|By Henry Petroski
PROFESSOR DAVID P. BILLINGTON STRIVES
TO TEACH ENGINEERING AS AN INTELLECTUALLY
AND CULTURALLY STIMULATING SUBJECT.
last fall I visited Princeton University
to give a sequence of evening lectures;
during the day I was privileged
to observe a master teacher at work
in his element.
David P. Billington began teaching
structural engineering at Princeton
in 1958, a tenure honored two years
ago by a symposium on "teaching
and scholarship in the grand tradition
of modern engineering." The
symposium was held in conjunction
with a Billington-curated exhibition,
The Art of Structural Design:
A Swiss Legacy, then at the
university art museum.
The exhibition catalog describes
the enormous influence that teachers
and students at Zurich's Federal
Institute of Technology have had
on structural engineering, especially
as manifested in the works of Robert
Maillart, Othmar Ammann, Heinz Isler,
and Christian Menn, engineers whose
lives and works Professor Billington
has made the subject of lectures,
articles, books, and other exhibits.
But promoting awareness of these
engineers and their work is only
one of Billington's many passions
about structural art, a term to
which he gave currency in his 1983
book, The Tower and the Bridge:
The New Art of Structural Engineering.
Many teachers and I use this as
a text in courses that introduce
students to engineering in a social,
historic, and aesthetic context.
Billington's 1996 book, The
Innovators: The Engineering Pioneers
That Made America Modern, extends
his approach to all of engineering.
A new book on engineers as entrepreneurs
is currently in press.
Teaching is generally considered
a more ephemeral activity than writing
books, but in his case Billington
is working to change that. His courses
at Princeton have become an institution
in their own right. During my visit,
I had the opportunity to sit in
on lectures for both "Engineering
and the Modern World" and
"Rivers and the Regional Environment,"
which Billington teaches jointly
with Princeton colleagues Michael
Littman and James Smith, who bring
their expertise in experiment design
and hydrology, respectively.
Since it was the last week of classes,
I heard Billington give comprehensive
review lectures in each of the courses.
I not only witnessed his near-legendary
use of two slide projectors but
also saw the rapt attention of an
auditorium full of students from
across campus. I also had the opportunity
to see Billington interact over
a weekly lunch with the small army
of teaching assistants required
to run such courses. The integration
of all of these components makes
Billington's courses greater
than the sum of their lectures.
It is this master's unique
personality and passion that has
won him many admirers and disciples.
Normally, it is difficult to export
a course in toto to another campus,
where it will be taught to different
kinds of students by another instructor
with another personality, but Billington
has been working hard to do just
that. During summers, he organizes
symposia and workshops on his approach
to engineering education.
Billington not only provides a
model of how engineering can be
introduced as an intellectually
and culturally stimulating subject
of scholarship and criticism—for
engineering and nonengineering students
alike—but he also makes available
for dissemination his large collection
of slides. Through his mentoring
of beginning and future teachers
of engineering, Billington is laying
the foundation for a system of teaching
that should be capable of producing
in America engineers that may rival
the great Swiss masters.
Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar
S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering
and a professor of history at Duke
University. His latest book, Pushing
the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering,
was published in September.