Making science fun again: UB junior Heath Cottengim educates through rap and ragtime
In elementary and middle school, teachers would often roll out a TV from the AV room into the classroom. Usually it was a viewing of either “The Magic School Bus” or “Bill Nye the Science Guy.”
Those days are long gone, but the spirit of these programs still remains thanks to Heath Cottengim.
Cottengim, a junior biomedical sciences major, utilizes witty raps, ragtime style piano and – most importantly – educational topics. He mesmerizes on his YouTube channel and teaches viewers with his humor, catchy beats and incredible production value.
“I enjoy teaching others about lesser known topics, such as the details of photosynthesis and the study of flags and their design,” Cottengim said. “Those are the things I care about. I don’t feel the need to write about money or guns. I want the listener to be more knowledgeable about what I just rapped.”
His love for knowledge can be seen through the videos his channel, which have acquired tens of thousands of views. Cottengim’s “Cellular Respiration Rap” has over 45,000 views on the site, a rap which features talk of everything from ATP to Acetyl CoA.
Cottengim first got involved with music through piano lessons at a church in his hometown and through individual lessons. Once he got to high school, however, he focused more of his attention on athletics and playing the trombone.
Prior to his senior year of high school, he took a trip with his family to Durango, Colorado. While he was there, he saw a pianist playing through the window of an old hotel.
He then recognized the music – it was ragtime.
He soon familiarized himself with this old fashioned style of pop through video games such as the Super Mario Bros. series. This experience alone rekindled his love for the piano.
As far as ragtime is concerned, Tom Brier is one of Cottengim’s biggest influences.
“In my opinion, Brier is the best ragtime player alive,” Cottengim said. “This is due to his amazing sight reading ability and ability to change from song to song while playing with another person. He is very dynamic and I wish I could be a tenth as good as him.”
Thanks to the use of an electronic piano with many demos including “The Entertainer” and “Maple Leaf Rag,” Cottengim didn’t have too much trouble getting back into music thanks to these demos at his disposal.
Busta Rhymes has also been a massive influence on Cottengim’s work, and his lyrics draw from comedian Bo Burnham’s storytelling style.
This style of music may come off as tongue-in-cheek, but Cottengim makes sure his videos are accurate and organized before posting them to YouTube.
Within his songwriting ability, Cottengim strives to put as much replay value into his music as possible. He wants the listener to find new content that may have possibly been missed to make the lyrics dense as possible.
Cottengim also wants to make his videos engaging to make up for a possible lack of sonic quality in his materials.
The most difficult part for Cottengim besides the occasional writer’s block is sharing his music. He often feels reluctant to show his work because he worries it needs more substance. But he has performed live recently at an open mic night held by UB in April.
His music is informative as it is stylish, as is the case with his “Photosynthesis Rap.”
Cottengim sports a ‘70s-inspired leisure suit, offering the “know how” regarding photosynthesis with plenty of clever and cheeky references, including one about Mike Tyson.
Dr. Jessica Poulin, a clinical assistant professor in the biological sciences department, recommended Cottengim to the nursery where the video was filmed.
“He actually covered some pretty advanced physiology and biochemistry,” Poulin said. “The best part is that [“Photosynthesis Rap”] was all correct and yet so fun. I think it makes it easy to learn and remember the information. He made photosynthesis seem pretty cool.”
Cottengim’s latest video, “Your Flag (Is Wack)” dropped last month and describes the confusion and style behind certain flags all around the world. This video also keeps up with Cottengim’s traditional educational comedy rap using sharp wit and smooth flow.
Ted Kaye, author of Good Flag, Bad Flag, praised the creativity behind his song “Your Flag (Is Wack)” and was also impressed by its accessibility.
“Vexillology owes him gratitude for presenting the basic principles of flag design to a broad and young audience,” Kaye said. “He relayed those principles accurately and concisely, giving excellent and illustrative examples such as the similarities between the Australian flag and the New Zealand flag, yet praised many flags such as the Canadian flag and the flag of Mozambique. This is all done in a modern and engaging style.”
Cottengim hopes to start building a discography soon and wants people at the very least to recognize his music’s potential, even if they don’t like it.
“It has been easier to empathize with students who may be struggling with the topics that I had struggled with until I wrote the song,” Cottengim said. “Before I wrote it, I was just like any other student who may have struggled with the topic. It has helped me become a better teacher as well as appreciating other people’s desire to learn new things.”
Matthew Ian Doyle is a staff writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.