Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Rocket Mail: Using Historic Articles as Case Studies in Physics and Engineering

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Rocket Mail: Using Historic Articles as Case Studies in Physics and Engineering

Article excerpt

In the early 1900s the famous Tesla-Edison rivalry inspired inventors and experimenters to work with electricity. Radio and electricity were new avenues of technology, and the field of electrical engineering was burgeoning. Magazines were published with a goal of interesting and exciting the public about science and technology. Publications such as Science and Invention, Popular Science, and The Electrical Experimenter tried to reach inventors and hobbyists, but they also tried to encourage the public to join their ranks or at least be interested in the material. They predicted science of the future, and some--such as the article on rocket mail--showed the ways of science in new ways. Articles described technology that was possible and perhaps even tested, but never embraced because of practical limitations.

There were speculative articles, sometimes couched in fiction, which considered how science would influence technology and thus transform the world in the future. Because these articles offered hypothetical projections of science and technology, there was often science in them that ended up being invalid and/or unrealizable, such as using radio waves to create artificial auroras in the nighttime sky (Armagnac, 1939). Other articles made accurate predictions of future technology, such as the description of radar by H. Gernsback in a 1911 issue of Modern Electronics (Ashley, 2000).

All of the articles were written in an effort to instill creativity in the reader and to stimulate the reader to experiment, and it was understood even then that the authors were being imaginative. It is now fascinating to see which of those visions came to be realized. For the articles that described uses of modern technology in new ways, it is interesting to explore how the proposed ideas worked and examine why they never caught on. These two approaches to exploring and analyzing the figures and articles from old science magazines form the basis of the case studies we describe here.

The oddity of many of the situations depicted in the articles and figures (for example, see Figures 1-3) makes it easy to engage the students in discussion: Students typically find the figures amusing. And they make excellent case studies. Students can be asked to consider the depicted activity, to consider its practicality, and to examine why the activity may (or may not) have been a reasonable suggestion at the time. These cases can be used as a supplement to the material normally covered in an introductory-level course and can be completed in less than one class period. Other articles and figures, such as the one shown in Figure 4 that depicts a radium-powered house, make for cases that take several class periods to cover.

We started using these types of articles and figures as case studies because, beyond practicing physics, they offered several aspects that we found valuable for students. Given the historical nature of the articles, exploration of them can easily be used as a means for the examination of the evolution of knowledge in science and the influences of societal needs on science. These articles additionally offer an avenue for the consideration of the sheer practicality of a proposed idea (i.e., just because an idea is theoretically possible, is it truly practical?).

The case studies are developed and used so that students can apply material learned in the classroom to sometimes ill-defined problems, allowing them to see that the world is not idealized. Professional engineers and scientists have to tackle problems that are far more complex than the idyllic problems they are introduced to in freshman physics courses. Engineering workplace problems are often "complex, ambiguous, and ill-structured" (Jonassen, Strobel, & Lee, 2006). Physics classes frequently consider problems from an ideal world: frictionless planes and pulleys, nonexistent air resistance, bullets with perfectly horizontal trajectories, and massless ropes. …

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