Students learn coding through music at Georgia Tech Savannah camp

July 06–Students and teachers alike can learn to code this summer by making music with a free program developed by experts at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

EarSketch, available at Earsketch.gatech.edu, is a web-based program anyone with a computer can use at home, said Jason Freeman, a professor in the School of Music at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

“We think we have a great thing that can meet the needs of computing education in the U.S.,” said Freeman, who has been working on designing EarSketch and rolling it out to schools since 2011.

“We started at one summer camp with four or five teachers,” Freeman said. “Now it’s in use by 15,000 to 20,000 students a month.”

A total of about 250,000 people have used EarSketch so far, and Freeman expects those numbers to grow rapidly as more teachers are trained on how to use the program in their classrooms.

Georgia Tech Savannah is using EarSketch in its Full STEAM Ahead! summer program for children ages 6 to 12.

“We decided to introduce EarSketch to students because everyone loves music,” said Danyelle Sauers, educational outreach coordinator at the Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing at Georgia Tech Savannah.

By teaching the students to “play” with EarSketch, instructors are teaching them the basics of Python and JavaScript coding languages, Sauers said. “It’s almost like tricking them into learning something through music. It’s a very unique approach I don’t think you’ll see in any other program that’s looking at how do we teach computer science” like EarSketch does.

‘It makes me happy’

Alaina Barboza, 11, of Richmond Hill Middle School, combined cowbells and Congo drum sounds to create songs using EarSketch at Georgia Tech Savannah’s Full STEAM Ahead! in June. “They let you pick your own music and create your own songs,” she said. “I like the music part. I just really like music. It makes me happy.”

With a background in music composition and computer science, Freeman became interested in using music to teach computer science because, he said, “Music is this amazingly powerful cultural force. Students spend hours listening to music every day.”

Freeman started composing music on “an old Apple 2 computer” when he was a kid, he said. That memory planted the seed for him to design EarSketch. “Giving kids a chance to be expressive and creative with code is an incredibly powerful way to engage them. It’s this incredibly powerful thing.” Typically, students want to share the music they’ve created with their friends, boosting engagement.

While other software programs allow users to create music, EarSketch doesn’t require any previous knowledge of how to read or create music, Freeman said. Most of the teachers are computer science teachers. The program provides 4,000 loops of musical sounds designed to be used together, so users don’t have to worry about hitting a wrong note.

Most music is written in loops, with stanzas or choruses that repeat. Learning to understand this helps people learn to write code.

“One of my favorite assignments is called ‘The Most Repetitious Song Ever,'” Freeman said. The computer users write regular measures of music using sounds available on EarSketch, and then they create a “fill” measure that’s different every fourth bar or so. In the process, they learn to analyze the sections in a song that repeat or change over time.

To write the music, they use EarSketch’s musical sounds, such as Congo drums, violin or a hip-hop beat, or they can import a sound from the internet. By teaching the use of repetition in music, Freeman said, the program also is teaching sequencing in coding.

Keeping it free

Because it is supported with federal funding from the National Science Foundation, EarSketch is offered free. The current $3 million, four-year grant supports design and development for EarSketch to be used in kindergarten through 12th-grade classrooms. “Before this, we had a prototype that was cobbled together and used at schools to collect research,” Freeman said.

The funds also support a teacher-training network to encourage use of the program in schools. Besides the National Science Foundation grant, Freeman said, EarSketch has received funding from Google for teacher training and from private foundations, such as the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, which supports workforce training and entrepreneurship opportunities.

The no-cost program alleviates the funding considerations that could limit the programs use by underserved students. “Obviously a huge challenge we face in this society is how to engage students in computing,” Freeman said, especially girls, minorities and other underserved students.

Early research indicates the program’s effectiveness, and now the researchers are examining what makes the program effective and what schools and teachers should provide to make the program successful in their classrooms.

The program is easy enough to learn in an hour, but teachers are trained in how to coach students and troubleshoot, Freeman said. Most teachers use a 10- to 12-week course module to cover the basics of computer coding and an introduction to visual technology. The program has been used effectively in middle school and high school, but Freeman said elementary students can get started on it. College students also use it.

Children as young as 8 have used EarSketch at Georgia Tech Savannah’s summer programs, Sauers said.

“Today’s generation of students, they are very tech savvy,” she said. “Most have the basic knowledge of operating a computer or turning on a tablet. As long as they have that fundamental knowledge, we can teach them EarSketch.”

This article provided by NewsEdge.