As the tech industry grows, a lack of diversity and inclusion in the world of computer science remains a problem; African Americans serve as only 2% of the workforce at major Silicon Valley companies. But a new interdisciplinary team at VCU is developing a strategy to change that.

“Coding Beats: Learning Computer Programming by Coding Hip Hop Beats” is a new public school-focused curriculum designed by faculty members from VCU’s departments of Kinetic Imaging, music, and computer science, along with local hip-hop artist Nickelus F. Their proposal to the VCU Next Big Idea Challenge, hosted by VCU Ventures, won the first-place prize and the People’s Choice Award, earning them a $1,400 prize.

The team’s proposed curriculum is set to be developed in partnership with the nonprofit CodeVA and conclude with a live performance.

“Coding live might be seen as high stakes,” says Kate Sicchio, an assistant professor of both Kinetic Imaging and dance and media technologies, and the team’s live code expert. “But it becomes the opposite. It is about finding how to express yourself in a language rather than worrying about executing software. It allows students to embrace error and explore code creatively rather than think of technology as a rigid black box.”

Sicchio has co-founded live coding groups in both New York and Richmond. At VCUarts, she has helped bridge the gap between computers and performance.

The summer program “Coding Beats” is designed to teach the fundamentals of coding and programming to 40 middle-schoolers from underrepresented groups. The curriculum allows students to play with digital tools musically in a form that project lead David C. Shepherd says is more culturally relevant and immediately understandable than rote office tasks.

“Music—and in particular hip-hop music with its repeating structure and interesting variations—is so similar to code that it just felt natural,” says Shepherd, associate professor of computer science at VCU. “My hope is that learning to code via boring exercises, like sorting a list of names into order, is a thing of the past.”

Shepherd added that middle school is a crucial entry point for computer science education. African American students often lack proper access to computing classes at that age, and when full programming classes are offered in high school, they become discouraged when they feel they’re lagging behind other children with more access and experience. The team also hopes that the course will provide a kind of coding camp where African American youth feel more like they belong, as opposed to Minecraft-based camps that favor white and Asian students.

In addition to learning about coding, students can also achieve a better grasp on music. “Coding Beats” participants will benefit from the expertise of Nickelus F, a seven-time BET “Freestyle Friday” champion and Drake collaborator, and musician Taylor Barnett, an assistant professor of music and member of the Richmond-based No BS! Brass Band.

“The process of inspecting a short musical “cell,” such as a hip-hop beat, and really dialing in on what is happening teaches students to decipher the structure and relationships within various aspects of the music (e.g. rhythm, tempo, pitch, instrumentation),” says Barnett. “Translating that musical structure into a series of commands develops a very high level of thinking, and will probably enrich their musical understanding as well.”

The Next Big Idea Challenge is an online competition that gives VCU staff the chance to win up to $1,400 in funding for their proposals. Learn more about the competition on the Next Big Idea website, and read the Coding Beats proposal.


January 10, 2020