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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.


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