How a cloud-based music app adds new energy to computer science instruction


Getting middle schoolers excited about computer science is always a challenge. They imagine dry, unintelligible lines of code on a computer screen, or mindless attempts to figure out mathematical-like strings of symbols. Coding is often an abstraction that can be difficult and frustrating for students. But when we introduce them to it using music and audio that mirrors their own interests and life experiences — bam! They’re in!

That’s certainly what I’ve encountered as a computer science teacher at The SEI Academy, a small Title 1 charter school in Portland, Oregon, that focuses on project based, culturally specific programming for high-need students. I teach computer science to seventh and eighth graders from very diverse backgrounds, a few of which don’t even have access to digital technology at home.

Computational fluency is critical to every student’s education as we prepare them to be the leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs of tomorrow. For high-need youth in particular, digital literacy is the key to unlocking their future potential – it opens doors for career opportunities that they would not be exposed to otherwise. In a world where change is the only constant, my goal is to develop students that are creative tech-makers, not just tech-consumers.

Where art and tech come together

Project-based learning provides an ideal educational platform for students who have digital barriers, or for whom technology does not come naturally. My background in the arts and in video has helped me develop learning experiences rooted in creative technology that are both engaging and inclusive. I reach outside the realm of computing and bring visual, aural and pop-culture components into the computer classroom with the assistance of such programs as Pixlr, an online photo editor; Adobe Premiere video editing software; and others.

In the first large audio project of the year, my class of seventh-graders at SEI Academy created a “celebrity interview hack” podcast, where they searched out, edited and remixed themselves into YouTube interviews with President Obama and Kanye West. (Or anyone else they were excited about!) In the case of the president, for example, we cut up his responses from previous interviews and then the students wrote out their scripts in Google docs. They analyzed his words and reflected on how they could be remixed to create the conversation they wanted, then recorded their voices and mastered the podcasts in Soundtrap.

Collaborating in the cloud

I’d been looking for a while for an easy audio editor to use with my students. Then I stumbled on Soundtrap last year, a really cool cloud-based recording studio that we now use for all our podcasts, beatmaking and sound-effects projects. As a middle school teacher, it’s great that the program has all the important COPA/privacy requirements my students need as well as the social features, which let the students listen and comment on each other’s creations and really become invested in their work.

Soundtrap has a few advantages: It is very reasonably priced and works across every device and operating system—iOS, Android, Chromebook, Mac and Windows. Our students find it much easier to navigate than some other apps we’ve used. Plus, the program is web-based and OS-neutral, which makes it so much easier to get the students on board.

Given the huge variety of my students’ personal circumstances, this versatility of access is really important to me. They can work from home if they want, and some enjoy it so much that they use it in their spare time, outside of school, to make music that they share with one another.

There are always one or two students in any classroom that tend to lag on assignments. “George,” a student who finds it difficult to engage with others and often trails his classmates, was the first to turn in his interview assignment. He submitted an edited interview with his favorite NFL player in which he added background music, set the beat perfectly, and zoomed in and out at exactly the right places. George’s project was very good – exceptionally good – and I am exploring ways to further this pathway with him.

Collaboration and idea sharing are key ingredients in today’s work environments. I want my students to understand how working with others makes it easier to manage workflow, develop creative methodologies and solve problems. For example, George prefers editing, and so in the future I plan to team him up with someone who enjoys the recording part of the process.

Tools like Soundtrap are the perfect forum for this because its interface naturally encourages collaboration. But they also provide something more: An engaging way for students to create wonderful and educational projects; and a more meaningful understanding of what computer science can accomplish.

Shawn Patrick Higgins is a computer science teacher at The SEI Academy, a small Title 1 charter school in Portland, Oregon, that focuses on project based, culturally specific programming for high-need students. He specializes in using digital art, audio, games and social media graphics as an alternative pathway to teaching computer science and technology to students.