Students are Strumming Their Way to STEM

Students learn 21st century skills through making guitars.

It takes STEM to build a guitar.

(George Sheldon /

High schools used to teach shop classes and students learned hands-on vocational skills like woodworking. Nowadays, most schools have traded in shop class (and home economics) in favor of academic core subjects. However, one organization doesn’t think that academics and carpentry have to be mutually exclusive.

The National Science Foundation STEM Guitar Project is an organization that aims to get students excited about science, math, and the arts all at once, by teaching students how to make a guitar from scratch.

Experts forecast that technical skills like the ones used in making the guitars could be the most in-demand job in the future, according to The Conversation. Unfortunately, many high schools don’t introduce students to mechanical precision, design, and manufacturing skills, because they are not on standardized tests, and because schools aren’t aware of the future applications of these skills. 

Do you really need to know STEM to make a guitar?
But, is STEM really needed in order to build a guitar? According to The Conversation, it’s impossible to make a guitar without knowing science and math. To space the frets on the guitar’s neck, guitar designers use an algebraic formula. And, physics come into play when crafting the pickup, a small device that makes sound via electromagnetic induction, on an electric guitar.

Joshua Cruz, a Brooklyn-based design teacher, told NY1 that building a guitar also teaches troubleshooting and problem solving skills. Cruz said that he thinks the STEM Guitar Project provides opportunities to challenge students to apply their own creativity to STEM problems. 

“I'm still figuring out how we can apply it,” Cruz explained. “I think we're going to use a lot of the same theories behind how strings work and stringed instruments and try and get them to make stringed instruments of their own.”

Empowering teachers to empower students
The STEM Guitar Project runs five-day workshops for teachers each summer, according to The Conversation. At the workshop, teachers learn to make their own guitars, and are given a curriculum, textbooks, materials, and guitar kits to use in their classrooms. There is also a program for veterans to learn these valuble skill.

Teachers at the workshops report that the opportunity to make a guitar is fun and exciting. Mike Aikens, STEM Guitar Project co-founder, told NY1 that getting teachers on board is an essential part of the STEM Guitar Project’s model. “If you're exciting teachers you're for sure going to excite kids,” he explained.

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STEM Guitar Project employee, Nancy Chang, told NY1 that the project hopes to open students’ and teachers' eyes to real-world applications of technical skills. In addition, real world math is much more exciting than theoretical concepts. 

“Everybody wants to know what's this for, why do we have to do algebra? And part of the guitar building requires you to do some algebra, like the fret spacing,” Chang explained. “Using that formula to build a guitar you really care about and you want it to turn out and play really well, gives you a really good reason to figure out an equation that otherwise would just be something from out of a book, that had no meaning.”

The Gerhard Salinger award
According to a news release from  Purdue University Polytechnic Institute, the STEM guitar initiative was recognized for its efficacy and creativity in 2021. The International Technology and Engineering Educators Associated voted to give the STEM Guitar Project its Gerhard Salinger award, which recognizes outstanding STEM school programs

“Through this project, we have become part of this community of businesspeople, engineers and artisans,” Mark French, one of the six people who received the award for his work with STEM guitar, and a professor of mechanical engineering technology at Purdue said in the news release. 

“It’s a great group and I’m really pleased to be part of it. I get to combine something that I just love doing with an activity that really does make the world a little bit better place. It really does help people. That feels pretty good.”

Thanks to people like Mark French, and to the STEM Guitar Project, the world is a little bit of a better, more educated, and more musical place. 

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