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The Rigor of CMU’s BCSA Degree

1 October 2017 / pedagogy
There are many different options for studying a combination of art+technology at Carnegie Mellon. Among these is the Bachelor of Computer Science, or BCSA. During admissions season, I receive many questions about the BCSA, including, occasionally, this one:
Q: I was wondering if a BCSA major would undergo a less rigorous computer science education than a typical CS major at CMU. I love the idea of an integrated double major, but I don’t want to fall behind the other computer science students.  

A. In my opinion, any student who can get admitted to both CS and Art is a real star. It’s extremely rare to have such a dual fluency, both algorithmically and visually. I confess that I cringe when I hear the idea that the BCSA is somehow less rigorous. If anything, the BCSA students are so brilliant, because they not only understand how to make things, and how things work, but they also understand what’s worth making, and why, and how to make it compelling. The BCSA program is designed to support this. That takes a different kind of rigor.

Ok, but specifics. I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the BCSA program’s requirements for CS are “less rigorous”. There are some differences between the CS Bachelors and BCSA — but that’s not one of them :) Rather than “watering down” its components, the BCSA was designed to eliminate redundancies and make more flexible elective options available, so that you can more effectively pursue your two interests, and their intersections. Here are two concrete ways that the BCSA does this:

The BCSA eliminates redundancies. Before we created the BCSA degree in 2008, CS+Art double-degree students had to take a humanities elective for their CS degree, and a humanities elective for their Art degree. The problem was, these weren’t permitted to be the same course! When we created the BCSA, we made it possible for a single humanities class to fulfill this requirement for both departments. There are lots of other examples like that.
The BCSA provides more customized, flexible approaches to the CS and Art disciplines. The BCSA degree trades off breadth in the individual sub-areas, for depth in the interdisciplinary intersection. Here’s an example: The CMU Computer Science department requires CS Bachelors students to take advanced electives in all 4 divisions of the department: Operating Systems, Logic/Proofs, Algorithms, and Applications. But most BCSA students are not particularly interested in Operating System design or abstract proofs! Instead, most BCSA students typically wish to study what the School of Computer Science calls “Applications” (such as computer graphics, computer animation, computer vision, computer music, robotics, and artificial intelligence). In order to support this focus, BCSA students are allowed to select CS elective courses from as few as just 2 of the 4 areas, if they want—and they actually have a higher percentage of CS electives in their curriculum than CS majors! (Of course, BCSA students who want to take electives in all 4 areas can, if they wish.) An analogous situation is true for the Arts requirements for BCSA students.
The BCSA and BS degrees share at least a half-dozen foundation courses, and believe me—these are very intense courses. Furthermore, if you carefully compare the Computer Science BS curriculum with the BCSA curriculum, you will see that the number of units that the BS versus BCSA students spend in Computer Science courses is actually very close:
So: that’s just 34 fewer units of Computer Science in the BCSA than in the BS. A typical class has either 10 or 12 units—so the difference between the BCSA and CS major is only about 3 classes’ worth of credits!
The BCSA is an exceptionally rigorous and challenging degree. In my opinion, it’s even more challenging than the CS bachelor’s, because it requires you to achieve excellence in both sides of your brain, and the connections between them.

Undergraduate Art+Tech Options at CMU: An Update

1 October 2017 / pedagogy, reference

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has been ranked #1 in new media arts, #1 in computer science, and #6 in fine arts, nationally, by US News & World Report (2016). As you might expect, therefore, there are a wide range of different degree options for combined undergraduate study in art+technology at CMU. This blog post presents a list of these options—accurate, to the best of my knowledge, as of fall 2017. Note that the “best” solution for a given student is an individual matter, and can even change over the course of a student’s undergraduate career.

As a leading research university with large and vibrant arts departments, Carnegie Mellon offers a rich environment for interdisciplinary study. Indeed, more than half of the undergraduates in the CMU School of Art are pursuing some kind of interdisciplinary add-on to their degree—whether a minor, double-minor, second major, double-degree, or hybrid “BXA” degree. I know and have advised students working in all of these ways, which are discussed below.

For reference, I’m a tenured Associate Professor in the CMU School of Art, where I teach computational and interactive media arts. I also hold additional (courtesy) appointments in CMU’s Schools of Design, Architecture, Computer Science, and Entertainment Technology, and I direct the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, CMU’s research lab for experimental arts. Through these appointments, I advise many students studying various combinations of arts+tech, hailing from a wide range of departments. Please feel free to contact me with questions. 

Table of Contents:

This article was last updated 1 October, 2017.

• The CMU School of Art has internal concentrations in several areas, including electronic media. As a BFA major in Art, you are required to declare a concentration; you may create your own concentration, or you can select among four pre-existing options: (A) Drawing, Painting, Printmaking and Photography [DP3], (B) Sculpture, Installation and Site-Work [SIS], (C) Contextual Practice [CP], or (D) the Electronic and Time-Based arts concentration [ETB]. Most of the art students interested in fields like animation and game design pursue the ETB concentration in the School of Art. The ETB concentration includes coursework options (all offered within the School of Art) in topics like animation, game design, interactive art, video and performance art, visualization, digital fabrication, and mechatronic/kinetic sculpture. Note that at Carnegie Mellon, a “concentration” comprises four courses, where each course is 10-12 units. The standard BFA degree in Art (regardless of concentration) is approximately 360 units.

The CMU School of Art is quite progressive in its incorporation of new technologies, and offers its own required computational thinking courses for all of its BFA students. A half-dozen of the School of Art’s full-time faculty use code as an artistic material, in one way or another, and provide instruction in computer programming for the arts (sometimes called “creative coding”) using toolkits like Processing, p5.jsArduino, and Max/MSP. An example of such a course is “EMS-2”, or Introduction to the Electronic Media Studio II (60-210/212). EMS-2 is required for all second-year students in the School of Art, regardless of their their concentration—though we generally recommend that BCSA students (see below) and “pre-BCSA” students take EMS-2 in their freshman year.

• CMU’s exciting IDeATe minors program offers a half-dozen different interdisciplinary minors and concentrations that cut across the university in lots of ways: Animation and Special EffectsGame DesignEntrepreneurship for Creative IndustriesIntelligent EnvironmentsLearning MediaMedia DesignPhysical Computing, and Sound Design. (Another minor, in Information Visualization, is expected to be approved in 2018.) These IDeATe programs are available to any undergraduate at CMU, regardless of their home department; several hundred students from all over the university are pursuing these options. Additionally, the IDeATe minors and concentrations are not mutually exclusive with the School of Art’s ETB concentration; short of double-counting courses (which is not permitted), you can definitely do both. (Note that at CMU, a “minor” comprises six courses.)

• As an Art major, you can also pursue a minor in a wide range of technical fields. These include the Computer Science (CS) minorRobotics minorHuman-Computer Interaction minor, Machine Learning minorLanguage Technologies minor, Neural Computation minor, and Software Engineering minor, among many, many others. It is also possible to double-minor, meaning, to pursue two minors; for example, you could achieve a minor in CS and also a minor in Game Design, through IDeATe. Reciprocally, CMU’s Computer Science department encourages all of its undergraduates to obtain a minor in a second subject; many CS students interested in the arts pursue a minor in the School of Art (or in another arts field), and a number are pursuing IDeATe minors, too.

• CMU’s highly regarded Bachelor of Computer Science and Art, or BCSA, is an integrated double-major. The BCSA allows for study in Computer Science, in combination with study in one of the Schools of the CMU College of Fine Arts (Art, Architecture, Design, Drama, or Music). The BCSA is designed to be completed in four years, and requires about 380 units. There is lots of oversight, since every BCSA student has four advisors: Dr. Stephanie Murray (Director of the BXA Intercollege Degree Programs office); Dr. Tom Cortina (Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education, School of Computer Science); a faculty advisor from their CFA school (I’m the faculty advisor for BCSA students from the School of Art); and a full-time academic advisor from their CFA school (such as Mark Cato from the School of Art). I helped co-create the BCSA degree in 2008.

Students interested in pursuing or applying for the BCSA are advised to contact Dr. Stephanie Murray. It can be particularly challenging to get admitted into the BCSA, because you must be independently accepted into both the College of Fine Arts school (which requires a strong portfolio or audition) and the School of Computer Science (which requires extremely strong grades and—I’ll be honest—nearly perfect standardized scores, especially in math). Happily, internal transfer into BCSA (once you get to CMU) is also possible, and actually quite common; indeed, about 80% of the BCSA students are internal transfers, meaning that they transferred into the BCSA program at the end of their Freshman or Sophomore year. (The other 20% were accepted into BCSA right out of high school.) There are a little over two dozen BCSA students at CMU; the majority are combining CS with the School of Art, with the others pursuing combinations of CS with Architecture, Design, Drama and Music. More information on the BCSA program and curriculum can be found here. And here are some facts and opinions about preparing a portfolio for BCSA admission—specifically for the School of Art.

Internal transfers into BCSA can and do happen from either direction. To transfer into BCSA from the School of Art (or another CFA school), you must demonstrate your proficiency in Computer Science by earning grades of B (or better) in the first few introductory CS courses (namely, 15-11215-122, and 15-150, generally in your freshman and/or sophomore years). If a student doesn’t earn a B or better in these introductory courses, then the BCSA program is probably not an ideal fit, and it may be best to consider another option, such as a minor. From the other direction, to transfer into BCSA from the School of Computer Science, you should have a portfolio that demonstrates your sensibility in combining art and technology, and it’s recommended that you have taken a course or two in your intended Arts discipline. Transfers into BCSA from Carnegie Mellon’s CIT (College of Engineering) have also been made, and are possible via an intermediate transfer to CS; all of the above requirements apply.

As of fall 2017, there are a couple of practical exceptions to the above information. Currently there is no BCSA+Acting or BCSA+Musical Theater option, because of the highly demanding rehearsal schedule in those Drama programs. The BCSA+Design option technically exists, but can be logistically challenging to pursue, because of the uniquely demanding schedule of the School of Design’s first-year program; if you’re interested in this path, contact Dr. Murray, and Melissa Cicozi (Academic Advisor for Design Undergraduates) to best plan your options.

PLEASE READ. Some students believe that studying Computer Science is necessary in order to pursue their interest in animation or game design. This may or may not be the case. CS is assuredly a fascinating, useful, and challenging discipline, but be careful not to confuse (A) learning how to use animation software to make animations, (B) learning how to program interactive games or artworks, and (C) understanding the theory of algorithms, computability and computation. The CMU School of Art and IDeATe programs offer a solid education in both (A) and (B)—including a respectable, arts-oriented introduction to programming (“creative coding”). Unless you’re also interested in (C), however, the BCSA may entail more Computer Science than you’re looking for.

• Several additional “BXA” integrated double-majors allow students to combine other STEM fields with study in the arts, apart from Computer Science. For example, the BSA (Bachelor of Science and Arts) program allows for combinations of an arts discipline (Art, Architecture, Design, Drama or Music) with one of the natural sciences taught in CMU’s Mellon College of Sciences, such as Biology, Chemistry, Physics, or Mathematics. There is also a B.S. in Music and Technology that spans the School of Music, College of Engineering, and School of Computer Science. A Bachelor of Engineering and Arts (BEA) degree is also currently in the works; several students are already in the pipeline for this, and approval is expected by May 2018. Finally, a there are a variety of additional interesting intercollege degree programs that bridge, for example, the Sciences and Humanities. You may find a more up-to-date list of interdisciplinary undergraduate degree programs here.

• As a BFA student in the School of Art, you can pursue a second major in a technical field. For example, you could get a second major in Computer Sciencea second major in HCIa second major in Robotics, a second major in Statistics and Machine Learning, or a second major in many other departments. Please note that the double-major requires about 520 units, and you only get one Degree (in other words: you would earn a “BFA in Art, with a second major in Computer Science”). The second major in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) is particularly popular with students interested in UX, UI, interaction design, and new media.

• It is also possible to pursue a double degree. This means you would earn (for example) a BFA degree in the School of Art, and a BS degree in Computer Science—two pieces of paper. This option requires about 560 units and generally takes 4½ or 5 years to complete. (Naturally you can still specify that your Art concentration is ETB, and you might pick up an IDeATe or other concentration/minor along the way). Not many students have pursued this option since the BCSA was introduced, but it’s possible.

• It is also possible to pursue a Student-Defined major (SDF) at Carnegie Mellon. There is a College of Fine Arts (CFA) Student-Defined Major, and also a University Student-Defined Major for degree programs that span multiple colleges. This is a great option for square-pegs-in-round-holes, and other students who want to achieve something that is currently unachievable with any of the above structures. Students interested in the SDF should contact Kristen Kovak, CFA Senior Associate Dean for Student Affairs, and Dr. Amy Burkert, University Vice Provost of Education.

• It’s worth pointing out that there are also some little-known “4+1” accelerated master’s programs (AMP) which allow you to complete a Master’s degree in a single year. Ordinarily, Master’s degrees require two years, but these AMP degrees work by having some of your undergraduate coursework count towards the graduate degree. (They’re really more like 3½+1½.) One of the best-established of these 4+1 programs is the MHCI in the Human Computer Interaction Institute, which has its own AMP. Another is the CMU School of Architecture’s AMP for its Master of Science in Computational Design. Other 4+1 programs have been discussed “in principle”, and an enterprising student could, with sufficient preparation, probably pursue a 4+1 with the BCSA and the ETC Masters of Entertainment Technology. This list is not exhaustive and other combinations may exist as well. Any 4+1 degree will require a great deal of careful planning, as courses generally cannot count towards two degrees simultaneously.

An Open Letter to the NEA

2 December 2014 / reflection, studio

Dear NEA Grants Officers,

Today I had the pleasure to review the NEA’s latest (2014) group of grantees. I wish you my heartiest congratulations on selecting such a large, diverse and unquestionably deserving group of grantees. We are thrilled, honored and privileged to have been selected for one of these awards.

In reviewing the grantees of the “Media Arts” category, to which we had originally applied, it became exceedingly clear that our proposed project would have had no chance in this category. I therefore express my sincere gratitude to you for transferring our application into a category in which it had any sort of fighting chance at all. Thank you.

I am, notwithstanding, concerned about the purview of the current category and the use of the term “media arts” to describe it. Of the 61 awards in this category, not less than 50 went to curated film festivals. Only five awards had any connection to interactive or computer-based arts whatsoever (BAVC, CAAM, NAMAC, Parallel Studios, and Tribeca Film Festival), and none of these have an exclusive or even predominant focus on digital arts, particularly digital arts research and production, with the possible exception of the event hosted by… the Tribeca Film Festival… that is concerned with helping filmmakers “interpret their work in digital platforms”. It is not an exaggeration to say that the awards in this category overwhelmingly went to organizations devoted to the presentation and maintenance of what I might call “mature 20th-century recorded media” — namely film, cinema, video, television, audio, and radio.

While the NEA’s grantees are unquestionably deserving, as I have said, I am concerned about who is not listed. Specifically, I am concerned that there is no NEA grants program which supports the work of the many United States artists working in the discipline(s) of emerging media. Such artforms might be things like (without an attempt to be comprehensive) interactive art, generative art, mechatronic and robotic arts, game arts, biological arts, app art, online & networked arts, and so on — and naturally, this list of media is constantly evolving.

I believe that the emerging media of today will become the “mature media” disciplines of the next century. Just as film and radio were born some 100 years ago, the interactive media being developed now are the hatchlings of what are rapidly developing into the rich art forms of the very near future. As an investment in the future of American arts, I hope that the NEA could realize the value of supporting these nascent forms and their struggling vanguard of practitioners. Just as the invention of film led to the multi-billion-dollar economy of Hollywood, the economic justification for such an investment in emerging media arts (if one requires it) should be clear, especially as the United States enters an era of increased global competition.

I believe it is essential to know where we have come from, yet also see where we are going. The NEA visibly supports and promotes the former, with (for example) a program dedicated to “Traditional Arts”; yet where is (by simple analogy) a grants program dedicated to “Emerging & Future Arts”? I fret that the only project in the Visual Arts category to even mention the word “computer” or “software” (among 70 grantees) is dedicated to restoring a 30-year-old sculpture by Nam June Paik.

If a consideration of emerging media is anywhere on the NEA’s table, I would be very glad to assist or consult in any way that I can, and/or to direct the NEA to others with expertise in these artistic disciplines.

Yours sincerely,

Golan Levin
Director, Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry
Associate Professor of Electronic Art
Courtesy Associate Professor of Design
Courtesy Associate Professor of Computer Science
Courtesy Associate Professor, Entertainment Technology
Carnegie Mellon University
Twitter: @golan

Computing (almost) without Computers (Eyeo Code+Ed Session)

25 June 2014 / external, pedagogy, reference

Links and Notes from the Eyeo Festival Code+Ed SessionJune 10, 2014 

The following is a list of resources which you may find helpful in teaching introductory programming concepts and computational thinking. Wherever possible, these links list resources which are “computerless”, relying instead on paper and cardboard constructions, physical performances, etcetera. This list was compiled from a discussion session on “Teaching Computing without Computers,” held at the Eyeo Festival’s Code+Ed unconference, June 2014.

I apologize that this list is not more richly annotated. If you have additional suggestions, I’d be happy to hear about them for possible compilation here. Please contact me @golan on Twitter, or by email at golan at flong dot com. 


CS Unplugged

From 0 to C Workshop by Ubi de Feo

Adventures in Modeling by Mitchel Resnick et al.
From “Adventures in Modeling: Exploring Complex Dynamic Systems with StarLogo” 


Sol Lewitt Wall Drawings
There are hundreds and hundreds of these. Executing them has terrific pedagogic value.

Conditional Design & their Manifesto
Tons of instructional pencil-and-paper artwork/assignments

The Poster Factory by Studio Moniker (Jonathan Puckey and Luna Maurer)

Processing.A4 by Basil Safwat
A pencil-and-paper version of a classic Processing artwork

Peg Programming by Ed Burton

Wolfram’s CA Rules
A cellular automaton which can be executed with pencil & paper… initially anyway.

Paper Computing and PaperCamp by James Bridle


Zoom Schwartz Profigliano
A metalinguistic, possibly Turing-complete spoken-word game.

A card game in which the players must guess or infer the rules. 

Lightbot 2.0
An interactive computer game that teaches programming concepts.

Code Monkey (Kickstarted game)
A family-friendly board game that introduces kids to programming concepts.

Mastermind (board game)

A mathematics digit game

Fluxx (card game)
Another card-game with rules that continually change

Kaxxt! Card game by Why the Lucky Stiff (@_why)
A card game which teaches programming concepts. 

African Pebble Games (Mancala)

Othello, Reversi, Go


The Descriptive Camera by Matt Richardson

Cubelets by Modular Robotics

Cardboard Computer, Cardboard Plotter by Nicholas Roy

A Computational Model of Knitting, by @bitcraftlab
Alex McLean: “Textiles deserves a place as the origin of computation.”
Mitchel Whitelaw: “Free memory usually takes the form of the yarn ball.”

Binary adding machine sculpture
Math with Marbles, no electronics necessary.

“Push-pull” mechanical logic gates, built from LEGO

“System Blocks” by Oren Zuckerman, MIT Media Lab:

The Mechanical Facebook by Russell Davies

Sphero, Robotic ball


Human-Powered Computer, by John Maeda (1993)
An accurate (if slow :) re-enactment of a computer’s operating system

The MP3 Experiment, by ImprovEverywhere (Charlie Todd et al., annually since 2005)
Emergent behaviors arise in a large-scale crowd, given synchronized audio instructions.

Flock Logic, by Susan Marshall and Naomi Leonard (2010, Princeton)
Dancers are given simple rules, emergent behaviors result.

The Human Cellular Automata, by Matthew Fuller (2000)
“Like a Mexican Wave in two-dimensions” 

Sorting algorithms in dance.

The emergent behavior of synchronized crowd clapping


Visual sorting algorithms

Cooking for Engineers

“Draw it With your Eyes Closed” ed. by Paper Monument
Compilation of provocative, often conceptually-oriented arts assignments

Useful for configuring simple but powerful data relationships.

Rubik’s speed-cubing algorithms

Obkique Strategies by Brian Eno & Peter Schmidt

Mechanical Turk in the Classroom
Assignments e.g. Have students sign up and make the most money, etc. 

Sight and Insight

28 May 2014 / reflection

Written for the inaugural issue of HOLO magazine, August 2013.

Somewhere in an airport, a machine vends a free cup of coffee when it sees someone yawn. Two hundred astonished people get a hot drink! – and a quarter million more watch the perky video online. I suppose I’m a little surprised at their surprise. It’s advertising, but it could be a lot of other things, too. A debug screen flashing at 1’04” reveals the telltale wireframe of a familiar éminence grise: Jason Saraghi’s military-grade face tracker – the intelligence behind a thousand art-school projects, and (we might reasonably surmise) a piece of the FBI’s new NGI “Next Generation Identification” database as well. Use it to collect some portraits, and it might just get your laptop confiscated by the Secret Service, as happened to artist Kyle McDonald.

It is the summer of 2013 and my Umwelt is now reeling from the Snowden Effect. For many, this cascade of dystopic revelations about our privacy (and lack thereof) has instilled a vexing mixture of rage, disbelief and nonchalance. Hey, you remember that whacked-out, paranoiac conspiracy theory we scoffed at? – well, *cough* obviously, we always knew that stuff was true all along. Maybe. To make sense of our situation, we ascribe to the NSA and kindred organizations the metaphors of a sensate body: it “slurps and burps” our emails and Skype calls; it sniffs our communication packets like a “Carnivore” (an NSA surveillance system). It even gets some “backdoor action” (although the big companies, blushingly, deny it). But the overweening preoccupation of the surveillance state, predictably, is its sense of sight. The NSA is looking at us. It’s been revealed that it uses a “PRISM”, and a “Magic Lantern”, and has (we are told) a “Fairview”. So what is the nature of this gaze?

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault describes how, in the evolution from the medieval era to the Enlightenment, observation became co-extensive with control. This was epitomized in Jeremy Bentham’s 1791 Panopticon, a (prison) architecture optimized for the one-way surveillance of its occupants. Well, the panopticon is here again, and it’s a family affair. Big Brother is hovering at 18000 feet, in an ARGUS-IS drone that records 1.8-gigapixel video at 12 frames per second (that’s all?), and can tell what I’m eating. Little Sister is lurking just behind my iPhone camera, peer-pressuring me to gossip about annotate our junk shots and selfies and Instagrams and… well, she knows what we just ate, too. If Edward Snowden revealed anything genuinely new, it was that these nosy siblings are sharing their observations behind our backs.

Snowden refreshed an old lesson as well, one that has never been truer than in our current era of asymmetrical conflict: the power of a single individual to change the world. Like Saraghi’s ubiquitous face tracker, the same tools available to governments and corporations are now in the hands of individuals as well. Those with courage can conduct remarkably effective redress with surprisingly economical means.

As artists and designers, we know something about the language and idioms of seeing. Now, because of networked systems and ubiquitous capture, perception and representation are changing faster than ever before. For the artists, designers, and culture operators who work with technology – especially imaging and information technologies – our job, or jobs, are clear.

We may work to predict the cultural consequences of new technologies, warning us of dangerous futures, or speculating about interesting ones.

We may author whimsical, provocative and illogical tools that liberate minds, connect hearts, creatively invert authority, and empower skeptical thought.

Using artistic techniques like defamiliarization, we may awaken others from their slumber to see common things in an unfamiliar way, in order to enhance perception of the familiar.

Using the artistic techniques of visualization, we can delineate the unseen forces that shape our lives, in order to reveal the invisible.

Above all, we are obliged to take a “seat at the table” to help set – and not simply be victim to – technological agendas.

We will go crazy if we dwell, without relief, on injustice and impending disaster. As artists have always done, they also concoct poetry and magic, transport us to different realms of experience and imagination, remind us about what is really worth living for, and, perhaps, just a little, relieve our suffering.


  1. Microsoft Denies Windows 7 Has NSA Backdoor
  2. Douwe Egberts, “Bye Bye Red Eye
  3. Spy Drone Can See What You are Wearing From 17,500 Feet
  4. When Art, Apple and the Secret Service Collide: ‘People Staring at Computers’