Putting Audio Engineering into the Hands of Kids

June 5, 2013

By Steve Starkweather, Meyer Sound Laboratories
May 29, 2013

These days, most audio equipment—whether a concert sound system or an iPod—is designed and built by highly skilled engineers and technicians using hundreds of specialized parts, often far from the places where the equipment will be used. The genesis of these tools, by the time the average person encounters them, is as remote as if they were dropped out of the sky like the Coke can in the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy: a fascinating miracle appearing out of nowhere.

Finding a way to put audio engineering into the hands of kids as well as adults is an important way to connect people with science and to spark their interest and allow them to experiment and invent.

Working with UC Berkeley engineering students on the Lawrence Hall of Science project brought me back to my college years when I first participated in group projects in class. This is when I learned the importance of teamwork in engineering (or any discipline for that matter). More often than not, the success of your work depends on your ability to share ideas with other people and to work collaboratively. The stereotype of the lonely engineer with great ideas popping out of his or her head fully formed isn’t exactly reality. Or it’s only one step in the development of meaningful technology.

The energy and enthusiasm of the engineering students as they went through the various phases of developing their “sound challenge” exhibit for the Hall was palpable. Here were smart people who asked and then answered tough questions as they worked through problems. Reducing complicated technology to recyclable household items—paper cups, copper wire coils and magnets—solidified the basic ideas behind building a loudspeaker. The end result, at first glance, seemed like a very basic project: wrap copper wire around a magnet, put it in a paper cup and tape a paper cone to the opening. But the engagement of the participants at the Ingenuity Lab—kids as well as parents—was fascinating to observe.

On the days I visited, the room was packed with visitors—the kids typically taking the lead in explaining to their parents how to make a loudspeaker. Their excitement was piqued by the possibilities that this project suggested. Or, in the words of a ten-year-old who visited the lab, “I liked the exhibit because it showed how it was pretty simple to create a loudspeaker and that you can build one at home. It also showed me that you need to really work hard on it to make it really good. To take it beyond basic. It makes me feel more confident that if I wanted to, I could build something interesting, and I have.”

For me, the fun of collaborating with the engineering students was that it brought back memories of that first spark of excitement and creativity you have in abundance when you’re young but often fades as you get older and “wiser.” It’s pure and raw and open to possibility. Introducing kids in particular, but also adults, to acoustics and the basic physics behind loudspeakers and giving them a direct experience in the field hopefully will lead to a revived interest in acoustics and engineering—or, at the very least, provide that momentary spark.

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