Guitar-building Program Excites Students, Teachers About STEM in the Classroom
"Build it, and they will come" has never been more appropriate than for the guitar-building program at Butler Community College.
“There is an immediate connection with the guitar,” said Mike Aikens, an engineering technology instructor for 25 years at Butler and guitar-building teacher for three years. “There is something about the guitar that people relate to. Even just hanging it on the wall, it looks good.”
It is this universal appeal that makes the guitar-building project such a successful tool in teaching STEM to students in high school and postsecondary schools.
Aikens, along with instructors from four other colleges, teach workshops for other instructors all across the country. With support from a National Science Foundation grant, the guitar workshops are held free of charge to participants. The workshop registration fee, lodging, meals and per diem are all supported for participants through the grant.
And while it may seem like they are paying people to get them to participate, they are actually beating down the door to attend. This year, they had 60 people apply for 14 spots in one of the workshops. “The big reason is the climate and culture,” says Aiken of their success. “People want innovative creative ways to reach students. It ignites and inspires teachers.”
About the Workshops
The project provides innovative professional development to high school and community college faculty in collaborative design and rapid manufacturing. “We like the participants to come as a team, one technology teacher and one science or math teacher, ideally. This allows for cross-disciplinary actions,” said Aikens. “They come together. They build the guitars together. They will teach at their school together. But the most important thing for us is that the participants will be champions of this program in their school. We want them to go on and implement it.”
Faculty teams take part in an intense five-day program, with each member building their own guitar and participating in student-centered activities that relate guitar building to specific math, science and engineering topics. Participants leave the program with their custom-made guitars and curriculum modules they can immediately incorporate into their school’s curriculum.
A typical session includes:
- STEM learning activities in science, math, engineering, and other disciplines.
- Lab time for building the guitars and applying the lessons on intonation, electronic installation and other skills.
- Development of a STEM learning activity.
- Rock Star Friday, where they test their guitars.
The specific correlation for the guitar-building practices and STEM are pretty easy to find. For example, wave motion, magnetics and frequencies are all taught in physics. Woodworking and 3-D modeling are taught in tech classes. Materials properties and design are taught in engineering. Algorithms for fretting are taught in math classes. “There is plenty there to teach STEM content,” said Aiken.
Taking it to the Classroom
Aikens believes that the guitar-building works in the classroom for a number of reasons.
It is a scalable project—The levels of integration make it easy for teachers to incorporate the guitars. For example, a low-level integration would be for the teacher to use the guitar they built as a learning tool to reverse-engineer. A high-level integration would be to become one of the supply chain providers for the guitar kits the program sells to schools.
Aikens has everything from a school club for enthusiasts to an actual semester-long class he teaches at the college. The class is either a general education completer or a capstone for their engineering technology majors. In the capstone class, students work in multifunctional teams and develop a supply chain for manufacturing the guitars.
“The workshop participants have some creative ways of implementing the project depending on the difficulty of adding courses at their school,” Aikens explained. “Of course, the best way is to incorporate it into the curriculum.”
Gender- and age-neutral project—“The electric guitar crosses all ages, genders, socio-economic ranges and races,” Aikens said. “Not all the students want to play an electric guitar, but we have picked something out of their culture, and they are grooving on it. That is what I have learned from this project. If you identify something from their culture that you can teach to, you can teach them anything.”
High engagement—“The days of going to the book and saying 'draw that CAD design' are over,” said Aiken. “It has to be dynamic and innovative. We are just trying to teach and get students interested in science and math, and we’re up against steep competition.” But Aikens said he has never seen kids so truly enthusiastic. “We have kids on our heels they are that engaged.”
High success rate for completed guitars—Aikens says that the biggest draw is the fact that, when they leave the class, students have a working guitar. It is a very tangible goal that gives the them a great sense of accomplishment at the end of the class.
On the program’s website, www.guitarbuilder.org, you can find all of the materials from the workbook, information about the workshops, and the guitar kits for purchase.
But it is Aiken’s students who really sell the project.
For example, first-year Butler student Jonathan Bertolotti built his first guitar in high school and was very interested in the class at Butler. “When I saw the dynamic guitar-design class, I thought, ‘I can get credit for something I enjoy,'” he said. “It is a very good and comprehensive class. You start with just a piece of wood and end with a functional guitar. I had built a guitar before, but now I know the algebra and science behind it and why it needs to be that way." Berteotti, who would like to have a career in building and selling guitars, is in the class two days a week and goes to the club the other two days.
Jos Olar has played guitar for seven years and really enjoyed learning about the instrument he plays. “Knowing what I know now, I know you just don’t take a block of wood and a stick and put it together.” He will be playing the guitar he has built this semester. “It gave me a different appreciation for the instrument, and I am honored to be playing it.”
Aikens says there are still spots available in their summer workshops for instructors. He will also be doing some follow-up grant work this fall, with the possibility of taking the class to the middle and elementary school levels.