TunePad:Teaching Computer Science Through Music

SESP’s Mike Horn finds novel ways to make coding fun and accessible to diversify the pool of computer scientists.

By Mark Guarino

When Sandra Nissim’s parents signed her up for a summer coding camp, she didn’t want to go. She had never coded before, and in her high school it was viewed as a boys’ club. She was afraid of being ostracized by her classmates simply for being smart.

Nevertheless, she showed up on the first day of camp, and her life changed.

“Within a week I was hooked. It totally changed what I wanted to do with my life,” she says.

Now the 19-year-old Nissim is a Northwestern sophomore computer science major who wants to pursue cybersecurity after graduation. Her adviser is Michael Horn, director of the Tangible Interaction Design and Learning (TIDAL) Lab, whose groundbreaking work aims to make computer science—a field with historic inequities—younger and more diverse.

TIDAL finds unique ways to introduce coding— from old-fashioned puzzles and stickerbooks to mobile apps and touchscreen exhibits—and other technology-based learning experiences that children can easily use to solve challenges and create content in sophisticated ways.

The lab’s most expansive project yet is TunePad, a website and free app that allows users to create musical compositions via the computer programming language Python. The work, part of a collaborative project with George Tech, is funded by the National Science Foundation.

It’s easy to see how kids growing up with streaming media would find TunePad appealing: It lets them create an original piece of music by choosing from a library of bass, keyboard and drum sounds, instrumental riffs, and hip-hop samples, or by uploading samples of their own. In no time they’re dragging musical elements in and out and controlling tempo, volume, and arrangement with the finesse of a studio producer. The platform encourages endless playing in the best sense of the word.

With TunePad, the final product is never really final. Instead, Horn, 43, says the platform is designed to promote content sharing—for getting and giving feedback, encouragement, and supporting collaboration. “We’re trying to build youth-driven communities where coding is a tool of ‘look what I can do,’” he says. “Seeing your peers get involved and then having the ability to go deep with them—that’s a powerful way to connect with each other.”

Defying Stereotypes

Making coding both fun and accessible is critical for generating interest in computer science in children, especially those who get little exposure to it in the classroom, and for diversifying the next generation of coders. A 2016 survey by the Computing Research Association, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, D.C., shows that undergraduate computer science majors are overwhelmingly male (82 percent); and half are white, while only 3 percent are black, about 8 percent are Hispanic, and 23 percent are Asian.

Horn, associate professor of learning sciences and computer science and one of four School of Education and Social Policy faculty members with a joint appointment, says the diversity gap is wide in part because of “the cultural perception that coding is something that boys do.”

Horn also blames a continuing lack of resources. For example, while Chicago Public Schools mandate computer science as a graduation requirement, schools in some areas of the city are unable to hire teachers with the relevant qualifications; instead computer science classes are often assigned to math teachers with little to no coding experience. “It’s less than ideal,” Horn says.

Taking up some of the slack are nonprofit groups like Girls Who Code, a nationwide organization that aims to increase the number of women in computer science. It was a Girls Who Code summer camp that turned Nissim on to programming. The next year, she became co-president of a new Girls Who Code chapter at her high school. She says the organization fills a void for girls her age because the focus of attention in computer science is typically on boys.

“There are not as many opportunities [for girls], and if one does present itself, it’s hard to stick with it because you’re outnumbered and you don’t fit in,” she says.

Joshua Kim, a Northwestern senior who has worked on TunePad’s music samples for TIDAL, says he had little coding experience before meeting Horn, who became his mentor. Kim grew up in Los Angeles’s Korea Town neighborhood and went to a struggling high school where “even the math books were in tatters,” he says. He’s now pursuing a master’s in educational technology at Harvard University because, like Horn, he wants kids to get the exposure to coding that was missing from his own K–12 education.

“Working with Michael on this project has opened my eyes—not only to try to build an all-inclusive app for coding, but also to go out to the city and expose really young kids to code through music,” Kim says.

In addition to Kim, Horn’s 12-person lab includes undergraduate and graduate programmers, researchers, and others who together are in their second year of refining TunePad. Others, like Jamie Gorson, who is pursuing a joint PhD in learning sciences and computer science, are studying how students react to challenge when learning to program in TunePad. Horn says he expects the app’s development to continue for at least three more years. At the same time, he wants to build an online community where kids can share music for others to appreciate or even remix.

Here Comes TunePad

A TunePad prototype launched publicly this summer, and TIDAL is working with different organizations to roll it out. In DuPage County, west of Chicago, Horn’s team is partnering with the NAACP to run a coding summer camp; in Chicago, the James R. Jordan Foundation is helping the lab conduct Saturday workshops. The TunePad team also recently received a new grant from the National Science Foundation to work with Evanston/Skokie School District 65 schools to create innovative music and coding curricula.

During the roll-out, Horn’s team will collect data to identify users’ motivations and interests in order to refine TunePad further. Even if creating music isn’t their thing, he hopes the coding experience will inspire students to consider other tangible benefits of gaining technical know-how, such as a high-paying job and a stable career.

“There can be deep bias in programming from homogenous groupthink,” Horn says. “When it comes to important societal issues, we should have more voices at the table working for technology companies.”