With a growing shortage of national defense personnel with expertise in wave physics, Virginia Tech researchers are leveraging sound, music, and creative technologies to educate secondary school students and recent high school graduates in effort to spark an interest in this field.

With a three-year grant from the Department of Navy STEM Education and Workforce Program administered by the Office of Naval Research, Ico Bukvic, professor at Virginia Tech’s School of Performing Arts, and Bradley Davis, assistant director of the Spectrum Dominance Division in Virginia Tech’s National Security Institute, are tackling this workforce issue by developing innovative, transdisciplinary curriculum for middle and high school students.

When a monumental event occurs that results in a physical change in the world, the effect of that disturbance gradually moves outward, away from the source, in every direction. As this information travels, it takes on the shape of a wave. The wave is present in everything from sound to water to magnets, radio waves, and sunlight, which follow the same rules of physics.

Tangentially, wave physics is concerned with the study of these phenomena, which is particularly important field of study for those working in the defense field where the number of students entering into this physics-based discipline is decreasing, according to government and industry.

“The Navy operates using radar systems, sonar systems, communication systems, etc., and all of these things are supported by wave physics," said Davis. "But what’s happening is that the Navy is seeing a shortfall of professionals who have the necessary skills and training to take on roles in the military and other allied areas that deal with wave physics specifically."

Davis’ background in physics and electrical engineering combined with his experience of working on Department of Defense grants paired perfectly with Bukvic, a transdisciplinary creative with a doctorate in music composition. Davis sought out Bukvic after he had the idea to make physics education more accessible through the use of music.

“Disciplinary boundaries are administrative obstacles. The curriculum we’re working on will transcend those boundaries. We won’t ask students to think like a scientist for 10 minutes and then think like a musician for 10 minutes. We will integrate the two disciplines so that they get a more holistic form of education that combines creativity and problem-solving skills,” said Bukvic, who is also an Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) senior fellow.

Bukvic and Davis’ plan is to spark young students’ interest in the seemingly difficult topic of wave physics by using the ever-so-familiar medium of sound and music. By making STEM education accessible for every student, they hypothsize it will be possible to retain more and more bright minds in higher education in physics. Their vision is to build a generation of experts who are able to combine STEM knowledge with creative problem solving, ultimately forming a robust American workforce in wave physics.

“This project narrowly focused on wave physics because this specific topic of STEM provides a unique opportunity to leverage music as a means of spawning students’ interest in physics. We want to create a curriculum that does not appear scientifically dense on the surface level, but once students begin to unpack the topics using music, they will get a more and more advanced understanding of wave physics,” said Bukvic.

Along with sound and music, Bukvic will also use the open source Pd-L2ork software he developed while working on the world’s first Linux-based Laptop Orchestra.

“The execution of this project also depends heavily on the teachers. We’ve been talking to teachers in the nearby counties and they’ve all been very open to trying this out in their classrooms. We’re also going to aim to build after-school programs,” said Davis.

During the initial module prototyping phase, cohorts of students from regional areas of Virginia visited the Cube at ICAT to learn about the advances in interactive, immersive audio. The researchers are collaborating with regional area school teachers to develop the curriculum while also collaborating with Virginia Tech National Security Institute researchers and other ICAT researchers.

Contact: Lindsey Haugh