MCCC faculty partner on new community programs

By Eric Devlin
Two MCCC faculty members have launched a series of interdisciplinary programs involving music and computer science and have worked with students across the area. Students at CCATE in Norristown were among the first introduced to the Beats by Girlz program.

Two MCCC faculty members have launched a series of interdisciplinary programs involving music and computer science and have worked with students across the area. Students at CCATE in Norristown were among the first introduced to the Beats by Girlz program.

Montgomery County Community College has launched a series of interdisciplinary programs that combine music and technology in innovative ways.

Computer Science Professor Kendall Martin and Sound Recording and Music Technology (SRT) Instructor Jen Mitlas are spearheading the effort, which focuses on promoting music technology initiatives in the community and on campus.

The two women began by launching local chapters of “Beats by Girlz,” a nationwide program that introduces young women to music technology.

They also introduced a new course at the College called “The Language of Digital Media,” which teaches students to use state-of-the-art tools in digital audio and video production. Students enrolled in this course showcase their digital skills during the College's esports competitions.

For Martin and Mitlas, the opportunity to work together and create new opportunities for area students to express themselves through music and technology was too good to pass up.

 “There’s a lot of buzz about interdisciplinary work and how effective it is for students to see connections between different disciplines but it’s a hard thing to pull off,” said Martin.

“The College is shifting the interdisciplinary learning model,” said Mitlas. “We’re bringing two disciplines together that normally would not be together. And I’m excited for it.”

Beats by Girlz

The partnership between the two women began when Martin said she was interested in finding a way to apply her knowledge of computer science with the world of music. The Music Department suggested she work with Mitlas in the SRT Department. The two began by starting local chapters of the Beats by Girlz program to the area.

The program was initially founded by Berklee College of Music Associate Professor Erin Barra as a way to provide “guidance, access, tools and role-support to develop students’ interest (and ultimately their ability to pursue career opportunities) in music production, composition, engineering, etc.,” according to its website.

Like the computer science industry, the number of women working in the music industry today is also incredibly low, Martin said. A study published in 2019 by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative looked at the 700 top songs on Billboard’s year-end Hot 100 chart between 2012 and 2018. “Across the three creative roles highlighted in the study, women make up 21.7 percent of artists, 12.3 percent of songwriters and 2.1 percent of producers,” according to Forbes.

The goal is to introduce both fields to young women and girls to ultimately improve gender parity in the two industries.

The duo first began offering the program to K-12 programs in the area starting with the Center for Culture Art Training and Education, CCATE, a Latinx afterschool program in Norristown.

“Beats by Girlz gave us thousands of dollars for equipment because they negotiated contracts with big vendors in the industry,” said Martin. “Jen and I personally ran Beats by Girlz out of CCATE for about a year and a half.”

From there the two launched Beats by Girlz programs at The Pathway School, a school for students predominantly on the autism spectrum; The Lakeside Girls Academy, which provides informed teaching for girls who’ve suffered traumatic experiences; The Crefeld School, a private high school in Chestnut Hill;   and a summer program for girls at the North Wales Area Library. They are currently working with Abington Senior High School to collaborate on programming options.

“It’s been a fantastic program both in terms of addressing gender inequality issues, but also looking at the interface of computer science and technology and music and self-expression and humanism that comes from having access to create your own music,” said Martin.

She and Mitlas have transitioned from teaching the program directly- training faculty and staff at each school to run it themselves. Now they are focused on establishing the Electronic Digital Instrument Lab on MCCC’s Central Campus in Blue Bell as a central community hub for the program. They’ve already begun by inviting local students to the school from across the county to participate in the program. The goal is to continue expanding to teachers and other school districts.

“We have several Beats by Girlz chapters,” said Mitlas, “but we want to have a hub where different educators in K through 12 can come and we can teach them about music technology and they can bring that into their classroom.”

The Language of Digital Media

With the Beats by Girlz program up and running, Martin and Mitlas decided to create a course students could take at the College.

The Language of Digital Media course, cross-listed as a Music, SRT and Computer Science Department program, introduces students to the vocabulary, tools and fundamental techniques of manipulating digital audio and video content. Computer systems make it accessible for new users to take audio and digital information as input, combine it using custom rules they develop and to produce new kinds of sounds, songs and interactive videos.

“We needed a course to attach to Beats by Girlz,” said Mitlas. “And interdisciplinary work is an important concept that’s starting to be implemented more widely at the College. I feel like we’re pioneers with this, as far as combining Computer Science and Arts and Humanities and the whole STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) concept goes. We wanted to give students an experience that featured the aesthetics of music intertwined with computers.”

“The thing that we’re most proud of is that this course has no prerequisites,” said Martin, adding the program can be adapted to teach any student, no matter their background.

“The course covers two (general education) requirements. You don’t have to be a computer science major or an SRT major,” said Mitlas. “You might just want to fill a general education requirement. It is giving technical skill sets to people that maybe never would have explored them.”

Working with esports

Students who take the course will later showcase the skills they’ve learned during Mustangs eSports team home games. They will be able to create custom music for athlete walk-outs and incorporate mapping software to project electronic visuals on the walls of the gymnasium during the team’s competitions.

SRT students will also begin recording podcasts with the members of the team to talk about games and individual performances, said Mitlas.

“Esports is something I’m actually very passionate about,” she said. “It’s giving people the opportunity to have a friendly competitive sport that isn’t based on other things like your body type.”

Martin and Mitlas said they are proud of the work they’ve started and how it can entice students to consider pursuing careers in music, computer science or a combination of both.

“This is what is out there right now,” said Martin. “This isn’t something that you need to study four years of computer science before you can get started. This is who we can be. This can be why people come on campus at first… and then they leave with a computer science degree. It can be why students decide to take a math course in high school, because they’ve been loving working with our projects over at Montco on Thursday nights. We really think this is a great time to be in music and a great time to reach people who are looking for a way of expressing who they are.”