Students use hands-on skills, teamwork to build guitars in popular Engineering Technology course

Mark French, professor of mechanical engineering technology, with a student in the popular "guitar lab" course (Purdue University photo/John Underwood)

One of the most popular courses in campus is MET 34900 (Stringed Instrument Design and Manufacture). Given that students get to design and build their own guitars in the course, it’s no wonder that “guitar lab” is one of their favorites.

The course is taught by Mark French, professor of mechanical engineering technology in Purdue University’s Polytechnic Institute, a college that strongly emphasizes hands-on learning. French is an engaging teacher who has won the Murphy Award, Purdue’s highest honor for undergraduate teaching. Videos on his popular YouTube channel have racked up nearly 9 million views.

And MET 34900 results in hand-built guitars, while providing students with lessons that resonate in any career path. Through immersive projects, students learn lifelong skills including teamwork.

“Students from all majors can come into class and start building, getting involved and running machines,” said French. “They’re able to experience the manufacturing process and say, ‘OK, I know how to do this.’”

Guitar lab looks like a hub where creativity thrives, with workbenches, advanced toolkits and shelves stocked with building materials. Teams of students start from scratch, brainstorming guitar designs and accounting for the production concerns and process variability they’ll encounter along the way.

Boilermakers from across campus, from Polytechnic majors to art and design students, make connections in his course. In fact, French said having students from a variety of majors in engineering, technology and the arts actually benefits their classwork.

“If the group is academically diverse, the whole process works better,” he said. “With experience in the humanities or the arts, the groups are more innovative. They approach problems from different directions than I’d normally see.”



Not a confident student during his own undergraduate days, French never expected to create a course like this.

“I was OK in college, but I was nobody’s star,” French said. “No one was looking at me and saying, ‘That guy’s going places in academia!’”

Watching professors write equations on chalkboards in lecture halls was an ineffective learning method for French. He preferred projects built around interesting ideas and practical applications — and he brings these priorities to his approach in his current classroom.

“I’m trying to be the professor I needed,” said French.

Read the full Purdue / The Persistent Pursuit story by Ava Kuhn.

Professor Mark French has helped millions learn more about mechanical engineering, from teaching Boilermakers on campus to creating viral YouTube videos. (Purdue University photo/John Underwood)

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