Sixth Graders Design Electronic Music Makers

One recent afternoon, in the innovation space in the Schlesinger Library a pair of sixth grade students were adding aluminum foil to rubber tiles to create a musical hopscotch pad. In another corner, a group carefully attached wires to a handful of gummy bears (snacking on a few at the same time), while a third furiously colored with pencil on a piece of plain copy paper.
“We’re covering it with pencil because graphite works as a semiconductor,” one student explained. “Then we can dance on it.” Each group was using a “makey makey” to turn an inanimate object into a musical instrument.

A “makey makey” works by opening and closing a circuit that sends a signal to a computer, just like clicking a key on a keyboard. The “makey makey” essentially takes over for the mouse or keyboard and can make inanimate objects type, play games, or complete any function that is usually controlled by a computer’s mouse or keyboard.

Lindy Toczko likes to use this technology in her 6th grade music class to make music accessible, even to students who don’t think of themselves as musicians or who don’t play an instrument.

“You can just listen, make sounds, explore,” she said. “I just love watching their creativity.”

Once the group finished covering their papers in pencil, they attached it to their “makey makey” and connected it to a computer that was logged in to a virtual piano player app. One student hopped onto the paper and they all quickly looked to the computer, eagerly awaiting the sound of an electric piano. Nothing happened.

They quickly realized their first attempt would not work, and they took their shoes off to try it in socks. It worked!

“When you hear people talk about the difference between STEM and STEAM, this is what they’re talking about,” explained Director of Academic Technology and Innovation Aron Back. “It’s a perfect example of arts and engineering coming together to teach the kids simple circuitry, creativity through music, collaboration, resilience through testing and retesting, and the best part is that they do it all in a judgement-free environment.”

“The sixth grade general music curriculum is all about letting students explore and try as much as possible,” said Ms. Toczko. Throughout the year, the students rotate through a variety of traditional and technical music units including ukulele, djembe drumming, makey makey and digital music recording.