Professor Ira Greenberg Leads Groundbreaking Master’s Program Combining Coding and Creativity

SMU is preparing to launch the online Master of Arts in Creative Technology through the Meadows School of the Arts. The graduate program will focus on creative and design disciplines combined with core and emerging technologies, giving professionals the ability to generate innovative solutions.

Ira Greenberg assisting a student at a computer
Ira Greenberg working with a student

While his formal education and early career focused on studio art (painting), SMU professor Ira Greenberg always had an interest in approaching technology from a creative standpoint. Early in his career, he decided to blend visual arts skills with computation, creating a unique area to work both as an artist and an academic.

His work eventually led to creation of the Center of Creative Computation at SMU (where he serves as the Director), and the university’s BA in Creative Computing program. In 2023, SMU will also launch an online Master of Arts in Creative Technology, another effort driven by Greenberg. The program will combine creative and design disciplines with core and emerging digital technologies, including an emphasis in Web3.

Most programs that teach coding are tech-based, which can prove challenging for someone with a more creative mindset. The master’s program will help prepare creative and technical-oriented professionals to apply a unique combination of skills in areas that include interactive media, design, coding, artificial intelligence, NFTs (non-fungible tokens), blockchain applications and more.

Greenberg said he hopes the program will attract “spark-able” students by offering them an exciting environment where they can feel empowered.

“We need to basically get them to spark something and then we provide different routes to these things. As a professor over the last 30 years of teaching, once I spark that, they don't really need me anymore. Then we just facilitate,” Greenberg said. “So, that's what I'm hoping to do. I'm hoping to both attract a population that is spark-able and then build this generation of people who are excited and empowered in this space.”

An Artist with a Passion for Computational Creativity

Greenberg has built a career around using often disassociated skills – the same skills he now teaches students at SMU.

Greenberg started - and continues to work – as a painter. Practical concerns led him to learning about computer graphic design early in his career. Having earned a B.F.A. from Cornell and an M.F.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, he reached a point where he knew he could not earn his living completely by making the kind of art he wanted to make. He decided to expand his skill set, learning about computer design.

His goal was to land a university teaching job. But life took an unexpected turn.

“My interest in computer graphics became much greater, not with my own intent,” he said. “I was just trying to pay the bills, but I got really fascinated with the software and what was happening underneath the hood. I loved reading computer manuals, which is really shocking to me.”

Eventually, Greenberg started to learn coding and began searching for “a correlation between drawing and painting or charcoal and paint and the material of computation.” He’s gone on to hold several job titles such as: painter, 2D and 3D animator, print designer, web and interactive designer/developer, programmer, art director, creative director, and managing director. Now, he’s best known as an author and an art and Creative Computing professor.

Learning Coding and Math

Greenberg delved into learning how to code and “how to do math again.” His unique set of knowledge around art and coding opened the door to teaching. But he also quickly saw that this emerging area lacked resources for students.

He decided to solve that issue by writing an introductory book on creative coding, “Processing: Creative Coding and Computational Art.” He wrote the book to offer others “what I would have liked to have had when I started.” He eventually wrote three books. The second focused primarily on processing and helping “convert ActionScript flash developers to processing.” He wrote his third book with two computer scientists.

“We started going to conferences for real computer scientists and spreading the word of this new creative coding approach to teaching computer science to the traditional mainstream community,” he said. “All those things were happening to me for many years, and I came to SMU I think between book two and three. The promise when I came to SMU was to build my dream.”

That dream involved the creation of the Center for Creative Computation and an academic program that started as a minor and then became a bachelor’s degree.

“What I wanted to do was build the program that somebody like me would have taken when I was an undergraduate, if such a thing existed,” Greenberg said. “They integrate computer science and creativity, art, and math. But it was all in the context of teaching creative people who are not just going to sit there and do what they're told. People who wanted to be creating things in the process.”

Developing the Creative Technology Program

Ira Greenberg teaching a classWith the success of the undergraduate program, SMU is preparing to launch the online Master of Arts in Creative Technology through the Meadows School of the Arts. The graduate program will focus on creative and design disciplines combined with core and emerging technologies, giving professionals the ability to generate innovative solutions.

From the beginning, Greenberg said he and others at SMU wanted to create the graduate program. His interest grew as people continued to contact him, saying they had an interest in creative computation but did not have time to earn another bachelor’s degree.

“There were people approaching me saying, “You know, I want to learn this stuff, but I'm 35 years old and I have a full-time job and a family, and I'm not going to go back for an undergraduate degree,’” Greenberg said. “And a lot of people started reaching out to me that way. And so, we knew there were some people that wanted to do this.”

Another benefit of the master’s program is that students don’t need prior programming experience. Greenberg said his experience writing books and overseeing the bachelor’s degree program in creative technology has taught him to make the curriculum as accessible as possible to people from a variety of professions.

He said the program is designed “to not only purely relate to creative people or computer scientists, but to the people in between.” He said many aspiring students have a corporate job where they do some technology work or maybe a little visualization work with design teams.

“They're not passionate about the visualization work. They don't feel they have great talent in that area. They're not super passionate about coding. They don't feel like they have great capabilities in that area either,” he said. “And I'm trying to get them super excited about this stuff.”

He said a degree in creating technology will challenge students to learn skills that give them more capabilities and provide additional value to their current organization.

Creating NFTs and Teaching People How to Learn

Because of the ever-evolving nature of technology, Greenberg said much of the focus in the master’s program will be on teaching students how to learn as much as teaching them the current technology available. Once students understand how programming works at a high level, they can more readily learn something new and apply it in a creative way.

One of the emerging areas that the graduate program will focus on is connecting generative art, which involves creative coding in the NFT space with generative AI.

“Nobody's done it,” Greenberg said. “I'm working with a group of people that is launching a platform that is the first ever to do this and we're just getting started.”

The program also focuses on AI, which Greenberg said is “immediately impactful right now,” whether a person works in an insurance company processing claims or is an artist generating paintings. “What we think we know about what we're going to do with AI today is probably nothing like what we’re going to do with it in three or four years,” he said.

He said that if the program has a heartbeat, “it is about creative coding and about creative computing; computational literacy is the center part of what we do,” Greenberg said.

Capstone projects involve installation performance, live audio with visuals and real-time data. Graduates from the bachelor’s program have gone onto work in digital product development and product innovation at startups and interactive design.

“Some of these students end up going into accounting firms doing data visualization. Some of them go work for the National Geological Survey, doing visualization of earthquake data. We're teaching the core programming literacy and they can go all kinds of places.”

He said that people leave the program changed, because they’re more agile, entrepreneurial and can think on their feet. They’ve also learned to work on cross-functional teams and can communicate and collaborate with both those in development and “pure creatives.” Many bachelor’s program graduates end up doing special project work because they can bridge the divide between those two groups.

“They come in with an interest in science and art or creativity and this program launches them,” Greenberg said. “People have gone directly to Disney Imagineering and the major studios; it gives them a superpower.”

To learn more about SMU’s M.A. in Creative Technology program, visit our program page.