By David Perry
Music can emerge from some unusual places. Elissa Johnson-Green knows that sometimes, it just needs to be found and pieced together.
Johnson-Green, an assistant professor of music, recently found herself and a group of fifth- and sixth-grade students from Lowell’s Stoklosa Middle School as the center of attention at the annual district science fair at Lowell High School.
Not only was it the first time a group of students from Stoklosa had participated at the February fair, but it was also the first time a musical instrument was exhibited.
“The kids were very, very proud of themselves,” Johnson-Green said. “As they should be. It was the first time there was anything music-related at the fair.”
It was the next step in Johnson-Green’s EcoSonic Playground Project (ESPP), an immersive learning effort that teaches music and STEM skills to children. The kids make and learn to play musical instruments from found and recyclable items. The project weaves in elements of engineering, architecture, design, acoustics and physics.
Johnson-Green has been working since October with Stoklosa music teacher and STEM advisor Holly Johnston and her students in the school’s STEM club. Each Wednesday, for two hours after school, the small group worked to find, build and refine large instruments made of PVC pipe, water jugs, rope, duct tape and other reusables and recyclables. Then, the students played their improvised creations in a group.
The hands-on project syncs ideally with a citywide initiative to encourage more participation in STEM education, and it takes the university into the community.
“I feel strongly that we need to have connections into the community, and to the teachers there,“ says Johnson-Green.
Prof. Gena Greher, the interim Music Department chair, introduced Johnson-Green to Johnston, a double River Hawk who earned degrees in music in 2003 and 2007, respectively.
“I consider myself a nontraditional educator,” says Johnston. “I like to use a different approach to help students learn. This project is ideal, with a different approach to learning.”
Johnston says her teaching benefits from her ongoing connection to her alma mater.
“I feel quite proud to still be connected to UMass Lowell,” she says. “When I attended UMass Lowell, Dr. Greher was always open to a different approach to music. And she has a way of bringing the like-minded together, and Dr. Johnson-Green and I are like-minded.”
Johnston says it’s exciting to see her students gravitate to fresh pathways to learning.
“The remarkable thing is how my students get to see it. ‘Wow, I can be part of a science project where I don’t have to make a planet or make a volcano explode,’” she says.
The middle school students are surrounded by the raw materials they need to produce music, making the project accessible to all.
“They can go right in their own backyards and neighborhoods, as we did with a field trip around the school to gather things. They can clean up the environment and create and design a music instrument,” says Johnston.
That process includes lessons in engineering, architecture and the art of following a plan, using geometric shapes and making music.
“The initial goal is that when you build an instrument, it has to stay together,” says Johnson-Green. “And you want it to sound good by the end.”
Johnson-Green has used the project in a dozen different settings, “and each is a completely different environment.” In Boston, a PVC rig was on the sidewalk, loaded with colorful pots and pans. Some were more like playground structures. An initial version was left on the second floor of Durgin Hall, and one night, a group of music students staged a two-hour jam session on the piece.
The latest effort is a partnership with Assoc. Prof. of Psychology Rocio Rosales, who is coordinator of the university’s Autism Studies Program. The duo recently received a $5,000 grant from the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism to bring the EcoSonic Playground Project to students on the autism spectrum.
The money will be used for materials “and also, hiring student artists to work with us,” says Johnson-Green.