Engineering Class Marries Music with Math, Sparking Creativity

Engineering student strums a cigar-box shaped guitar that he made in an Acoustics of Musical Instruments course.Rosalyn Arvizu, a computer science major and music minor, explains the music instrument she and fellow student Brandon Kennedy made in the engineering class, The Acoustics of Musical Instruments.

Thomas Schubert, PhD, knew his 33-year stint as an electrical engineering professor at the University of San Diego would conclude with a class and grading finals this fall, but throughout the semester and during Wednesday’s final meeting he did so accompanied by the sound of music.

Two of his classes — a liberal arts class aimed at non-engineering majors (ENGR 241) and one meant as an engineering major elective with prerequisites (ENGR 494) — were combined into one: The Acoustics of Musical Instruments.

The flier promised the rigor of academics — two hours of lecture along with a weekly three-hour lab that explored “the interaction of technology, science and music by detailed analytical analysis and practical applications” — with the creative task of designing and building a music instrument.

Donald’s Garage space in the Belanich Engineering Center was the site of the class’ final exam. That was where students shared and reflected upon their respective instrument projects. Among them were cajons, or drum boxes, a three-pronged pipe flute with a slide attachment, violin and xylophone-type structures, computer-aided synthesizers and even a cigar-box guitar fully capable of plugging into an amp.

“I was happy to do something that combines two things I really like — music and math,” said junior Rosalyn Arvizu, a computer science major and music minor, who worked on a team project — a much larger version of a kalimba, an African thumb piano, and amplified it using resonating tubes with an electric speaker when hitting the metal blade keys — with senior mechanical engineering student Brandon Kennedy.

“Music is a big part of life and it’s neat to work with it,” Kennedy said. “Making an instrument makes it human and it helps us all come together through music.”

Schubert — who has extensive music experience playing bassoon (in symphony and orchestras and in a quintet called Woodwind Conspiracy), saxophone and clarinet — thoroughly enjoyed his final class meeting Wednesday. Students explained the story behind the creation of their instruments, briefly played them to share the sound and spoke about what they’d tinker with going forward.

 “I’ve always been interested in how instruments work and I’ve done repairs to my own instruments and done a lot of reading about how instruments work,” Schubert said. His first such class merging engineering and music elements came when he worked with a physics teaching colleague while at Portland State University. “I put that experience in my back pocket and I thought ‘Someday I’d like to do a class like that again.’”

He decided to make it happen when he began a phased retirement stint at USD where he’s been teaching electrical engineering since 1987. Basing it loosely on a class offered at Yale University, once he went through the class approval process, it was offered this fall.

After the last student presented her bongo-like drum and tapped on it a few times to describe the sounds, Schubert was clearly impressed by the efforts of his inaugural class cohort.

“Thank you, everyone. I’ve learned a lot from watching you and by talking with you about what was going on while sticking my nose in your projects,” he said. “I’ve had a really good time with this class and I thank you all for your efforts.”

The students’ excitement showed as they lingered in the classroom-lab space. A mini-jam occurred when the guitarist and a cajon player did partial riffs on songs from Led Zeppelin, Nirvana and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers filling the room. It was a fitting swan song for Schubert’s final class.

— Ryan T. Blystone

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