The sound of guitars in Matt Peitzman's tech-ed classroom at Pennridge High School isn't a wailing Hendrix-style solo or crushing power chords, but rather the steady grind of kids sanding, cutting, and clamping together pieces of maple or cherry wood, slowly hand-crafting the instruments of every teenager's musical dreams.
"It's hard at first if you don't know what you're doing, but once you get the hang of it, it's fairly easy," said 18-year-old senior Brian Kennedy, one of 18 students making their own guitars in a fast-growing, popular course at the Bucks County high school.
Before making a guitar, Kennedy crafted a ukulele in Peitzman's class two years ago, though the only string instrument he has ever played is the cello. But then, most of his classmates don't know how to play a guitar; nor does their teacher. And that's not really the point of the guitar-building class, unlike any other in the Philadelphia region.
The Pennridge class uses the STEM Guitar curriculum, developed by a group of college professors a decade ago to use guitar-making as a fun way to hook kids on learning the basics of science, technology, engineering, and math – the physics of the sound waves from a carefully crafted acoustic model, or the math behind hitting just the right notes.
"When you look at a guitar, it elicits an emotional response," said Peitzman, who three years ago joined a growing number of tech-ed teachers who learned the basics at a weeklong STEM Guitar workshop. " 'That is cool. I want to touch it. I want to be a rock star' — which is valuable, and which you can base a class on."
Indeed, Peitzman's students are becoming rock stars, in a sense, on the science education circuit in Southeastern Pennsylvania. The high school's STEM program just received a statewide Program of Excellence award from the Technology Education and Engineering Association of Pennsylvania and a team of five guitar-builders will represent Bucks County in May in the Governor's STEM Competition. They plan to donate the acoustic instrument they are building to a veteran.
The awards reflect the growing recognition that the hip allure of making guitars – in a program endorsed by the National Science Foundation with more than $3 million in grant money over the last decade and now in 47 states – hits the high notes as a scheme to get more students excited about learning the principles of science.
While Pennridge, in Perkasie, currently offers the only for-credit classroom program in the region, teachers from a number of districts – including Council Rock, Pennsbury, Rose Tree-Media, Hatboro-Horsham, and Upper Dublin – have trained at STEM Guitar workshops, laying the groundwork for future expansion of the concept.
Mike Aikens, who trained Peitzman at an advanced workshop at Butler Community College in Western Pennsylvania, where he recently retired from the engineering department, and who was one of the original creators of STEM Guitar, said this approach beats trying to teach science and math by writing fractions on a blackboard.
"There's a real basic algebraic equation that spaces the fret wire" on the instrument, Aikens said, "These kids are figuring out scale lengths, fret positions. …They're really interested in the guitar, and they want the guitar to work." The students even get a whiff of chemistry when they use a swirl dip to create wild and sometimes psychedelic patterns on the body of an electric guitar.
Another founder of the nationwide program, Purdue University mechanical-engineering professor Mark French, said the guitar has proved to be a remarkable teaching tool. "What I'm teaching them is engineering," he explained. "You could just as easily teach them making pressure relief values, but nobody gets cranked up about making pressure relief valves."
The guitar, on the other hand, is a work of science and art. French said science can't exactly explain why a guitar like the Martin 000-42 that Eric Clapton played on MTV Unplugged – and that sold at an auction for $700,000 – plays so much better than most other ones. "Guitars are kind of funny — they are really into 'mojo,' which is the name everybody uses," he observed. "Some guitars just play better than others."
In guitar-making classes like the one Peitzman teaches at Pennridge, assembling an acoustic guitar is a much harder task than the more basic electric versions, since the type of wood and the craftsmanship are more critical for shaping the sound. He said he's learned the best woods for guitars come from Central or South America or Africa, but the governor's STEM team decided to take on the more difficult task of using native wood from Pennsylvania.
Dave Cassel, a 17-year-old senior in Peitzman's class, said he's made jewelry boxes and sofa and end tables in other school woodworking projects, but nothing remotely like this. "It's kind of the most interesting and fun woodworking project that I've made," said Cassel. He said he ultimately wants to go into counseling, "but it's a fun hobby."
But Marcos Ramirez, a 17-year-old senior who plans to attend Pennsylvania State University and study aerospace engineering, said, "I would do this for a living," as he sanded the walnut and maple checkerboard body of his electric guitar.
Like most of his classmates, Ramirez can't play a lick – yet. He insists he will learn. "If I made it, I will use it," he said.