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Art School’s Program Combines Computer Science and Art


The Chronicle of Higher Education - July 25, 2012

A new course at the California Institute of the Arts is seeking to teach computer programming through assignments in which students will create music and visual art. The program will be the first of its kind among art institutions, according to Perry R. Cook, a developer of the curriculum.

Beginning this fall, the college, in the Los Angeles suburb of Valencia, Calif., will offer all undergraduates a two-semester digital-arts sequence. The new program, supported by a $112,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, will teach basic computer-programming skills through a series of art-making projects.

The program’s first semester will be devoted to music, with students creating a new song every week, said Ajay Kapur, the institute’s associate dean of research and development in digital arts. During the second semester, the projects will be largely visual. By the end of the program, students will be expected to understand the basics of a programming language and networking.

Mr. Kapur said that computer-science skills would help students in a wide variety of professions, and noted that artists are increasingly incorporating technology into their work. “Computer science is like English—you just need it for the digital arts,” Mr. Kapur said.

He added that learning how computer programs work and how to code them would give students a creative advantage, even if they simply used off-the-shelf tools in their own work.

Mr. Kapur worked with Mr. Cook, founder of the Princeton Sound Lab and a lecturer at the institute, to create the program. After reflecting on his own experience as an undergraduate, Mr. Kapur wanted to create a way to learn the basics of computer science that wasn’t dry or theoretical. His goal, he said, was “right away, in the beginning, how we can show artists that engineering is fun.”

By having students actually create music, Mr. Kapur and Mr. Cook hope to show the value of understanding computer science. Using a music program that responds in real time provides “instant gratification,” Mr. Cook added, and can interest students who weren’t originally attracted to computer programming.

The 1,500-student institute will hold two conferences next year with other art schools to try to interest them in adopting a similar program. To encourage participation, all materials for the course—including code examples, syllabi, and assignments—will be publicly accessible online.

“Our real goal is to have this across the disciplines in art schools,” said Mr. Cook, “and when I say art schools, I mean beyond CalArts.”