The Sound of Science

Science and Children, NSTA Journal Feb 2014 Venkatesh Merwade, David Eichinger, Bradley Harriger, Erin Doherty, and Ryan Habben (Published article in Science and Children, Feb 2014) )
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Article , Activity
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be "fully aligned," the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



Students are given a scenario/problem that needs to be solved:  Their school is on a field trip to the city to listen to a rock band concert. After arriving at the concert, the students find out that the band’s instruments were damaged during travel. The band needs help to design and build a stringed instrument with the available materials, satisfying the following criteria and constraints: 1) Produce three different pitched sounds. 2) Include at least one string. 3) Use only available materials. 4) Be no longer than 30 cm / 1 foot. The challenge is divided into 4 activities. Each activity is designed to build on students’ understanding of the characteristics and properties of sound. By using what they learn about sound from these activities, students are then encouraged to apply what they know about sound to complete the engineering design challenge.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 4
  • Grade 3
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

3-5-ETS1-1 Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

Clarification Statement: none

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Students were given specific criteria for success and constraints to create an instrument. More discussion is encouraged about what criteria and constraints mean in terms of the engineering practices, especially in the lower grades. Following the design process, the students have to create and model their design first, after viewing the materials they were allowed to use. It would be helpful to review the engineering design process prior to the lesson and as suggested by the authors, give the students more time the next day to refine their instruments to fully address the design process. For 4th graders it may be helpful to have them brainstorm possible criteria and constraints instead of providing them.

4-PS3-4 Apply scientific ideas to design, test, and refine a device that converts energy from one form to another.

Clarification Statement: Examples of devices could include electric circuits that convert electrical energy into motion energy of a vehicle, light, or sound; and, a passive solar heater that converts light into heat. Examples of constraints could include the materials, cost, or time to design the device.

Assessment Boundary: Devices should be limited to those that convert motion energy to electric energy or use stored energy to cause motion or produce light or sound.

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this performance expectation, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
To better address this PE, it is suggested that the class have a discussion about the energy conversion taking place and incorporating that into a model. Students can label/write out the science concepts onto their group drawings of instruments, making the drawing a true scientific model by extending it into a tool that explains the sound created by their instruments. This modeling would help bridge the science and engineering gap, and support students' ability to explain their learning on an exit slip. Although the students were given an hour to complete the task of creating and testing their design, to fully include the PE it was suggested in the article that time be set aside for students to fix the flaws or shortcomings of their own instrument and come up with an improved design to best understand the design process.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
At the beginning of the lesson, students conduct investigations to provide evidence that vibrating materials can make sound and that sound can make materials vibrate. To add to this practice, students can investigate different variables’ effect on the string phone (length, thickness of string; material, size of cup, etc.) Students use this information and apply the science behind their investigations to their instrument designs. The teacher should continually ask the students to think about the criteria of producing 3 different sounds and how they can make that happen from what they learned in the prior activities with the tuning fork and string phones. Ask the students: How can you make different pitches? Why do these make different pitches?

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students are given a specific problem to solve and are encouraged to work with team members to ask questions and brainstorm among their cooperative group.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Though the word 'energy' was rarely mentioned in the article, it's important for the teacher to point out that when doing the string and cup activity, that energy goes to the cup through the string to the other cup. The pre-activity gives students an understanding of how sound travels and what tools they could use to create sound and different tunes. They were then able to apply what they learned about the behavior of the types of the strings and their overall effect on creating the sound through the design process. To better address this core idea it would be useful to spend more time on the science vocabulary that students need to comprehend (energy, heat, vibrations, collide, transferred) so they can explain when object collide, energy gets transferred, the air gets heated and sound is produced.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
In the pre-activities (homemade string phone, tuning fork) students explored the concept of sound vibrations traveling through a medium and between objects. The teacher should continually be circulating the groups asking questions and using specific vocabulary for student's deeper understanding as the students create their instruments. It is also suggested that the older students should be given time to redesign their string phones to make them work better and get involved in the engineering practices.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: Overall, this is a strong introduction to the concept of sound and energy transfer. It is important for the educator to follow the suggestions of the authors and allow the students to go back and revise and refine their instruments the following day. By extending the opportunity for the students to make their instruments better, it will enhance their learning not only of the design process and how engineers solve problems, but will enable students to find ways of enhancing the sound.

  • Instructional Supports: Samples are given to the educator that shows the design brief and examples of students instruments: This rubric from the same issue of Science and Children could be modified to review the students models: As the author suggested, more use of proper vocabulary in a write-up may show students’ understanding of all the technical terms associated with the sound.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: As the authors implied, more team work building activities prior to this activity would be helpful so all students work together cooperatively. To support this work, each group member could further be given a role which would rotate in each activity (roles could include facilitator, materials manager, client, notetaker/designer, presenter (would draw final group model too). The teacher should note up front the importance of teamwork for engineers and how working well in their groups will be an especially important part of the process (including ideas such as compromise). Also more time allowed for the students to develop multiple pitches or enhance the pitch they did create will assist their understanding of how sound works. It is suggested that teachers create a rubric for multiple iterations and the final design. This might be helpful in encouraging the refining step of the students instrument.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: This resource does not have an interactive component.