2024 Engineer Magazine



It’s a heavy, clunky and often emotional problem: how to dispose of an old piano. Once glorified as a beautifully crafted wooden frame housing musical strings and polished keys, unwanted pianos can often end up neglected and, ultimately, in the trash. To solve that issue, every fall University of St. Thomas students seek sustainable alternatives.

First-year engineering students in Dr. Tiffany Ling’s Introduction to Engineering Design received a unique assignment in fall 2023. Their task: design and build a musical instrument from discarded piano parts. But they wouldn’t have to build it alone. In a true cross-disciplinary collaboration, students enrolled in Music and the Creative Process, taught by music faculty member Dr. Sarah Schmalenberger, served as consultants and were charged with testing out the brand-new instruments. Creating instruments from found materials is something Dr. Schmalenberger had previously incorporated into her course, and this allowed that project to expand. For first-year engineering major Henry Cahoon, who also plays cello at St. Thomas, the project was an exciting chance to combine two of his passions. “I am a musician and I am an engineer, but rarely do these things connect for me as they did over the course of this project,” Cahoon said. “The fusion of those perspectives was very cool.”

Cahoon’s team designed an instrument out of piano planks, guitar strings and a pair of aluminum soup cans sourced from Dining Services. “We had a bunch of ideas by the time we got into production, but with a focus on sustainability, we also had to think about how we were going to efficiently use materials … that defined a lot of how our instrument turned out,” Cahoon said. Keys 4/4 Kids in New Brighton, Minnesota inspired the instrument design project at St. Thomas. The nonprofit works to save as many pianos as they can from area landfills and provided students with recycled piano parts to incorporate into their builds. Keys 4/4 Kids takes in nearly 1,000 pianos every year from around the Twin Cities. The organization repairs, resells and gives away as many as they can, but not every piano is destined to be played again. As the nonprofit studies new ways to recycle a piano’s many varied and complicated parts, Dawson and his

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