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Emerson, NU jump on tech bandwagon

First came the musicians; now, here come the writers, dancers, and actors. Sorry, tech types: The arts and humanities keep crashing your innovation party.

In just the last two months, Berklee College of Music, Northeastern University, and Emerson College all have unveiled initiatives that sound as if they belong in the computer science labs of Harvard University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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In Berklee’s case, it was the opening of the Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship, designed in part to foster student-run startups that fuse music and technology.

The Emerson Accelerator also supports fledgling businesses — providing seed money, workspace, and mentorship — and is open to undergraduates of all majors, including those studying film and musical theater.

Northeastern’s journalism school is taking applications for a new graduate program in media innovation, where computer science and game design will be part of the curriculum.

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And this is only the beginning, according to Emerson president Lee Pelton.

“You will see shortly a proliferation of creative laboratories, incubators, and accelerators at colleges and universities where you would not expect them,” he said. “That is, places other than science, technology, engineering, and math colleges.”

In fact, Pelton’s office is beginning a survey of about 500 liberal arts colleges in an effort to quantify the trend.

A common theme is that educators in the arts and humanities are responding to disruptive technologies in their own fields — Pandora in the music industry, for instance, or free online news sites in journalism — and are borrowing ideas from the sciences and technology that are causing the disruptions.

The goal is not merely to teach business and technology skills but also to adopt a new mindset — to “think like a coder,” said Jeff Howe, who will direct Northeastern’s media innovation program.

“Yes, we need to transplant those skills into journalism, but what’s more important is that we transplant those ideas and attitudes,” he said.

Northeastern’s new course of study is launching with the help of a $250,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which has created a Prototype Fund designed to help “media makers, technologists, and tinkerers take ideas from concept to demo.”

Essentially, one of the nation’s leading journalism foundations is acting a bit like a venture capital firm that seeds promising tech startups.

The birth of the Emerson Accelerator, meanwhile, looked a bit like an episode of “Shark Tank,” the television show where would-be entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to prospective investors.

Pelton said he commissioned two undergrads to design the program last fall and asked them to pitch it to Emerson’s board of trustees.

“It was so enthusiastically received that several board members wrote checks literally on the spot to support the program,” Pelton said.

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers @globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ callumborchers.
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