Ethnographic Observations

On December 10, 2015, Ron Eglash’s Fall 2015 PDI 5 classroom made its final visit to School 2. Each group of PDI students came with a final educational prototype for testing. Dan, Karen, Robert, and Will brought two music-making computer programs that express musical notes as fractions. The first of these, written in Scratch, takes user inputs of whole, half, quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes; the user must choose a sequence of notes that add to unity in order to make a composition that can be played back. The second program, written in Processing, takes user input presses of the computer’s spacebar with arbitrary temporal spacing between inputs. The duration of each note created, i.e., the temporal distance between input presses, are drawn to the screen as rational number fractions of unity. Succinctly put, the Scratch program lets the user make music from fractions and the Processing program visualizes fractions intrinsic to the user’s sense of rhythm. At School 2, the music-centered PDI group split up, each member independently engaging kids, with both programs mentioned, on his or her computer. As such, each member gathered independent user feedback. The combined feedback gathered by the PDI group, discussed below, suggests that the functionalities of the Processing program should be combined with the Scratch program in order to maximize learning capabilities.


Dan’s Experiences

Dan interacted with four children, two male and three female. The first male student, who had befriended Dan on previous visits, only used the Processing program due to a lapse of time. Notably, he inquired as to what was being expressed by the rational numbers displayed on screen. Dan explained the concept of a thirty-second as one of thirty-two even pieces of a single object, which was quickly absorbed by the young student. Understandably, however, the concept of a thirty-second did not lead to more fruitful conversations of fractions; there was no need to engage with fractions in order to play with the program. The second male student was exposed to the Scratch program but quickly identified the mathematical nature of the program and requested to use the Processing program instead. In the Processing program, he input as many notes as he possibly could to his transitory amusement. After that, his engagement dwindled and inquiries that Dan made into his current math education were met with mutterings of, “I don’t know.”

The first female whom Dan engaged wanted nothing to do with the Processing program. Rather, when she saw the Scratch program, she proclaimed, “Ooh, math!” This girl encountered some difficulty at first when trying to input notes that added to numbers greater than one whole. Once she understood that the notes must add to one whole, she filled in the notes with ease. Her female friend, who stood studiously by her side, eventually directed the first girl to fill in specific notes, also successfully. To both of their disappointment, it was difficult to hear their composition in the noisy classroom, although this implies that they were interested in the composition produced. The third girl, unfortunately, did not get to interact with either program to any significant extent because she joined in late.

Dan, from his user feedback, independently concludes that the Processing program was too loosely tied to mathematics to stimulate a productive user interaction with the subject. Moreover, Dan concludes that the Scratch program, while potentially intimidating with its mathematically based interface, was generally a success. Students brave enough to use the Scratch program appeared to successfully engage with fractions while also being interested in their musical compositions. Given the ease with which students used the Scratch program, however, the difficulty level of fractional addition was likely too low. Creative freedom of musical input was also low for the Scratch program compared to the Processing program.


Robert’s Experiences

To organize the lesson a bit better, we broke up into two pairs so that we could explain the tools to smaller groups.  Karen and Rob worked together, starting with the Processing tool to tap into the students’ interest in making music with their bodies.  As tool was demonstrated, Student A hastily grabbed control of the laptop and began randomly tapping the spacebar.  Karen and Rob tried to guide the use of the program so that the students could understand how to make a pattern of notes of different sizes; however, Student A was only interested in tapping the spacebar and hearing the random sounds that resulted.  Some of the other students, however, would begin with something random, hear that it didn’t sound good, and will try to record again to get a better-sounding result.  Eventually Karen and Rob moved the students to the Scratch tool, which would help tie in the music with the mathematical concepts.  Student B immediately connected the labels on the note buttons to quarter notes, eighth notes, etc.  The students would often start by filling the measure with the same type of note, but we were able to show them how mixing notes creates different rhythms.  Students enjoyed playing around with this and creating music; however, we were unable to offer deeper learning challenges before it was time to switch.

The second group was much like the first, in that they started with patterns of random notes but were eager to make them sound better.  After playing around with the Scratch tool, Student C said that he had a beat he wanted to try and recreate.  Rob realized this would be a challenge to do, but Rob helped him because this interested him.  On his own, he counted the number of notes in the rhythm and then added that many 16th notes to the measure.  When that didn’t sound the way he wanted it to, Rob tried to help him put in different-sized notes and go from there, but the group soon ran out of time.

In the third group, Student D took a particular interest in the Processing tool with its multiple playback tracks.  As a group, they tried to create music by having each student tap a rhythm and then playing them all together. However, the program kept freezing, forcing them to restart it multiple times and losing previous information.  When moving to the Scratch tool, Student D was still engrossed in the Processing one; Rob decided to let him continue playing with it while the others tried the Scratch tool on the other laptop.  It was difficult to integrate the mathematical component to his exploration of the tool, but it was interesting how much enjoyment he got out of creating multiple tracks and recording music that way.


Will’s Experiences

Rob started off with an introduction to kids reminding them about the music lesson we had during our last field visit. Then we broke into 4 small groups partnering with one or two students per laptop to introduce the interface we created.

The first student William interacted with was a girl with a lot of interest in music. She had some enthusiasm when the processing program was introduced to her. She quickly caught on to how the program works when a demonstration was shown to her. After getting used to the timing of the space bar input, she started to experiment with how each measure sounds when she inputs a value in at certain distance from one another. She understood how the program worked fairly easily and started to create beats that sounds good to her. She added up to 7 lines with 7 different sounds playing a different rhythm. After certain minutes have passed with the processing program, William tried to introduced the Scratch program but the student did not understand it as easily as the first program. The concept of fitting in notes into the length of the measure seems to be very different than when you can input it anytime you want and hear what it sounds like.

The second student William interacted with was a boy who was extra excited about using the technology itself in a classroom setting. He ran towards the Macbook and sat down before anyone else did. This male student also self-claimed to be extremely good at creating beats and beatboxing. When the processing interface was demonstrated, he wanted to quickly jump in and do it himself. He created beats that are extremely fast and made the program crash couple of times. But after noticing that rhythm does not sound good when played without good amount of rests in between, he then started to play around with different sound feedbacks using different lengths of rests. When William tried to introduced the Scratch program, the students did not grasp on it and kept on demanding to play on the Processing program. So we went back to the first program and allowed him to play around with the beats more.

The third student William interacted with was a boy who was a bit shy and was not confident with his music knowledge. He wanted William to assist him a lot with creating his beat and clicking buttons on the interface. Many of the beats he created was not rhythmatic, and most was just notes being played really fast when multiple layers of measures were playing at the same time. Then the scratch program was introduced but he tried to create a beat only using 16th notes and not understanding the lengths of other notes.

Students intuitively enjoyed hitting the spacebar in the processing program. When the students heard back what they inputted, they started to tinker with the distance between each notes to create a sound that sounds better to them. All students tried to put fast beat. Students had hard time associating this program with math. Students needed more assistance with the Scratch program.


Karen’s Experiences

In each of the three groups, Karen interacted with one or two students each when using the Scratch program; Rob covered the Processing program. In the first group, there was one lone girl at her computer. This girl was quiet and shy, but got the hang of the program very easily. She spent the rest of the time after learning how to use the program making random rhythms, one after another. She also commented on the mood that her rhythms created; for example, one was “creepier” than the other. Because of her ease using the program, Karen asked her a few challenge questions, which the student answered quickly and correctly.

The next group was one of two boys, with a third drifting in and out (he was mostly at Rob’s computer). These boys also figured out how to use the program quickly; they tinkered with it for a few minutes and then were fine. The first time the third boy joined in, the other two would begin helping him and explaining, without giving Karen a chance. However, this was not a bad thing–it showed that they knew what was going on, as they were explaining the sizes of each note (Karen explained here that a bigger number on the bottom of a fraction meant that it was smaller) and that the big notes were on the left and the small notes were on the right. They also explained that only one whole note fits, or two half, and so on. These boys also had fun creating new rhythms with each other until time ran out.

The last group brought only one girl to Karen’s computer. This girl was a little bit different–she picked up on how to use the program just as quickly as everyone else; however, after tinkering for a few minutes, she began to think of her own rhythms before trying to input them. She explained that her mother was a professional drummer, so this makes sense. When she had trouble getting her rhythm to play as she wanted, Karen helped her figure it out, but followed with a couple challenge questions, such as making it go twice as fast.


In general, Karen saw that all of the students were able to tinker with and figure out the Scratch program fairly quickly with very little direction. The default filler seemed to be sixteenth notes, as they are the easiest and simply take up one space and therefore have very little math associated with them because of the visual. Very few students got far enough along to figure out how to use the “silent” notes, which is merely a function of the amount of time they had to use the program.


Suggested Refinements

As a whole, the group observed that the Processing program simply did not have enough educational content, and the Scratch program was too obviously math-related yet not quite challenging enough. To combat these issues, the best thing to do would be to somehow combine the capabilities of both programs. Therefore, the educational content from the Scratch program would be present, but the musical freedom and complexity from the Processing program would also be present. The result would be a program that can take input physically or by using the fractional buttons, input to and play from multiple tracks, and visual representation of the fractions. To make the program more academically challenging, different challenges can be presented to the students.