kidney belonged to a swine.
And it's all right that I don't still have mine.
Because this one does its job real well
Of filtering blood through glomerular cells.
And its neurotic units are just the right size
For filling my bladder clear up to my eyes.
But sometimes I oink when I want to whine.
My new kidney belonged to a swine.

Well, part is parts, and I can't complain,
But not too much of my insides remain.
They've put in a lung, a vowel, and a spleen,
A new pancreas, and a couple of genes.
All these new parts added years to my life,
I've far outlived my kids and my wife.
I wanted to return the favor some how.
So last week I gave my heart to a sow.


Now we share the slop and we wallow in mud.
She's my Petunia, I'm her stud.

(or alternatively:)
Now we wallow in mud and we share the slop.
And we're makin' bacon until we drop.

Now part of me's person and part of me's pork.
Not quite the same as was brought by the stork.
No sausage, no hamhocks, no spare ribs for me.
Piglets are now part of my family tree.

Another reason to encourage creativity in the science classroom is that when you are in the creative mode, rather than the I'm-a-student-just-fill-me-up-with-the-specific-facts-I-need-for-the-next-test mode, you can see things that you don't recognize otherwise. For example, a few months ago, I was working on a song about bird migration. In the process, I studied a few zoology, ornithology, and animal behavior texts to make sure I got the science right. All the sources said basically the same thing: fall migration is stimulated by decreases in photoperiod and temperature, spring migration is stimulated by increases in photoperiod and temperature. The texts went on to say that many birds migrate in the fall to Central and South America, with some extreme examples such as the Arctic tern which migrates all the way to Antarctica.

Suddenly something clicked. Birds which migrate to anywhere near the equator are migrating to places where the photoperiod and temperature do not change significantly. The Arctic tern (and a few others) migrate to a place where they experience the longest possible photoperiod! When conditions change again for those individuals, the photoperiod and temperature begin to decrease. In other words, the "facts" in the textbooks referred only to birds that migrate no further than the southern United States, which is only a part of the species. The bottom line is that the "creative" mode I was in at the time allowed an insight which I had not had before, and which ornithologists I have talked to since have not been able to clarify for me yet.

Here are some lyrics to the song that has come out of this:

by Jeffrey B. Moran

It's early in September near Edmonton, Alberta.
I feel a chill down in my hollow bones
The south suddenly has attraction because of the interaction
'Tween prolactin and corticosterone.
There's serious changes in the weather, gotta check my long pointy wings and feathers,
Gettin' ready for a three thousand mile migration.
Still gotta fatten up some more, put some energy in store.
But I think it's time for a tropical vacation.

O mighty North Wind, so cold and strong.
It's time to tell this summer place "So long!"
The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting colder,
And there's changes going on inside of me.
It's time to migrate, so I'm putting on some weight.
This fat's gotta last 'til I get across the sea.
O mighty North Wind, up in the sky,
I feel the need to get on your back and fly!

It's the first week of April on the coast of Ven'zuela.
I'm getting signals from my pituitary gland.
And I feel some memories stirred, so I'll get my plump little woman bird,
And we'll strike out fast for some green prairies of a northern land.
What's going to guide us on our way? I know that's hard for me to say,
But we'll check magnetic fields, sun, moon, and stars.
And as we fly along, we'll stop sometimes and sing our song
While we look for the Mississippi River and other landmarks.

O gentle South Breeze, so warm and soft.
Something's telling me I should be aloft.
I'm getting restless urges from some hormonal surges,
And I hear it's getting warmer way up north.
It's been really nice in this tropic paradise,
But I can't ignore the call of Nature's course.
O gentle South Breeze, up in the sky,
I have the need to get on your back and fly

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