Grad Alex Nesmith is Bringing Music and Math Together

Recording Arts graduate Alex Nesmith has worked with some of music’s biggest artists during his nearly two-decade career as a producer, engineer, and songwriter, with credits on records by Outkast, AKON, and Busta Rhymes. And while the multiplatinum hits he’s produced have been heard blasting out of clubs and car stereos, Alex has recently taken his work to the last place you’d probably expect: the classroom.

It might be hard to think of hip hop and education being a seamless combination, but then you probably haven’t heard of Smart Shorties, a teaching program Alex has created that uses popular music to help elementary students learn math and other subjects.

“[My friend] is a teacher and mentioned how she was having trouble with her students learning their multiplication facts,” he says. “I told her, ‘You could get kids to learn anything if you put it on top of a cool beat. Look at how kids memorize every Beyonce lyric.’ There’s nothing wrong with their capacity to memorize, they’re just not liking the way you give them information. And that’s how Smart Shorties came about.”

A couple weeks after that conversation Alex brought an instrumental track of E40’s hit song “Tell Me When To Go” into that friend’s classroom, and the students began writing their own educational lyrics to learn the “12s” multiplication table. A local ABC affiliate picked up on the story – covering it during a news broadcast – and the next thing you know Alex was getting phone calls from different investors.

With financial backing in place, Alex launched his educational company Spark the Mind, and began working with musicians and educators to develop their first product, Hip Hop Multiplication. It features a CD of 13 multiplication lessons set to recent hip hop songs (along with student workbooks, and a teacher guide), and the feedback he’s gotten has been overwhelmingly positive, with the program being adopted by educators across the country.

“All of the [other educational] products that are on the market use original music, but the child just sits there and looks with a stone cold face because they’ve never heard that before,” he says. “But they hear Smart Shorties come on and they hear Akon or T-Pain and they light up and think, ‘Oh, I know that song. I get to listen to my favorite record in class.’ Smart Shorties is a great creative challenge, because [it’s about] how I’m going to get a mundane subject be as cool and as exciting and as hip as anything that you would see on MTV or hear on the radio.”

Based on the success of the first release, the Smart Shorties template is currently being applied to other subjects, with lessons in fractions, grammar, and science on the way. Alex admits it’s been a change of pace making the switch from hip hop records to education, but then he’s basically been making music that speaks to kids his entire career.

And for all the success Alex has had in music throughout his career, Smart Shorties has given him a different kind of fulfillment than he’s previously had from his work.

“I have kids come up to me and tell me that they listen to my stuff every day, and the feedback I hear a lot from parents is that they love it too because their kids are engaged by Smart Shorties. Parents email me all the time telling me that they don’t even have to remind their kids to listen to it, they listen anyway. And it’s so fun that they actually forget that they’re learning. The possibilities are really endless, and that’s really exciting part for me, seeing how far this can really go.”