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STEM to the beat: wavelengths, sound and how radio waves work

“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” ― Albert Einstein

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As a kid, I always dreamed about being cool and playing the electric guitar. The problem was I couldn't play guitar and I couldn't afford to buy one. When I finally had an opportunity to try and have a go, I sucked and I was embarrassed because there were plenty of other boys in the class that could play it properly. They laughed. It hurt. I didn’t pick up a guitar for about 20 years.

I thought that if you wanted to play music you actually had to be good at it. But you don't need to make great music to have fun and learn, you just need to have a go.

As a STEM leader and specialist, I struggled to think about how I could fit the arts into my planning. No matter how hard I tried I just couldn't figure it out because I'm not very artistic (or so I told myself #growthmindset) and it was something that was completely out of my comfort zone.

I've always wanted to be a great teacher and I've always admired people like Joe Fatheree, a fantastic teacher from Illinois USA, who hasn't been afraid to get up in front of his high school classes to sings, dance and make rap songs about his lessons. I tried and I had a go but to be honest I was really self-conscious and it's not something that works for me. 

After getting up in front of my class the first time to try to make a rap song about multiplication, I felt pretty pathetic so I spent the entire lunch time in my car just listening to some of my favourite songs that I've always listen to when I need to cheer myself up or get pumped up to teach. I always listen to dance music, the kind you would hear in a night club.

I can't sing but I absolutely love tapping out the beat on my steering wheel on the way to work and I've always got Calvin Harris or David Guetta pumping in the background.

It wasn't until I met another amazing teacher from Canada, Mark Reid talk about the power of music to bring people together and build inclusive classroom culture and that there is actually science behind the actual music that I really started to get excited.

Maybe I could teach my kids to make their own dance music, if it has the power to change my emotional state instantaneously, maybe it could be a rich learning experience.

I didn't know where to start so I just typed in free electronic music maker on Google and after a couple of minutes found a great website called www.buttonbass.com I also found this awesome garage band tutorial about making the beat to Uptown Funk, a song all the boys in my class were singing all the time.

The clues were sitting in front of me the whole time. Instead of telling the boys in my class to stop singing, I should've brought the singing into what we were doing. I spent a couple of lessons just letting my kids make some music.

I quickly figured out it's an awesome opportunity to talk about cyber safety and what to do when you see random dating ads popping up online. We talked about rhythm, melody and counting and sticking to the beat. We talked about wavelengths and sound, how radio waves work and why we can't see them floating through the air. When I asked my kids at the end of the term what was their favourite lesson, almost everyone said it was making music.

Albert Einstein, one of my absolute STEM heroes used playing classical music as a brainstorming technique to develop his theories. His second wife Elsa once said, “I fell in love with Albert because he played Mozart so beautifully on the violin. He also plays the piano. Music helps him when he is thinking about his theories. He goes to his study, comes back, strikes a few chords on the piano, jots something down, returns to his study.”

There is also a growing body of research that shows learning to make music enhances cognitive abilities such as learning, language, memory and neuroplasticity of various brain areas in both adults and children (Kraus & Chandrasekaran, 2010). It turns out I may have been benefiting just as much as my students!

And I still don't feel confident of my ability to wrap and make songs with my kids yet. I'm glad that I did step out of my comfort zone because and rediscovered a love of music that was hiding in my heart since I was a kid. I picked up a guitar for the first time since Grade 6, literally 20 years ago and had a go because I just wanted to make music for the fun of it. I still suck. It’s not about how good you sound, it's about how much fun you have trying to figure it out.

Christian Williams STEM Leader, St Michael’s Parish School Ashburton
Finalist 2016 Global Teacher Prize

Further Reading
Neuroscience of Music – How Music Enhances Learning Through Neuroplasticity Kraus & Chandrasekaran, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2010
Einstein: His Life and Universe Walter Isaacson, 2008, Pocket Books, London

Image Credit
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/02/einstein-genius-violin-music-physics-science/


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