Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Music and STEM

Music students are typically prevented from participating in the T & E STEM electives due to limited flexibility in their schedules, so STEM and Music integration should be a priority.

Rediscovered from U.S. News and World Report:

The Magical, Musical STEM Connection

Boring math and science classes don't inspire students, so let's do better.

A student does a science experiment in class.
Get students excited about STEM, and it will stick with them.

I loved science and math as a child, so much so that I majored in mathematics in college, and went on to become an engineering professor with the hopes of sharing my love for, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, with others. You might think, then, that I loved my science and math classes as a child as well. But the truth is, when I think back on most of the STEM classes I sat through in school, what I recall most is an overwhelming feeling of boredom.
Why is that? How could a child with inherent interest and curiosity about science and math feel bored in those classes?
Looked at from afar, science is magical. It’s transformed our planet and our civilization. It’s the foundation for much of the joy of modern childhood and is manifest in every detail of a kid’s life, from
their candy to their smartphones. What child wouldn’t want to learn the secret spells that make candy tingle on her tongue, or lead to the creation of immersive games like Minecraft?
Even as adults, science and technology bring out the kid in us, filling us with a sense of wonder and awe. In a study of the most emailed articles in The New York Times, science articles were much more likely to make the list than any other type of article appearing on the homepage.
But we are failing as a society to inspire kids to learn science and math; only one in three students that graduates from high school is ready for college-level science. I believe this is because our STEM classes are just as boring today as they were when I was a child.
The problem is with the way STEM concepts are taught. We approach STEM education with the assumption that the stuff we are teaching is inherently boring, and that kids must simply slog through the boredom in order to gain some abstract future reward, like getting a good job. It’s no surprise that our kids are not interested.
Rather than presenting science and math as a way of succeeding in an adult world they don’t care about, we should instead be teaching it as a way for children to understand their own world. One powerful way of doing this is by relating it to something that children love: music.
Here’s an example. Sinusoids – the smooth, undulating sin and cosine functions – play a key role in our understanding of waves such as sound, light and radio, making them a central topic in physics and engineering. Without an understanding of them, we couldn’t build phones, computers or airplanes. Sinusoids are fundamental building blocks; almost every other waveform can be made by adding different sinusoids together. And complex waveforms can be broken down into sinusoids, greatly simplifying the analysis of many systems. In other words, sinusoids are really useful.
Unfortunately, the mathematics of sinusoids can get abstract pretty fast, involving complex exponentials, Fourier series and harmonic analysis. Huh? Exactly.
I have taught many bright students who, even after taking an entire class on the subject, have difficulty grasping and applying these concepts to the analysis of real systems. But there is something magical about sinusoids. They are musical. You can literally listen to them.
This is the sound of a single sinusoid. It’s the sound of a tuning fork, a pure, clear tone.
Now, think of a snippet of your favorite song. Amazingly, it can be recreated by adding together different sinusoids! In my experience, teaching sinusoids by relating them to music does something transformative to the learning process. It takes an abstract, unintuitive concept and makes it playful and concrete. It invites students to generalize their intuition about sound and music into something mathematical. I’m always amazed by how this opens up the subject to kids and helps them truly understand it, even those who don’t consider themselves to be good at math.
When kids connect with science, when it’s grounded in their world, it becomes fun. What starts as a surprising connection can become a spark that ignites their inherent curiosity, giving them the motivation to explore further, and go deeper. The more children we can bring into STEM, the greater diversity of perspectives we will have exploring our most fundamental questions, and the more likely we will be to see world-changing insights and advances. A love for science and math will help our children build a more magical world for themselves, and their children after them.

1 comment:

  1. I would love to use twitter for my class so that they can post questions and comments for other students. Most students have twitter on their phones, so they will see a post and respond while out and about. I wonder if the school would unblock twitter for educational purposes.