Musical Instrument Ideation in 6th Grade Science

Lindsay McQueen

Lindsay McQueen


Finding a Purpose for Innovation

While living and teaching in Uganda, I revelled in watching a herd of elephants play in the water, munch their way across the savannah, or trumpet their love for each other. Observing any animal behaviors in the wild is captivating and elephants have a special place in my heart. But African elephants are vulnerable, as are many animals on our planet, and it will take a collective concern and action to develop innovations that address the problems of ivory poaching, human-wildlife conflict and habitat destruction.

Focusing on Needs

So what does this have to do with creating a musical instrument in 6th grade science? In close collaboration with the Information Specialist at our school, Dr. Julie Marie Frye, I restructured an instrument design unit to center around a client’s need for an instrument. This gave students a real purpose to work toward for an invention, beyond the scientific and musical understanding of sound. By focusing on a client’s need for an innovation, sixth grade students were immediately invested in creating a new product. While it took additional time to activate empathy, the time was worth it because it fueled ideation and the passion for creating.

One of the scenarios that students prioritized and discussed was an African park ranger’s need for an instrument that could mimic elephant sounds to deter poachers. Posing a unique problem challenged students to think creatively about the type of sound they wanted to produce.

Link to download "10 Things to Look For In an Inspirational Classroom"

Remaining Open-Minded Early in the Process

After identifying with the needs and emotions of the client in a chosen scenario, we intentionally chose not to start designing and building right away. Instead, students played “Go Innovate” (a game based on Go Fish!) to play with possible instrument parts. The goal of the game was to give away instrument parts cards by persuading the player to the student’s right that a part (e.g. bridge, string, valve, etc) could be used for their design. Creative thinking and persuasive skills. Go Innovate! Our desire was for students to end up with a handful of instrument part cards that they had not originally considered in their thinking about their client’s needs and potential designed instrument.

Playing with Possibilities

With an understanding of the parts and purposes of designs that already exist, as well as client needs, students created multiple 2D sketches and a 3D prototype before presenting the design to their colleagues during a science conference. Giving and receiving meaningful feedback allowed students to consider how to further develop their designs before building, testing and tweaking their final instruments.

Through this scaffolded process students ideated, or generated multiple ideas, and used creative thinking skills to develop a new instrument within the context of science.

Musical Instrument Ideation.jpg

Considering the Elephants

As for the elephants, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is “dedicated to the protection and preservation of Africa’s Wilderness”. You will find me running in the Enormous Elephant Run in New York City on November 19. I welcome everyone to join the herd!

Lindsay McQueen

Lindsay McQueen

Lindsay McQueen teaches middle school science at Whitby School. She is passionate about using and developing meaningful ways to engage middle schoolers in caring for all spheres of the planet through the lens of science.