PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo SUMMER 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 9
refractions
Teaching for Posterity
By Henry Petroski

PRINCETON PROFESSOR DAVID P. BILLINGTON STRIVES TO TEACH ENGINEERING AS AN INTELLECTUALLY AND CULTURALLY STIMULATING SUBJECT.

Henry Petroski - Photo By Leonora HamilLate 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.

 

FEATURES
THE REAL WORLD - By Anna Mulrine
CUTTING THE GORDIAN KNOT - By Jeffrey Selingo
MAKING IT BIG - By Corinna Wu
RISING AGAIN - Photographs by Sylvia Plachy
horizontal line
COMMENTS
BRIEFINGS
DATABYTES
REFRACTIONS: Teaching for Posterity - By Henry Petroski
ASEE TODAY
ANNUAL CONFERENCE AT A GLANCE
CLASSIFIEDS
LAST WORD: Time for a Change - By Ernest T. Smerdon
BACK ISSUES

 

ASEE logo