When science sounds like band practice

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At Camarillo High School, students are building electric guitars in the name of science. The STEM Guitar Project, a National Science Foundation-funded program, gets students to explore science, math and technology through handcrafted woodwork and the physics of instrument making.

“It’s increased interest in wood shop by students who wouldn’t normally take it and by woodworking and their interest in science that wouldn’t normally have taken physics. So it’s been a win-win,” said Chip Mills, who teaches the wood shop portion of the program at Camarillo High.

About a dozen students at the Ventura County school are currently participating in the program. Mills said students often wonder why they need to know math.

“When they’re in here having to do fractions and use Pythagoras’ theorem and all of that where mathematics is used so much, it’s kind of illuminating and makes mathematics more relevant to them,” said Mills.

The wood shop teacher talks a lot about curves and angles in his class. If they’re wrong, the guitar components won’t fit together like they’re supposed to. And the guitar is at the heart of what attracts students to this class, like Senior Zach Thatcher. “That’s the only reason I took it,” Thatcher said.

Student Cameron Shirley says sanding has been the biggest challenge of making his guitar in the STEM Guitar Project at Camarillo High School.
Student Cameron Shirley says sanding has been the biggest challenge of making his guitar in the STEM Guitar Project at Camarillo High School. Photo: Susan Valot (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

On a recent visit to the class, Thatcher is sanding down his guitar, smoothing out the edges, which have been curved by hand. The sweet sounds of the STEM Guitar Project also lured Thatcher into another class he never thought he’d take: Physics.

“Physics is pretty hard, but it’s also really interesting. So it kind of worked out,” Thatcher said. “I took physics just so I could build the guitar also — that’s the only reason I’m in physics, too. But physics turned out to be really interesting.”

That’s the kind of reaction the creators of the STEM Guitar Project were hoping for when they started it in Washington state seven years ago.

Now, the project is hitting notes at more than 21 schools and school districts in California, including campuses in Orange, San Diego and Ventura counties.

The STEM Guitar Project’s Scot Rabe of Ventura College said organizers knew it would be a hit with student during a training for teachers in Southern California.  “At the end of the second day — it was a five-day experience, the first time I’d ever built a guitar — we had rooms packed with high school kids who just wanted to see what was going on,” Rabe said. “So we knew, instantly, it was a winner.”

The program trains teachers of all kinds how to build electric guitars. Then schools can buy guitar-building kits — at cost — for students. Rabe said guitar-building is the rock star jumping off point for all sorts of subjects, from the math of musical notes to the poetry of song lyrics to the inner workings of the guitars.

“Then there’s the actual mechanics, the physics of the guitar, and why are the strings the length they are and how much tension is on them when we tighten them? Why do they make different sounds from one string to the next?” Rabe listed off.

In the class at Camarillo High School, students will learn about electricity and metals as they solder together the components of their guitars. Once they’re finished, senior Farhan Saleh will have a new challenge. “I don’t actually know how to play instruments,” Saleh said. Regardless, Saleh said he looks forward to plucking the strings of his labor.

“It kind of shows that your work is paying off,” Saleh said. “People kind of take it for granted as they buy it and they play it and they kind of get rid of it as it gets old. And … as you’re building, you kind of see how much work and effort goes into actually building these.”

STEM Guitar Project organizers hope the students will not only take the guitar home with them, but a passion for hard work and learning, as well.

“It’s really enjoyable and relaxing to be able to make something out of wood,” said student Timothy Lee. “And it’s just really fun.”