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Graphic of music app

Billy Bao's music translation app generates visible and movable notes.

Sing — and See — a Song

In NMH’s capstone program, seniors pursue intellectual passions and take charge of their own learning.

Say you’re a senior, and you’ve written your share of English essays. What’s next? How about a collection of short stories, written over the course of a semester? Or say you’ve worked your way through all of NMH’s computer science classes and there’s a particular app you wish existed. Why not develop it yourself? 

NMH’s capstone program is a chance for seniors to design their own intensive, semester-long study on a topic beyond the school’s curriculum. Guided by a faculty advisor, the student works toward the creation of a tangible product — a prototype, a body of artwork, a business proposal, a thesis — that can be presented to the NMH community. “This is an opportunity for students to pursue a passion,” says Academic Dean Sarah Warren. “They take ownership of their learning by identifying a topic or project, developing weekly goals, and reflecting on their successes and challenges.”

This year’s projects include a study in solo choreography and performance, a historical analysis of elder-care policies and practices in China and the United States, and a scientific exploration of how to optimize the population growth of brine shrimp. 

But those, and several others, are just getting off the ground. Here are a few highlights from last year’s projects.

Sing to the App

Billy Bao ’20

After completing NMH’s most advanced courses in music theory and computer science, Billy Bao ’20 developed an app that could understand a melody, play it back, transcribe the notes, and offer additional chords as accompaniment.

The playing-it-back part is pretty standard, Bao says. It’s the app’s other two steps that he’s particularly proud of. The code he wrote takes the raw sound waves and translates them into notes with varying durations — differentiating, for example, between a quarter note and an eighth note. Once the notes are visible on the screen of your phone, you can move them around and hear different iterations of your melody, including the chords generated by the app. 

One of Bao’s intentions was to create a composing tool. “If you don’t know any music theory, but you have some notes in your head, the app helps you see how you can actually make a song.”

Applications like this do exist, Bao says, but most of them use machine learning and require substantial data to be fed into a program. “I wanted to draw my on own learning and write code based on my understanding of how chords can be fitted to music.”


Republics, Then and Now

Quentin Moliterno ’20

Quentin Moliterno ’20 had one foot in ancient Rome and the other in contemporary America. He compared the two republics and found them remarkably similar, despite the 2,000 years between them. “It’s common to call the United States a democracy, but it’s more accurately a republic,” he says. “A democracy is a system in which each citizen gets an equal say in the happenings of the country. A republic is where the citizens elect representatives to do the governing.”

The Roman republic had its Senātus; America has its Congress. Moliterno says the two systems also overlap in their economic policies (taxation and money-lending), income inequality among citizens, and the rise of populism. The Roman republic devolved into chaos in the first century BCE and eventually became an empire. “Where is America on Rome’s trajectory of development?” Moliterno wonders. “Could we fall the same way?” 

He also says the United States changed many of the systems Rome had in place. “We outlawed slavery. We have loyal allies. We survived civil war. We have more political checks and balances in place. We have a healthier economy overall. So I’m actually pretty confident in America.”


See with Your Feet

Stella Park ’20

Two summers ago, Stella Park ’20 volunteered for an organization in Korea that matches visually impaired runners with seeing partners who guide them on fitness runs. She also once helped a visually impaired woman cross a busy, crowded street in Seoul when the woman’s white cane wasn’t enough to keep her safe.

Park’s idea was to develop a small device that could be attached to a person’s shoe, leaving both hands free. “It’s a bunch of sensors in a 3D-printed case,” Park explains. “The device measures the distance to the nearest obstacle within a certain range, and it connects by Bluetooth to a smartphone application, which tells the user that there’s an obstacle to look out for.”

Park started developing the tool during a summer internship at a South Korean university, and refined it for her capstone back at NMH. What began as a sonic device — one that emitted sound waves that would bounce off an obstacle in front of a person — now also incorporates a camera and a sensor that emits light waves. “I was trying to make the obstacle detection process faster,” Park says, “so it’s a better user experience.”


Carbon Neutrality and Beyond

Muhammad Manjee ’20

“Climate change is one of the most — if not the most — important issues of the 21st century,” says Muhammad Manjee ’20. After taking AP Environmental Science last year, he wanted a deeper dive into the topic. His AP Economics class led him to think beyond science; he wanted to know the history of environmental policies around the world, and how climate change was steering new policies, specifically around renewable energy. “I’m interested in behavioral economics,” Manjee says. “What goes into the thinking of the people who are making these decisions?” 

He researched policies in the United States, Europe, and China, then zeroed in on NMH and other educational institutions. “Carbon neutrality is what most institutions are aiming for,” he said during a presentation at the end of the fall semester. That’s when a school or a company buys carbon offsets, which balance its own emissions by supporting renewable-energy use elsewhere. Manjee recommended that NMH strive for carbon neutrality by 2029 — the 150th anniversary of the founding of Northfield Seminary — and net-zero emissions by 2040, which would mean the school would purchase all its energy from renewable sources. It’s an “aggressive” plan, Manjee says — but within reach.


Image courtesy of Billy Bao, photos by Chattman Photography, Glenn Minshall