Learn, Code, Compose: STEAM in Detroit’s Classrooms

Blurring the Lines Between Computer Science and the Arts

Author: Miguel Davis/Thursday, June 01, 2017/Categories: Education Technology

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Jobs that require a computer science degree are currently growing at twice the rate of all other jobs in the United States, yet the majority of school districts still don’t offer any coding curriculum. One of the main reasons for this, simply put, is that most schools already expect a lot out of their students and teachers. Between juggling daily instruction, rigorous testing schedules, and in many cases budget cuts across the board, it can be a challenging for administrators to justify the implementation of non-essential programs. These barriers certainly make it difficult for schools to offer coding classes, however it’s not an impossible feat. 

Teacher Tyler Fleming codes a Sonic Pi beat alongside a student


Central High School, an Education Achievement Authority (EAA) school located in the heart of Detroit is a great example of a school that has embraced the challenge of teaching its students how to code. All 9th graders at the school have spent the year learning introductory computer programming concepts, as well as the basics of the Python coding language. Sensing an opportunity to further enhance Central’s existing computer science curriculum, principal Abraham Sohn recently partnered with Macro Connect to implement our unique coding program called “Learn, Code, Compose”.

“Learn, Code, Compose” is a course that introduces coding concepts in a truly unique way – by allowing students the freedom to experiment with and practice their coding skills through the composition of original music. Over 100 9th graders at Central High School participated in a 4-day “coding boot camp” program. Students began by learning the basics of the Ruby coding language and transposing commands into common melodies in Sonic Pi, an open source coding environment that translates code into musical programs that can be played and shared. After mastering the basics, students learned how to play melodies, incorporate synthesizer sounds, trigger samples, and add loops to their increasingly advanced lines of code. At the conclusion of the course, each student had an original composition, beat, or song that they proudly performed for the group. Some students had more experience making music than others, however the course was designed to be inclusive to all learners, regardless of their previous level of experience with music and/or coding. Tyler Fleming, a teacher at Central High School shared with us after:

"Mr. Newton and Sonic Pi allowed our students to make strong connections between the coding work they've done throughout the course of the year and their personal interests in music. We saw a wide variety of students engaging in coding in a new and unique way; students pushed beyond previous limits to use the coding to create something they were proud to share with their peers."

One of the most beneficial outcomes of a program like “Learn, Code, Compose” is that it provides exposure to coding in a setting predicated on exploration and creativity. Most students enjoy listening to music, but would not ever touch code in their free time. The program combines students’ passion for music with coding concepts that many previously considered unattainable. It is our hope that this exposure to coding will inspire students to continue to grow as programmers, and ultimately pursue college degrees that will set them up for success in a job market that is desperate for computer science graduates.

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This article was originally written by Ben Newton. Ben is a Digital Learning Consultant for Macro Connect and the lead curriculum developer and instructor for the “Learn, Code, Compose” course. Mr. Newton received his bachelor’s degree from Ohio University and has spent the past five years working in the education sector in Detroit, Michigan. Mr. Newton is an alumnus of City Year Detroit, where he tutored and mentored students at River Rouge High School. Ben also managed the state of Michigan for EverFi, a “critical skills” focused online curriculum provider. Mr. Newton is a lifelong musician who plays 7 instruments and possesses a deep understanding of music technology. Over the past year, Mr. Newton has taught the “Sonic Pi: Music & Coding” course to over 15 cohorts of students throughout schools in the Detroit area.

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