Innovative Lesson Plans: A New Approach in Calarts Classrooms

Ajay Kapur explains some of the goals of his new course in front of “Lydia,” an automated piano operated by motors through artificial intelligence, a machine he builds, reprograms and retools with students inside his classroom in the Herb Alpert School of Music at California Institute of the Arts on Friday. Cory Rubin | SCVBJ
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By Perry Smith                                                                                                                                                          SCVBJ Editor

Innovation is nothing new at California Institute of the Arts, a place as renowned for being on the vanguard as it is for producing award-winning artists.

However, a new curriculum underway there is aimed not only at cultivating the creativity to inspire technology through the arts, but also to prepare them for the challenges they’ll face as they try to bring a product to market.

Ajay Kapur, whose titles — associate dean of research and development in digital arts in the Office of the President and director of music technology — hints at the fusion of instructional discipline he’s leading at CalArts, is instructing the course along with a friend and business partner Saurabh Suri, chief investment officer and managing partner of CerraCap Ventures.

And the title for the course Kapur and Suri are teaching together is “Creative Entrepreneurship,” which seems an apt description for what they’re teaching on campus.

Kapur, a drummer and Princeton grad, learned how to combine his love of technology and music through his undergraduate and Ph.D work, evidence of which is a mechatronic drum machine with artificial intelligence that hangs suspended above his classroom in the Herb Alpert School of Music.
What they’re doing in the classroom doesn’t just have big implications for the potential to combine business and creative technology, Kapur said. It has significant implications for the future of music, as well, he said.

“We’re definitely in an age, and it’s exciting,” said Kapur, who noted that artificial intelligence has made massive gains since his undergraduate studies, and that what used to take about a year for students to model and render for algorithmic programming can now be done in about a week.

“The reason why I think artificial intelligence is important for artists to learn, is because as artists learn all these moving parts of these types of … sensors (lighting and moving parts of mechatronic systems),” he said, pointing toward some of the inventions on display in his classroom. “It gets too hard to manually go in and program each (robotic arm) — you can use AI to train a computer to do what it is, as a human, you are doing.”

Kapur said the program has been greatly supported and encouraged by Ravi Rajan, who was named president of the Valencia arts college in December 2016.

“From its founding, CalArts has been focused on being a place filled with generative energy from new and innovative ideas. Small new business ventures have great potential to be change agents in the creative sector. Creating these new entities — entrepreneurship in the arts — is something many young artists feel compelled to pursue,” Rajan said. “After creating the first graduate degree program focused on just this kind of entity creation in New York City, I’m thrilled to come to CalArts where there is a long tradition of innovation, and a great desire on the part of students and alumni to explore entity creation within the sector. Ajay’s work here has formed the basis of new and exciting work for us in the near future.”

For the professors, it’s also not just about teaching technology or actual skills, but also about preparing students for some of the challenges that a classroom education doesn’t traditionally cover.
Suri describes his role as bringing the real world experience from “the other side,” meaning the business world.

Kapur has led entrepreneurial projects from the classroom to commercial, such as Kadenze, which hosts courses from CalArts, as well as from other major institutions of higher education. The online platform brings together educators, artists and engineers from leading universities across the globe to provide a world-class education in the fields of art and creative technology. And many of its employees and executive staff are faculty and alumni of CalArts.

Suri brings his financial background, as well as the knowledge that comes with having seen “hundreds of startups.”

“It’s really the real-world experience of what it really takes to be an entrepreneur — and the pitfalls and everything else,” Suri said. “We’re also approaching it from the standpoint of, when people often say the cliche, ‘Failure is the best step to success.’ And it sounds like a really bad cliche, but we come with real-life examples of, ‘Yeah, we do this, because we’ve screwed it up several times.’”

And with the concept behind the course being fairly nascent, both Kapur and Suri have new and interesting scenarios they’ll be working through with their students.

“It’s actually a very interesting challenge — you’re approaching students who are pretty much top in their field from a creative aspect, and where they’ve spent their whole lives focusing on the creative aspect, to show them the importance of the other side.”


For more local resources for entrepreneurs:

America’s Job Center of California

No physical address


The Entrepreneurs Organization

500 Montgomery St., Suite 700, Alexandria, VA (global headquarters)



Google Startup Grind

26336 Citrus St., Valencia, CA 91355


MakerSpace at College of the Canyons

26455 Rockwell Canyon Road, Santa Clarita, CA 91355



Santa Clarita Business Incubator

22704 9th Street, Santa Clarita, CA 91321

661- 290-2211


Santa Clarita Economic Development Division

23920 Valencia Blvd, No. 100, Santa Clarita, CA 91355


Santa Clarita Valley Economic Development Center

26455 Rockwell Canyon Road, No. 263, Santa Clarita, CA 91355


Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce

28494 Westinghouse Place, No. 114, Santa Clarita, CA 91355


Small Business Administration Office (Los Angeles District Office)

330 N. Brand Blvd., Suite 1200, Glendale, CA 91203


Small Business Development Center

26455 Rockwell Canyon Road, Santa Clarita, CA 91355


Steamwork Center

28368 Constellation Road, Suite 360, Santa Clarita, CA 91355



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