This mechanical engineering tech professor helps students rock on by designing and building guitars.
People who pursue technical careers usually learn better with a hands-on approach coupled with classroom instruction rather than lectures and coursework alone. That is the premise behind the STEM Guitar Project, which teaches science, technology, engineering and math as they relate to the design and construction of guitars—electric, acoustic and CNC-machined guitars. Five-day Guitar Building Institutes provide training to middle, high school and college/university faculty so they can teach these principles to their students.
“As technicians and engineers, we know the value of putting your hands on something and acquiring knowledge through tactile learning,” says Tom Singer, a professor of mechanical engineering technology at Dayton, Ohio-based Sinclair Community College.
STEM Guitar began as a National Science Foundation (NSF) project on product lifecycle management with faculty from Purdue University and four community colleges. “As we began to develop the project lifecycle curriculum, we realized the guitar has so many unique and complete focuses on not only manufacturing but also electronics, mechanical systems, art and design, physics and mathematics,” he says. “We set forth at that point to write a grant project on the math and science behind the guitar.”
Singer and four others—Mark French from Purdue University (West Lafayette, Ind.), Mike Aikens (retired) from Pennsylvania-based Butler County Community College, Doug Hunt, a high school teacher at Southern Wells Junior-Senior High School (Poneto, Ind.) and Debbie French from Wilkes University (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)—were awarded an NSF grant in 2008; the inaugural STEM Guitar classes began in 2009.
A decade later, more than 800 STEM educators have gone through the program, with more exposure to the concept at national education conferences. Students across the country have designed and manufactured 10,000 guitars. STEM teachers from 40 states have either gone through a Guitar Building Institute course or have purchased guitar kits. At Sinclair, the college produces about 1,200 guitar kits a year, making it a mid-tier guitar manufacturer within the industry.
“Two years ago, we instituted the CNC side to bring in more manufacturing training into our mix,” Singer says. “The concept behind the manufacturing training is for students to get a more hands-on look into how things are made. They don't get a lot of exposure to how components are made, especially in the high school and junior high environment.”
The acoustic guitar course started this year, which has more advanced building and design. “Our goal is to get students interested in how things are made and provide students skillsets that all employers can use—quality control, problem solving and teamwork,” Singer notes. “The traditional math and sciences are important, but the soft skills employers are looking for are also part of this project. The idea that I'm able to make a difference in students’ lives, to provide them a skillset allowing them to go forward is what keeps me working on STEM curriculum.”
Do all the faculty and students play the guitar? Less than 50%, he says, although they are exploring the idea of offering guitar lessons through its longtime partner Fender Guitars or partnering with other educational organizations that focus on instruction.
“What we're finding is that it's not about the guitar, it's not about the love of playing the instrument. It's about the guitar itself—that’s what is sexy in this project environment,” Singer says. “There's a draw and a mystique to the guitar component.”