August 2005
Bikes, Harps and Yo-Yos

Teaching Engineers and Artists to Talk to Each Other

by Paul D. Lehrman

What is the sound of a violinist playing a harp with no strings?

One of the hottest fields in the research world is Computer/Human Interfacing (CHI), which has several other names, such as Tangible Interfaces, Human Factors, Design Psychology and probably many more. A mixture of psychology, physiology, industrial engineering and computer science, CHI tackles how humans interact with machines to make those interactions more efficient, more productive, less fatiguing and, from the humans' standpoint, richer. In other words, make tools that do something useful, are fun and/or rewarding to use and can be used for a long time.

Because there are so many disparate disciplines in this field, schools don't have an easy time figuring out how to teach it. Getting the students from all these areas to meet on common ground is a problem. For example, in the school where I teach, a relatively small liberal arts — oriented college, there is a strong engineering program, but engineers and arts and humanities students rarely cross paths and almost never collaborate.

But almost every student is into music, regardless what he or she is studying. So a few years ago, the engineering faculty decided to face the challenge of how to get their students to work with others, and the answer was to create courses around music technology and not what most schools consider music technology: computer composition and sound manipulation. (I already teach that.) In this program, the students would build musical instruments.

The first course was called Musical Instrument Engineering and it's strictly acoustic. Students build flutes, guitars, zithers and bagpipes, and do research that requires them to measure various environmental effects on things such as trumpets and piano actions. But the course still drew students primarily from Mechanical Engineering. To enlarge the pool and make the course attractive to more students, they decided to create a course called Electronic Musical Instrument Design.

The rest of this column, along with 56 more, is now available in The Insider Audio Bathroom Reader, published by Thomson Course Technology PTR.

Details on the EMID class are at

Copyright ©2005 by Paul D. Lehrman