ndWAVES collaboration teaches fifth-graders how engineering and arts work together

Author: Brittany Collins

ndWAVES program Fifth-graders play percussion instruments designed by Notre Dame students

More than 300 fifth-graders from South Bend area schools spent a day at the University of Notre Dame playing music and learning about the science of sound, the result of a year-long collaboration called ndWAVES.

The students from Dickinson Fine Arts Academy, St. Adalbert’s and Brown Intermediate Center came to Notre Dame on a sunny day in May to learn from Notre Dame students and Third Coast Percussion, the University’s ensemble-in-residence. Using percussion instruments that the Notre Dame students designed and built, the students received hands-on lessons on music, sound, engineering and design.

The idea for ndWAVES started when Notre Dame professor Jay Brockman was asked to consult by the South Bend Community School Corp. on programs for STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. “The notion of separating STEM from the arts felt like there was something really missing,” said Brockman. “We have these ideas of analysis and experimentation, which we tend to call science, and these ideas of creativity and synthesis, which we tend to call art. But really, both disciplines use those, and we can draw on examples of both to help feed each other.” Brockman and the SBCSC settled on STEAM instead, adding the A for arts.

Brockman spent the summer of 2013 arranging a collaboration between Notre Dame, Third Coast Percussion and Wilco drummer and composer Glenn Kotche, who was working with TCP on a new piece. The collaboration, which would demonstrate that the arts and sciences are reliant on each other, would result in a hands-on outreach project for local schoolchildren.

ndWAVES program A Notre Dame student teaches fifth-graders about sound

Brockman arranged for a one-credit, pass/fail course for Notre Dame students from any background who were interested in combining STEM and the arts. The students met in the Stinson-Remick Hall of Engineering to use the state-of-the-art design deck, including a laser cutter and 3-D printer, to get to work on building these musical instruments. The undergraduates worked with Third Coast Percussion to design, engineer and construct log drums, penny whistles and chimes for the musical piece being written for this project. Peter Martin of Third Coast Percussion composed a piece using just four notes that could be played using these custom-designed instruments.

On May 12, more than 300 fifth-graders visited DeBartolo Performing Arts Center and Stinson-Remick Hall to learn from Notre Dame students and Third Coast Percussion about the science and creativity of music. The day started in DeBartolo, where the students gathered to learn about WAVES — wonder, arts, vibration, energy and science — and see the scientific instruments used to study sound, including an oscilloscope and a spectrum analyzer. The elementary students also toured the design deck at Stinson-Remick and got hands-on demonstrations with the instruments. The afternoon ended with a concert with Third Coast Percussion at DeBartolo, where the students played the instruments made at Notre Dame.

“Fundamentally, I want kids to understand that science, technology and engineering are all areas that allow a huge amount of creativity,” said Martin. “I want the kids to walk away with a new perspective on the relationship of music and science.”

Brockman believes the ndWAVES project is just getting started. Over the summer, six Notre Dame undergraduates will intern at enFocus, a local nonprofit focused on talent retention and economic development, to refine the ndWAVES program and develop a business plan for making it available to other communities. With the support of grants from the Lilly Foundation and the National Science Foundation, the students will continue to explore how STEAM education can benefit schools in South Bend and elsewhere. These students will also help design new instruments that will be featured in Third Coast Percussion’s premiere performance of “Wild Sound” by composer Kotche.

“We are excited to continue to offer this program every year while we are in residence at the DeBartolo Center,” said Martin. “We’re looking to create a slightly more mobile version of the WAVES project that we can bring on the road with us.”

Contact: Jay Brockman, associate professor and associate dean of community engagement and experiential learning, 574-631-8810, jbb@nd.edu