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Musically Engaging Students in Science

April 1, 2017


Musically Engaging Students in Science

From fractions to electrical conductivity, music offers a path to increase student engagement and improve learning in science and math. At Canton Country Day School in Canton, Ohio, Brian Bortz, preK–5 science and fifth-grade math teacher, worked with music teacher Heather Cooper to create a fractions unit with hands-on opportunities to explore the science of sound. “We had kids measure Boomwhackers® [tuned plastic percussion tubes]. After they found the ratio of sizes of different Boomwhackers [that corresponded with specific notes], they cut giant straws to the same ratios [to make pan flutes],” Bortz explains. “We talked about how sound forms, vibrations… about how sound changes when [the tubes were] capped versus uncapped. We took a field trip to a local church with two pipe organs and talked about how they worked. [Students saw] how the size of the pipes relates to their notes and pitch. A huge pipe equals lower sound. Small pipes have much higher sounds. We discussed how materials they are made from—wood and metal—affect sound as well. “This was our first year doing this. They seemed to really enjoy the unit. The math piece was an excellent tie-in with fractions,” Bortz declares. “The trip was the culmination of everything we had talked about. They asked good questions. We also set aside some times when we were teaching together [in the science lab and the music room], so kids got the connections between the two subject areas…I had students design [tension] experiments [using rubber bands] on their own [to explore] how different variables effect pitch.”

Although no formal assessment of student learning occurred, Bortz and Cooper were able to monitor students’ understanding informally by how well their experiments and the pan flutes they constructed worked. “The questions they asked on the field trip showed their understanding as well,” Bortz notes. Saying he will “definitely” repeat the unit, Bortz adds, “The practical application of fractions was really valuable. The integration of math, science, and music is really important. We did a lot of planning and discussion, trying things out on our own beforehand.” At Madison Camelview Elementary School in Phoenix, Arizona, Jessie McKinley, K–4 general music instructor, tries to coordinate his unit on the different groups of instruments with the third-grade teachers’ unit on the science of sound and a field trip to Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum. Noting the classroom teachers use Full Option Science System (FOSS) kits, McKinley says the coordinated lessons allow students to “learn concepts better when there is application in the music room. I have couple [of] instruments they can use, put their hands on, [feel the vibration going through the instrument]: They can see how rubbing strings [and changing finger placement] make higher or lower sounds.” The classroom teachers have told him that students had a better understanding of the concepts after seeing them in action in the music room. “I felt like having students learn how music works and understand the deeper science of sound has made them not only more interested in music and sound, but [also] made them want to learn more and understand the concepts a bit easier,” notes Camelview third-grade teacher Brianne Pearson. “It was helpful going to the Musical Instrument Museum, where they could take what they learned in the classroom and really go deeper with it.”

Symphony in School

In 2012, The Phoenix Symphony launched the Mind Over Music (MOM) pilot to introduce arts as supportive of curriculum at schools that don’t have an arts curriculum. “When I came on board the symphony, it was obvious the symphony needed to align our needs with the needs of the community we serve,” acknowledges Jim Ward, president and CEO of The Phoenix Symphony. As part of that realignment, the symphony set goals that include helping educate “the next generation of the creative workforce” in Arizona. “In education, we want to address the great need the workforce has for STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] and STEAM [science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics] education,” he explains. William T. Machan School joined MOM last year. “We were already, as a school, thinking about STEM,” declares Principal Julie Frost. “We knew we wanted to add art, make it a STEAM school. As a Title I school, our students and parents do not have much opportunity to see [a symphony]…It’s a win-win for us. All the lessons are directly tied to things we are already doing on campus.” Machan School is now in its second year of participating in MOM. “We started with a limited number of classrooms last year, and it’s all K–4 this year,” Frost states. “We had really good growth last year in our science scores through bringing on programs like MOM.” Violist Mark Dix has been part of MOM since the launch. He has worked with teachers to incorporate music into lessons ranging from the science of sound to circuits and conductivity. “When you bring a professional musician into the classroom, there’s a lot more ‘electricity’ in the room,” Dix observes, apologizing for the pun. In a lesson he presented with Machan fifth-grade teacher Joel Gámez, students role-played different types of circuits as they moved around the room. As long as they moved along a path that completed a circuit, Dix played his viola. If a circuit wasn’t completed, he stopped. He would also adjust his tempo to reflect when a path included a conductive or resistant material by speeding up or slowing down, respectively. Gámez, who teaches English language arts, math, science, and social studies, says the MOM lessons “helped communicate whatever was the objective for that day.” He adds student engagement and scores on in-class assessments have increased in the two years he has worked with MOM musicians. “From a teachers’ point of view, this is an opportunity to learn way more about music. Working with people [from outside the school] opened up new horizons for me,” Gámez asserts. “For students, it shows them how academic areas overlap and there can be more than one way to solve a problem…It opens up their horizons, too. Not all of them may become musicians, but I tell them if they stay with something long enough, [and] practice, they will become quite proficient.” With six schools participating in MOM this year and plans to expand the program to 20 schools next year, Ward hopes the program will eventually reach beyond Arizona. “We’re now working to package the curriculum to help other symphonies and schools across the country” replicate MOM, he says. “Next year, we will be testing our ability to deliver the package to another school and orchestra [and have them run the program]…Once we work the kinks out of that, it will be available nationally.”


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