PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - NOVEMBER 2004 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 3
teaching toolbox
On Campus: Learning is Legion

By Robert Gardner


Top: Lawrence Technological University engineering students (left to right) Francisco Lopez, Anthony Locano, and Naseem Daher with their model of a Roman catapult. Below: artist's rendition of an onager circa A.D. 350.A group of students at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Mich., spent last summer building something the Roman Legions might have found useful had they still been around. As part of the school's new "Ancient Engineering" course, groups of engineering and architecture students built working models of ancient pieces of technology. One of the more martial groups chose to build a Roman catapult, or "onager," derived from the Latin for "kicking jackass." "They had deadly aim," says Stephen Bertman, adjunct professor in the Department of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Communications and author of several books on the ancient world. Their ordnance of marshmallow and clay was decidedly not deadly.

Bertman, who has a Ph.D. in classics from Columbia University, asked all the students doing projects to refrain from using modern materials as much as possible so they would face materials challenges similar to those of their predecessors. Counting as extra credit, the projects were presented to the class after the final exam. Bertman says it went so well that he plans to make them part of the course requirements.

Three other groups built projects: One a model of a "shaduf," used in the Near East to effortlessly raise water from a reservoir to a bucket; another a model of a screw pump used in ancient Greece to raise dry beans from a storage bin; and a third a "leaking sand" box like the ones used in ancient Egypt to lower a Pharaoh's sarcophagus into a pyramid crypt.

The course met for 12 weeks over May and June. Open to all majors, "Ancient Engineering" had 25 junior and senior engineering and architecture students. Bertman says interest in the class was high. "The course filled up immediately, even though it wasn't heavily advertised." LTU's policy of limiting course enrollments to 25, he says, forced him to turn students away.

The course's goal is to explore the challenges faced and overcome by engineers from the dawn of history to the Roman Empire. The course begins humbly with a discussion of "Engineering for Survival," the making of stone age weapons and fire, and follows the rise of civilization with discussions of the irrigation canals in ancient Iraq, pyramids in Egypt, the Parthenon in Greece, the Great Wall of China, and the Roman aqueducts. "I want to show the students that their profession has a long history," he says.
The broader goal of the course, Bertman says, is to make his students aware that technology depends on previous developments, even as it makes them obsolete. "Technology tends to cut us off from the past, and I really wanted to get across the idea of our indebtedness to the past."

Bertman received a Faculty Development Grant from the Kern Family Foundation of Wisconsin to develop "an innovative humanities course designed for engineering students." His course, he adds, is fairly unique. He says there are only seven universities worldwide he found that teach a course on ancient technology and his is the only one to focus on engineering. He hopes students leave his course knowing that "they are standing on the shoulders of engineers who've gone before them."

Robert Gardner is Associate Editor of Prism Magazine.


Above the Fray - By Thomas K. Grose
The Water Guy - By Pierre Home-Douglas
Storm Riders - By Stephen Budiansky
horizontal line
Refractions: Answering Mail - By Henry Petroski
Bioboom: Bioengineering has become one of the fastest-growing majors. - By Margaret Loftus
On Campus: Learning is Legion - By Robert Gardner
Teaching: Necessary Evil - By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz
Faculty's Finest: Charley Johnson - By Thomas K. Grose
ASEE TODAY: The Making of a President - By Bethany Halford
LAST WORD: Too Late for Remediation - By Irving Kott


ASEE logo