St. Olaf College | News

Where music lessons and parallel computing meet

Alexandra Best ’15 combined her interests in computer science and music to create an award-winning program.

At a place like St. Olaf College, where one-third of students are involved in music, just scheduling all the lessons for a particular studio can be half the battle.

Alexandra Best ’15, a computer science major and voice student, saw the struggle firsthand with her own music instructor, Karen Wilkerson, who has the largest studio on campus.

Best, at the time in a parallel and distributed computing course taught by Professor of Computer Science Dick Brown, decided to turn to coding to solve the problem.

What began as a project for her computer science class became not only a completed program for her voice instructor to actually use, but also a winning presentation at MinneWIC, the Regional Celebration of Women in Computing in the Upper Midwest.

Best’s project was based in part on parallel computing, which uses multiple processing units, known as cores, working together at the same time, in order to work faster on larger amounts of data (read about how St. Olaf became a leader in parallel computing education in this magazine story). The difference between single-core computers and multi-core ones is similar to the difference between eating an entire pizza by yourself and having having several friends help you eat it. In a project that deals with this amount of data, parallel computing was key.

By taking the professor’s schedule, student preferences, and lesson lengths into account, Best created a computer program that provides multiple conflict-free schedules where almost all students have their top choices in times, all done in under a minute.

“The instructors get greater control over what their lesson schedules look like, and students are much more likely to be assigned a lesson time that they ranked as highly preferable,” Best says.

Brown encouraged her to present her program at MinneWIC, and the “Time-Efficient Lesson Scheduler” she developed took the top prize for the undergraduate division of the poster presentation contest. It also earned her a trip to the Grace Hopper Celebration in Houston, Texas, this October.

The national conference provides “an opportunity for young women to explore opportunities in computing, to network with other women from academia, industry, and government, and to create friendships among women in the region who share the same interest and passion for computing.”

Best says conferences like these are fundamental to getting more women involved in computer science.

“There needs to be a conscious effort toward improving the industry’s gender discrimination and gender disparity issues before we can really break out of that cycle,” she says.

St. Olaf will host a new honor house this fall focused on promoting equal access to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Members of the house plan to reach out to girls in grades three through five to help spark their curiosity and interest in these disciplines. They will also put on events for St. Olaf students from all backgrounds and disciplines to make these topics more accessible.

“We want to reduce the stigma that you have to be a ‘science person’ or a ‘math person’ in order to learn about these topics,” says Emma Schnuckle ’16, who will serve as president of the honor house.