Earsketch is the Music/Computing Hybrid Future of STEM Education

“Jason, I’ve got just one more question!”

A teacher said from behind his laptop, his arm raised like one of the many students he teaches during the school year. In the festival suite of the student success center, a dedicated group of teachers are going back to school. They’re all here to learn how to use Earsketch, a program designed to combine computer programming with the art of music.

The result, they said, is a program that quickly captures the interest of the students they teach.

“Earsketch gets students making music even if they don’t read music or play an instrument, and it gets creative music making into schools in an unusual way (through STEM courses) that reaches students who might not normally sign up for arts courses,” said Jason Freeman, a professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Music and Center for Music Technology.

Freeman co-founded the Earsketch project in 2011 in part because he saw parallels in the relationship gap between users and content creators in both music and computing. His goal was to create a program that would engage users into making music.

The result is a program that teaches musical and computer skills which requires little to no previous knowledge of either subject. “Coding is becoming an essential 21st century survival skill. We made Earsketch to encourage students to learn about coding in a fun, expressive, and creative way that appeals to a diverse population of students.”

Michelle Smith’s students in Gwinnett county are already interested in music, but Earsketch introduces them to computer science in a way that engages them. “They really don’t realize that they’re learning programming and the computational thinking that goes along with that,” she said. This is Smith’s second year coming to Earsketch seminars, and she has quickly found the value in using the program in the classroom.

Student Engagement: A New Way of Teaching

“I am totally blown away that they have brought these two things together,” she says. “It works very well together, and I think that we will see more students taking an interest in the computer science side. They are seeing that ‘Hey, I can take my creative side, and pull it in and still have my creativity, but still have that computation side!’”

These teachers say they often have to deal with the impression that there isn’t any room for creativity in computer science and coding. But Earsketch has a strong record of capturing the imaginations of students, especially those typically not strongly represented in computer science, such as female students.

“We don’t have a lot of strong girl presence in that Computer Science side. I think this is a great way to get them to realize that ‘Oh, I can still do that creative stuff!’”

Other teachers at the seminar agreed with this sentiment.

“I think my students need Earsketch because for one, it’s programming, which is something that I teach and something that I’m passionate about, and it’s something I want my students to be passionate about,” Shaneal Robertson said. She is a computer science teacher at Tri-Cities high school in Fulton county. Tri Cities high school is a magnet school for the performing arts, which makes Earsketch an ideal tool to capture the interest of her students in learning coding.

Earsketch Evolution

2011 — Project co-founded by Brian Magerko (Digital Media) and Jason Freeman (Music); initial funding awarded from National Science Foundation.

2012 — First EarSketch summer camp for high school students launched at Georgia Tech.

2013 — EarSketch first used in a high school computer science class; pilot research study demonstrates the potential of EarSketch to engage diverse populations of high school students; first EarSketch course launches on Coursera.

2014 — EarSketch team launches a free, web-based version of EarSketch; new funding awarded from the National Science Foundation to focus on EarSketch in the new AP Computer Science Principles course; first EarSketch summer training course for teachers is offered.

2015 — EarSketch team begins a multi-site pilot study in Gwinnett and Fulton county schools; new funding awarded from the National Science Foundation to develop college-level EarSketch curriculum and from the Blank Foundation to develop a summer camp program for younger students.

2016 — EarSketch surpasses 50,000 unique users in all 50 states and 100+ countries and is used to train high school teachers in New York City, Maryland, and Georgia; TuneTable, a tabletop programming environment connected to EarSketch, is installed at the Museum of Design in Atlanta.

Why Earsketch Resonates

Earsketch resonates with students everywhere it has been taught, and reaches students of every age and demographic.

“It’s resonated so well with kids because music has a near-universal appeal; students can use computing to create music that is personally expressive and culturally relevant to them that they want to share,” Freeman said.

Atlanta has historically been a hotbed for musical artistic talent in a variety of genres. Earsketch gives many students in the area a chance to learn skills to succeed in music and technology where opportunities might not have existed in the past.

“I think it’s something for students to be passionate about in the long run, and I think it’s a way for them to develop themselves into productive citizens. His vision for Earsketch is amazing. I’m passionate about it now, even though I’ve only dealt with it for a couple of weeks. I think it’s something that is going to change the industry, especially for programming and music technology,” Robertson said.

She plans on using Earsketch in her Computer Science classes, and looks forward to seeing how the students in both her introductory course and her AP course adapt to using it.

Freeman’s Vision for the Earsketch of the future

2016 has been a landmark year for Earsketch, as its userbase continues to expand nationwide, in addition to over 100 countries worldwide.

“We’re continuing to develop and expand Earsketch to engage students more effectively and to reach more students and schools. We’re also researching the impacts Earsketch has on students, both so that we can improve Earsketch itself and also learn more generally about the best practices for designing and implementing educational programs combining STEM and the arts.” Freeman said.

He plans on expanding the program to new areas and contexts, such as elementary schools, colleges, and even museums.

“Jason is wonderful, he’s very passionate about what he’s doing. I think he is going to put this particular program on the map,” Robertson said.

But as Smith points out, a noteworthy part of why it is successful is because kids just have fun using it.

“They enjoy putting the music together, and as you’re explaining some of the concepts to them, they realize “Oh, I just programmed something!”