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On campus beat: St. Kate students learn physics through music

  • Article by: Jenna Ross
  • Star Tribune
  • April 10, 2013 - 10:22 PM

The physics class started Monday morning with the stuff you might expect. Jolene Johnson, an assistant professor at St. Catherine University, scribbled equations on the board.

Ratios, deltas, factors of two.

But then Johnson abandoned the board, grabbed a viola from its case and began tuning.

Its rich tones suddenly filled the small classroom.

This spring, St. Kate’s students are learning about physics through strings, winds and brass. The Physics of Music course uses concepts such as oscillations, resonances and wave phenomena to answer questions like, “How do musical instruments produce their sounds?”

Students then use those ideas to build their own instruments.

One woman is making a guitar. Another is fashioning a xylophone. One student has elected to make her violin out of papier-mâché.

“Physics is Phun!” the course syllabus promises.

“It’s all designed with this idea of what makes women excited about science,” Johnson said. Research shows that women prefer project-based learning, group work and clear outcomes, she said.

Johnson plays the viola and, in college, majored in physics and music. So teaching this course is a perfect fit.

But most of her students came to the class with no experience in either subject. Few knew how to read music. Few grasped basic math, Johnson said. “These were all things I sort of took for granted,” she said.

So the class had a slower start than she had expected. But the students are ready to start work in the machine shop.

Grace Bailey just finished up the blueprints for her viola. The sophomore picked spruce because it can handle “all the arching and hollowing and sanding” needed to shape the instrument’s body.

Bailey is the one physics major in the class, and she appreciates that this course “doesn’t just drill in you math and science.”

“The music aspect makes it more tangible,” she said. “It brings physics to a whole new level.”

 

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

Twitter: @ByJenna

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