Back to the Future

By Lord, Mary | ASEE Prism, April 2012 | Go to article overview
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Back to the Future

Lord, Mary, ASEE Prism

Historical structures draw engineering students into design aesthetics.

FLANKED BY TWO TOWERING SCREENS, Johns Hopkins University civil engineering department chair Ben Schäfer whisks his class through a slide-show tour of iconic Chicago structures. Here's the ornate 1893 Columbian Exposition hall, he says, built when money was no object. Now note the "wonderfully interesting external bracing" of the argyle-pattemed 1970 John Hancock Center, designed by the "Einstein of skyscrapers," Fazlur Khan. Its 1 976 Boston namesake, by contrast kept popping windows because the frame was too flexible, causing years of delay. "As a piece of architecture, I love it," observes Schafer, who once lived nearby. "As a piece of structural art, it's a disaster."

Bad buildings? Genius engineers? Welcome to Perspectives on the Evolution of Structures, an introductory course that harnesses history to convey such technical fundamentals as loads and stresses while inspiring excitement about elegant efficient design. Required for civil engineering freshmen but open to all students, the humanities-rich class taps the university's rare architectural books collection and includes field trips to local landmarks. Schafer's aim: integrate aesthetics into his students' "way of thinking" by introducing them to the "heroes" of structural engineering and their significant work.

Johns Hopkins isn't the only school tapping vintage structures to teach deeper lessons about form, function, technology, and design. From Manhattan to Montana, engineering students are building replicas of the Eiffel Tower, studying the Paris sewer system, and calculating how the Brooklyn Bridge bears loads.

And students are responding. The University of Rochester's interdisciplinary Archaeology, Technology, and Historical Structures (ATHS) program, for instance, has grown from six to 33 undergraduates in just four years. It offers a stand-alone major or minor and includes courses taught by professors of art history, classics, and mechanical engineering, plus site work in Italy and Peru.


"We can't really study materials devoid of the social and historical context," contends Olin College materials scientist Jonathan Stolk, who codeveloped and team teaches a unique, project-based course called The Stuff of History with Robert Martello, a historian of technology, that examines the intersection of culture, technology, and science in three epochs. Among its core topics: ancient artifacts, and Paul Revere's revolutionary metallurgy and fabrication methods - the subject of an acclaimed dissertation and book by Martello.

Johns Hopkins's Schafer launches the first Perspectives class with a pop quiz to name three structural engineers. Most students draw a blank. Next they ponder why bridges and buildings look the way they do today. Soon, the class has plunged into David Billington's The Tower and the Bridge, a lyrical history of structures-as-art that inspired and anchors the course. Among its lessons: the famed Eiffel Tower, inspired by the design of countryside railroad viaducts, debuted to jeers. " We teach people who the heroes are," says Schafer, who peppers his lectures with Billington's references to Giacometti sculpture while whizzing through slides of "great buildings and bridges."

The experience can prove transforming. For Perspectives co-creator Sanjay Arwade, reading Billington "helped turn me into a structural engineer as a freshman" at Princeton. What snagged him was "the idea that engineering can be about beauty and creativity in addition to technical excellence."

Among engineering students, historical examples encourage a critical look at modern-day engineering practices. Renato Perucchio, who directs Rochester's ATHS program, notes, for instance, that calculations commonly applied in structural design today would have disallowed the Roman Pantheon, which has withstood 19 centuries of use, earthquakes, and floods.

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