Professor uses hip-hop to turn the tables on education


Sydney Laput

William Patterson, clinical associate professor in FAA and lecturer in Engineering and technological entrepreneurship, is the founder of the Hip Hop Express: Double Dutch Boom Bus. The vehicle helps educate youth through technology and Black music.

By Faith Allendorf and Nandika Chatterjee

The gravel rumbles as a unique-looking school bus passes over the black tar. The bus is painted light silver with blue, orange and yellow depictions of various hip-hop artists in waves of color along the side. Above the windows reads four words: “Double Dutch Boom Bus.” On the panes themselves, “Hip Hop Xpress” is spelled out.

As hip-hop music plays from the bus and attracts those around it, a man steps out, microphone in hand, ready to entertain and educate his audience.

William Patterson, clinical associate professor in FAA and lecturer in technological entrepreneurship within the college of Engineering, is the founder of the Hip Hop Xpress Innovation Lab, an initiative that combines music and technology to educate youth. As an educator, Patterson focuses on utilizing the cultural wealth of the African American music experience to teach entrepreneurial-minded learning in STEM and STEAM education.

Besides the Hip-Hop Xpress, Patterson has also developed several other hip-hop-inspired projects with students and other educators. Such projects include Flava Wear, a social entrepreneurial clothing project, and its successor, IPOWERED, a lecture series that teaches African American students how to work with marginalized communities.  

“I’ve been developing and working with young people for over 30 years,” Patterson said. “My work is to take a look at educational policy and say ‘How do I adapt this to speak to young people that are what I call hip-hop-minded?’ How do I get them to recognize that the day-to-day thing they do actually has value and worth?”

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    Patterson said he thought about how the College of Engineering has a process of entrepreneurial-minded learning centered around creativity. Inspired by that process, he discovered that he could use music to teach STEM in communities.

    “Hip-hop is truly an engineering innovation culture,” Patterson said. “The user experience of tools such as drum machines, turntable, the repurposing of this music instruments, you know, these are all legacies of Black music that have been transferred over the years.”

    Patterson developed ways to incorporate hip-hop music into education and engage the community; one of those ways was through creating the Hip Hop Xpress Innovation Lab.

    “I’ve been about making certain that we explore those skill sets that will have been acquired over the years and how hip-hop has played a role to innovate and create new possibilities with African American youth culture,” Patterson said.

    Inspired by a similar project done by Tuskegee University that provided resources for families in sharecropping fields, Patterson, along with several professors and students at the University, developed the Double Dutch Boom Bus.

    “It was a sustainable energy project, and the whole goal was to talk about sustainable energy from a hip-hop perspective,” Patterson said. “Given that recording devices did not use a lot of power, they could become solar powered. We built a solar-powered recording studio.”

    Through campaigns such as Lovin’ U and single stops, the bus brings music design to youth in historically-excluded areas, locally and nationally.

    “My whole goal is to make certain to young people in limited research areas have the opportunity to expand the possibilities of cultural wealth by being connected with institutions of higher aid,” Patterson said.

    Patterson has also pulled together several other projects under the phrase “Ghetto Genius Universe,” a phrase that he presented in a TEDxUIUC talk in 2017.

    “Geeks are individuals that really are astute about the craft,” Patterson said. “Being a ghetto genius means that you have high intelligence in marginalized communities.”

    Patterson said that his passion for hip-hop music really developed in the 80s when he watched a DJ and some local R&B bands perform in Douglass Park.

    “There was a DJ that traveled here from Philadelphia named Disco Rat, and he began showing us how to DJ,” Patterson said. “He broke out his DJing equipment and lights and all types of stuff … I’ve always been fascinated by sound.”

    Patterson said that when he got turntables, mixers and speakers, he learned how to DJ and began working at parties and big events such as a Rock Against Racism rally in 1984.

    Patterson also said radio allows him to hear bits and pieces of life from everywhere. In 1982, he got the signal.

    “What I mean by ‘the signal’ is that I got my first mixtape,” Patterson said.

    The mixtape came from the NYC radio show “The Rap Attack.” Patterson said he was blown away.

    “I heard bits and pieces of New York radio; it really spoke to me,” Patterson said. “When I heard that, for the first time, I found my voice that speaks to me and the style that I like to hear the world (in).”

    Upon looking back on his accomplishments, Patterson is proud.

    “There’s no way in the world I thought that being a street DJ back in the 80s would (lead me to be) a university professor teaching culture with my innovation lab that goes around the country with turntables and music production equipment,” Patterson said. “There’s just no way.”

    Patterson said that he always tells students to stay humble and to be excited about learning for the next generation.

    “Always keep it ‘hip-hop,’ which means always innovate and keep your mindset free and open to the possibilities,” Patterson said. “Always, always keep dreaming.”

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