A New Riff on STEM, Guitar-Building Course on Tap

 

Physics and Astronomy Instructor William Fenton, nicknamed "The Fentonator" by students, often takes an unconventional approach to teaching. 

In prep physics, he uses bowling balls and brooms as visual aids to help students understand how different forces affect acceleration and motion. Last year, an amusement park became the classroom, where a ride in a roller coaster demonstrated how mass, force, and acceleration are related. In his latest effort to bring physics to life, Fenton introduced a guitar-building co-curricular last winter, which will be offered as an elective next spring.

Fenton, who likes to riff on an electric guitar himself, offered the co-curricular after taking a Luthier workshop last summer through The National Science Foundation-funded Guitar STEM program, which provides innovative professional development to high school and community college faculty. 

In Fenton’s co-curricular, nine students built electric guitars from scratch working in the Class of 2017 EFX Lab. Using a kit provided by Guitar STEM that included a rectangular block of wood and all the necessary hardware, students first created the body of the guitar by either choosing a pre-made template or designing their own shape. After the chunks of wood were cut away using the Lab's laser cutter, they routed and sanded them to a fine finish. Some students preserved the natural wood appearance by applying a clear oil, while others painted their guitars. They shaped the fretboard, pressed the metal frets, and hand-tuned the strings. They also learned to solder and test their own electronic components to their guitars and amplifiers. 

“I gained a lot of technical skills throughout the process, but I think patience and learning to troubleshoot were most valuable. I also had to learn countless things from scratch, from the dimensions and workings of a guitar to using a jigsaw,” said Claire Kim ’20. 

“I personally do not play an instrument, and prior to this had not even picked up a guitar. About half of us didn't play the guitar, but now that I have a guitar, I need to learn!” she said.

Asher DuFour' 20 plays guitar as a hobby, but he learned much more about the instrument through the workshop. "I learned about the wood properties of a guitar, along with all of the technical and electrical innards that make the music possible. The density of the wood affects the way the vibrations are carried throughout the body, the level of the frets affects the relationship between the strings and the neck, and the soldering needs to be "airtight" to ensure the flow of electricity is unbroken. I now look at all guitars with more appreciation for the materials, tools and stylistic decisions that went into their creation, since everything has an impact on the sound," DuFour said.

A highlight of the co-curricular was visiting the workshop of Jol Dantzig, a master luthier from central Connecticut who created guitars for The Beatles and built Rick Nielsen’s famous five-necked guitar. 

When guitar-building is add as an elective to physics curriculum as an elective next spring, students will learn about vibrations and waves, resonance, electromagnetic induction, and AC and DC circuits. They will design and perform experiments to determine variables that might affect the quality of the guitar’s sound. 

The hands-on experience of building a guitar is a way to get students excited about STEM and appreciate how everyday things are made and function, said Fenton.

“The big piece of tech they use is the laser cutter. With that, students can design their guitar shape digitally, cut a template on the laser cutter and then use standard woodworking tools such as band saw, router, and sanders to shape the guitar body. I think the toughest part for most students is overcoming the fear of screwing up,” he said.

As a theater tech, DuFour already knew how to handle jigsaws and drills, but the finer processes required much patience and attention to detail. "As an artist myself, I became absorbed with the details of the design and the appearance and was easily irritated when something went wrong, which was often. I had to accept that I was new to the skills necessary to complete the task of creating an electric guitar, and I had to accept that my mistakes were not a reflection of my incompetence, but rather a testament to my growth throughout the process," he said.

Fenton concurred. "All of us, myself included, learned a lot by working together."

 

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