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REFRACTIONS - By Henry Petroski

Reading a Transcript

Surprisingly few curricular changes have occurred since 1919.

Photo: HENRY PETROSKI - Virtually all engineering students were exposed to the same coursework, but Calder found artistic inspiration in it.In the course of preparing a lecture on the engineer turned artist Alexander Calder, I obtained a copy of his transcript from the archives of the Stevens Institute of Technology, from which he received the degree of Mechanical Engineer in 1919. I was struck by how similar the curriculum he followed was to the one I followed at Manhattan College almost a half century later.

Mathematics, physics, and chemistry, along with mechanics, mechanical drawing, and descriptive geometry, were common to our first two years. What distinguished Calder’s freshman and sophomore years from mine was that he took a required foreign language (his was Spanish), but I took none during my entire four years as an undergraduate engineering student. Nor did I take the shop practice courses that Calder did.

His junior and senior years were filled with technical courses and their associated laboratories, much as mine were and as engineering students’ are today. In fact, the overall basic mechanical engineering curriculum seems to have remained surprisingly unchanged over nearly a century. It now has more mathematics and less hand drafting, but a time-traveling student moving in either direction would not likely be disoriented, except perhaps by the presence or absence of computers.

Was there anything in Calder’s curriculum that hinted at his ultimately becoming a world-class artist? A critic or scholar looking for clues might find suggestions of his artistic invention, the mobile, in some of the mechanics textbooks, and might find inspiration for his flat-plate stabile constructions in the instruction in orthogonal projection. Virtually all engineering students were exposed to the same coursework, but Calder found artistic inspiration in it. The fact that his mother, father, and grandfather were practicing artists is more likely to have had a more direct influence on his turning to art after engineering.

Many a recent engineering graduate has gone into a profession other than engineering. Before the present economic crisis and downturn, the high salaries offered to problem solvers by financial and management consulting firms lured students away from traditional engineering careers. Today, it can be the ultimate goal of a career in law or medicine that makes an engineering degree a means rather than an end in itself. Some of today’s engineers may even become artists.

The one thing that definitely distinguishes Calder’s transcript from those of most of today’s engineering graduates is the number of courses and cumulative hours that were expected for the degree. An average semester for him involved about 32 hours per week in the classroom or laboratory and consisted of seven, eight, or nine distinctly graded courses. There were also additional courses taken in supplementary terms.

As increasingly complex as structures, machines, and the systems that operate and control them have become, many seasoned engineers wonder why current engineering curricula seem to demand less rather than more of today’s students. Part of the answer lies in the elimination of the dozen or so shop practice, surveying, and drawing-related courses that Calder took. And today, of course, increasingly students are being told by professors and employers alike that they should earn a master’s degree before entering the professional workforce.

Times and curricula have changed, but in fewer ways than might have been expected a century ago. Calder’s textbooks in mechanics, for example, and the problems and exercises they contain, look surprisingly familiar. It is not so much that their authors were prescient as that present-day ones are presenting the same timeless basics. We can only hope that among today’s students there are not a few who are inspired to be as inventive in engineering as Alexander Calder was in art.


Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest books are An Engineer’s Alphabet: Gleanings from the Softer Side of a Profession and To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure.


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