Boston Week-Long Pilot Workshop



This workshop took place as part of the Design and Engineering Workshop series at the Center for Engineering in Boston from July 27-30. 18 students participated in the workshop, ranging from entering third grade (8-9 years old) two entering 7th grade (12-13 years old).

Weekly Overview

My goal for the week was two have lessons build off of each other while focussing on the science of sound, leaving time for documentation of ideas throughout the week, and making all activities as hands-on as possible. Feel free to click on any of the activities to go the part of page with details on how it was done.

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday


Details and Documentation

Day 1

Build an instrument for a one person band

Using basic found materials and recycling like bottles and boxes, students worked to design and build an instrument that makes as many sounds as possible. Some students started played around with adding different Amounts of water into bottles and jars without any prompting, some students tried plucking rubber bands and strings, and others played around with different sounds coming from banging on different materials.


Group share-out

The group was asked to share the instrument that they created and show all of the sounds that they can make. Each presenter then asked the group for ideas of other sounds that instrument can make after we all practiced constructive criticism, the idea that someone can giving somebody a suggestion in a nice way that helps them improve their creation.


Compose a piece and write it down

The idea of ​​handwritten music was briefly discussed as instructions that the allow anybody to play a song, and the students were challenged to compose a song. They were asked to write down the song in a way that anybody can the stand and were Encouraged two test this out by asking their classmates to play the piece of music. Many students came up with a form of tablature for their instrument by labeling the parts of the instruemtn to show their classmates how to play it and writing out the labels of the parts of their instrument in the proper order to play the composition.


Science of Sound petting zoo

I placed various demonstrations around the room that help visualize various concepts about the science of sound and how it works. Coming in, it seemed that even most of the grade 3 students had the least heard about sound being somehow related to vibration, and many of the older students had heard that sound travels in waves of some kind. The students were introduced to how the demonstrations worked, and simply were asked two make observations and guess about what was happening. Here is a list of the demonstration and the concepts I was hoping two show:

  • Slinky attached to block – Visualize how waves travel through the air as a compression of molecules and bounce off of a solid surface (like an echo)
  • Tuning forks of different sizes with water- Observe how different sizes and shapes of tuning forks change the pitch you hear and by placing it in a cup of water, you can see the vibration of the fork
  • Tuning forks on boxes- Sound is louder by the opening in the box because the sound bounces around and is directed out
  • Laser bouncing off of balloon membrane stretched over the PVC with mirror- Show that vibration move in some sort of pattern for each of the different sounds made through the PVC pipe
  • String with weight and stopper- Kids can see how tension and length effect the pitch of a string individually
  • Xylophone-like plucker- Observe how different length planks effect pitch
  • Different Amounts of water in glasses- Show how you can change the pitch by rubbing and blowing across glasses and bottles with different water levels


Tell a story about how sound works

Students were introduced to an iPhone app called StoryKit ( StoryKit on the iTunes store ), and asked to use the demonstrations in the room to tell a story about how sound works. They were able to take pictures of the demonstration, draw on the pictures, or add text to help tell a story. Below are some examples of the stories that were told.

  • Max and Benjamin (3rd grade) – Story
  • Juan and Avery (5th grade) – Story
  • Kian and Zoe (7th grade) – Story


Day 2

Introduction to rhythm with drum circle

Students were introduced to rhythm in the context of a measure with four beats because that is most familiar and common in music that they would know. They were asked to quickly create a drum that could make a low sound and a hight sound, and we formed a drum circle with one of the instructors as the leader. One at a time, students were asked two join in the circle and play one note on the same beat of each measure. Going around the next time students were asked to form a pattern of beats for each measure and to repeat it each measure. Some students were having some trouble matching up with the beat and understanding rhythm in this context, but it was a fun activity for everyone and the idea of ​​repeating patterns sig in music was emphasized.

Use Scratch to program a song

Using Scratch ( ), an online programming interface that allows children to code animation and sounds graphically, students were asked to program a song. I introduced the kids to “events”, “control”, and “sound” loss in the script menu, and showed them how they can record sounds from the record menu. Here is a simple example that I made ​​two show how different rhythm, melody, and harmony could be coded and looped in measures:

Explain something about sound with SAM Animation

As students were getting more comfortable with some of the concepts of how sound works, they were introduced to Hue Animation software and asked to made ​​a stop motion video about any concept they were interested in that was related to the science of sound.

Kathryn and Zoe- Grade 7
Wuhib and JP- Grades 5 & 6

Demonstrations and discussion about electricity and magnetism

The goal of this activity was to try and give a basic understanding of the science phenomenon that are involved in the workings of speakers. Only the older students seemed to have a general understanding of electricity as the flow of electrons through a conductor, so we began with a brief discussion defining electricity. After that, various demonstrations were placed around the room (similar to the science petting zoo) designed to visualize how electricity is related to magnetism and how electricity can produce sound:

  • Microphone attached two oscilloscope- Realtime feedback of the sound waves entering the microphone, showing the frequency change with pitch and the amplitude change with volume
  • Wire coiled around nail with battery- Show that when current is running through the wire, the nail turns into a magnet and can pick up paper clips
  • Speaker attached to solar panel- You can hear a clicking from the speaker when a light is flashed on and off at the solar panel, showing that sound is produced any time you run current through the speaker

  • Build speakers for headphones

    My hope for this activity was to have the students design their own speakers once the basic workings of the speakers were understood, but as students were starting to hastily build in ways that wouldn’t work that well, I decided to give more concrete instruction on how the speakers could be made. You can find more details about the materials we made and how speakers work here.

    Day 3

    Brainstorm final instrument

    Now that the students had experimented with all different types of instruments and all of the different sounds they could make with the types of materials they were given, the kids were asked to plan and draw out a design for their final instrument. I left it totally open and allowed them to make any instruments that they wanted, but if I were to do it again I would have given some restrictions such as their final instrument be able to play at least 3 different pitches.

    Prototype your final instrument

    I brought in some more of the same type of materials and asked the students to prototype their instrument, allowing them to request additional materials that they would want to include in their final instrument. The goal of this activity was to encourage iteration as the students build, an essential part in the engineering design process that encourages kids to improve their designs. Some students were very proud of their prototype and didn’t want to start over on their final instrument, but it was definitely worthwhile for those kids who did iterate on their design.

    Review a song Using SAM Animation

    I began this activity with a discussion about music and the emotions that it can make you feel. We listened to a few songs of different music genres and discussed how the music made us feel the way it did, introducing some of the Italian words that classical music uses. The challenge for the students was then to review a song of their choice using SAM animation, focussing on how the songs made them feel and why they thought the music matched that emotion. Stop motion was probably not the best tool for this activity, but having them consider the different elements of music was a great exercise.

    Ada and Kian- Grade 7
    Omkar and Cordelia- Grade 3

    Design headphones that stay your head with speakers

    All groups were able to successfully make 2 speakers out of cups by following the general instructions on the first day of this project. The challenge now was to create a pair of headphones that were comfortable to wear and would stay on as you ran around. I gave examples of many different headphone designs to show that there was not one right way of making headphones and encouraging a diversity of solutions. I also emphasized the idea that engineers generally build for clients, in this case themselves, and had to consider what would be best for the client.

    Tell a story about how sound works in an instrument

    The goal of this activity was to see how the students were thinking about the science of sound as it related to musical instruments. They were asked to use the StoryKit app again to create a story about how sound works in the prototype of their instrument. Hopefully this activity would give students more ideas about how they could improve their instrument as well.

    • Max and Avery (3rd grade & 5th grade) – Story
    • Noah (4th grade) – Story
    • Ada and Kathryn (7th grade) – Story

    Day 4

    Continue working on final instrument

    Using their prototype from the previous day, students had time to continue working on their final instruments. I encouraged kids to start over and improve upon the design and the materials, but many of the students wanted to just continue working on their prototype as the final instrument. Despite being allowed to ask for additional materials within reason at the end of our first building time the previous day, none of the students asked for anything besides more of what was in the room. This showed to me that the students very strongly let the materials they were given dictate the design of their instrument.

    Discussion on traditional music notation

    SheetMusicExampleNow that the students had a general understanding of the purpose of written music and had thought about how elements like speed and volume effect the emotions of the piece, we discussed how written music could tell the musician not only what to play, but how to play it as well. They were encouraged to think about all of these things as they began composing the final song for their instrument.

    Begin final solo composition

    Students were asked to begin composing their final song for their instrument, thinking about the emotion that they wanted to convey with the song and how they could match speed and volume to that. They were told that this was just the first draft of the composition and that they would rewrite it neater for the final version.

    Bridge engineering design challenge

    This challenge was not directly related to music, but is a fun and simple activity that can help introduce the engineering design process, especially how testing and re-designing can help improve the creation. Groups were given three sheets of paper and tape and challenged to make a bridge between two chairs that could hold as much weight as possible. We did 2 rounds of building and testing, giving students a chance to learn from each other and improve their design. Students were encouraged to apply what they learned about a sturdy structure to their instruments as they continued building.

    Add contact mics to instruments

    I ordered piezo elements, sensors that emit electric energy based on the vibrations they are feeling, and allowed each student to try taping them to different parts of their instruments. Using an amplifier and a guitar cable that I cut in half, I could connect the two wires on the piezo element to the two wires of the guitar and amplify the voltage signal to make the vibrations into a loud sound. This activity was great because listening to how the various parts of the instrument vibrate individually allowed them to think about how the sound is really being generated and moving through their instruments.

    Form bands and plan final performance

    For the final performance of the week, students were asked to form bands with up to 4 members and compose a song together or arrange a cover of a song. All but 1 band was able to form on their own, and the other one just needed an instructor to decide how to split up a group of 8 students into 2 bands. It was great to see how they organized themselves and gave each member a role in the band. Each group made sure that each member had a part and was being heard without help from instructors.

    Day 5

    Continue writing / practicing final band performance

    The last day started with students getting back in their bands and finish writing or practicing the piece that they were going to perform for the parents when they came in at the end of the day. Instructors circled around throughout to make sure that each group was on track. Some groups needed help playing on beat with each other and instructors acted as conductors to help them practice.

    Write out solo composition with dynamics, tempo, etc.

    Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 2.33.04 PMScreen Shot 2015-08-03 at 2.36.27 PMScreen Shot 2015-08-03 at 2.38.48 PM
    Students used the drafts of the compositions that they wrote the previous day as reference and were asked to write down their piece neatly. They were encouraged to be as specific as possible with how to play their piece and to draw a picture that showed the same emotions as their piece if they wanted. Some students with experience playing an instrument used notation similar to traditional notation, while others stuck with basic tablature to write out their song.

    Finish building and testing headphones

    Students spent some more time finishing their testing of the headphones with a stereo test that plays sound from each speaker of headphones individually. They also tested how well the headphones stayed on by running around and shaking their heads.

    Dress rehearsals with bands

    Bands were given a chance to practice their performances in front of the group and ask for constructive feedback that could help them improve their song. This was especially helpful to students who were nervous at first about performing in front of an audience.

    Final presentation and performance

    For the final show, bands came up to the front one at a time. Each member introduced their instrument and was allowed to play their solo piece one at a time, and then the band was asked to perform one or two songs.

    Conclusions and Lessons

    • The topic of music and sound is fun for everyone! Almost all of the students were engaged in all of the lessons and activities.
    • It is very important to leave the challenges open ended to leave room for creativity and success, but there are times when some giving some restrictions helps students think of ideas.
    • Students go through materials very quickly. Make sure you have enough supplies for everyone, especially basic materials like tape or glue.
    • Kids are generally able to figure out how things work, or at least guess what is happening, if you give them enough time to play around with something
    • The more fun you have as a teacher, the more fun the kids will have!
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