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College of Education

UW Guitar-Building Institute gives teachers hands-on practice - and inspiration for innovative STEM project

NOTE: To access a photo album chronicling the inaugural UW Guitar-Building Initiative, click here.

Institute coordinator Debbie French describes final afternoon activities

Can students find inspiration – and STEM learning – in the process of guitar making?

Eighteen teachers from seven states spent five days in Laramie this summer doing just that – applying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) principles to make working electric guitars.

The program is part of the National STEM Guitar Project, one of six Guitar-Building Institutes scheduled so far this year. The University of Wyoming College of Education, led by doctoral candidate Debbie French, hosted the Laramie event.

Each teacher participant built his/her own custom electric guitar, using learning activities related to specific mathematics, science and engineering topics. Participants left the intensive learning experience with their custom-made guitars, as well as curriculum modules with short-term assessments that can be immediately integrated into a school curriculum. Participating faculty received free tuition for graduate credit through the UW Outreach School and a stipend.

Institute mornings were spent engaged in activities and demonstrations designed to not only walk participants through steps the guitar construction process but understand the STEM principles underlying them. “Lunch and learn” sessions focused on such topics as “iSTEM – an integrated STEM framework” and “mathematics of music.” They spent afternoons applying their new knowledge to construction of their individual guitars.

“It’s been probably one of the best professional development opportunities I’ve ever had,” Wheatland teacher Janet Jorgensen says. “It’s really going to get kids jazzed up about science.”

Jorgensen left the workshop with plans to learn how to play her new guitar.

“Even if I don’t know how to play it, I can still use it as a teaching tool, to teach them about waves, electronics, wood and all kinds of concepts.”

Institute participant Ariane Eicke

When people hear the acronym STEM, they “assume you know how to do it,” Laramie High School teacher Ariane Eicke says. “If you know science, if you know math, you know STEM.” Other components, notably engineering and technology, can be less familiar. The opportunities provided by the institute gave Eicke and her workshop mates, to experience the process firsthand, were critical.

“I can’t just explain something about a guitar by reading about it on the Internet,” Eicke says. “That’s the biggest takeaway for me: to be able to do it myself and brainstorm with other teachers, so I can think about how does this apply to what I’m going to be teaching?”

Eicke plans to incorporate the project into her pre-calculus class.

Institute participant AJ McKittrick

While the program was new to this group of participants and to the University of Wyoming, it wasn’t new to French.

“I have been co-principal investigator with the NSF-funded STEM Guitar grant for six years,” French says. “As a high school physics teacher at New Philadelphia High School in New Philadelphia, Ohio, I was asked to teach engineering through the Project Lead the Way (PLTW) program.”

While at the PLTW training, instructor Tom Singer, from Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, told French’s class about the guitar program and asked if anyone would be interested in jumping on board.  The grant team consisted of mostly technology and engineering teachers and they were in need of a science teacher.  

“Even though I do not play the guitar, I knew this would be an amazing opportunity for my high school students, and signed up,” French says. “My father (deceased) was also an industrial arts/wood shop teacher.  He had taught me the basics of woodworking.  This was a neat opportunity to incorporate woodworking into my classroom.”

French’s physics students had the opportunity to build the guitars after school and receive credit for an “Engineering the Guitar” course.

“We built four guitars my first year, and 14 guitars my final year,” French recalls. “I brought the guitar into the classroom and used it as a vehicle to teach waves, sound, electricity, electronics, and tension.  My students really connected with these guitar-themed inquiry-based activities.  When I started teaching physics, there were only 14 students in my class.  There were 62 students in my physics class my final year, with equal numbers of ladies and gentlemen.”

“Many of my physics students had limited experience with using hand and power tools, and especially soldering electronics components,” she adds. “The guitar program was a great way to incorporate all areas of STEM - science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  The assembly of the guitar modeled authentic science and engineering practices--two components heavily emphasized in the Next Generation Science Standards.  Problems arise in the guitar build and there is no ‘manual’ or ‘back of the textbook’ to look up the answer.  Students have to problem-solve and work though the answer.”  

Bringing the program to this region has been a goal for grant team members and, in particular, French.

“As a doctoral student in secondary science education at the University of Wyoming, I really wanted to bring the program here,” she says. “This is the first institute held in the Rocky Mountain West.  We had an overwhelming response from teachers and community college faculty!  About half of the participants were from Wyoming and the other half were from California to Michigan and several states in between.  To accommodate such a large group, we held the institute at Laramie High School.  Principal Stacy Bush and the LHS staff were fantastic to work with.  They were extremely supportive of the program.”

UW’s role in the NSF project expanded in another way, beyond the July institute. French worked with UW science education faculty member Andrea Burrows and staff in the UW Outreach Credit Programs office to create a three-hour graduate course entitled “STEM Integration through Guitar Fabrication in the Classroom.” Participants at all of the institutes around the country have the opportunity to take this graduate course through the University of Wyoming.

In addition to the five-day institute, participants in the UW Guitar-Building Institute were scheduled to complete additional instructional activities for a combined 80 hours of training for middle, high school and postsecondary faculty the institutes provide participants with applied learning techniques to engage students and spark excitement for learning STEM subject matter.

Teachers participating in the UW Guitar-Building Institute were:

Kim Burkhart--Laramie, Wyo.
Pete Kontaxes--Laramie, Wyo.
Paul Loomis-- Colorado Springs, Colo.
Maureen Ladd-- Billings, Mont.
Ariane Eicke--Laramie, Wyo.
Mark Williams--Laramie, Wyo.
Eric Weitzel--Laramie, Wyo.
Brandy Talbot--Pavillion, Wyo.
Andy Wempen--Fremont County, Wyo.
Janet Jorgensen--Wheatland, Wyo.
Christina Paredes--Seattle, Wash.
Todd Burke-- Estes Park, Colo.
AJ McKittrick--Laramie, Wyo.
Jim Zlomke--Cheyenne, Wyo.
Kenny Heifner-- San Diego, Calif.
Fred Julian-- San Diego, Calif.
David Haggadone-- Lansing, Mich.
Sarah Ramsey Walters—Laramie, Wyo.

UW Guitar-Building Institute

UW Guitar-Building Institute

1000 E. University Ave. Laramie, WY 82071
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