Module Title




Sing about science: Transpiration


Wendy Silk, Dept. of Land, Air, and Water Resources, University of California, Davis CA 95616




In a studio exercise students practice scanning song lyrics and work as a group to write a lyric to communicate their understanding of an ecologically important biological process.


Short Description

Students hear conventional lectures on the role of plants in the hydrologic cycle and learn elements of songwriting.  Here we provide  sample resources to teach science and songwriting and the grading rubrics that are used to guide students to understand science through a Science-Art fusion approach.





Learning Goals

Students will practice abstracting important concepts from a science syllabus.  By deciding how to tailor the subject for communication to a naïve audience, the students will infuse the natural history lesson with some personal style.  The art-science fusion will increase their sensitivity to the emotional and pedagogic impact of meter.  The group work will facilitate communication among science majors and science novices, music experts and music novices.  Oral presentation skills will be developed.  The encouragement of original presentation styles is intended to increase students’ understanding of  the personal creativity prized by practitioners of both art and science.


Context for Use

This approach has been used in the class “Earth Water Science Song” taught in the ArtScience program at U.C. Davis.  The class is listed as a Science and Society course intended for lower division undergraduates and upper division non-science majors.  The course is ten weeks long.  It combines conventional lectures in environmental science with a weekly studio taught by a professor with music skills or a graduate student in music or drama.  Studio sections are capped at 20 students to allow groups of five students to work on four assigned song topics at one time.  Elements of songwriting are taught in the studio sessions, but time for group work and improvisation is always paramount.  In studio the professor or teaching assistant describes rhyme, rhythm, scales and modes, and “arc” of  songs.  Most students become more proficient in songwriting and performance during the class.  We have found that students are able to work collaboratively and use the expertise of their classmates.  Science majors learn from artists who have performed in bands and  choruses.  Art majors learn from the science students who are  helpful in keeping the artists “on track” with objectivity and interpreting data in the syllabus.

     We find the students can participate in the writing and performance of a song in three weeks.  Moreover, they enjoy rehearsing and watching each other rehearse, so that most students learn many of the song topics assigned to other groups.

      The approach is general and can be adapted to many science topics including natural history and concepts in physics and chemistry.  It cannot provide the hands-on experience of a laboratory course.

        It is essential to have a space where students can make noise without disturbing neighboring activities.  





Description and Teaching Materials



Handouts, Lab Directions, etc. included in this section


Also, background info

for lab instructors and TA’s


Equipment, supplies, and lab set-up

Students hear a lecture on the role of plants in the hydrologic cycle. Reading material is available on the class website (attached).

The afternoon studio session begins with a musical icebreaker—singing names, or repeating rhythm patterns or singing scales or modes.  The section leader then presents some material about songwriting.  (A sample teaching resource—discussion of lyric writing—is attached.)  Then students form into groups of five to write a song. The songs may use existing melodies in the public domain; extra credit is given for original melodies. Each group is assigned a topic based on the environmental science presented in lecture.  For a sample student song see





Students sometimes experience panic or writers’ block.  It is helpful to suggest each group member write a verse to focus on a single important idea.  Frustrations and anxiety related to group performance require tact and some guidance from the studio instructor.  We find students are often exhilarated by the final performance.






An inexpensive piano keyboard and percussion instruments are in the studio. 



Teaching Notes and Tips


I find it helpful to have a two page essay “Science for Songs” due the week before the group presentation of the song or lyric. This science narrative is an individual, not a group, assignment.   Students are asked to explain the relevant biology, chemistry, physics, or ecology of the assigned song topic.  They are also asked to provide a half page description of the creative process by which the group produced the song.  Finally the student  writes a paragraph that might be used as an introduction to the song in a public performance.  The introduction may summarize the scientific aspect and/or address the creative process that led to the song.




A grading rubric for the essay Science for Songs is included.  Also attached is a rubric for  classmates’ evaluation of the contributions to the group project.

References and Resources

A primer on Lyrics is found here.


Bibliographic references for the science of plants and water are included in the instructional chapter here.