A fourth grade student participated in a Code Beats camp. (Courtesy photo)
A fourth grade student participated in a Code Beats camp. (Courtesy photo)

Hip Hop music helps kids learn how to code

By VPM Science Matters

Coming a long way from its Bronx beginnings, Hip Hop has now passed Rock to become America’s favorite musical genre. It’s also become a helpful teaching tool, guiding toddlers through their ABCs to a catchy beat and helping teens learn American history through the lyrics of Broadway’s “Hamilton.”

Now, a multidisciplinary team of Virginia Commonwealth University faculty members is turning to hip-hop music as a fun and effective way to teach basic computer science concepts to middle school students. 

Here’s why it’s such a great match: Hip Hop hits often begin with chords that repeat in a pattern and then start over. While setting the tone for a chart-topper, this repetition also illustrates one of the fundamental concepts in computer programming: looping.

“Everybody gets it,” said David C. Shepherd, Ph.D., associate professor in the College of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science.

In a project called Code Beats, Shepherd’s undergraduate students have designed a curriculum for middle school students (ages 11 to 15) to learn programming by coding hip hop beats.

“Our goal is to make computer science education more engaging, instead of using exercises such as sorting a list of people’s names,” Shepherd said. “We also want to increase diversity and inclusion in the field.”

When the coronavirus pandemic thwarted plans for in-person classes, the team turned Code Beats into a virtual experience on the live-streaming platform Twitch. It runs from May 4 to May 22, with one-hour sessions on weekdays at 10:00 a.m.

Each lesson will run for one hour, culminating in a daily assignment. The assignments are designed to take only 15 minutes or so, but many students get so hooked they’ll happily spend hours on one.

At the end of the three weeks, students will demonstrate their knowledge in a beat competition, using a March-Madness-style bracket system to see who can create the best one.

Students will need a computer, a pair of headphones and a Twitch account.

To register, buy a one-month, $25 subscription (beginning May 1) to Shepherd’s Twitch channel, or sign up for the Code Beats newsletter for more detailed instructions.

View the Code Beats flyer (PDF).

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