Fall 2016

By Amy Burns

For the past few years, STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts Mathematics) has been a hot topic in music education. Originally introduced as STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics), its mission was to inform federal and state policymakers of the critical role of STEM education for the future of U.S. competitiveness and economics.

  1. After STEM was introduced, however, it was determined that art and design would be needed to complete STEM activities. As a result, the movement of STEAM was begun by the Rhode Island School of Design.
  2. From there, the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) held a panel discussion to discuss how music education can help all students in all areas become more engaged in their studies.
  3. This brought about the inclusion of STEAM in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was passed into law in December 2015.
  4. With ESSA including STEAM and ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) reauthorized to the Every Child Achieves Act, music and arts are now listed as core subjects. Music educators now feel that integrating music across the curriculum can be accomplished where students see the connection of music to other subjects and where musical concepts are still intact. 

How to Incorporate STEAM into the Elementary Music Classroom 

In 2014, after my colleague, science teacher Jen Wagar, took a course in STEAM, she presented her findings to the faculty. When Jen was presenting to us, she said something that inspired me: “STEAM is a philosophy, not an acronym. We should look at it as rethinking the way we teach, the connections students make, and the outcomes for which we are aiming.” 

After her presentation, I asked to meet with her so we could figure out a way her third-grade science class and my third-grade music class could collaborate on a unit about sound, since we were both teaching the concept in our curriculum. Jen and I sat down during the winter to discuss our ideas, essential questions (EQs), timeline, and assessments. These were our EQs: 

  1. What is sound?
  2. What makes sound high or low? 
  3. What makes sound loud or quiet? 
  4. How does sound travel? 

We discussed how to accomplish our unit when our schedules permit us to see the students two times during a seven-day cycle for 45 minutes (for science) and three times during a seven-day cycle for 30 minutes (for music). In addition, we were working around school events in our timeline that affected our third-grade curriculum. 

Beginning our STEAM Unit 

Science Class. Jen began teaching her students the first EQ, “What is sound?” She started with Dr. Katy Payne’s Elephant’s Listening Project. Dr. Payne was initially a music student at Cornell University where she spent years studying whale sounds. After her discovery of humpback whale songs, she returned to an earlier interest — elephants. Her research led to the discovery of infrasonic communication in elephants.5 Jen presented information about elephant communication to the students to introduce them to sound waves and to help them see sound as a form of energy.6 She had the students experiment with sound vibrations and how they travel through air (gas), liquids, and solids. The students learned that sound is best heard through a solid because in a solid the molecules are closest together. 

Music Class. I took the students’ knowledge of sound and incorporated that into music class. I began with a scenario for them to think about: How would they perform a song at a concert if their instruments (Orff, classroom percussion, and recorders) were no longer accessible? What if they only had access to water, markers, and beakers? This is where we addressed the next EQ, “What makes sound high or low?” 

I divided the students into small groups and gave them a pitcher of water, three beakers, and some markers. I told the students that they needed to make one beaker play the note B, one play the note A, and one play the note G, using the water to change the pitch (see Figure 1). The students experienced the phenomenon of the volume of water changing the pitch of the sound the beaker produced when they tapped it with a marker. The students had access to a digital keyboard to check their pitches. When they finished, they used the newly created instruments from beakers, water, and markers to perform one of their recorder pieces. 

Exploring Sound 

Science Class. Jen continued to explore the EQ, “What makes sound high or low?” by having the students observe the effect of the length of the sound wave on pitch with the Kalimba and the effect of tension with a mini gut drum. The students explored how the tension could raise the pitch and the release of the tension could lower the pitch. 

Jen moved on to the next EQ, “What makes sound loud or quiet?” She had the students explore volume by observing and experiencing sound waves. She played a recording of sand moving on an amplifier and showed them a picture of how the sand formed patterns from amplification (see Figure 2). In addition, she showed them sound waves on a sound generator and explored how much energy is needed to produce a low-energy wave and a high-energy wave. Jen finished this unit by assessing students’ current observations through writing.

Music Class. Since the students had explored how sound was made through their percussion instruments (the beakers), we studied how sound is produced with strings and woodwinds by watching two YouTube videos from the House of Sound, “How do string instruments make a sound” and “How do woodwind instruments make a sound.”7 

After Jen introduced sound waves in science, I followed up by recording students performing with instruments (recorders, voice, guitar, etc.) so they could see the sound waves produced in computer programs like GarageBand for Mac ( or Soundtrap ( We also experienced tuning a guitar and a ukulele using the Guitar Tuna app ( projected onto the screen so the students could see how volume affected the tuning of string instruments. 

Science and Music Separate 

Science Class. Jen showed the students the story of the Landfill Harmonic (, which follows the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura. This is a Paraguayan musical youth group of kids who live next to one of South America’s largest landfills and created their instruments from trash found in the landfill. Jen used the engineering design process of ask, imagine, plan, create, and design to have the students design their own instruments from recycled materials (see Figure 3). Jen received permission to take the entire third grade for one morning so they could create their instruments. She collected numerous recycled materials from boxes, cans, and containers, along with materials to help with the creative process, such as tape, hot glue, straws, balloons, paperclips, and more (see Figure 4). From these materials, the students “went shopping” and collected the materials they would need to create the instrument they designed. Some students worked alone, and some worked with a partner. 

Many students experienced “fails” and had to problem-solve to accomplish the task. After the initial morning of creating the instruments, the students used numerous science classes to refine their instruments, problem-solve their fails, tune their instruments, and write their reflections.

Music Class. At this point, we had accomplished the STEA (Science Technology Engineering Arts) of STEAM, but what about mathematics? In music class, we approached the M in STEAM by having students compose a piece that had an eight-measure melody and an eight-measure drum line (using bass, snare, and cymbal). Students used the cloud-based program Noteflight ( to do this. They had been studying rhythms and note reading as part of our music curriculum for years. They used their musical creativity and their math skills to compose their pieces of music. 

I divided the class into small groups and had five devices for them to use to compose with Noteflight. Noteflight is written in HTML5 and can be used on many devices, but my students felt most successful using it on laptops or desktops rather than iPads or tablets. The students were guided to use the notes B, A, and G and the rhythms of quarter, half, whole, and eighth notes for the melody. They could use the same rhythm values for the percussion line. All the students were able to compose their pieces successfully. 

I then introduced three ensembles to them: The New York Philharmonic, our own Far Hills Philharmonic, and the ArtEco Band — a trio that performs with musical instruments made from cloth and paper. The purpose was twofold: (1) they would be adding an ensemble to their compositions, and (2) they would be forming an ensemble with the instruments they were creating in science class. I took their pieces and imported them into Soundtrap and gave them a style, such as RnB, EDM (electronic dance music), Pop, Rock, or Jazz. The students had to create a four-measure introduction and an ending, so that the form of the piece was Intro-their melody/percussion line-Coda. Once this was completed, the students performed their melody lines on their recorders and earned another classroom reward — a recorder star for their recorder belts. Finally, they wrote lyrics to their songs that reflected knowledge learned in their Adventure America Social Studies unit, where they were assigned a state, studied it, and then gave a presentation about it at their Adventure America State Fair (see Figure 5).

Music and Science Come Back Together for the Finale and Assessment 

For our music and science classes’ finale, the students performed their newly composed songs on their newly created instruments. This required a lot of problem-solving because the students experienced the following frustrations: (1) it was challenging to tune the string instruments to B, A, and G; (2) the string instruments would not amplify; and (3) some of the instruments fell apart. In order to address these challenges, the students had to problem-solve or accept that some problems could not be resolved. The challenge of tuning was resolved by the students strumming the rhythm of the melody. The challenge of amplification was one they just had to live with. They dealt with the final challenge — of the instruments falling apart — by asking other students for advice in stabilizing them. 

For the assessments, students recorded their own reflections in the Seesaw app, which is what our school uses for digital learning journals. In previous years, we have had the students write reflections using paper and pencil, digitally using Socrative (, or recording their reflections via video. These student-reflective assessments in their own portfolios produced extremely thought-provoking responses, and the students were proud of their accomplishments and their creativity. 

Jen and I are on our third year of this unit, and every year we improve upon it. She and I both experience our “fails” and successes, too. We enjoy this unit tremendously as it is a wonderful integration across the curriculum, and the students learn so much from it. This year, one fifth-grader saw one of the third-grader’s compositions on my screen and asked me whether this was the song the students would play on their recycled instruments. When I told her yes, she told me that she remembered making her instrument, playing it, creating her song, and, especially, how much she had enjoyed it. I hope that this article encourages you to collaborate and integrate across the curriculum. For a more in-depth look at this project, please visit my website, and click on “Cross-Curricular Activities.” 


1. STEM Education Coalition website; online at

2. “What is STEAM?” STEM to STEAM; online at; and “STEM and STEAM,” National Association for Music Education (NAfME); online at

3. Richard Naithram, “How Music Education Powers the STEAM Movement,” NEA Today, July 16, 2014; online at

4. Liisa Silander, “US Education STEAMs Ahead,” Our RISD; online at

5. “A Brief History of ELP,” The Elephant Listening Project; online at

6. “Science and Music: How Music and Science Connect,” Kennedy Center Arts Edge; online at

7. Robert Reich-Storer, “How do string instruments make a sound”; online at; and “How do woodwind instruments make a sound”; online at

Amy Burns

Amy M. Burns ( is a preschool through fourth grade music educator and the Director of the Far Hills Conservatory at Far Hills Country Day School in Far Hills, New Jersey. She is also a clinician, keynote speaker, and author of numerous articles and three books about integrating technology into the elementary music classroom.