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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 summer 2018. 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 personally advised students working in all of these ways, which are discussed below.

Carnegie Mellon is a very supportive environment for students who wish to pursue interdisciplinary studies. While this article enumerates degree options that combine arts and technology, CMU’s Office of Admissions maintains a more general list of interdisciplinary degree options offered throughout the university, in fields like computational biology, etc.

For reference, I’m a tenured full 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 17 May, 2018.


• 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 who are 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, physical computing, and mechatronic/kinetic sculpture. Note that at Carnegie Mellon, a “concentration” comprises four courses, where each course is 10 or 12 units. The standard BFA degree in Art (regardless of concentration) is approximately 360 units.

The CMU School of Art is very progressive in its incorporation of new technologies, and provides its own (required) foundation course in computational thinking for all of its BFA students. A half-dozen of the School of Art’s full-time faculty employ code as an artistic material, in one manner or another; these faculty provide instruction in computer programming for the arts (sometimes called “creative coding”) using toolkits like Unity3DProcessing, 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. Note that there is no pre-requisite for EMS-2, and it can be taken out-of-sequence with EMS-1 (a foundation course in video, animation, sound, and other time-based media).


• CMU’s exciting IDeATe minors program offers eight 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 2019.) 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 earn a minor in CS and also a minor in Game Design (through IDeATe). Reciprocally, CMU’s Computer Science department strongly encourages 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.

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 existing animation software to make animations, (B) learning how to program interactive games/artworks/websites, 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 and scripting (“creative coding”). Unless you’re also interested in (C), however, the BCSA may entail more Computer Science than you’re looking for.

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 currently about 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. Official information about the BCSA program and its curriculum can be found here, while I’ve published some personal observations about it here. And here are some facts and opinions about preparing a portfolio for BCSA admission—specifically for entry into 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 from 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 CS 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 spring 2018, there are a small number of practical exceptions to the above information. Currently there are no [Acting+BCSA] or [Musical Theater+BCSA] options, because of the highly demanding rehearsal schedule in those Drama programs. (Note, however, that the School of Drama does allow the [Directing+BCSA] and [Stage Design+BCSA] options.) The [Design+BCSA] option does exist, 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, you are strongly advised to contact Dr. Murray and Melissa Cicozi (Academic Advisor for Design Undergraduates) to best plan your options.


• 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. 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 of spring 2018, Carnegie Mellon offers a new pair of hybrid degrees for combining Engineering and the Arts, jointly administrated by the College of Engineering and the College of Fine Arts’ BXA office. Owing to the special requirements of professional licensure for engineering degrees, these options work slightly differently than other BXA degrees. Students seeking to earn ABET licensure should pursue the “Bachelors of Engineering with the Second Major in Arts and Engineering”. On the other hand, students who want a degree that hybridizes arts and engineering, but who are not seeking to become licensed engineers, should pursue the BESA (Bachelor of Engineering Studies and Arts). Licensure is very important for certain kinds of engineering professions — you definitely want your bridges to be designed by licensed engineers! But licensure may be less relevant if your goal is to make mechatronic and kinetic sculpture. Students interested in these Arts + Engineering degree options are advised to contact Dr. Stephanie Murray in the BXA office.


• 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. Instructions for pursuing a second major in Computer Science can be found here.


• Complementing the School of Computer Science and College of Engineering, it may surprise you to learn that there are some rather technical, computationally-intensive degree options available through the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. These options are available as minors, and, in many cases, as second majors, and/or as the “H” option in a hybrid BHA degree. These include the minor/2nd-major/BHA in Statistics and Data Science; the 2nd-major/BHA in Information Systems; the minor/2nd-major/BHA in Cognitive Neuroscience; and a special new minor in Digital Humanities called Humanities Analytics. This program provides a combination of technical training (e.g., computer programming, “Machine Learning in Practice”) and training in humanities disciplines (e.g. “Intro to Critical Reading”). Students pursuing this minor learn processes by which they can analyze and derive insights from large databases of cultural objects, such as the application of social network analysis and natural language processing algorithms to historical archives of text. Humanities Analytics forms an ideal foundation for careers in data-driven journalism, among many other fields.


• It is also possible to pursue a double degree, also called a dual 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 ever since the BCSA was introduced, but it’s possible. Instructions for pursuing a dual degree in Computer Science can be found here.


• 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 for 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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