Journal OSBA — June 2013 Volume 57 Issue 3
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Making STEM Education Rock
Bryan Bullock

Mad River Local’s guitar-building class resonates with students

Mad River Local (Montgomery) offers a wealth of engaging learning opportunities for students, but there’s one class that rocks harder and louder than others.

The sound of an electric guitar is emanating from a classroom in Stebbins High School. A student is strumming the first few verses of the 1976 classic song “Hotel California” and a small group of teens gathers around to listen, clutching their 3,500 students near Dayton.

“It’s a unique experience,” said senior Josh Keenan. “I don’t know how many kids around the country, or in the world, get to say, ‘I built a guitar in high school.’”

The seniors-only class uses the guitar-building process as a vehicle to get students engaged in science, technology, math and engineering (STEM).

“This is a class that really resonates with students,” said Thomas M. Singer, a Sinclair Community College mechanical engineering technology professor and guitarbuilding class instructor at the high school. “The hook is building the guitar, but the focus of the class is really on the math and science behind the project.”
The course, Guitar Manufacturing using STEM Concepts, is open to students in the high school’s engineering or manufacturing technologies career pathways program.Stebbins High School offers these and 13 other careertechnical programs on-site.

The guitar-building class emphasizes applied learning, problem-solving and inquiry-based education. Like any other course, it involves homework, including writing assignments and math problems. Unlike any other course, the final exam is the completion of a well-crafted and fully functional electric guitar.

“This is a great way for students to end their high school career: by applying the different skills they learned over the last three-and-a-half years,” Singer said. “They leave here with a product they created with their own hands.”

In addition to graduating with a guitar, students who successfully complete the class also can earn free college credit.While Stebbins is one of few high schools in the nation to offer students the chance to build a guitar, the STEM-driven program is gaining momentum in Ohio and the U.S. Whether they play the electric guitar or not, students are jumping at the chance to build the iconic instrument that’s shaped popular music for decades.

“This is a program that is spreading across Ohio and the nation, with big pockets developing in the Midwest and on the West Coast,” Singer said.

Sound learning

The guitar-building program was developed by faculty teams at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, Butler County Community College in Pennsylvania, College of the Redwoods in California, Purdue University in Indiana and Ventura College in California. The colleges received a National Science Foundation grant in 2009 to train high school teachers and college faculty nationwide to incorporate the program into their classrooms.

To date, Singer said, about 170 educators across the country have completed the one-week training program.

“Schools can pull the curriculum down off our website and immediately start using it — it’s all free,” said Singer, who also manages Sinclair Community College’s CollabNFAB Center.

“It’s all about the math, physics, engineering and technology they’re already teaching. We’re not asking them to teach something new. This is about using something kids have enthusiasm about — guitars — to connect with kids using your existing curriculum.”

He said it’s up to each school to determine how a guitarbuilding project might fit into its unique culture. New Philadelphia City was the first district in Ohio to offer the program, providing it as an after-school activity for high school students who have completed physics class. Other districts that offer the guitar-building program as a club or after-school activity include Dover City, Greene County Career Center, Madeira City, Mariemont City and Worthington City.

Stebbins High School and Dayton City’s David H. Ponitz Career Technology Center are the only schools in Ohio that currently offer the program as a class. In both cases, Singer helps lead the class, which is identical to the one he teaches at Sinclair Community College. High school students who pass the course can earn a college credit for engineering.

The class combines hands-on learning with classroom instruction. Students watch YouTube videos about STEM concepts involved in the guitar-building process and write reports about what they learn. They also have a 154-page workbook that includes a broad range of lessons, including determining string tension using frequencies, reverse engineering mechanical guitar parts and calculating sound levels and the force generated by sounds.

While math and science skills are needed, the guitar-building class does not require students to have any musical experience — and, in fact — many of those enrolled do not know how to play the instrument. Stebbins High School senior Bryan Thompson said he can play a few chords on the guitar, but no songs. He said his uncle plans to teach him how to play after he finishes building his guitar.

“I used to play cello, but I took this class more because of the engineering aspect of it than my interest in playing the guitar,” Thompson said. “I’ve always liked math, science and engineering.”

Guitar assembly

Sinclair Community College provides kits, components and instructional materials for students to build their guitars.Each guitar starts as a block of wood with a milled-out body and neck. At Stebbins High School, engineering teacher Jim Prater and manufacturing technologies teacher Dave Jones help lead the 32 students in their joint class through the guitar-building process. The semester-long class meets four days a week in back-to-back periods.

“Students spend the first couple weeks of the project working on their guitar body and necks in the (machine) shop,” Jones said. “It’s a lot of fun, but they quickly realize there are a lot of steps involved in the process.”

Along the way, students learn to use hand tools, power tools and soldering equipment. Students craft their headstock — which attaches to the top of the neck of the guitar — and design the look of their body and headstock. Many students chose to swirl dip their guitars in paint, which involves dipping the wood in a large container of water, borax and assorted paint colors. The result is a psychedelic swirl of paint that is nearly impossible to replicate.

Senior John Netherton said he chose to swirl dip his guitar body in blue and white because they are the colors of his church. “I wanted to paint it like that so I can take it and show it to my church,” he said.

Netherton said the guitar-building process has been enjoyable, but it can be challenging. He was working on intonation for the third consecutive day with his nearly complete instrument — a process that involves connecting the guitar to a computer program that analyzes the frequency of notes. Students have to adjust the length, tension and distance from the body of each string to achieve precisely the right sound — not too flat, not too sharp. Students apply a variety of complex math equations to calculate fret spacing and the linear distance of string per turns of a knob using a given gear ratio.

“It tries your patience because you have to make such small adjustments,” Netherton said. “We broke one of the strings and I had to start over.”
Students have to make precise measurements, secure their fretboard, attach their headstock and solder electronic components before they can move on to intonation and, ultimately, tune their guitars.

“For some kids, working with these tools is new and it can be scary because they don’t have the background in it,” Prater said. “But when they’re successful at these new challenges, it builds confidence.”
Students have been able to use the skills they’ve developed in class to help the school produce components needed for the guitar kits. Stebbins High School manufactures a fretwire bender and ferrules press it designed, which are sold back to Sinclair Community College to help offset the costs associated with the guitar-building program. The high school students help produce the components and help Jones and Prater keep track of inventory and manage the small business.

“It allows us to cover the cost of the guitar kits each year so the district and the students don’t have to pay for them,” Prater said. “We hope to take it a step further next year and generate additional revenue.”

The custom-built guitars that students complete during the class are said to appraise as high as $2,000 — much higher than the $175 guitar kits.

Stebbins shared its guitar-building program with Ohio educators, school administrators and school board members at the Student Achievement Fair at the 2012 OSBA Capital Conference and Trade Show in Columbus.

Striking a chord with STEM

Completed guitars are displayed around Stebbins High School, which helps promote the manufacturing technologies and engineering career-tech programs.

“The freshmen are seeing all this going on so it piques their interest in the programs because they may want to build a guitar too,” Jones said. “It’s kind of an incentive for them to take the class or at least check out the program.”

He said the guitar-building class has been extremely well received by students, administrators and school board members. Board member Marilyn Steiner said the course has been a great addition to the high school.

“When you have a project like this that students really get into and have a deep personal interest in, I think you tend to get more out of them,” Steiner said. “They’re proud of the project so they end up working harder and learning more.”

She said the district had an open house last school year for business and community leaders, and guests got to check out the educational offerings at Stebbins, including the guitarbuilding class.

“We got to witness the kids working on their projects and see how they’re not just not building a guitar, they’re learning about STEM,” Steiner said. “We have some very talented staff and it flows over into the children and what they’re learning.

“STEM is the foundation of a lot of different fields and we’re always looking into how we can integrate it even more into our programs. A lot of our staff members start working with kids when they’re freshmen to get them thinking what they want to do when they graduate high school.”

Stebbins High School’s manufacturing technologies and engineering career-tech programs are designed to prepare students to go on to careers, college or additional technical training.

“We have a very high percentage of our students who graduate and go into STEM disciplines in college, such as engineering and computer science,” Prater said.

Mad River Local’s partnership with local businesses and Sinclair Community College gives its high school students the opportunity to a receive a $3,000 scholarship to the college upon meeting all graduation requirements.

Senior Nikki Hyatt said she would like to continue studying machine technologies after high school. She said she has played guitar for five years and enjoyed building the instrument.

“It was a bonus for me because I already like working with machines and my hands,” Hyatt said.

She already owns a guitar, but the one she built is special.Hyatt said she already has a spot picked out for it to be displayed at home once she finishes it.

“I have a stand made up for it,” she said. “It’s going to be in the corner of my room and I am going to play it frequently.”

Editor’s note: For more information about the guitar-building STEM program and curriculum, visit www.guitar building.org or contact Thomas M. Singer, Sinclair Community College mechanical engineering technology professor, at thomas.singer@sinclair.edu or (937) 512-2838.
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