Glenn Wolkenfeld is a high school teacher and the man behind the websites learn-biology.com and sciencemusicvideos.com. We spoke to him about all things music and science education.
Hello, Glenn. Thank you for speaking to us. Could you tell us a little about yourself?
I’m a high school biology teacher in Berkeley, California, where I teach at Berkeley High School. I’ve been a teacher since 1987, but not continuously. I’ve left teaching twice to work as an instructional designer and later as a school administrator. However, I always come back to what’s been my enduring professional love: teaching biology.
Teaching biology is a very hard thing to do: the concepts are very complex, and the amount of content in a typical high school course is enormous. So, I’m always looking for ways to make the material more engaging and easier to learn. Writing songs about biology has been a big part of that. I’ve also been interested in how computers can be used to get students to interact more with biology. I’ve been experimenting with computer-assisted-instruction since my first year in the classroom.
All of this work has culminated in what’s become my biggest project: creating an interactive, online College/AP Biology curriculum on my website, learn-biology.com. My goal with that project is to help students experiencing the confusion and frustration often associated with a first-year biology course, and, through our interactive tutorials, help students (and their) instructors, be successful in biology.
That project started slowly. First, I teamed up with my programming partner Dan Kirshner, who created an interactive platform called ‘qwizcards’ for me to develop interactive tutorials for my students (people can learn more about that at Dan’s website, qwizcards.net). After a few years, other teachers started buying licenses to use these tutorials with their own students. Last spring, we opened up our website for any high school teacher or college instructor to use for free with their students during the COVID-19 pandemic that forced schools around the world to shut down. By the end of May, we had about 1200 teachers using the site with over 13,000 students.
Your website https://learn-biology.com has a great blend of traditional learning (e.g. tutorials and quizzes) and songs. How do you think these songs complement learning?
My first teaching job was at a school for kids-at-risk in a rural town in Oregon. The school served students who had been kicked out of or were in danger of dropping out of the local high school. Classes were small, but the disciplinary issues were huge. Despite these challenges, the school had a great culture around music: we started each day with a song circle where I or other singing-guitarist teachers would lead songs by the Beatles, or Dylan, or Credence Clearwater Revival, and the students would always happily sing along. Within a week or two of starting this job, I began writing songs about cells, food chains, and chemical bonding. Along with more traditional lessons, I’d occasionally bring my guitar into the classroom and sing these songs with my students to help them learn about Biology or Chemistry. As difficult as the previous day’s lesson might have been, the moments when I was singing with my students were always moments when I had the students’ full attention.
I think that this element — attention and engagement — is key to why music works to enhance learning. Anything that teachers can do in the classroom to get students to engage with what they’re teaching is going to move the learning forward. As a science teacher, labs and hands-on science are a great way to do that. But anything that’s “minds-on” is going to help students do the cognitive work that’ll help them encode biology content into long-term memory.
The same philosophy of student engagement is what drives my interactive tutorials. They take biology content and require students to engage with it by answering multiple choice and fill-in-the blank questions, labelling diagrams, and working with flashcards. It takes what would be a passive experience — reading about biology in a textbook — and makes it active and challenging in a way that leads to learning. Students, of course, can do this themselves through techniques like Cornell notes. But our biology curriculum curates the experience to make learning efficient and fun.
Your music videos are brilliant. Do you enjoy making them?
First of all, Thanks! Writing music and making videos are incredibly fun processes. I love the challenge of writing good lyrics, and then working with my song writing partner, Max Cowan, to create music that’s as good as the lyrics.
How do you come up with your songs?
The first songs, written during my first year of teaching, were pure inspiration. I’d be working on a lesson, and lyrics and tunes would just come to me. Two of those earliest songs, The Cell Song and Food Chains, are still part of my repertoire (though Food Chains is a bit unique, because it uses a melody from another song).
As I kept on teaching, I continued to bring my guitar to school. It was always a special treat for me and for my students. In 2008, I took a short leave from teaching, which gave me an opportunity to record some of my songs and to write a few more. YouTube had started just a few years before that, and I uploaded two songs, with some minimal video for visuals, and they turned out to be very popular. That was an inducement for me to write more. I wanted to expand into other genres, particularly hip-hop, and to do that, I teamed up with Max Cowan, an incredible musician and music teacher. With Max’s help, I was able to really improve the quality of the music.
The process behind my most recent songs has been to get a vague musical idea in my head, or to write to a beat. Then I’ll bring the lyrics to Max, and we’ll work up a hook. They he’ll lay down an original beat. Once that’s set, he’ll set up the microphones, and coach me through singing or rapping. After another hour or two of work, he’ll have a finished product. He’ll send that to me, and I’ll use that to create the music video. I do that by making a video of myself lip-synching the lyrics over a green screen. Then the most time-consuming part is creating the visuals, which can often involve some pretty tricky animation (see my videos about the Electron Transport Chain or Protein Synthesis).
You do many different musical styles in your music videos. Do you have a favourite?
Not really. I think that my own musical DNA is rooted in the music I listened to as a teenager, which was the Beatles, Dylan, Neil Young, Elton John, etc. But I’ve also always liked rap: my tastes there have been shaped mostly by the 1990s rap that my producer Max Cowan introduced me to as I was working up songs like “DNA, Fantastic!” and “Mitosis.” I also try to follow artists in other genres, though my discovery of “new” music can lag 20 years behind the times. For example, last year I discovered Alanis Morissette’s ‘Jagged Little Pill’, which was huge in the 1990s, and I spent a lot of 2019 binge-listening to it. When our school has its Homecoming/Rally Day celebration, I’ll bring my guitar into class, and sing “Party in the USA” with my students, which is always a huge hit!
This Post Has 92 Comments
I wanted to tell you that I find your videos amazing! They are so well done and clearly have taken so much effort to put together. What wonderful ways of introducing difficult, often dry material! I teach anatomy and physiology and have referred your site to so many of my students.
We await all new songs you produce! Hats off to you!
I just discovered your site and I posted a link to your site on my web site and am sharing with all of my science friends and teachers friends and science teacher friends and students and…
Thanks for this great educational resource. Perhaps I will purchase your songs and download to my iThing or Android Phone so I can enjoy and share at will with anyone who will sit still (or dance along) long enough.
Thanks so much, Marilyn! I really appreciate your spreading the word!
Wonderful work! Our low literacy students are delighting in learning through the lyrics and images. All the way here in Australia your songs are making an educational difference too. Let the warm glow of that flow over you.. you deserve it!
Wow, Brendan. That makes my day! Low literacy is a major challenge for many of our students here in Berkeley, too. I’m glad that my songs are helping your efforts
I just stumbled across your videos. I am working on mitosis in my classes right now. Can you guess what they will be seeing on Monday? I am going to add many of these videos in my daily lesson plans. I will be sharing this site with my students and next year will be in my syllabus as a place to get help. I hope you plan on adding more videos! Thank you for these and the “extra” materials you have put with them.
Awesome, Felicia! Thanks for the feedback, and let me know how it goes with your students!
Thank you so much. The catchy tunes have my students asking to see these in class. I have also had several students singing the songs while walking down the hall. Many times I will have one playing as students come into class to give them a heads up on what we will be covering that day.
You’ve made my day!
If you have time, please take a look at my tutorials on the carbon cycle, food chains, and/or trophic levels. I’d love to get some critical feedback from teachers like yourself.
You can email me at [email protected], or use the contact form on my website.
I had to share these comments from my students. After they took our state assessment test, several students said they know they got specific questions correct. (They are not allowed to discuss the individual questions from the test, so I do not know which ones). How you ask? They said they were singing the songs to themselves while answering the questions! Several students said they were doing the same thing 🙂 Other students stated it helped them to watch the videos after we had class discussions on the materials for clarification. You are a HUGE hit in my classes this semester and I am so grateful to you for doing these videos.
Again, Thank you!
A comment like this from clear across the country really makes my day! Thanks!
I am wrapping up my second year of college and thus finishing up some classes I need for a general education before I begin my upper degree work. With that being said, biology is definitely not an area I am particularly extraordinary at. Your videos and quizzes are truly what have been helping me pass my Intro to Human Biology course.
I’m sure I speak for a larger group of struggling bio students than you may be aware, but thank you.
I love comments like this. Thanks so much! If you can, please let your friends, teachers, and fellow students know about my website, youtube channel, and mp3s on iTunes.
I find your videos helpful…it would make learning biology concepts more fun.
Your videos are soo amazing ^_^ , you are such a great teacher who mixes between learn and fun , and make one understand easily , have passion and the push him to start studying his lessons with good mode ^^
I like your way in editing the videos
sooo helpful so beautiful ..
Thank you a lot , your partner Max
May God bless you and your families ^_^
I teach biochemistry to medical students, graduate students and undergrads. We recently discussed moving lecture content to “teh innerwebz” and my colleague sent me the link to your Glycolysis video. Wow. Just wow, man. I’d love to direct my students your way to supplement what I do in the room.
Keep it up!
Thanks so much, Rik. I think you’ll really like my next two movies: Electron transport chain and Protein Synthesis. Stay tuned!
Mr. W (@GlennWolkenfeld on Twitter)
Congratulations on your brilliant and inspirational presentation of crucial basic science.
Wow! What a nice comment! Thanks!
I want to thank you from my heart for the efforts you put in these songs. I played in my science classes and it made big difference.
Thank you Mr. Glenn
Thank you so much Glenn for this wonderful way of teaching sciences! Our children are mightily impressed, even so we are in a german school, they understand enough to learn even more about the inner life of our cells!
Wow! Thanks so much for such a beautiful comment!
I also teach biology (to mostly 9th graders) in Texas. I found your videos recently and am amazed at how much information you can pack into a 3-8 minute song. I am now offering extra credit for any student or group of students that can sing your song on the current content we are covering. Funny, kids will not do regular credit work can’t wait to do the “extra credit”. The students have no idea that the real credit will be in how much more they remember and the increase in their success!
Great videos–they make me smile!
Wow! This is about the greatest thing (related to my work) that I’ve ever heard!
Let me know how your extra credit project goes. If you ever videotape your students, I’d love to see it!
Senior level biology student at University of Central Missouri. I don’t think I could pass my cell bio exams without your songs! I just wish I had found them sooner!
thanks, Paula. Let me know what you think of the quizzes and flashcards I’m posting. I’m curious if they’re useful for college students, too.
I’m Sara, a student from Leuven in Belgium (I’m studying to become a teacher) and I’m going to introduce you to my class tomorrow!
We have to give a class about mitosis and I know some of my classmates have a bit of trouble studying it.
So now they will have a nice way to study mitosis and other parts of biology!
Thank you very much! You’re going global!
Wow! Right now, I’m working on a new set of quizzes about osmosis…and I needed some encouragement! Thanks, Sara!
Way to go Mr. W!!
Thanks, Dr. Kwan!
Let me know if you want to work on an interactive tutorial together!
we love you here in our freshmen bio class! GLYCOLYSIS IS OUR THEME SONG! you’re the best
Awesome! Is this Oakland, California?
Let me know.
No, this is Oakland in PA! We love you here! Could you please send a signed photo of yourself for my biology teacher?
Hi all the way from England! I wonder if it is possible if you could please please send me a signed photo of yourself for my biology lecturer who is you biggest fan?! I would be very grateful.
Hi! Sent a digital image to your email. If you don’t get it, let me know and we’ll figure out something else.
Hi ! I am a doctor in Canada near Toronto. I stumbled across your spectacular youtube site in my quest to study anti-aging medicine. As I went along my reading, I discovered that my 52 year old brain was having trouble remembering “Just what IS the Kreb’s cycle and the electron transport chain? ” It all started coming back to me listening to your fun rap videos.
So, my intention is to start a Canadian Antiaging and Metabolic Medicine group of physicians – my question is this – may I play your video to my doctors, and… this is a stretch, with all appropriate credits to you, may we perform one of them ourselves?
Thanks so much for your efforts in this field. I wanted you to know that your expertise is of great value WAY beyond high school !!
This is about the greatest comment I’ve ever received. Of course you may use my videos however you wish! And, if you perform them, please make a video so I can see it!
Also, please keep me apprised of your anti-aging efforts! I’m 53, and I’m sure I’ll need whatever you figure out in a few years!
Hi, Mr. W. I am a university student studying biological science in Hong Kong. I have a biochemistry exam tomorrow and your songs are awesome! They help me a lot in learning kerbs cycle and electron transport chain. I will surely recommend your songs to my classmates. Thank you so much:)
Thanks, Wendy. Please be sure to try my electron transport chain flashcards.
Glenn! I love your videos! I’d love it if you went on tour or at least came to branson, Mo! Do you sell shirts?
Wow! A tour! No plans for one now (I gotta teach my classes here at Berkeley High). And guide me here. What would I put on that T-shirt? How would I sell it?
Let me know!
I like this song it really helps especially now that I am a freshman in college. It’s very catchy all I can do is replay it and replay to hopefully remember it all.
By this song I mean the Cellular Respiration one.
You’ve just saved me from failing my AP Bio test! Many thanks, Mr. W!
I teach secondary science in Australia: yrs 8 – 10, and senior biology. Your videos are now a regular part of my lessons – my kids (12yrs – >18 yrs old) love them. Some of them are even trying their own hands at science rapping!
Thank you for making this amazing resource available. I am in awe!
… from one very grateful, and very impressed, Australian science teacher 🙂
Thanks for this great comment. You’ve made my day!
I LOVE YOUR VIDEOS! My friends and I are all studying for a biochem exam with them but I just start singing along and forget about studying. Thank you so much!!
When I was teaching osmosis I received an email from a student with a link to your osmosis song. He pequested I play it the next day in class – which I happily did. My students loved it and so did I. Since then, I have student repeatedly asking me if there is one of your songs for what we are currently studying.
Thank you so much for making and sharing them. All of us love them here!
Comments like this make my day! Thanks so much.
If you’re teaching AP Biology, please check out my new AP Bio Interactive Vocabulary Review. It’s at http://www.sciencemusicvideos.com/biomania.
I’d love to know what you think!
your work is amazing!
you have no idea how much your resources help!
thank you so much and keep doing what you do
Thanks, Aya! It means a lot to me to get comments like this. Please consider doing two things: 1) spreading the word about sciencemusicvideos, and encouraging others to support my work by buying my mp3s on iTunes or Amazon!
Best of luck.
Hi Mr. Wolkenfield! I think I emailed you a week ago about this, but I have a friend who loves your videos. His birthday is coming up May 11, and it would be really cool if I could get your autograph for him, or something like that.
Hi Abe: it’s been sent…Twice! Hope it makes your friend happy!
I’m sorry, I don’t think I got it. That’s weird. Could you send it again?
Hopefully, third time is the charm. Download this file.
THANK YOU SO MUCH! RJ will be delighted.
I just found your videos and I think they are amazing! I am studying for the MCAT and they are helping so much. Thank you for making them!!!
Please spread the word about sciencemusicvideos, and please consider buying my songs or donating to my channel!
You helped me get a 4 on my AP. Thanks Mr. W
That is the most affirming comment I can imagine. Please tell all your friends who might be taking AP Bio next year to visit my site this coming year. Ironically, this will the first time in years that I’ve taught AP Bio, and I hope to make the site even more useful!
glenn, good sir, you are a genius. you deserve to be in the ranks as one of the greatest minds of the age, up there with einstein and hawking. I have no idea how you are able to manipulate words and rhymes so well, but it is simply uncanny! One day I hope to get your autograph.
Wow…I don’t agree with the Einstein and Hawking comparison, but I do enjoy taking my favorite subject (biology) and rendering it into rhyme! Thanks!
I’m your fan since I watched your musical lectures and it is very pleasant experience to listen you. I’m an educator (Botany) and student as well. Your videos did a great help to me in improving my lectures. I will feel good to tell all of my fellows and students of my supra-fantastic experience. You said you are a high school teacher and I’m thinking of the lucky students enrolled in your class. And I’m also lucky as I’m your student since now. 🙂
Thanks Sir for such a great job.
Subtain Ali – Your Student from Pakistan
Wow, Subtain, what a great comment! Thanks!
Good luck all you do!
Greetings from England! Just to say how much my students and myself love your songs – they summarise nicely the material they have been learning in class. Our favourite at the moment is the mitosis rap – very catchy! Thank you and keep up the good work.
Thanks so much, Laura!
Hi Mr. W,
I’m a first year biology teacher (I taught English for 15 years) and my background from college was Environmental Studies. I was ready to make a mid-career change and an opportunity to teach science (Earth Science and biology) was available. I really appreciate how you make the material accessible for students. Are there opportunities to observe you teaching in the classroom?
I got b in bio….all the way from Nigeria…thankyou very much
Wow! Thanks for your comment, Chein!
Good luck in your studies!
GLENN I AM A HUGE FAN! “I WENT INTO A CELL TO GET OUT OF THE RAIN AND FOUND MYSELF TALKING TO THE GATEKEEPER THE CELL MEMBRANE!” GENIUS!
YOU ARE THE GOAT!
PLEASE EMAIL ME AT [email protected] no caps no space.
PLEASE EMAIL SO WE CAN SPEAK ABOUT SCIENCE
LOVE YOU: FROM AN ANONYMOUS ADMIRER
I LOVE EVERY ONE OF YOUR SONGS
Your songs are amazing! They help me out a lot in Biology.
Thanks so much, Josiah! Please spread the word about sciencemusicvideos to your friends and teachers. And,if you can, please consider supporting me by buying my songs or making a donation.
Your songs are incredible 🙂 I actually might not fail my GCSEs. Thank you so much!!!
Thanks, Wiktoria. Please spread the word about my songs and my website to your friends and teachers. And good luck on your exams!
I’m trying to memorize the Light Rections : the big picture song for my bio class for a grade and I’m really struggling, any tips on how I could go about it in an easier way that won’t leave me so frustrated?
To memorize the lyrics, try doing it one stanza at a time, starting from the last stanza. Recite as much as possible, and read as little as possible.
If you want to learn the material, go on over to my tutorial. If you understand it, it’ll be easier to remember. Here’s the link: https://learn-biology.com/ap-biology/module-32-menu-photosynthesis/
Are you planing on doing anything for physics? Because I am also planing on taking physics next year, oh and before I forget I want to tell you that I saw your amazing videos (since I am talking biology this year), and I also saw how helpful they are to students in my classroom.
I’m a biology guy. Until I get some like-minded collaborators, this is going to be mostly biology. And I have a ways to go before I even finish my current curriculum.
thanks for checking in!
Hi glenn, I have bought two of your songs and they are great, please make more, you are great!
I’m surprised you’re not on Patreon. I’d support you!
It’s been on my list for a long time…I’m hoping to set it up over the summer. In the meanwhile, please feel free to make a donation!
Thanks for your support!
I am taking the biology sat subject test tomorrow, and your songs have really helped me with last minute studying. Just wanted to say thanks!
Good luck on the test, Sarah. Please spread the word about sciencemusicvideos to your friends and teachers.
Sitting in biology right now, listening to your video!
Thank you for getting us through higher biology!!
Looking good for you age!!
We love you!!
Thanks so much for this comment! It’s an honor to get such support all the way over in Scotland (I’m in California). If you’re in a position to further support my work, please consider purchasing a subscription to my website, or buying a sciencemusicvideos T-shirt or coffee mug!
Sitting in biology right now, listening to your video!
Thank you for getting us through higher biology!!
Looking good for you age!!
We love you in scotland!!
dear glen i love your music videos so much you are my inspiration. i live in scotland and i’m sure you will help me pass my higher biology, appreciate all the hard work n effort you put in
Reading your comment was such a great way to start my day! Thanks. If you’re in a position to further support my work, please consider purchasing a subscription to my website, or buying a sciencemusicvideos T-shirt or coffee mug!
Comments are closed.