High schoolers build guitars in STEM class

by Corey Wiscomb

Orcas High School teacher

Unprecedented. That’s the word I’ve most often heard used, and that we’ve all grown numb to, in describing this past year-plus of our history. There is an ever-growing list you could attach to that I’m sure. And the year was all of those descriptors, especially in education. It was a very hard year. But the best quality of darkness is that it serves to brighten the light, and numerous stories from our local school shine with triumph thanks to the coupling of community support with our school administration and teachers.

This is a story of that kind of triumph. Something we can celebrate. Its roots stem from the darker days of the pandemic when school was entirely online. There was, however, an open window for small pods of in-person student gatherings. As you can imagine, online-only hands-on classes don’t really work very well but are a significant portion of the course offerings at Orcas Island High School. These hands-on classes are not only highly educational but enjoyable. Learning is actually fun. For many students this year, the move to online education took that joy away.

For a small crew of students, that joy was refurbished when Robert and Becky Gates generously funded a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Acoustic Guitar Building Pod. The grant dovetailed with several years of Orcas Island Education Foundation grants. Those grants over the years have built a guitar-building program into the high school curriculum in which each student makes an electric or acoustic guitar. By including cutting edge manufacturing methods, such as CNC Routers, CAD Design (computer-aided design) as well as good ol’ down-home craftsmanship done by hand, the experience better prepares students for today’s design and manufacturing job market. Being that school had been moved online, the course aimed to be as much “hands-on” craftsmanship as possible.

“It was a nice time to get off the computers and do some hands-on work,” said Orcas High Schooler Bethany Carter. “I had no prior experience with woodworking but I learned problem-solving and a lot of useful skills, and tricks. I am grateful for the experience, it was rewarding and has made me excited about potential future building projects. I now plan to take a guitar course or teach myself to play over the summer.”

Carter is not the only student that intends to learn to play music on the instrument they built. Freshman Andrew Garcia was very clear in his statement: “I plan to try and learn as many songs as I can and if I am being specific then I wanna try and learn ‘One man band’ by Old Dominion.”

While the Knapp family name has been on the island for generations, it was the first year for Luke Knapp, who made a beautiful guitar with a lot of custom inlay.

“It was really great to be in person. Especially having been new this year it was very cool to finally see people at the school. This was such a fun class!” he said.

And for long-time islanders like Shaye Spinner, it was a chance to get into something she’d been waiting patiently for a while.

“I’ve been wanting to do this class since before freshman year. It was so great to have the chance, especially since it was in person. It meant a lot,” she said.

Orcas High School looks to offer a STEM Ukulele building course next school year that will be open to new students while presenting new challenges to those that have been in previous programs.

Contributed photo
Luke Knapp happily holds his creation. Luke inlaid an island and Orca whale scene in the soundboard of his guitar along with custom perfling, binding, and rosette.

Contributed photo Luke Knapp happily holds his creation. Luke inlaid an island and Orca whale scene in the soundboard of his guitar along with custom perfling, binding, and rosette.