It’s a sleepy morning at the high school, but the party anthem “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas resounds from Room 172.
Only instead of will.I.am singing the virtues of a having good time, biology teacher Nathan Hsu holds the microphone.
“Cell Respiration, Woo-hoo! It’s a long, complicated process that I need to know for the bio test!” Hsu croons.
Hsu performs his original lyrics from memory while a carefully coordinated slide show plays behind him. Students laugh and smile at his performance. Surprised by the sudden show in the middle of their science class, they often record it with their phones.
Hsu has written lyrics for a number of biology concepts and set them to the tune of popular songs such as “Empire State of Mind” and “I Gotta Feeling,” which he has been performing for his students for the past three years.
As delightful and valuable as they may be for Hsu’s students, the most remarkable thing about Hsu’s songs is the ever-growing audience that benefits from them.
“Cell Respiration,” which is posted on YouTube, has more than a quarter of a million views and gains more daily. “It’s nice that a lot of people can use it as a resource to help them learn,” Hsu said.
Comments under his videos praise Hsu’s creative, engaging way of presenting information. One comment reads, “All I need to do is memorize this song and sing it during a test and I’d be set!”
Another viewer wrote, “All my biology teacher does is read Power Points which leads me to look for silly fun ways to learn like this :)”
As Hsu’s viewership increased, YouTube contacted him and offered him money if he would allow ads to appear alongside his video. Hsu refused the offer. “I don’t care about getting money,” he said. “It’s about learning.”
Hsu estimates that it took him 40 hours to write the lyrics, set them to music and create the Power Point for “Cell Respiration.”
The songs have become a helpful resource for Hsu’s students and many others, though he stresses that the songs alone are not enough to learn biology concepts. “My goal in honors [classes] isn’t just memorization; it’s understanding,” Hsu said.
Hsu’s students also speak highly of his videos. Sophomore Morgan Kiener, currently in Hsu’s Honors Biology class said the music makes the difference. “Mr. Hsu’s songs are a great study technique because the lyrics go along with the beat of popular songs on the radio,” she said. “He makes science more interesting while also teaching us.”
Senior Spencer Byers, a past student in Hsu’s Honors Biology class, said Hsu is a great teacher. “He gave you enough help so that you could do your work, but he never did it for you,” Byers said. “The information really stuck. His class was tougher, but in the end it was more rewarding.”
Other teachers have also found Hsu’s songs helpful in their classes. In response to the cellular respiration video, one YouTube user wrote, “Good stuff, [I] plan to use this as an intro to a HS science course.”
Hsu helps his students online in many other ways besides YouTube. Whenever he gives a lecture in class, he records himself and posts the audio to the web. This way, when students review past Power Points, they also hear Hsu explaining the information. “It’s awesome because if you feel like you missed something in class, you can listen to it again until you get it,” said sophomore Rebecca Chaney, Hsu’s Honors Biology student.
Hsu started his funny performances in front of classes as a high school student himself. “I did do crazy stuff in front of my classmates in high school for projects,” Hsu said.
Hsu is known to his students as the teacher who will work very hard to ensure students learn.
As Byers put it, “When this bio teacher leaves, there will be big Hsu’s to fill.”
A version of this article appeared in print on 8 February 2012, on page 10 of The Shakerite.