Your Voice is Power: Where computer science and social justice hit the right notes

Computer science can be a creative outlet for more than just robots or delivery apps.

Amazon Future Engineers and education network Taking IT Global are teaming up to bring the Your Voice is Power program — a course which combines music, coding and racial justice to empower marginalized youth — to Canada. Project lead Christine M’lot and other Indigenous educators from UBC were consulted to help “indigenize the program.”

This eight-module course teaches middle and high school students how to code using EarSketch, a free program created by Georgia Tech University to remix songs from featured Indigenous artists Dakota Bear, Jayli Wolf and Samian. Teachers can access the lesson plan through the program’s website which can be translated into French, Ojibwe and Inuktitut.

“Students code in different elements of a song into their own original song,” said M’lot in an interview with The Ubyssey. “They're deconstructing songs and then reconstructing them with their own remixes. And all of this is done by coding instructions into the program.”

Alongside the fundamentals of computer science and entrepreneurship, the curriculum educates students on Indigenous history, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, and encourages them to “use their voice in a powerful way.”

According to UBC enrolment statistics, the enrolment of Indigenous students has increased over the past five years. Within the computer science department in the same time period, however, the percent of Indigenous students enrolled has decreased from 0. 76 per cent to 0.62 per cent.

“Where this project comes in is creating a curriculum that is aimed at bridging that gap and bringing other ideas together [in] a holistic stream to say, ‘Here is computer science and here's what we're going to be doing,” but we're going to wrap that around cultural ideas, and in this case, it's with music and connected to artists, musical artists that were also Indigenous,” said Indigenous studies and computer science PhD student Jon Corbett.

Corbett researched Indigenous musical artists for the program to find samples for students to remix. Alongside six of his colleagues, he curated a list of potential musicians to work with that varied in style. This year’s program is focused on hip-hop and could expand to other genres in the future. As this course is used for both middle and high school students, the curriculum differs between the two age groups.

“We're trying to look for things that can [be] accessible and you can use at school, so if there's profanity in the music, we can't use that … you have to weigh who to pick and stuff based on the audience that is going to be interacting with. You also want something that is meaningful and culturally relevant to the students that you're trying to target,” said Corbett.

“The goal is to look at alternative ways of engaging with computers. The racial makeup of that student body is not necessarily that relevant, it's about really giving identity a chance to express itself in computer programming and in computer sciences.”

The Canadian version of the program was created throughout the COVID-19 pandemic which changed how students work through the modules and interact with featured artists.

“Through this program, all students need is a laptop. They can make their own beats, record their own songs and they learn to code while doing all of that. So I think it makes [the program] even more accessible for students, especially during COVID[-19] time,” said M’lot.

M’lot described this course as a “living program” and would like to highlight different Indigenous artists every year.

“We do hope to make the program relevant each year so if something changes or something comes out we'll definitely be updating the modules as well,” said M’lot.

“I'm proud of it all. I hope that the program does what it intended to do. And that's to inspire, particularly Indigenous youth in seeing themselves potentially having a career in computer science and technology.”