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New Curriculum Combines Computing and Music

Project Receives $450K Grant from NSF

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Music majors Maggie Dougherty and Mike McKendry work with computer science major Sophanna Son to figure out the best way to implement a composition program that reflects the way a musician thinks about the problem.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

An interdisciplinary team of UMass Lowell professors has received a three-year, $450,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to further develop and disseminate the innovative techniques they use to teach “computational thinking” in courses that combine computing and music. 

Prof. Jesse Heines of the Computer Sciences Department is the principal investigator (PI) for the project, which is called “Computational Thinking through Computing and Music.” Profs. Gena Greher and Alex Ruthmann of the Music Department are the co-PIs. Profs. Sarah Kuhn of Psychology and Fred Martin of Computer Science are Senior Personnel, and Prof. Scott Lipscomb of the University of Minnesota serves as the project’s external evaluator.

“Computational thinking is an emerging component of computer science education,” says Heines. “Our approach uses music as a context to which students can relate, enhancing interest and engagement.”

The award leverages the natural relationship between music and computing to reach undergraduates in all disciplines.
Examples of student activities include analyzing songs to identify their components, creating variants of those songs by rearranging those components, flowcharting songs to recognize their structure, translating those flowcharts into computer programs that play sequences of recorded sounds, and writing programs that play new music expressed as sequences of MIDI notes based on computational algorithms.

The course for which these activities have been developed is “Sound Thinking,” a general education (GenEd) program that is colisted in both music and computer science curricula. All students enroll in the same course, but arts majors receive science and technology GenEd credit while science and engineering majors receive arts and humanities GenEd credit.
Another defining aspect of Sound Thinking is that every class is taught by two professors: one from music and the other from computer science. This approach builds on the outcomes and experiences of Performamatics, a previous NSF-funded project that involved the same team, and Artbotics, another interdisciplinary NSF-funded project led by Profs. Holly Yanco, Fred Martin, Hyun Ju Kim and Linda Silka that combines art and robotics.

“Co-teaching is rare in higher education,” Heines says. “We are fortunate that the UMass Lowell administration recognizes the value of these interdisciplinary efforts and gives both professors full credit toward their teaching loads.”

The team will also host summer workshops to share their approaches with faculty at other two- and four-year institutions. The first of these will be held next year, on June 21 to 22, at UMass Lowell. 

For further information on these workshops, the Sound Thinking course and the project as a whole, visit