Instrumental Design: Engineering students build banjos from scratch

March 15, 2018
Student builds banjo

Image: Will Kirk / Homewood Photography

On a recent afternoon, Johns Hopkins University mechanical engineering students crowded into the Senior Design space to put the finishing touches on their designs, filling with the space with the sound of conversation, laughter, and a few “Oh no’s!”

Some students adjusted tension rings, previously constructed out of fencing wire. Others inserted tuning pegs into pegheads. Stefanie Shirley decorated a resonator with artwork.

“I just used a few Sharpies and got creative,” the third-year mechanical engineering major said of her groovy fuchsia-and-black design featuring a treble clef, a lush blossom, and the words “Engineering Design Process” in flowery script.

Students in the Engineering Design Process class regularly come away from the experience with drill saw and laser cutter skills, as well as better understanding of how to develop ideas into workable, feasible, affordable designs. But those enrolled in the Department of Mechanical Engineering course this spring will also come away with something more unexpected: handcrafted wooden banjos.

“When I looked at the class syllabus and saw the word ‘banjo,’ I couldn’t believe it,” said Alex Doran, a third-year mechanical engineering major. “But it’s true: We’re making our own banjos!”

Though many students found ways to customize their instruments, all worked from a single pattern provided by Nathan Scott, associate teaching professor at the Whiting School and the course instructor. Scott believes his tweaked “Rockefeller Banjo” design—which he made himself over the winter term in a trial run—is the ideal project for teaching important basic mechanical engineering design skills.

“This project works beautifully in a few different ways, from getting students acquainted with our Senior Design space and helping them discover where tools are to grounding them in basic prototyping methods,” Scott said. “These are all skills they are going to need going forward when they tackle their senior design course.”

Excerpted from The Hub >>

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