Guitar Building Project Inspires Future Rockstars of STEM

Music, as we all know, is a lure for many, but it can be a powerful tool when used as a “hook” to get students engaged,
interested and fired up about Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Meet Kyle Thompson! Thompson is among a group of educators who are using innovative strategies to spark curiosity and stir students’ interest in STEM and manufacturing. The inspiration to use music as a backdrop to engage students in STEM was triggered by a week-long workshop that Thompson attended in 2014. This workshop, the National STEM Guitar Project for teachers was hosted by FLATE in partnership with Hillsborough Community College in Brandon and Erwin Technical Center in Tampa. The workshop was the first of its kind offered in the southeast and offered a unique opportunity for educators like Thompson to gain new insight about teaching STEM related subjects.

Fast forward a couple of months, and Thompson, who teaches traditional and engineering students in the construction
program at Middleton High School, a STEM-focused magnet school in Tampa, encouraged his students to participate in the guitar building workshop. Drawing upon his own knowledge & experience, Thompson developed STEM-based activities and a classroom curriculum. The idea “is for students to learn about common STEM based concepts that include construction, economics, design, manufacturing and technological set-up of an electric guitar.” Prior to working on the guitar building project, students are pretested on many STEM activities related to building guitars. There is also a post-test to assess students’ overall knowledge and understanding of STEM based concepts before moving onto the actual hands-on portion of building the guitar.

Since Thompson incorporated the guitar building project as part of his regular construction class at Middleton High School in Tampa, more than 140 students have signed up to be engaged in the guitar building project, each student contributing to some portion/aspect of building a real guitar. Inspiration to sign up and be engaged came in many forms. “I was watching American Idol and how some of the singers were playing the guitar and that got me thinking” said Neville Salmon, a 9th grader at Middleton. Debonte Ellison also in the same grade said he “always wondered how to make a guitar” and this project gave him deeper insight about STEM-related concepts involved in making a guitar functional.

According to Thompson, students use “hefty portion of mathematics to calculate fret spacing, guitar body geometry,
scale length, string tension and frequency. They also learn the economics related to supply and production of parts. Thompson states the most interesting part of the workshop is learning how to problem-solve and make decisions based on a carefully planned strategy. Students also work with computer-aided design to build the body and the neck of the guitar, and learn the function, design and eventually how to set up and fine-tune the guitar and its components. “Bringing a product to life was the most fun part of the project for me” said Debonte Ellison. For Quinton Vitelli-Hawkins, who is in 10th grade, the workshop provided an insight on the importance of measurement and precision in manufacturing a product.

Outside of the STEM focus, Thompson hopes students have a lot of fun learning about how things are made. He says making a final product not only gives students a sense of ownership, but helps connect them to the larger picture of how things are made and manufactured. Other takeaways include ‘collaborating with peers and working as a team’ which according to Quinton gave him a real-world view of how it is to work in a manufacturing/corporate environment.

Looking ahead Thompson plans to build additional guitars by working/collaborating with FLATE to set up camps later this summer. Thompson would also like to offer the guitar building project as a regular class during the academic year. “Coming up with a means to cover the financial cost would be the first hurdle, the rest would be pretty manageable” Thompson said.

For more information on the NSF-funded Guitar Building project visit http://www.guitarbuilding.org, or contact Kyle Thompson at kylegthompson@gmail.com/727.809.3867. For information on FLATE’s 2015 summer camps for middle and high school students and teachers contact Dr. Marilyn Barger, executive director of FLATE at barger@fl-ate.org, or visit www.fl-ate.org and www.madeinflorida.org