Music was in the air on May 1, at a unique workshop for faculty who teach introductory programming. Titled “Teaching Programming with World Music: Modules, Tools, and Ideas for Student Retention,” the workshop was an outgrowth of the TIDES (Teaching to Improve Diversity in STEM) grant that CSUN received in June 2014. Twelve faculty members, representing computer science, electrical and computer engineering and mathematics, participated in the daylong event, learning about the grant and the curriculum modules it had produced to date. The three-year, $300,000 grant, funded by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust and administered by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), is supporting a collaboration between the Department of Computer Science and Department of Music to redesign COMP 110, Introduction to Algorithms and Programming, to incorporate applications relating to world music. The aim of the project is to make the course, which is required for five different majors in three colleges, more culturally relevant to the CSUN student body and also attract more diversity to computer science.

The redesign began with a drum machine application to teach students the concept of a loop as they use it to generate different rhythms. Since then, the project team— principal investigator Ani Nahapetian, associate professor of computer science, and co-PIs Gloria Melara, professor of computer science, and Ric Alviso, chair of the music department—has produced nine additional modules, including Scale of Words, Guess the Note, Random Music, Guess the Genre, Strings to Beats, Lyrics Processing, Text to Melody, Beat Creator and Sound Recorder, designed to give students practice with console I/O, branching, random number generation, loops and arrays, string processing, file I/O and object-oriented programming. For hearing-impaired students, the team has created a visual interface. The modules are freely available on the project website (, under the “Modules” tab.

“I’ve learned so much about music,” says Nahapetian. “I had been a consumer of music, as had Professor Melara, but as you program an application, you always also learn about the application for which you’re programming.”

The first offering of the modified course took place last spring and the second last fall, both taught by Melara. The course sections with the new modules have been in great demand—more than the department can accommodate—and fill up very fast, thanks to word-of-mouth among students. While working with the modules and using a new approach to teaching programming has been something of a learning experience for Melara, the class is definitely a lot more fun for students.

“The music is loud, the energy level is high, and there is a joy present in the classroom because the students have created the music themselves,” Nahapetian says. “It’s similar to the joy of playing an instrument rather than just listening to it being played.”

Future plans include evaluating the project more thoroughly, expanding the concept to more classes, majors and institutions, and encouraging faculty to come up with their own creative application areas that will translate well to a diverse student population.