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August 1, 2005

Group's songs help teach math and science

Annapolis Capital (MD):

Their work is truly out of this world, both musically and physically. They are The Chromatics, a unique a capella group whose members happen to be some of the greatest scientific and tech minds around. Karen and Alan Smale of Crofton are just two of this six-member vocal ensemble who have been performing for appreciative audiences both here and across the country since the early 1990s. "We have a more contemporary pop style," explained Mr. Smale. "We are nothing like a barbershop or madrigal style group." The group has an impressive repertoire, singing everything from the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" to the B-52's "Love Shack" and even patriotic pieces like "America the Beautiful."

But they are perhaps most well-known for their efforts in making the complexities of astronomy and physics more understandable and just plain entertaining for science students, their teachers and many appreciative fans. Their "Astrocapella" project began one day when Mr. Smale and fellow "Chromie" Padi Boyd, both astrophysicists for NASA, were discussing recent grant recipients of NASA's Initiative to Develop Education through Astronomy program, or IDEA. "We knew of the research that proves a connection between music and memory," Mr. Smale said. "We also knew there is still a perception among some students that math and science are subjects to be feared and avoided."

Building on the concept of the old "Schoolhouse Rock" program - in which millions of kids learned grammar, mathematical, and historical facts through entertaining musical interludes on Saturday morning TV - the Chromatics developed "Astrocapella." It's a classroom-ready collection of upbeat pop songs, lesson plans and background information on subjects like the sun, the moon, X-rays and gamma rays, nuclear fusion, black holes and quasars for middle and high school classrooms.

With IDEA funding, group members went to work, writing their own songs and developing then field-testing their products with teachers across the country. The materials, released in 1998, are now in widespread use and the group uses the musical numbers often in performances for scientific and educational conventions, as well as their regular gigs at local festivals and concerts. Their efforts have been featured on CNN, PBS and National Public Radio. Catchy melodies and clever lyrics abound in songs such as "A Little Bit of Rock" (about meteors) and the "HST Bop" (about the Hubble Space Telescope) and have made fans out of scientists as well.

Astronaut John Grunsfeld even took a copy of their "AstroCappella" CD with him during his flight on the space shuttle Discovery in December of 1999.

Perhaps their success is related to the close-knit camaraderie of the six performers. Though none has a voice that has been classically trained, that is the reason their group is so vocally tight, according to Mr. Smale. "It wouldn't work if we had a voice that really stuck out," he said. The group has since released a second "Astrocapella 2.0" with songs about the planets for even younger students, and continues to perform at various local and national events and give educational workshops. And though they love what they do, they aren't quitting their day jobs. "Ideally we would love to be nationally famous," said Mr. Smale. "But we all have good jobs, some with kids, so that is not too feasible. Right now we just like to travel and perform, getting great responses from our audiences."

Posted by acapnews at August 1, 2005 10:49 PM