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Student Project Wins NYC Music Technology Contest

Compact Device Encourages Composing, Practice

UMass Lowell Image by Meghan Moore
Music students Matt Cohen, left, and Graham Allen won second place in the New York City Music Education Hack event with their MaKey MaKey Musical Construction Kit.

By Julia Gavin

Co-op Scholars Graham Allen and Matt Cohen are working with Asst. Prof. Alex Ruthmann to help young music students learn more about chords and composing. Just a few months in, their research is already award-winning and sought after by educators.

The students earned second place at the Music Education Hack event in New York City, a 24-hour competition to improve the city's music classrooms with technology. Organizers posed challenges that teachers face and participants presented solutions after brainstorming, meeting with mentors and creating in the whirlwind process. 

The participants came from across the country and diverse backgrounds, many already leaders in their fields. Allen and Cohen were the only student team to place, earning $2,000 of Amazon Web Services credits and 25 hours of startup consulting from NYC Dev Shop to help expand the project. They also earned the respect of the New York City department of Education, competition judges and numerous contacts in the startup, technology and music education communities.

Their project, Remixing Your Musical World: The MaKey MaKey Musical Construction Kit, is a handheld device using the MaKey MaKey electronic circuit-building invention kit, Scratch programming code and sounds they recorded themselves. Students and teachers can simulate playing notes or chords on several instruments by hooking the device up to a computer with speakers. The project may be built using purchased materials or with items from around the classroom, making it an economical choice. Parents can also help with homework, pressing a button to play a complex cord even if they have no musical experience. With classrooms looking for iPad alternatives with robust features, the student project has great possibilities.

“The affordability, portability and versatility of the system are unrivaled to anything I have seen thus far and the kit could become a staple for music educators in the coming years,” says Allen, an aspiring chorus teacher. “The tools are great resources for band, chorus and general music teachers at any level. Someday I hope to use this in my own classroom.”

The team started the competition with an early version of the device that allowed students to play instruments and write their own music. They incorporated several features in response to the educator challenges, such as an assessment feature, which allows teachers to leave comments on student recordings and track their progress. Time with mentors, including alum Darla Hanley ’86, dean of professional education at Berklee College of Music, helped them fine tune the device during the day and night of work.

“The time frame was definitely both motivating and tiring at the same time,” says Cohen. “One day is an incredibly short amount of time to develop and build out a successful music-related hack, or different use of an existing product. Now I know how quickly ideas can become reality in the professional world. After the event, I had to think deeply about all the things that happened in a day. Our idea had won second place out of about 40 submissions and we were even offered some extra development and consulting services from a company not even affiliated with the event itself.”

Co-Op Scholars Doing Real Research

The pair’s entry incorporated research they’d been conducting in their o-op, which enables undergraduates to start research projects in their fields and work closely with accomplished professors, an opportunity that can kick start a career by sophomore year.

“Working in the Co-op Scholars Program has been a great experience,” says Allen. “Being paid to work with music is incredible and terrifying simultaneously; it gives me a very real idea of what working in the field is actually like, and keeps me pushing to do the best I can in order to prove to myself that I am indeed cut out to be a music educator.”

The pair will continue to build on their research, incorporating a drum kit and other features into the device. They’re hopeful that this project will lead to more music opportunities in future MaKey MaKey products, possibilities they’ve spoken to its developer about. The students are also learning about the entrepreneurial mindset behind big projects as other promising concepts appear.

Watch Students Tell Their Story