Coding Beats: Learning Computer Programming by Coding Hip Hop Beats - by David C. Shepherd


It is well-know that computer science has a diversity problem; in spite of African-Americans comprising about 13% of the US population the employees of well-known tech companies Twitter and Facebook are only 2% African-American. Over the years many initiatives have tried to reverse this trend, but have had limited impact. In Virginia, in 2018, while 80% of Caucasian students were passing the Computer Science Principles (CSP) AP test, only 42% of African-Americans were passing that same test. In raw numbers, that means that 865 Caucasian students were well-positioned for success in computer science as they leave high school, compared with only 98 African-Americans. Computer Science, as a field, is actually becoming less diverse!


To reverse this trend we propose an innovative approach to teaching computer science to middle-school, minoritized youth, Code Beats, which addresses key barriers such as engagement and inclusion. Code Beats is a curriculum that we are developing that teaches youth computer science fundamentals as they write code that generates realistic-sounding hip hop beats. By using hip hop, which is culturally-relevant to these students, we expect students will feel like they belong, which addresses a commonly-cited reason that minoritized youth stop attending other camps or clubs (e.g., MineCraft-based camps tend to favor Caucasian and Asian students). Furthermore, because students are generating beats, instead of sorting linked lists, they will be much more engaged. To deliver this material we will run a one-week code camp for middle-schoolers. It will culminate in a concert, held at a popular venue like the BroadBerry, where a local rapper who will perform on top of the student’s beat.

What do I need to get it done:

I already have a great team, which includes: David C. Shepherd (project lead), Associate Professor, Computer Science, Taylor Barnett (music expert), Assistant Professor, Music & member of RVA's own NO BS Brass Band, Kate Sicchio (live code expert), Assistant Professor, Kinetic Imaging, Founder of LiveCode.NYC, and Nickelus F (rap artist), RVA's premier rap artist, Black Entertainment Television 106 & Park "Freestyle Friday" Champion, Drake Collaborator. We are planning to work with CodeVA, whom we have already contacted, to run a one-week camp this summer for 40 middle school students. Students will learn how to code beats for four days (Mon - Thurs). On Friday they will compose their own beats and be paired with a local rapper. At the final concert, held Friday night, the students will live code the beats and the rap artists will rap to these beats. To make this happen we are in need of a place to host this camp that has ~40 computers that can run Sonic Pi, as well as 40 nice headphones, funds for breakfast and lunch for the participants, and a venue to host the final concert.