ITTA Supported Course Creates New Opportunities for Student Learning and Collaboration
Friday, February 16, 2024

Quick, think of a musical instrument! Did a piano or a guitar come to mind? What about a joystick, a flowerpot, a water-filled Mason jar, or a breadbox used to create a sound-filled sculpture?

These delightful musical instruments were brought to life by students in the Digital Musical Instruments course and funding from the Innovations in Teaching with Technology Awards (ITTA).

Jean-François Charles, associate professor in the School of Music, received $7,620 from ITTA for his proposal, Enhancing Art-Science Creativity Through a Hands-on Approach to Designing and Building Innovative Digital Musical Instruments.

“To facilitate coursework, key pieces of hardware and software were required for the audio processing necessary to build synthesizers,” Charles said. “Without ITTA funding to purchase this equipment, the class wouldn’t have been possible.”

An elective course offered in spring 2023, Digital Musical Instruments invited students to act as creator, composer, and musician, inventing instruments, determining how they would be played, and performing for an audience.

“The course focused on human-computer interaction, with the idea that a computer keyboard isn’t the only tool to make music,” said Charles. “As instructors, I think it’s our role to encourage students to consider new ideas and possibilities for bringing them to fruition.”

He designed the course so that students who were unfamiliar with programming could easily get started with the equipment while others learned more about music and the nuances of storytelling through sounds.

Barry Phipps was in his last semester of an MFA in the School of Art with photography as his major and sculpture as his secondary when he participated in the course.

Inspired by sculpture, Barry’s instrument—a light blue breadbox connected to a massive structure that included metal barrels, cymbals, and a fire extinguisher—used an amplifier to turn resonating objects into speakers by recording sounds, analyzing the frequency spectrum, and creating tones.

“At first, I didn’t realize the class would emphasize computer programming, and if I had, I might not have taken it,” said Barry. “But the class was so well taught and demonstrated that if I have an idea, I can figure out a solution for it. Now that I’ve learned the foundational elements, combining sculpture with sound is something I’ll bring with me into the future.”

Tiger Slowinski, who was third year electrical engineer undergraduate student in spring 2023, was drawn to the course by his love of audio. He used a gaming joystick to craft an effect generator similar to a guitar pedal, taking input signals and splitting them into tiny pieces that can be played back at different rates and frequencies to create new sounds.

“The collaboration and conversation were the best parts of the course, with undergrads, grads, engineers, artists, and musicians, and everyone bringing their different talents,” said Slowinski. “What was really unique about the course is that we all used skills we’d honed in other disciplines to make our instruments.”

Apply for Funding

“I appreciated the flexibility ITTA funding offered and that it provided an opportunity to try a new teaching approach—something that resonated with the students in my course,” said Charles.

If you are interested in applying, please review the proposal guidelines. We encourage you to email the Office of Teaching, Learning, and Technology at with questions.