Conceptual Difficulties in Teaching History of Science and Technology to Engineering Students

By Giovannelli, Leland | Michigan Academician, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Conceptual Difficulties in Teaching History of Science and Technology to Engineering Students


Giovannelli, Leland, Michigan Academician


ABSTRACT

Lower-division engineering coursework often suggests to students that all meaningful questions have quantitative right answers--and that open-ended questions do not merit attention. A course in the History of Science and Technology can provide a valuable antidote to this rigidity of mind. It offers enough factual information--about dates, inventions and mechanisms--to persuade engineering students of its legitimacy. It also obliges students to contend with open-ended questions by embedding those facts in multiple historical, social, and ethical contexts. In-class analysis of these open-ended questions helps to establish the intellectual habit of historical interpretation. In order to make room in the syllabus for this analysis, however, one must be willing to demand the memorization of fewer historical facts.

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I am an assistant professor at the College of Engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder--but I am not an engineer. Instead, I teach humanities and history to engineering students. After nine years of teaching humanities to this audience, I have come to expect certain challenges associated with grammar, metaphor, and paradox. More recently, when I began teaching a history course to engineering students, I have encountered an additional set of challenges. That is my topic here: conceptual difficulties in teaching History of Science and Technology to engineering students.

I offer my three-credit course in the History of Science and Technology in the fall. It has an enrollment of 40-50 first-semester engineering students. These students have only just graduated from high school. Nearly all of them believe that History is purely factual, and that, in its truest sense, it includes everything that ever happened. For them, the Big Bang constitutes the first historical event. Human history, by analogy, includes everything that ever happened to human beings, and that it concentrates on all of the important human events--wars, invasions, and the like. The historian's job, as they see it, is picking which of these events to write about. (1)

These general beliefs about history as events, learned as facts, greatly determine student expectation of what a history class should be like. For many of these students, the ideal history class should provide the important events as a list of facts, either on the board or in a PowerPoint presentation. The history professor, according to this model, recites and links the facts-and highlights the ones that will be on the test. There should be no loose ends. Interpretation, analysis, and open-ended questions, because they merely obscure these facts, should be kept to a minimum. Does this bleak picture seem too extreme? I admit that it does not do justice to my more mature students, but it accurately portrays many students on the first day of class.

Of course, it is hardly surprising that my engineering students seek a tidy version of history. Most of them excelled at high school math and science precisely because these subjects were taught without open-ended questions and unresolved issues. It seems that meaningful questions have quantitative right answers--and that questions without such answers do not merit attention. This educational model of Right Answers confounds the engineering professors who inherit these students. These professors protest that it promotes a rigidity of mind diametrically opposed to engineering reality. The practicing engineer rarely has the luxury of right answers, but must make do with best solutions. Nevertheless, in the math and science courses of the undergraduate engineering curriculum, the heavy reliance on right answers continues to convey the unspoken message that meaningful questions are factual and quantitative. In these courses, as in their high school counterparts, the answers can almost always be found in the back of the textbook. The culture of Right Answers persists from high school through college, powerfully shaping the students view of knowledge--and of the world. …

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