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Teaching kids how to make guitars can get them hooked on engineering

I’m part of a team of professors and high school teachers who encourage high schools to teach kids to build guitars as a way of making science, technology, engineering and math subjects, collectively known as STEM, more interesting.

The STEM Guitar project brings high school teachers to weeklong workshops where they learn to make guitars so they can introduce these techniques to their students. They leave with their own guitars and all the teaching materials they need.

Over the past decade, we’ve worked with more than 450 teachers from nearly every state. These teachers, in turn, have gotten more than 20,000 students to make guitars. The program is particularly active in California and Washington state.

Here’s why it matters:

The demand among employers for workers with technical skill is large everywhere, including in the United States. Estimates vary, but experts are concerned that there could be a shortage of millions of these workers. However, standard teaching methods are not working for many high-school students, partly because many don’t see how they might use this knowledge as adults. Unlike science and math, engineering and technology aren’t typically included in the standardized tests used to grade students and their teachers. Because the stakes are high, schools generally make the subjects that are tested their highest priority.

When kids make guitars, they learn about math and science, but also the importance of mechanical precision, design and basic manufacturing, which are central to what engineers do. For example, as students go through the different steps of building a guitar, they learn about the underlying physics. Electric guitars all have pickups — small devices that use something called electromagnetic induction to make sound. This enables students to learn something about physics. And those little metal wires that go across the neck of a guitar — the frets — have to be arranged in a specific way. The way you figure out that arrangement requires algebra.

Here’s how I do my work:

We’ve established a curriculum that teachers learn to deliver through five days of training in workshops held around the country. We supply teaching materials, a textbook and guitar kits that high school teachers can then use in their classes. Since the workshops run all day for a week, we hold them during the summer.

The teachers learn to make electric guitars from wood, following one of a few standard designs. Most electric guitars have solid wood structures and make music using electromagnetic pickups connected to amplifiers. Initially, all students had learned to make electric guitars. More recently, we have helped them learn to make acoustic guitars. These use the vibrations of their light wood structures to radiate sound directly and don’t need electronics. However, their construction and the underlying physics are complicated.

We don’t have time to teach anyone how to play their instruments, although impromptu jam sessions often break out. Teachers can also point students toward some good online lessons.

Our project has also started working directly with veterans. Some vets need help with adjusting to life after the military. Some want to learn something that can be useful in a job. Others simply need the experience of succeeding at something difficult and interesting. We’ve just started this work, but veterans and the people supporting them have been enthusiastic so far. We are very pleased to have found a way to help them out.

What still isn’t known:

We don’t know how many schools are willing to try this unusual approach. Also, we’re happy that teachers are reporting their students are more engaged and some students even state they want to come to school so they can work on guitars. However, we don’t know how learning STEM by making guitars benefits people later on. Although gathering this information would be difficult, it will help us refine our approach.

What’s next:

We are developing classes that will teach teenagers to use computer-controlled machines to make guitars similar to the ones made by professional manufacturers of musical instruments and other products. Students will learn how to make their own parts either by following our designs or even inventing their own. At its best, engineering is an inventive process. So it’s important for students to move beyond manufacturing something using our designs to designing their own instruments.

– Mark French is a professor of mechanical engineering technology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

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