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Undergrad Art+Tech Options at CMU: An Update

9 April 2014 / pedagogy, reference

There are many different options for combined undergraduate study in art+technology at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). This blog post contains a quick list, accurate, to the best of my knowledge, as of spring 2016. I advise many of the students working in these ways, and I have known and advised students working in all of the ways listed below. Feel free to contact me with questions. This article was last updated 1 February, 2016.

(For reference: A “concentration” is four courses; a “minor” is six courses. A standard bachelor’s degree at CMU is about 360 units.) 

• The CMU School of Art has internal concentrations in several areas; you can create your own, or 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 Art students with an interest in art+technology are pursuing the ETB concentration in the School of Art. The ETB concentration includes coursework options (all within the School of Art) in topics like CGI/animation, game design, interactive art, video and performance arts, visualization, and mechatronic/kinetic sculpture. Incidentally, the School of Art also has its own required arts-engineering courses for all of its BFA students which teach computer programming for the arts, using the Processing, p5.jsArduino, and Max/MSP toolkits. An example of such a course is “EMS2”, or Introduction to the Electronic Media Studio II; EMS2 is required for all Art sophomores, regardless of their internal concentration—but we generally recommend that BCSA students (see below) and pre-BCSA students take EMS2 in their freshman year.

• CMU’s exciting new IDeATe program offers a half-dozen different interdisciplinary minors and concentrations that cut across the university in lots of ways: Animation and Special EffectsEntrepreneurship for Creative IndustriesGame DesignIntelligent EnvironmentsLearning MediaMedia DesignPhysical Computing, and Sound Design. These minors and concentrations are not mutually exclusive with the School of Art’s ETB concentration; you can do both. In fact, the 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.

• As an Art major, you can also pursue a Computer Science (CS) minorRobotics minorHuman-Computer Interaction minor, or Language Technologies minor. It is also possible to double-minor, meaning, to pursue two minors (or even more); for example, you could have a minor in CS and also a minor in IDeATe+GameDesign. Reciprocally, CMU’s Computer Science department requires 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.

• The Bachelor of Computer Science and Art, or BCSA, is an integrated double-degree. It can be particularly challenging to get into the BCSA, because you must be accepted into both the School of Art (which requires a strong portfolio) 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.) Transfers can and do happen from either direction. To transfer into BCSA from the School of Art, you must demonstrate proficiency in Computer Science, by doing well in the first few introductory CS courses (namely, 15-11215-122, and 15-150) in your Freshman and/or Sophomore years. To transfer into BCSA from the School of Computer Science, you should have a portfolio that demonstrates your sensibility in combining art and technology. The BCSA is designed to be completed in 4 years, and requires about 380 units. (I helped co-create the BCSA degree in 2008, and I’m the School of Art’s advisor for its BCSA students.) Students interested in pursuing or applying for the BCSA should contact Dr. Stephanie Murray, Director of the BXA Intercollege Degree Programs office. There are about 20-30 BCSA students at CMU; most 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.

As an aside: Some students believe that studying Computer Science is necessary in order to pursue their interest in animation or game design. CS is assuredly a fascinating, useful, and challenging discipline, but be careful not to confuse (A) learning how to use animation software, (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-focused introduction to computer programming. Unless you’re also interested in (C), however, the BCSA may be more Computer Science than you’re looking for.

• Several additional “BXA” integrated double-degrees 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 in the works, but has not yet been approved as of February 2016. Finally, a there are a variety of additional interesting intercollege degree programs that bridge, for example, the Sciences and Humanities. It’s possible 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. For example, you could get a second major in Computer Sciencea second major in HCIa second major in Robotics, a second major in Machine Learning, or 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 in the School of Art, and a BS in Computer Science. It 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 pursue this option since the BCSA was introduced, but it’s possible.

• It is also possible to pursue a University Student-Defined major (SDF) at CMU. This is a great degree 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 Dr. Amy Burkert, Vice Provost of Education.

• 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. 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, or a 4+1 with the BCSA and the Masters of Emerging Media. This list is not exclusive and other combinations may exist as well. Any 4+1 degree will require a great deal of careful planning, as many courses cannot count towards two degrees simultaneously.


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