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Engineering Design Of Musical Instruments As A Context For Math Physics And Technical Writing In A Freshman Learning Community Course

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2009 Annual Conference & Exposition


Austin, Texas

Publication Date

June 14, 2009

Start Date

June 14, 2009

End Date

June 17, 2009



Conference Session

NSF Grantees Poster Session

Page Count


Page Numbers

14.549.1 - 14.549.17

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Paper Authors

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Robert Culbertson Arizona State University


Michael Oehrtman Arizona State University

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Michael Oehrtman is Assistant Professor of Mathematics. He is leading the development and teaching of the mathematics portion of the project. He is Project Director and Researcher Team Leader for Project Pathways, a longitudinal design research project on secondary mathematics and science teacher professional development. He is also lead developer and researcher for a new calculus and differential equations course sequence at ASU’s polytechnic campus. His extensive experience in effective teaching of mathematics at all levels will complement the science content, and his research in how students learn will be invaluable to providing a powerful direction to the Frets, Flutes, and Physics course.

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Janice Meyer Thompson Arizona State University

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Josh Gardner Arizona State University

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Christopher Mehrens Arizona State University

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Dale Baker Arizona State University

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Stephen Krause Arizona State University

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Engineering Design of Musical Instruments as a Context for Math, Physics and Technical Writing in a Freshman Learning Community Course


In order to enhance technological literacy and to integrate math, science, and technical writing into a contemporary context, a new math-science-English block course, Frets, Flutes, and Physics, for freshman at Arizona State University has been developed. The inquiry-based course is in a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) Learning Community and consists of an 11- credit hour course to satisfy basic math, laboratory science and English requirements. The course has been developed and has been taught by an interdisciplinary team consisting of a physicist, mathematician, engineer, educator, musician, and science teacher. The context for the math, science, and technical writing was the design and building of musical instruments. Students used the engineering process to design, construct, and demonstrate instruments. Additionally, a music school faculty and music librarian arranged weekly integrated sessions demonstrating the history, culture, physical features, and musical character of a wide variety of instruments played by local professionals and graduate students. The goal was to integrate the physics, mathematics, and technical writing to understand and quantitatively and qualitatively describe the sound of music as well as design and build musical instruments using the engineering design process. Initial attitude results indicated that the students have low interest in physics and math and high interest in music and took the course because of musical interests and to fulfill university core class requirements. The course was concluded by a final "concert" where pairs of students played duets on instruments that they had designed and constructed.


Most science, technology, and math classes lack connections and coherence to one another and to the context of people's daily lives. While college courses that tap into personal interests, such as music, food, recreation, and art are usually well subscribed, they rarely touch upon STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) topics, However, if technical learning and problem solving skills were embedded in the technical aspects of a course subject focused on a personal interest area, such as music, relevance would be high and motivation would be quite positive, if well taught. For good teaching, the general theoretical underpinnings are based on the principles of effective learning are found in How People Learn1, Knowing What Students Know2, and How Students Learn3. The materials developed were “learner-centered, knowledge centered, assessment centered and community centered”. This was done by developing, teaching, and assessing a course which integrates required courses in mathematics and laboratory science for liberal arts and fine arts majors. It used inquiry and project based learning of the math and science content that was embedded in the engineering design process with a context of the STEM of music and musical instruments. Thus, connected and contextualized STEM learning was taught that emphasized both utilitarian and inquiry based motivations—where learning was conceived as fun and exciting, and was made relevant to students’ lives.

Culbertson, R., & Oehrtman, M., & Meyer Thompson, J., & Gardner, J., & Mehrens, C., & Baker, D., & Krause, S. (2009, June), Engineering Design Of Musical Instruments As A Context For Math Physics And Technical Writing In A Freshman Learning Community Course Paper presented at 2009 Annual Conference & Exposition, Austin, Texas.

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