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Making Waves

He's melding music and physics to help children.

Dreamy and buoyant, the easy-to-cradle ukulele’s sunny, plunky sound is linked to all things Hawaiian, even with its Portuguese origins.

High school physics teacher Jamey Clarke ’91 wanted to keep the winsome instrument’s positive vibrations going.

“We do a unit on waves and sound, and I’ve always liked it when the kids brought in their instruments,” says Clarke.

When he heard about the Ukulele Kids Club’s mission to provide instruments and music therapy to children in hospitals, Clarke thought of his Punahou School students in Honolulu. He convinced his principal to allow the juniors and seniors to build four-dozen ukuleles and ship them to hospitals across the U.S.

“I thought it would be a good way for them to make a connection to the outside world,” he says. Plus, it would enliven the curriculum and use the high school’s new maker space.

But first, the teenagers would have to buy into the idea of spending months building something only to then give it away.

More substantially, Clarke would have to learn to build a ukulele.

“At Swarthmore, I was an engineering major and an amateur boat builder,” says Clarke. “I had this really innovative class with Carr Everbach where we measured the flow rate of Crum Creek using honeycombs. There was always a standard of maintaining excellence and finding a balance.”

After spending most of his career as an engineer, Clarke shifted to teaching, earning a master’s in education at Harvard. The move to Hawaii came when his wife accepted a pediatric medical residency in Honolulu.

“I love the people, the culture, and the diversity,” Clarke says. “You really form a connection.”

Among those connections was local luthier Michael Chock, who assisted with the project that involved using 3-D printers, a laser cutter, and other tools. “We worked together to design an affordable instrument,” says Clarke. “The students took a lot of pride in their work and gained woodworking skills in the process.”

Clarke wants his students to appreciate that it’s OK if you don’t know exactly how to do something when you begin a project.

“The big picture we are teaching is resilience,” he says. “We try to bake that into our instruction while they are honing their craft.”