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UC Berkeley Web Feature

'Math girl' makes music

– A wide variety of music will echo across campus on Cal Day, but Nicole Campbell's got a niche all her own.

The long-haired, acoustic guitar-strumming, third-year UC Berkeley student will be in Room 1015 of Evans Hall performing songs she wrote about math and science.

Nicole Campbell playing guitar
Nicole Campbell takes her math and her music wherever she goes, from a campsite jam session to Cal Day. (Phil Chang photo)
MP3 audio Math & Science Sampler: Nicole Campbell
Horizontal Asymptote (2:49)

Combustion (2:41)

The Physics Song (3:10)
"I feel that real life feelings like love and struggle can often be described best through math and science metaphors," said the talented 20-year-old from San Jose. "And I think the best way to learn science and math concepts is to relate them to tangible, everyday things like relationships between people."

One of her favorite compositions based on a math concept is "Horizontal Asymptote," a song she wrote about getting closer and closer to someone but never touching. Campbell also is fond of "Complementary," a song about two people who relate to each other like complementary angles. The chorus is: "We're complementary, like 30 and 60 degrees. We're right when it's you and me."

"Even though I'm not majoring in math, I love it," said Campbell, who instead is majoring in integrative biology and minoring in music. Her Cal Day performances will be from 11-11:30 a.m. and from 2-2:30 p.m., and she also plans to speak with prospective students who come to hear her unique songs.

Campbell started playing the violin in the third grade, and that's when her love of music and songwriting began to blossom. "I would write little songs about otters and my pet guinea pig, and my dad would unflaggingly rave about them even as the neighbors were closing their windows to block out the sound," she said.

Then, in high school, she took up the guitar. "For every school project or report, I would ask my teacher if I could write a song instead of doing a normal assignment," she recalled. "This resulted in a lot of songs about Galileo, advertising, United States history and physics." She composed her first math/science song during her senior year of high school and described it as "a sort of fake love song" using science lingo.

She said her parents are "behind-the-scenes" technicians who hang lighting, sound and structural equipment at musical events and who often brought Campbell and her little brother to work with them. "I can remember many nights in my sleeping bag with a box of apple juice, listening to live country, rap or folk music while my mom sat running a spotlight next to me," Campbell said, noting that being around a lot of live music "made my head swim with sound and made me go straight home to play my fiddle or strum my dad's guitar."

When Campbell arrived at UC Berkeley, she said her songwriting exploded as she found herself surrounded by people excited about math and science. "I've played songs about science and math in many different places, but I have to say there are no people who appreciate the songs more than those right here in Berkeley," she said.

Campbell is helping to teach 4th grade math at Cragmont Elementary School and 6th grade math at Willard Middle School - both in the city of Berkeley - through Cal Teach, a program at UC Berkeley that helps to prepare and support math, science and engineering students who are interested in becoming K-12 math and science teachers.

She hopes to use her songwriting skills in the field of education and is writing two songs for a non-profit TV show about the metric system - one about temperature and the other about distance measurements.

Campbell is contemplating becoming a field teacher at an outdoor school, a classroom teacher, or taking a related job with kids. Wherever her career takes her, she said, "My dream is to write songs about everything I teach."