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Inspiring Future Engineers: Teaching Basic Electronics to Create Theremin-Based Musical Instruments

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Electrical and Computer Division Technical Session 9

Tagged Division

Electrical and Computer

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Paper Authors


Benjamin Reed Campbell Robert Morris University

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Ben Campbell holds a BS in physics and MS in electrical engineering from Penn State and a PhD in engineering from Robert Morris University. For the first decade of his career, he worked as a laser engineer at the Penn State Electro-Optics Center. In 2011 he joined Robert Morris University as an Assistant Professor of Engineering. He has been supporting RMU's mechatronics minor and also teaching dynamics, circuits, and introduction to engineering. Since 2005, Dr. Campbell has served as faculty for the Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Sciences (a summer program at Carnegie Mellon) and currently sits on the Board of Directors for the PGSS Campaign, a nonprofit that is responsible for raising the funds to finance and sustain the program.

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To encourage high school students’ interest in electronics and electrical engineering, team projects can be designed that involve adapting and integrating circuits to construct unique musical instruments. The Theremin was one of the first electronic instruments, and has the unusual appeal of being played without touch by interaction with the invisible capacitance fields established around the device’s antennae. Theremin circuit designs exist that can be assembled by novices and easily adapted for creative variations in design. The basic principles of electrical circuitry and troubleshooting can be taught to students with no prior electronics experience in a very short time. The students have a direct sense of accomplishment when they can demonstrate a working Theremin-based device and can display their musical talents with a performance while also being able to explain the technical internal functionality. This paper presents several iterations of the Theremin project that have been attempted over the past two decades at a summer science camp for high school students. The most successful designs are showcased along with the teaching methodology that produced them. The project was designed to teach students about engineering research, teamwork, and electrical engineering principles. To assess the outcomes, the journal papers written by the teams of high school students and feedback from former students who are now engineers were analyzed. The student’s papers show that every year the project resulted in a circuit that could at least produce sound. The students surveyed overwhelmingly considered the project an influentially positive experience. Former students consistently reported that the greatest impact was not just the electronics education, but also the team engineering experience, which proved beneficial as preparation for a career in engineering.

Campbell, B. R. (2017, June), Inspiring Future Engineers: Teaching Basic Electronics to Create Theremin-Based Musical Instruments Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28537

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