Using Hip-Hop to Teach Computer Science

July 10, 2012

Georgia Tech is welcoming 18 metro Atlanta high school students to campus this week, hosting a musical summer camp that is intended to have broad implications for the future of computer science education. The teenagers are creating and remixing hip-hop beats using a software program called Earsketch. Although only 5 of the students had ever written computer code before they arrived at the camp, each high schooler will create a three-minute, computerized tune by Friday.

Earsketch was designed by School of Music Associate Professor Jason Freeman and School of Literature, Communication and Culture Assistant Professor Brian Magerko. The software was created to address the nation’s shortage of high school students, especially females and minorities, who are interested in computer science careers.

“We believe that we can get people more motivated in this field by placing introductory computing education into a really interesting, fun context,” said Freeman. “Instead of writing programs that sort lists or crunch numbers, students learn all of these skills while making music.”

Earsketch utilizes the Python programming language and Reaper, a digital audio workstation program similar to those used in recording studios throughout the music industry. Students are remixing samples and loops to create their own tracks.

“We use hip-hop music as a core musical domain because of its history of remixing music and its strong roots in Atlanta,” said Magerko. “But students can work in any genre that speaks to them.”

Georgia Tech was awarded a three-year grant in 2011 by the National Science Foundation to test and implement Earsketch. The software and curriculum will be piloted this spring at Lanier High School in Gwinnet County as part of the school’s music technology program.

The Earsketch workshop is one of several summer camps organized on campus by the Institute for Computing Education. The program is overseen by Barbara Ericson, Director of Computing Outreach in the College of Computing.

Freeman is a faculty member in the College of Architecture. Magerko is a faculty member in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.