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Algebra in the Drum Shop: Plotting the Rate of Change with Kevin Martin

On December 1, 2017 by yamd

Algebra teacher Sarah Dobry

“Will I ever use this in real life?” A teacher could rattle off the professional fields that a mathematician could enter after pursuing a degree when students challenge, “Why do we have to learn this?” Or, they could show them what they can do now with the skills they are practicing. The arts are good for that, and YA roster artist Kevin Martin is an expert at teaching students how to employ their new mathematical knowledge in a very cool and tangible, real-world way.

Kevin Martin teaching students to play steel drums

Kevin has been building and playing steel drums, also called steel pans, for more than 20 years. Through his company Rockcreek Steel Drums, the artist has built thousands of steel drum instruments for clients across the world, and now, he is sharing this knowledge through a residency with students at North County High School (NCHS) in Anne Arundel County. “A steel pan is really a musical sculpture,” says Kevin. These sculptures are tuned instruments that have been methodically hammered into a very specific shape and thickness from the flat base of a steel barrel.

Algebra students at work.

This residency came to NCHS thanks to professional development for teachers in arts integration as part of The Arts Empowered Minds Initiative. Through the initiative, schools are learning to use arts integration as a strategy for boosting student achievement and engagement. Classroom teachers and school administrators are building sustainable partnerships with teaching artists and arts organizations that inspire students and use the creative process to make meaningful, real-world connections to the curriculum.

Tools to measure the rate of change.

Kevin worked with 9th grade algebra teacher Sarah Dobry to teach students how steel drum design and fabrication requires the same mathematical concepts explained in their textbooks.

Using careful measurements and the same tools and algebraic formulas that Kevin uses in his shop, the students learn to graph a drum’s rate of change to see how the sides of the pan slope inwards at different rates. Because they’re not just learning, but applying the strategies and formulas they’ve learned, students appreciate the instrument’s transformation from flat to concave and the depth and location of each depression.

Of course, the class also learned to play the instruments. Pairs of students learned where to hit specific notes on the pan and how to control their drumsticks to achieve different effects, rolling them over a note to extend a sound, or striking it purposefully. As the students gained confidence, they took turns demonstrating their ability. Ms. Dobry was impressed by her class’ excitement and eagerness to participate, “The kids who are usually silent in math have been volunteering to be the example this week.”

“As a math guy, I enjoy the challenge of learning the notes and shaping the metal,” Kevin told Trumpf Express, a professional magazine published for the sheet metal processing trade. “As a musician, I try to recreate the essence of sound.” The artist gave Ms. Dobry’s ninth graders an introduction to what’s possible when you combine an academic skill with the art form you love. And perhaps some of them even discovered a new talent.

The Arts Empowered Minds Initiative is the combined effort of many groups and individuals seeking to build a movement for increased equity through the arts in their community. With funding from the NEA in 2016, we built partnerships with Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS), Chesapeake Arts Center (CAC), Arts Education in Maryland Schools Alliance (AEMS), Arts Council of Anne Arundel County, and University of Maryland – Baltimore County (UMBC).

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