Up to Code: Music major finds skills and inspiration in new computer science course for non-majors

Thomas Levine playing saxophone at Emilio’s.
Thomas Levine playing saxophone at Emilio’s.

On Friday nights, sophomore music major Thomas Levine loves to play saxophone at Emilio’s, the Broad Street club that’s a second home to VCU jazz studies students. The rest of the week, you may also find him at the keyboard — a computer keyboard, that is — typing, testing and troubleshooting code for a new program or application.

Levine is a student in Introduction to Computing, the first course in a new Fundamentals of Computing specialization the VCU College of Engineering developed to give students in any field computer skills that will help make them instantly employable upon graduation. Students learn the Python programming language and how to start thinking like a programmer. Students who complete the four-course package automatically earn a computer science specialization from VCU. Students who complete three of the four will earn a digital generalist credential from the Greater Washington Partnership, which gives them exclusive hiring advantages with participating companies.

Levine’s journey into the first steps of VCU’s new tech specialization began, appropriately enough, with technology. “I saw an ad for the course on Instagram last fall — and I’m a millennial, so of course I’m on Instagram a lot,” Levine said with a laugh, adding that he signed up because he is always interested in adding new job skills to his resume. He thinks the class has paid off “a hundred percent” already.

“Just having a ton of extracurriculars doesn’t really show much about the skills a person has,” he said. “But skills I learn in a class show what I can do much more effectively. And I’m definitely putting on my resume that I took a programming class and know Python!”

That’s music to the ears of Caroline Budwell, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer science and course instructor. She helped develop the course and specialization as part of VCU Engineering’s push to strengthen the tech talent pipeline and give students marketable skills.

Caroline Budwell, Ph.D., coaches a student through a coding problem.
Caroline Budwell, Ph.D., coaches a student through a coding problem.

“This course and the specialization are a heads-up to students in many ways. For one thing, many employers have a standard logic test for job applicants in more technical positions. Students are likely to do better on those tests after this course,” she said. “Putting coding and programming skills on your resume also demonstrates trainability. Employers think, ‘Well, here’s this great English major who can really write, and we think she might have some technical aptitude since she was successful in a technical course where they learned Python, so we can train her on our technical tools.’”

Going in, Levine knew the class would give him practical, career-focused skills. What surprised him were the creative inspiration and life skills he also gained while learning how to code.

“When I’m programming, it’s amazing to see how one piece of computer code can do a thousand different things,” he said. “It’s actually made me think about music differently. I’m now thinking about little pieces — musical cadences or key changes I can use in different ways. It has made me start thinking about resources in a more creative, ambitious way.”

It has also made him more conscious of details and decisions in everyday life. Learning how computers analyze and solve problems has fine-tuned Levine’s own ways of thinking.

“Understanding that computers solve problems in one of three ways has changed how I think about problems. I’m thinking more systematically about decisions I am making. ‘How am I using my time,’ for example? ‘What should I be doing? Why am I not?’ I’m not advanced in programming yet, but I can see using these concepts forever,” he said. “Whether it’s music or advertising, which I may double major in, the common denominator is creative problem solving, which is also what this class is about.”

Registration for the summer section of Introduction to Computing (CMSC 191), which runs May 20 through July 10, 2019, is open. All four courses for the Fundamentals of Computing specialization are offered for the fall 2019 semester.

Catch Thomas Levine and other musicians from VCUarts' Jazz Studies program when their concerts resume at VCU's W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts this fall.