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Students craft flutes, explore culture

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Sounds of music floated through the shop as files and drills in the hands of teenagers transformed short lengths of PVC pipe into native-style flutes at Polson Middle School.

The instruments were constructed by students in Lee Cobel’s physical science classes as part of a Science Horizons Initiative project, developed six years ago by Charles (Bill) McLaughlin, adjunct professor of chemistry at Montana State University. McLaughlin co-authored the students’ Physical Science books they use each day in the classroom. He spied his book while visiting the school on April 22.

“I’m pleased to see it’s still out there,” McLaughlin said. “I love seeing my book in the hands of kids.”

McLaughlin’s goal for the Science Horizons program was to find enthusiastic teachers who have ideas of ways to teach hands-on science that incorporates Native American culture, and then provide all the resources they need to do it, including funding, support and guidance from MSU faculty. 

“Time and money is what teachers need,” McLaughlin said.

Cobel developed the native-style flute project, and spent a week at the university where he discussed sound waves with the physics department faculty, which helps explain why filing a sharp edge in a hole will produce a tone when wind passes over it.

A free iPad is given to participating teachers to help them facilitate any need of their project. Cobel will use an app on his iPad to demonstrate sound waves when the instruments are played.

Blackfeet artist Jay Labor collaborated with Cobel, and gave the class a jig for holding the flute and measuring where the fingerholes should be drilled. Industrial arts teacher Steve Davey helped build additional jigs.

Labor also shared the cultural significance of the native-style flute. It seems rather than being a sacred specialty to the Blackfeet Indians, according to Cobel, it was used to serenade a potential lover.

“You would play outside the teepee, and try to get your sweetheart to interact,” Cobel said.

On the Flathead Indian Reservation, instrumental melodies with drums and flutes were recorded during the 1953 Arlee Celebration and are archived in the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

There’s also documented research that shows that Native-style flutes with their soothing, relaxing sound can actually lower a person’s heart rate, according to Cobel.

“It really does help you relax,” Cobel said.

While students learned the culture behind the craft, most just enjoyed the process.

“I just thought it was something fun to make, really,” student Nick Cleveland said. “I like working hands-on.”

Cobel agreed that the experience of building excited his students more than the cultural significance, but said there’s a saying, “‘the mind cannot forget what the hands have learned,’ so there is educational value,” he said.

And all the flutes work, which is an accomplishment for more than 200 students in Cobel’s classes.

As each SHI project is completed, teachers post videos and instructions online to encourage other instructors to incorporate the science project into their own lesson plans.

Participating teachers also receive graduate credits from MSU.

Last year the SHI earned McLaughlin the Outstanding Outreach award from MSU.

“I was very proud of that,” McLaughlin said. 

Two other teachers in the Polson School District, Amy Williams and Leslie Dalby, have also participated in SHI.

McLaughlin wants more enthusiastic educators to become involved with SHI and encourages interested instructors to call him at 406-994-5300 or email 


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