On Campus: Auburn Students Research Impact of Music on Health Outcomes

By Danielle Kraus Tarka

This article is the first in a new series of features on the work of our wonderful SENCER community members. NCSCE staff have the pleasure of corresponding with so many of you on a regular basis and are aware your efforts, but we realize that most members of our community may only have access to information about these great initiatives at our national or regional events. This series will allow us to highlight the ingenuity and dynamic work of NCSCE participants and partners with all of our readers. Each month, we’ll talk with educators, administrators, students, and/or staff to learn how they have implemented the SENCER approach, and understand the impact on their campuses and communities.


Since Auburn University first attended the 2013 SENCER Summer Institute, an energetic team has emerged that has designed interesting, engaging interventions for students across the disciplines. Dr. Robert Holm, Associate Director, Proposal Services & Faculty Support, was a leader in SENCER work at Butler University and in the midwest regional group before joining Auburn University. Sessions on SENCER have been offered at the annual Auburn research Week to promote adaptation of civic engagement approaches to improve student outcomes. Drawing on the Mathematics of Sustainability course designed by Rikki Wagstrom for NCSCE’s Engaging Mathematics project, team members have applied SENCER methods to a pre-calculus summer camp for rising high school seniors.

The longest running SENCER initiative at Auburn takes an innovative and cross-disciplinary approach to learning science by studying the impact of music on health outcomes. In 2013, Drs. Ann Knipschild, Professor of Music (now retired), and Paula Bobrowski, Professor in Health Administration and Associate Dean of Research, Graduate Studies, and Faculty Development, received a SENCER Post-Institute Implementation Award to support initial efforts to embed the SENCER ideals in two new courses at the time, Music and Science in the College of Liberal Arts, and Innovative Design Thinking for Healthcare. Auburn also provided funding for the project. As context, students explored connections between music and other disciplines, as well as the role of music in society throughout history. Teams also conducted research on the physiological effect of different types of music on people with hearing and speech disorders. The goal was for students to gain a deeper understanding of research methodology, physiology, and basic neuroscience, while also incorporating civic engagement by studying how exposure to music can produce positive public health outcomes for a wide range of patients.  Student assessments demonstrate that the course research project has “a significant impact on student learning, interest in science and music, and acquisition of career skills” (Bobrowski & Knipschild, 2016). To learn more about the original course design, course schedule, and grading methods, please click here to read their article on the topic.

Drs. Knipschild and Bobrowski became leaders in efforts to integrate STEM and the humanities in the SENCER community through the development and expansion of the Music and Science course. Additional team members from Auburn have received support as the course has expanded. In 2015, Drs. Nancy Haak and Lawrence Molt received funding for a project that facilitated student research on music’s impact on improving interactions of patients with neurological deficits using EEG brain mapping. Students used results to suggest strategies to caregivers of dementia patients (NCSCE 2016a). In 2016, Dr. Aurora Weaver was the lead recipient of an implementation award to support experimental student research projects on the impact of music training on auditory function in young children (NCSCE 2016b). Dr. Weaver, Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Communication Disorders, and Dr. Josh Pifer, a Senior Lecturer in the Dept. of Music, are now teaching the Music and Science course and are infusing the curriculum with their own experiences and ideas.

Dr. Paula Bobrowski noted, “The Music and Science course has exceeded our wildest dreams, especially in attracting Engineering and Science students who say that it is the presence of “Science” in the title that attracts them to the course. The course has also attracted faculty. Dr. Pifer taught the course for the first time this year and has integrated some new and different materials, such as a session on the physics of music where a physicist provided an exciting presentation using fire. The redesigned team research projects were phenomenal and every team of students was asked by the external evaluators to present their work to the campus at our annual Research Week. Dr. Pifer along with Dr. Weaver also created new community outreach assignments.  The students have both learned a lot and have enjoyed working with kids and adults in the community while experiencing how music can improve their lives. It’s a course that truly integrates the Humanities with Science.”

Dr. Weaver and Dr. Pifer have been kind enough to share their reflections on teaching the Music and Science course, and the impact it has had both on them and their students.

NCSCE: What interested you about the Music and Science course? How did you become involved?

Weaver: My research degree is in Hearing Science, which means my training pulls from areas of bioacoustics (how sounds are produced and affect living organisms) and psychoacoustics (perception of sound and its physiological effects). Music is a wonderful medium to explore the role sound plays in perception. Additionally, the service-learning component draws on the skills of my clinical degree as an audiologist and allows me to advocate for individuals with communication disorders and bring awareness to the field of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

I was introduced to the course in fall of 2015, at Auburn University’s This is Research Luncheon. Dr. Bob Holm sat at my table and discussed the Music and Science course…When guest speaker Tim Brimmer was invited to present on our campus, I made connections between my areas of training, research line, and the goals of Music and Science course. As a member of the professional learning community that had developed around this course, I was invited to join them for SSI 2016 in Chicago. Working with Paula [Bobrowski], Ann [Knipschild], Nancy [Haak], and Bob, in addition to leaders from SENCER like Eliza Reilly who valued my contributions and encouraged me to apply for one of the 2016 SENCER Post-Institute Implementation NSF-subawards.

Pifer: College is the one place every student has the luxury to study whatever inspires their passion.  As an undergraduate, I earned a B.A. in pre-med/Biology and a B.A. in music. My first undergraduate biology research project explored the connection between music and plant growth. My postgraduate studies earning my D.M.A. in piano performance included studies in pedagogy and the science of injury prevention.  After recovering from a personal injury, I developed a specialty in working with many injured musicians helping them recover and relearn how to play piano without reinjuring themselves. I’ve always loved music and loved science. Both areas of knowledge have coexisted in my teaching of music courses.

When Ann Knipschild retired in spring 2017, I was approached by the department of Music, being a music faculty with degrees in both music and science, to further develop the Music and Science course.  I got really excited, said yes, and met with Dean Bobrowski to discuss possible directions for the course.  Seizing upon Dean Bobrowski’s advice to completely redesign the course and make it my own, the course now includes exploration of a wider range of scientific disciplines’ relationships to music and student designed primary research projects.  Meetings followed with Dr. Haak and Dr. Weaver in the Department of Communication Disorders to discuss approaches to the research and civic engagement collaborations within the course. The Music and Science course has given Dr. Weaver and myself a unique opportunity to collaborate with esteemed colleagues across university departments and given students the opportunity to benefit from interdisciplinary perspectives concerning fields that intertwine music and science.​

NCSCE: How have you engaged students with the STEM content?

Weaver: I’ve worked with three semesters of the course, and [have had] planning sessions with both course instructors. In this role, I’ve discussed evidence-based practice in both lecture and small group settings, where we evaluate evidence available to make a plan for the service-learning project.

Across the semesters, teams have participated and observed a team of researchers collecting QEEG, and behavioral auditory processing test data collection. I’ve been able to judge when teams presented the class research project, which highlights their integration of concepts related to STEM and music as each team developed their own hypothesis and showcased their knowledge by presenting their reflections on the class. I think this is important because it draws attention to the fact that multiple research questions can be answered based on the use of different designs/statistical analyses. It also shows well how different groups interpreted findings uniquely. I’ve also seen the work that students conducted last Fall and the current semester. The teams each spend time planning and conducting their own research studies, and are learning how to think and engage with their own creative and critical processes.

Dr. Pifer has really expanded the portion of research planning and design by requiring students to submit proposals for their team’s individual research project. Each team then receives guidance on how to design and execute their research project, analyze their data, and, finally, present their research project in a poster session at the end of the semester. We’ve seen the students increase their excitement for the research project as their “investment” increased by planning and conceptualizing the method to investigate their research questions as teams, rather than as a class.

NCSCE: What changes or updates have you made to the course that reflect your own creativity and enthusiasm about the civic implications of the STEM content?

Weaver: The service-learning project stems from my own clinical work and the network within the Auburn community that has developed around this course. We (Drs. Pifer, Haak, and myself) were just awarded some internal funding from the CLA (College of Liberal Arts) to incorporate new technologies (iPads and portable music equipment) into the classroom and projects for the course to continue to allow students to actively engage with course material. Through this [support] we’ll also be able to donate some equipment to our community partners. The students love that funding that has supported this class benefited our community partners in that manner, in addition to giving student and faculty time to the project.

This semester I led an impromptu in-class experiment, in which the students voted on which auditory task they felt would be most related to a listener’s music sophistication index based on assigned readings. After we analyze the results in class, I hope there will be students that choose to continue to work on the project after the course ends. This provides an opportunity for interested students to learn more of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into preparing a research study for the peer-review process.

Dr. Pifer has redesigned the research projects to meet the desires of students who register for the course because the title has “SCIENCE” in the course title. These undergraduates want to learn about research methods and design their own projects around a topic they connect to music.  I think the impact on the students that I hope they take away is learning through research. We might not have obtained all the answers we wanted but they each learn how important it is to control the process and what they can/should conclude from each project conducted. That is a skill that not all undergraduates acquire – critically interpreting evidence from peer-reviewed journals, planning a study, realizing that research is ongoing and that there will always be unanswered questions following any ill or well-designed study. Research is just like music; there will always be another song to write.  

Pifer: We expanded the service-learning projects to encompass more time spent in the community. We focused more on team based learning by having the students design their own research projects. I have invited guest lecturers from other departments to speak how music and science intertwines in their fields. My hopes are that we are providing the students with life experiences that will allow them to develop skills that lead to success in their future careers, as well as promoting more informed citizens through understanding and experiencing the scientific process, and promoting better and more informed future citizens / leaders / team players. Our hope is for this experience to become a seed of inspiration for future interest in research.

NCSCE: How has this course impacted students?

Weaver: Students learn that people can connect through music despite having significant differences in communication styles and abilities.  I have watched students’ faces when they are surprised [that] individuals with communication disorders still know the names of songs, can sing all the lyrics, and enjoy music in similar ways to college students. One student shared it was the highlight of her semester conducting the service-learning and another indicated they fell in love with neuroscience.

Pifer: I have witnessed students’ eyes being opened to a new light of understanding how they themselves can not only learn and grow, but also make a difference to others through community civic engagement projects and service learning. Some students have told me how much more respect they have for researchers and the journey of seeking knowledge. I have watched the students take true ownership of their work and gain a deeper understanding of the scientific process through designing their own research projects. Some of my favorite quotes by the students are: “I really enjoyed the Community Civic Engagement Project. This was not what I had initially expected or thought.” “I used to hate doing group projects and working in teams, but it is not all that bad.” “Neuroscience is amazing, and I never realized how much music has helped science and medicine.” “I want to go into music therapy.” “My research project did not turn out the way I thought it would, but I still got invited to present my research at ‘This is Research Student Symposium’ at Auburn. This is an amazing resume building opportunity we were given from just a core class.”

Final reflections –

Weaver: I believe it is important to provide opportunities for active learning early in an undergraduate student’s collegiate experience.  Students know on syllabus day that this core course will be more intensive than the alternative Humanities appreciation courses that are available to them; but we are fostering engaged citizens for the future and that has been evident via the teamwork and outcomes of both the service-learning and research projects.

Pifer: I am grateful for the opportunity to expand my own love for music and science and to be able to share my excitement with young inquisitive minds. Music and science are not exclusive disciplines.  The subjective nature of music appreciation only appears to conflict with the fact-based objectives of science. I want the students to understand that the study, production, and appreciation of music stems from many sciences including physics, neuroscience, medicine, anatomy and physiology, kinesthesiology, technology, chemistry, biology, anthropology, archeology, psychology, geology, mathematics, engineering, and architecture.

I believe that active learning experiences can have an enduring impact on students’ lives, and I want them to be able to look back at the experiences they had in this class and be inspired to grow into future leaders in their chosen field.  I want the students to work hard and have opportunities that can help build their resume and to experience the joy of community service. My humble hopes are for this course to be a seed that stimulates their curiosity and to consider how music could grow their chosen field into new branches of thought and study.



Thank you to Dr. Weaver and Dr. Pifer for answering our questions!

You can read more about the early stages of the Music and Science course in this article by Bethany Broderick (Auburn).

Photograph courtesy of Auburn University.



Bobrowski, P. & Knipschild, A. (2016). Music: The link between science and the humanities. Science Education and Civic Engagement – An International Journal, 8(1), 11-15. Retrieved from http://new.seceij.net/articletype/projectreport/music-link-science-humanities/

NCSCE staff members. (2016, February 10). NCSCE grants 15 implementation awards to support projects that advance education and civic engagement. NCSCE eNews. Retrieved from http://ncsce.net/implementation-awards-to-support-projects-that-advance-education-and-civic-engagement/

NCSCE staff members. (2016, November 15). NCSCE awards 9 grants to promote equity, environmental protection, and assessment. NCSCE eNews. Retrieved from http://ncsce.net/ncsce-awards-10-grants-to-promote-equity-environmental-protection-and-assessment/

Posted in eNews, Health, In the News, Music, SENCER News.