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Cheyenne East Teacher Participates in STEM Guitar-Building Project

August 18, 2015
man lifting guitar out of paint barrell
Cheyenne East High School teacher Jim Zlomke pulls his guitar from a barrel filled with water and a dash of swirling paint. Zlomke was among 18 educators taking part in the National STEM Guitar Project that incorporates STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) training for educators. (UW Photo)

Cross building his own guitar off of Jim Zlomke’s bucket list.

The Cheyenne East High School biology teacher now says he has to learn to play his new guitar along with his students.

Zlomke was among 18 educators who took part in a recent five-day STEM Guitar Building Institute at the University of Wyoming. The guitar-making project was held in the Laramie High School (LHS) woodshop.

Zlomke says when he first heard about the guitar-building project, it made him curious as to how the program translates meshing building a guitar from a piece of wood and then applying STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) training to educators. The hands-on approach teaches participants applied-learning techniques to engage their students and spark excitement in learning STEM subject matter.

“I’ve never done a project like this. I immediately added this to my bucket list and said, ‘Sign me up for this,’” he says. “I was absolutely thrilled about taking this class. Now, I have to learn to play the guitar. My guitar looks great, and now I have to live up to it by learning to play better.”

That enthusiasm has him excited as he prepares for fall classes at East.

The workshop, jointly hosted by LHS and UW, is a partnership between the National STEM Guitar Project and the National Science Foundation (NSF) Advanced Technological Education Centers that teaches qualified instructors how to build their own solid-body electric guitars. It also integrates related STEM lessons into the classroom.

The teachers, mostly from Wyoming, worked hands-on at every step of the process, building their own custom electric guitars. They even custom designed each one by dipping the unfinished guitar-shaped wood into a barrel filled with water and a dash of swirling paint, giving each teacher his or her own specially designed guitar.

The workshop focused on student-centered learning activities that relate the guitar design to specific math, science and engineering topics. Participants left the weeklong workshop with their custom-made guitars and curriculum modules with short-term assessments that can immediately be integrated into their school curriculum, says Debbie French, who led the local STEM project.

French is a UW graduate student who has been a co-principal investigator with this NSF grant project for the past six years. This is the first time the program has been held in the Rocky Mountain region, she says. As a former high school physics and engineering teacher, French implemented the guitar program in her physics class at Ohio’s New Philadelphia High School.

“Participating in the guitar project has positively impacted my students and my community. As a doctoral student at the University of Wyoming, I wanted to bring the institute to Laramie,” she says.

STEM integration has been a hot topic in education for the past 25 years, and the guitar program is one of the programs that fully integrates STEM, French adds.

“In the morning sessions, teachers are in the classroom working on STEM lessons they can implement in their own classrooms,” she says. “As part of the institute requirements, teachers also develop two modular learning activities. These modular learning activities are peer-reviewed and then listed on our website.”

The five-day institute, combined with additional instructional activities comprising 80 hours, provides faculty training on STEM programs for middle, high school and postsecondary faculty.

Zlomke says the guitar-building program, surprisingly, translates to the classroom and will resonate with his students. He says it will get them excited about STEM classes.

“The activities they have for us in the guitar-building project is kind of a bridge for an after-school program, maybe build some guitars at East or some other type of activity,” he says. “The whole hands-on nature gets students excited and will get them to buy into it. They won’t even know they are learning science along the way.”

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