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+ By Mary Lord
Back to the Future - Historical structures draw engineering students into design aesthetics.

Flanked by two towering screens, Johns Hopkins University civil engineering department chair Ben Schafer whisks his class through a slide-show tour of iconic Chicago structures. Here’s the ornate 1893 Columbian Exposition hall, he says, built when money was no object. Now note the “wonderfully interesting external bracing” of the argyle-patterned 1970 John Hancock Center, designed by the “Einstein of skyscrapers,” Fazlur Khan. Its 1976 Boston namesake, by contrast, kept popping windows because the frame was too flexible, causing years of delay. “As a piece of architecture, I love it,” observes Schafer, who once lived nearby. “As a piece of structural art, it’s a disaster.”

Bad buildings? Genius engineers? Welcome to Perspectives on the Evolution of Structures, an introductory course that harnesses history to convey such technical fundamentals as loads and stresses while inspiring excitement about elegant, efficient design. Required for civil engineering freshmen but open to all students, the humanities-rich class taps the university’s rare architectural books collection and includes field trips to local landmarks. Schafer’s aim: integrate aesthetics into his students’ “way of thinking” by introducing them to the “heroes” of structural engineering and their significant work.

Johns Hopkins isn’t the only school tapping vintage structures to teach deeper lessons about form, function, technology, and design. From Manhattan to Montana, engineering students are building replicas of the Eiffel Tower, studying the Paris sewer system, and calculating how the Brooklyn Bridge bears loads.

And students are responding. The University of Rochester’s interdisciplinary Archaeology, Technology, and Historical Structures (ATHS) program, for instance, has grown from six to 33 undergraduates in just four years. It offers a stand-alone major or minor and includes courses taught by professors of art history, classics, and mechanical engineering, plus site work in Italy and Peru.

Intersection of culture and technology

“We can’t really study materials devoid of the social and historical context,” contends Olin College materials scientist Jonathan Stolk, who codeveloped and team teaches a unique, project-based course called The Stuff of History with Robert Martello, a historian of technology, that examines the intersection of culture, technology, and science in three epochs. Among its core topics: ancient artifacts and Paul Revere’s revolutionary metallurgy and fabrication methods — the subject of an acclaimed dissertation and book by Martello.

Johns Hopkins’s Schafer launches the first Perspectives class with a pop quiz to name three structural engineers. Most students draw a blank. Next they ponder why bridges and buildings look the way they do today. Soon, the class has plunged into David Billington’s The Tower and the Bridge, a lyrical history of structures-as-art that inspired and anchors the course. Among its lessons: the famed Eiffel Tower, inspired by the design of countryside railroad viaducts, debuted to jeers. “We teach people who the heroes are,” says Schafer, who peppers his lectures with Billington’s references to Giacometti sculpture while whizzing through slides of “great buildings and bridges.”

The experience can prove transforming. For Perspectives co-creator Sanjay Arwade, reading Billington “helped turn me into a structural engineer as a freshman” at Princeton. What snagged him was “the idea that engineering can be about beauty and creativity in addition to technical excellence.”

Among engineering students, historical examples encourage a critical look at modern-day engineering practices. Renato Perucchio, who directs Rochester’s ATHS program, notes, for instance, that calculations commonly applied in structural design today would have disallowed the Roman Pantheon, which has withstood 19 centuries of use, earthquakes, and floods. Many courses also incorporate distinctive regional structures or technologies. Arwade, now teaching the Perspectives course as an associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, features venerable New England covered bridges and the school’s 26-story library.

The University of Rochester’s Renato Perucchio notes that calculations commonly applied in structural design today would have disallowed the Roman Pantheon, which has withstood 19 centuries of earthquakes and war.

Integrating liberal arts and engineering curricula can arouse opposition in traditional engineering schools. “The first requirement is tenure!” laughs Perucchio, a professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering and a 27-year veteran. More practically, engineering educators and their humanities co-teachers had to find a common language for conveying content, assessing students, and gauging outcomes. Olin’s Martello and Stolk were well into the first year of Stuff of History — both teach every class — when they realized they needed to align the terms they used. “What I called evidence, Jon called experimental data,” recalls Martello. Letting students choose their research topics also is crucial. “ A lot of faculty make the mistake of thinking that if they use the context of the things they find interesting, students will be fascinated, too,” says Stolk, who finds class discussions deepen when driven by student interests.

Concepts without calculus

Because these writing-intensive classes often fulfill math, science, and other distribution requirements, they typically attract a hefty share of nonengineers. To make complex technical principles accessible to Perspectives students, calculus — but not calculations — had to go. Instead, algebra can express flow of forces in a “simple equation that not only describes the structural engineering but is real,” says Arwade. Simplifying doesn’t mean “teaching things that aren’t right,” he cautions. Rather, it helps engineering students who are good at quantitative analysis see the broad design picture while giving liberal arts majors a framework for understanding the physics. Having taught the course six times, Arwade remains struck by “how much the engineers get from being brought back to the simple equations.”

Visuals also help cement the relation of engineering and aesthetics. Schafer adds colorful grids to highlight load-bearing columns and beams on slides of office facades. Active-learning exercises allow students to discuss the structures.

Writing across the curriculum

Lowering the math barrier hasn’t prevented sophisticated student team projects that develop both academic and professional skills. The Perspectives course, for example, culminates in a research report about a historic or modern structure that reflects strong scholarship and contains citations, aesthetic criticism, and data. “It’s not just a 20-page, double-spaced paper with footnotes, but a dynamic document that includes drawings, calculations, and models,” explains Arwade.

Olin’s Martello and Stolk are similarly exacting about building rigorous historical and engineering analyses into the three required team projects. “It helps you as an engineer, when writing grant proposals,” notes Martello, who also stresses public speaking. Integrating history also makes that subject “something tangible and useful” to future engineers, he adds, “rather than something to be checked off, or something that’s fun but divorced from engineering,” like good bedtime reading.

The fun factor is key. The syllabus playfully refers to Martello and Stolk as “your personal trainers” who dole out candy in an “edible rewards program.” Student presentations can wax whimsical: One memorable final project was a YouTube spoof of PBS’s Bill Nye, the Science Guy, explaining superconductors. On a recent class visit to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, student teams took turns presenting in front of artifacts from the ancient civilization they’d chosen to investigate, informally competing to lure the most patrons.

And who knows? Courses on historic structures may help reverse the out-migration of engineering students. Ayobami Ward, a Johns Hopkins junior majoring in neuroscience, calls Schafer’s Perspectives course “really cool.” At first he feared the engineering would be above his head; now he’s contemplating taking statics next year, though he doesn’t need it to graduate. “ If I could come back,” says Ward, “I’d probably do engineering.”


Mary Lord is deputy editor of Prism.




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