Director’s Take: Ten Years of Summer Music Technology

At the end of July, we celebrated the 10th year of our Summer Music Technology (or SMT) high school program. This unique one week camp uses music to motivate interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (or STEM). SMT is our clearest articulation of STEAM learning, a bespoke integration of STEM and the Arts for the deeper understanding of both. Initially developed with the support of the National Science Foundation, the program has served well-over 200 students since the first cohort in 2007, all at no cost to participants.

I’d like to share a few things we’ve learned over 10 years of SMT. The overriding directive for the program is to “Build it yourself”. We firmly believe that the best way to learn is by making something. During the week, students build their own individual projects, ranging from electronic guitar effects boxes to self-playing robot instruments. This philosophy applies not only to our student participants, but for us as program developers. Rather than deploying ready-made lessons or activities, we’ve applied our expertise in music technology to design every aspect of the curriculum. We developed custom iPad apps, allowing us to focus precisely on the concepts we seek to explore without the distraction of extraneous features. Thus, we know we are delivering something truly unique that students won’t find anywhere else.

Second, we’ve found physical prototyping to be far more impactful than purely digital projects for the vast majority of our students. For a research group immersed in computing, this was a particularly difficult lesson to learn. In early years, we offered many, what I thought to be very cool, entirely computer-based projects. But we found that students gravitated towards recognizable and familiar artifacts: building loudspeakers and simple instruments. Eventually, we found that the best way to teach digital concepts is to connect with the physical world: controlling motors to play xylophones or turning household objects into touch sensors for triggering sound.

The third takeaway is that iteration is absolutely essential for program innovation. The SMT 2016 curriculum is almost entirely different from that of 2007 because every year we commit to assessing the previous year to identify areas for improvement. In the early years, SMT was a 1:1 laptop program. In 2011, we became a 1:1 iPad program, providing a more accessible and student-friendly environment that pushes us to keep improving. Every year, we incorporate new possibilities offered by advancing technology to demonstrate the relentless pursuit of innovation we seek to instill in our students. Just this year, we were able to program Arduino devices wirelessly and develop real iOS apps directly from the iPad, activities that were simply not possible before.

There are many more advances from our SMT program, which you can learn about from the program website. It serves not only the participants, but also our graduate and undergraduate students, who learn by developing, iterating, and teaching in the program. It’s been 10 amazing years of SMT, and we look forward to continuing this program for many years to come.

The Director’s Take is my regular commentary and reflection for ExCITeCast, the monthly podcast of the ExCITe Center. An archive of all past episodes is available on SoundCloud. Look for new episodes on the first Tuesday of every month.

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