Trash to (musical) Treasure

Team “Phonies” working on their thongophone. From left, Deaja Vital, Mackenzie Sloan, Alex Croll, and Jake Lehotsky.

Team “Phonies” working on their thongophone. From left, Deaja Vital, Mackenzie Sloan, Alex Croll, and Jake Lehotsky.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

Engineering students turn cardboard tubes into instruments

For Behrend’s Youth Education Outreach (YEO) K-12 programs, one person’s trash—paper towel tubes, unused yarn, plastic spoons— is another student’s hands-on engineering project. Participants in YEO programs are often challenged to transform a collection of random items into a vehicle or whirligig or other device.

So, when Onex, an Erie manufacturing company, offered Melanie Ford, director of Behrend’s YEO programs, a truckload (literally) of sturdy cardboard tubes, she immediately thought about turning them into some sort of musical instrument or sound installation.


Ford reached out to Dr. Joel Hunt, associate teaching professor of music and digital media, arts, and technology, who knew just what to do.

“When I saw the tubes, I was reminded of the Blue Man Group’s performances with a xylophone-like instrument made from PVC pipe,” Hunt said. “The instrument, which is known throughout Australia and Papua New Guinea as a thongophone, consists of a series of tubes of varying lengths, similar to that of a pneumatic pipe organ or pan flute.”

The thongophone player strikes the end of a tube with a rubber clapper to initiate vibrations, which cause the tube to resonate at a frequency that is determined by its length and diameter.

Hunt and Ford wanted to expand on that idea to make it an interactive instal­lation that employs mechanical beaters and computer-controlled installation. They decided to turn their idea into a senior capstone project for engineering students. Two groups of students worked on different versions of the instrument.

Challenge accepted

Team “Phonies”—an interdisciplinary group of Computer Engineering majors Alex Croll and Deaja Vital and Electrical Engineering majors Jake Lehotsky and Mackenzie Sloan—not only had the engineering knowledge to tackle the project, but a musical background as well; three of the four are musicians.

Croll has been playing percussion since he was in the sixth grade; Sloan plays the piano, flute, and ukulele; and Lehotsky plays the guitar and harmonica and has designed electronic instruments before.

“Being musicians gave us knowledge of what good sound should be and helped immensely with some aspects of the project, like picking the right material for the pipe drumheads,” Croll said. “Having had experience making music, we knew what things to be picky about and what things wouldn’t have much impact on the thongophone’s final sound.”

Applied engineering

Lesson No. 1 in their effort to build a product from scratch was finding a starting point, Croll said.

“From our first meeting in October, the enormity of this project was clear,” he said. “Our project was fresh with no previous information or schedules to work from. You might think having lots of leeway would be good, but it was nerve-wracking.”

For Lehotsky, the project brought to light the joy (and sometimes frustration) of engineering.

“Every time we brainstormed one engineering problem, another would arise,” he said. “How do you support forty-eight six-inch diameter cardboard tubes ranging from ten inches to ten feet? Build four separate chassis. How do you communicate notes between chassis? Run a USB cable. How do you parse a serial transmission from a USB cable? Place a separate computer in each chassis. And so on and so on. It’s pure engineering. This is what we live for.”

Thongophone times two

The second student capstone team— Electrical and Computer Engineering Technology majors Arielle Alfonso, Darren Brigham, and Ryan Seltzer—also built a thongophone with the tubes, in their own creative way.

“Our team used thirty-six tubes cut to various lengths that correspond to specific notes, determined through a mathematical equation,” Brigham said. “Solenoids, which are electromagnetic devices, shoot out a small metal plunger when given voltage. These solenoids connect to a programmable microcon­troller, which we uploaded various songs to, and mounted above the tubes. Thus, it is a self-playing thongophone!”

Mission(s) accomplished

All of the students who worked on the thongophones graduated in May. Their creations will be installed in the college’s Kochel and Reed buildings to showcase their creativity and ingenuity and, it is hoped, “foster more interdisciplinary collaboration going forward,” Hunt said.

Ford, too, was pleased with the students’ work and said that YEO is now developing hands-on activities that will utilize the instruments.

“I love to see projects where the different aspects of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) all come together,” Ford said. “The thongophones will be installed in places where our students can take a few minutes to play and where we can show future Penn Staters in our K-12 outreach programs the types of projects we do in our Open Lab environment.”