How an experimental guitar workshop is delivering STEM to children of disadvantaged backgrounds

OpenGuitar workshop

Wolfson College Research Associate (CRA), Dr Fernando Bravo, is delivering STEM education to children from disadvantaged backgrounds through a rather unique method: by teaching them how to build experimental guitars.

OpenGuitar workshop

Through the OpenGuitar project, Fernando runs workshops teaching a broad spectrum of skills, from 3D design and hands-on woodworking to computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), sensor robotics, and computer programming, with a focus on the elemental mathematics behind digital signal processing.

“Ever since I left Argentina,” says Fernando, “I envisioned merging my education and gathered experience in the field of music technology into the development of a long-term project. The project would intersect scientific research and frontier technology with the parallel aim to support the access to quality education for children and adolescents from disadvantaged backgrounds, including children with disabilities, marginalized children, and those living in humanitarian and emergency settings.

“In 2018, in parallel to my research work in computational neuroscience, I opened collaborations with different friends, researchers and university colleagues working on music technology, robotics, electronic arts and computer science education programs for children – and initiated the OpenGuitar project in collaboration with master guitar luthier Jost von Huene and the Konglomerat e.V.”

From Dresden to the ‘villas miseria’

The project started in Saxony, Germany, in various villages around Dresden, where Fernando lives, and aims to deliver workshops in mental health hospitals in Berlin for children with psychopathologies once the restrictions of COVID-19 have eased. Bravo is himself a clinical psychologist who has worked for several years with children suffering from autism, psychosis, and other severe mental disorders. 

While COVID-19 has put obstacles in the project’s path, Fernando’s immediate plan for OpenGuitar is to deal with the educational fall-out of the pandemic in Argentina, where the impact of the COVID-19 has been especially hard on the region’s education.

“According to a UNICEF report, it’s estimated that the COVID-19 pandemic has put education on hold for more than 137 million children, or 97% of students, in Latin America and the Caribbean,” says Fernando. “Since the start of the pandemic, children in Latin American and the Caribbean have already lost on average four times more days of schooling, 174 days, compared to the rest of the world, and over one-third of all countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have yet to set a date for school reopening. 

“My aim is to deliver the project in Buenos Aires, La Pampa and other provinces in Argentina, where students have missed out on the entire school year; to run the workshops with adolescents living in rural areas and in deprived settlements called ‘villas miseria’, which are analogous to favelas in Brazil.”

Fernando is also a classical guitarist and composer, who has studied guitar performance at Buenos Aires Conservatory of Music Manuel de Falla. 

Despite helping students build countless guitars in his workshops, he doesn’t collect guitars, and has only kept “the two instruments that I feel closer too,” as well as the first OpenGuitar prototype: “It looks a bit like a Frankenstein’s monster, with holes and scratches everywhere since I was still trying out ideas at that moment; but the sound is nicely warm and deep.”

"Openness and collaboration" at Wolfson 

Currently researching in neuroscience, Fernando is delighted to be part of the Wolfson community:

“Wolfson College has always symbolised openness and collaboration to me. I still happily recall my firsts visits to the College, back in my PhD days at the Centre for Music and Science, I would often stop to look at Wolfson’s beautiful gardens during my daily runs to Grantchester. Although I live in Dresden, my neuroscientific work entails a close collaboration with the Department of Clinical Neurosciences and the Centre for Music and Science, and I feel honoured that my research liaison with the University of Cambridge is mediated by Wolfson College.”

Fernando is now looking forward to expanding the reach of the OpenGuitar project, to support STEM education in deprived areas internationally:

“To be honest, when I started this voluntary project, it was a just a utopian dream. I have put all of my heart – “le puse todo el corazón”, you would say in Spanish – and a lot of effort into it. It is growing, slowly but strongly, like a small tree.”  

You can find out more about OpenGuitar on the project’s website.

And you can see Fernando’s own classical guitar performance using one of his OpenGuitar experimental instruments on Vimeo (tip: listen with headphones).