Gwinnett pilot hopes to draw students to computer programming through music

Students in Mike Reilly’s computer programming classes could be helping to bust the stereotype of the computer nerd hunched over a keyboard, writing programs that crunch numbers and sort lists.

They are creating and remixing hip-hop beats as part of a pilot program that could have broader implication for the future of computer science education.

For almost a decade, government agencies, universities and technology companies have plowed millions of dollars, with little success, into robotics camps, video gaming and other programs intended to convince two under-represented groups — females and minorities — to study and pursue computer programming as a career.

Now, with the same objective and a grant from the National Science Foundation, Georgia Tech is testing software in Reilly’s classes at Lanier High School in Gwinnett County that is designed to incorporate fun and music into students’ first foray into computer programming.

“The students are doing something that’s very technical and cool,” said Brian Magerko, an associate professor in Tech’s School of Literature, Communications and Culture and one of the software’s developers.

Seventy ninth graders, including black, Hispanic and female students, are in an abbreviated pilot this spring that has already produced anecdotal evidence — and some data, of course — to suggest it might be working.

On a recent visit to Reilly’s class, students were eager to talk about their efforts.

“When we go to college, we’ll have a basic understanding,” said Rachel Crowley, now mulling a career in video game design.

“We learned how to work with partners, how to contribute ideas,” said student Haylee Anderson.

The students weren’t specifically recruited for the pilot, and fewer than 10 started with a good working knowledge of computers, Reilly said.

“We just threw it at them,” he said.

The students use EarSketch, the software created by Magerko and Jason Freeman, an associate professor in Tech’s School of Music. EarSketch utilizes the Python programming language and Reaper, a digital audio work station program similar to those used in recording studios throughout the music industry.

“Young people don’t always realize that computer science and programming can be fun,” Freeman said. “This is allowing students to express their own creative musical ideas as they learn computer science principles.”

Studies have shown that far fewer females and minorities are pursing computer programming, even as demand grows. In 2011, females accounted for 19 percent of students taking advanced placement courses in computer science, the lowest in any subject area.

In the pilot at Lanier High, students in the class can work in teams, but also have to produce individual projects, Reilly said.

“We want to teach programming, and this is a different way,” he said. “But music and programming are so similar.”

Students are usually taught basic programming in high school technology classes, but the EarSketch program provides a different twist. The students learn Python, a powerful yet simple programming language used by beginning programmers, as well as companies, such as Google, Reilly said.

To teach the Python language and make it more interesting to a more diverse group of students, Georgia Tech has written custom software that allows the student to write programming code that uses music samples and arranges them into their musical creation, he said.

“As the student learns more programming techniques, they can apply those techniques to musical conditions and more complex musical pieces,” Reilly said. Students have chosen to use these musical compositions in projects, such as music videos and game background music. Some have written their own lyrics.

Isaiah Dozier shot a video in which he rapped on a topic in chemistry — a project that earned him a 95.

“I like the class. I’ve learned a lot of stuff,” Isaiah said. “And there’s no essays. No book reports.”

If praise from Reilly and a class grade weren’t incentive enough, Gimel “Young Guru” Keaton, who has engineered 10 albums for hip-hop superstar Jay-Z, recently came to the school in Sugar Hill, encouraging students in the pilot to look beyond the complexities of the work to the opportunities.

Reilly’s classes will take part in a longer pilot next fall. But already, an outside firm hired by Tech has evaluated the spring pilot and found that students’ attitudes about computer programming, as well as their knowledge, had positively and statistically increased.

Emily Polanco is one of those changed by the class.

When it started, she said she had no idea how to program and wasn’t really interested. Now she’s decided to pursue a career in technology, specifically 3D animation.

Her tech-savvy parents, Terry Polanco, an IT systems manager at AT&T, and Lisa Polanco, a technology paraprofessional at a Gwinnett County elementary school, have watched Emily grow from a casual computer user, booting up to do homework, reading and social networking.

“Her father and I know that she has only begun to ‘scratch the surface’ of possibilities in technology,” Lisa Polanco said. “Emily is excited about what she’s learning and we are, too. She regularly shows us her work and brings home computer projects on her thumb drive. We continue to be amazed by what she’s learning and impressed with the work she’s doing.”