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Supporting Computational Literacy by Designing a Collaborative Platform at the Intersection of Music and Code: 2119701

Principal Investigator: Michael Horn
CoPrincipal Investigator(s): Andrea Hillsamer, Michael Zang
Organization: Northwestern University
NSF Award Information: Supporting Computational Literacy by Designing a Collaborative Platform at the Intersection of Music and Code
This project will design and build technology that empowers ensemble musical performances with code while advancing the field of collaborative learning. It addresses two critical challenges for science and technology learning in the 21st century. First, how do we develop broad-based computational literacy skills for the next generation of learners? Second, how do we do that in a way that is inclusive—engaging diverse learners who have been historically marginalized in computational fields? The challenge of developing computational literacy is important across scientific, creative, artistic, and trade professions because computing is rapidly transforming all fields. As a result, skills such as computer programming are becoming foundational for everyone. To support motivation, learning, creative expression, and broadening participation, this research will investigate the intersection of music (as an integral component of contemporary culture) and computer programming in the design of a new collaborative technology platform. The platform takes inspiration from community-centered discourse and participation structures, such as drum circles, improvisational performance, and jam sessions. Participants will collaborate in online compositions by simultaneously writing computer code to play virtual musical instruments. Through a close partnership with the YMCA of Evanston, Illinois, the project will directly impact thousands of young learners in and around Chicago, and beyond, with a focus on students of color. The platform and learning materials (including audio and video tutorials hosted on YouTube) will be made freely available via a website to facilitate widespread adoption. These interconnections have the potential to serve as a foundation for prolonged interest, learning, creative expression, and lead to positive attitudes towards computing from a more representative, computationally empowered population.

This research builds on conceptual connections between music and computer science to contribute to computational literacy, informal learning in STEM and the arts, and creative and embodied approaches to computing. The project designs and studies a collaborative music+coding platform designed to give students freedom to tinker creatively, learn from their peers, and playfully confront culturally ingrained expectations about who can and should be a “computer person”. The project will investigate the following thematic pairs of research questions: (1) Technology Innovation: How can we design technology that empowers ensemble musical performances with code? What are the foundational affordances of this technology to facilitate both co-located (multiple learners on the same physical stage) and distributed (multiple learners performing on a virtual livestream) musical performances? (2) New Models for Learning with Technology: How do we best design collaborative music+coding environments? What are the affordances of such environments for distributed collaboration, creativity, and computational literacy? (3) Broadening Participation: How can the intersection of music and computational literacy provide a context for prolonged interest and engagement for young people who have been historically marginalized in computing careers? Can code become a socially and culturally relevant medium of expression for creating and sharing music?

This award reflects NSF’s statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation’s intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

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