Acoustic Upright and Grand: Draftengine.org

Students learn real-world skills by helping design acoustic pianos
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“I see young people coming up through the education system and going through the STEM programs. But a lot of times, a public school’s idea of what a STEM project is falls short from reality,” says Mark Perry, program developer and partner in DraftEngine.org, which teaches students in Central Virginia “about all of the uses of creativity.”

The program was launched three years ago to provide STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education to students from the Appomattox Christian Academy (ACA). Perry partnered with another instructor at the ACA, Chad Houk, to not only teach AutoCAD but to offer a richer experience. In the last two years, that has included designing and building pianos.

“I’ve been rebuilding pianos my whole life and applying my engineering experience to my work,” Perry explains. “Our STEM-based curriculum teaches them how to use drafting software to draw what we will build. By drafting it, then taking that interpretation into machining and then assembly, the students go from one stage to the next so that, by the time they graduate high school, they have learned good engineering practices, how to analyze finite elements and composite aerospace materials, as well as traditional woodworking skills.”

The students can take part throughout their four years of high school, and in some cases longer. “Students who show an interest in drafting are coming in at middle-school age. We also have some kids from the community that either go to public schools or are home schooled who get involved as we make connections.”

The technology behind the instruments includes composite materials that make the pianos lighter as well as stronger. “The type of pianos we build are art-case instruments: They’re hand-painted; there is a lot of hand carving; there is gilding. The frame has to be able to hold the stresses of the instrument, and the plate that we’re building for the piano has to do the same. It’s a marriage between dissimilar materials—the metals in the plate, the carbon fibers in the frame, the wood in the frame. Everything comes together in how we do it: That is one of the best forms of training for the aerospace industry.”

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Currently the program has two pianos in progress. “We’re working on a shortened, chopped, lowered school bus that will have the piano built into it. The top will lift off, the side will lower: It will be like a parade vehicle. That’s a partnership with a hot-rod enthusiast who has agreed to help us, and we’re hoping that will blossom into a little bit of automotive technology. The practice of applied STEM technology remains constant in the program.” The other piano is a semi-concert-grand in French curly walnut called the St. Andrew Edition. “It’s going to have inlaid brass and a lot of hand carving. We have to find a foundry that casts brass and the kids will have some exposure to that.”

Perry notes that the program is focused on skill development, not a finished product. “We’re not promising a completed piano at the end. But they do get exposed to the majority of the actual work. There are over 20,000 moving parts and many components to build in a piano. By the end of the program, they have learned a wide variety of design skills.

“We’d like to be at a point someday where we build pianos with fantastic technology,” Perry adds. “I want to build an invisible piano at some point. It is actually possible. Now, whether it’s practical I’m not really sure.” [Laughs.]

For more information about the program, or to make a donation to the organization, visit draftengine.org.