STEM Guitar Project Strikes A Chord With Arizona Teachers

By Andrew Bernier
Published: Friday, March 27, 2015 - 3:32pm
Updated: Thursday, February 4, 2016 - 11:47am
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(Photo by Andrew Bernier - KJZZ)
What the STEM Guitar Project team calls a GSO, a "Guitar-Shaped Object." Without the strings, it's not a guitar yet.

When we picture education for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, we often think of scientific instruments like test tubes, robots and calculators. But how about  musical instruments?

To start, we need a quick lesson on electric-guitar physics. A player plucks a taught metal string, which vibrates over a magnetic pick-up housed in a wood body. That manipulates an electric current traveling from the pickup, down the cord and to the speaker, which vibrates according to the electrical current. The speaker moves and smacks the air molecules in front of it, which causes a chain reaction of other air molecules until it hits your eardrum.

That brings us to STEM Guitar Project, a national program of travelling community college instructors who visited the Valley recently. The program works with teachers to teach STEM to students through guitar building.

Thomas Singer teaches mechanical engineering in Dayton, Ohio, and is helping lead the workshop.

“STEM Guitar Project started just over six years ago," said Singer. "We had a grant from the National Science Foundation that looked at product life-cycle management. So we worked on trying to discover a product that we could take the birth to death life cycle of.”

Singer says while STEM guitar started as a product life cycle analysis project, it has evolved into a comprehensive curriculum and training program. And Singer says the change came from a simple concept.


“Not all students learn the same way," said Singer. "Some need the hands, some need the visual, some need auditory.”

The workshop fills a shop at Mesa Community College. In the corner of the room is Dr. Mark French from Purdue University who is feverishly hand-sanding a solid wood body.

“The nice thing about a solid body guitar like this one is its, you know, in concept, its just a really nice stick with strings on it," French said. "So, that takes some of the fear away.”

Dr. French has written extensively on the math and physics of guitar building. He says while ornate designs and paint jobs can draw attention, the instrument is useless without precise measurements and calculations.

“There’s about a five-inch-wide stripe up the middle of the body where everything has to be correct," French said. "The dimensions have to be correct. Everything has to line up. Once you get outside that five inches, outside that and behind the bridge, now you get to do whatever you want.”



Nancy Wilson Chang, a math teacher from Washington State and an earlier participant, stresses that if you want to finger pluck, strum or shred, you should probably know your math.

“There’s so much algebra involved, especially when you’re talking about fret position and just how this piece of wood and metal creates music," Wilson Chang said. "It’s not just arbitrary."

Wilson Chang oversees a row of teacher participants in the mid-stage of building the guitar, which is assembling the wiring on the inside of the body.

“You have this wiring diagram and these are your pickups and this is the wiring harness," said Wilson Chang. "And everything has to be soldered together. So we have people with lots of soldering experience, and people who have never soldered before, which is where I was at before I built a guitar."

Montessori teacher Pat Barton echoed that sentiment when asked what she knew about soldering.

“Pretty much none," said Barton. "So, they’re all helping me out, but, gettin’ through it.”

She feels confident that if she can get through the workshop, so can her students.

“I always feel like if you give them enough steps and enough practice, you know, children can do things you don’t expect," Barton says. "Or we don’t always let them.”

Norm Geiger teaches at Ganado High School on the Navajo Reservation.

“Oh they love it, it’s great," said Geiger. "Because, of course, like anybody, they learn with their hands. There’s really no, not a great difference between Navajo students and any other culture. We all pretty much learn the same way.”

He unwraps a bass guitar neck from a student as other participants start to gawk.

“This guy has been working on this for probably around 12 hours," said Geiger. "But he sanded it down to 1500 grit.”

The teachers faces light up as they build their guitars.

“If you’re a little kid or an adult, these adults who are professional educators in this room, we learn the same way as if you are in 3rd grade or 10th grade," said Wilson Chang.

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