A First Look at REACH, IEEE’s Interactive Tech History Education Program

High school students learn about early maritime navigation through videos and hands-on activities

19 September 2016

Excitement, intrigue, and laughter filled two classrooms at Manalapan High School, in New Jersey, on 10 June as students learned about the magnetic compass and other early maritime navigation tools.

The module was a pilot of the REACH (Raising Engineering Awareness Through the Conduit of History) program, which produces educational resources that teachers can use to explain the history of technology and the roles played by engineers. REACH, an IEEE Foundation signature program, is being developed and managed by the IEEE History Center.

Understanding that technology and history are not mutually exclusive subjects, REACH gives teachers resources that delve into the complex and often complicated relationship between the two.

John Vardalas, former senior historian with the IEEE History Center (now retired), worked with Michelle Lilley, Manalapan High School’s social studies supervisor, to create the pilot program’s lesson plan. Resources included hands-on activities, videos, and background information on maritime navigation technologies and their impact on society, economics, culture, and politics.

The videos and lesson plan will soon be available for free on the IEEE REACH website, which is in development.


Manalapan history teachers Brian Sullivan and James Somma used the REACH resources to show students how the desire to navigate the sea was a powerful engine that drove both science and engineering, and how advancements in navigational technology helped countries attain social preeminence by increasing their capacity for trade.

The pilot program focused on the magnetic compass and Portolan charts, maps from the 13th century that centered on the sea, with land shown at the margins. The charts appeared around the same time that Europeans began using the magnetic compass for maritime navigation.

The lesson plan will continue to follow the evolution of the technologies associated with measuring space and understanding the Earth as a sphere. It also will portray the defining of latitude and longitude at sea—which was essential to mastering navigation.

“Understanding the power of the sea is important,” Vardalas says. “As Sir Walter Raleigh proclaimed at the close of the 16th century: ‘He that commands the sea commands the trade, and he that is Lord of trade of the world is Lord of the wealth of the world.’

“Finding one’s way across the oceans, however, was far more difficult than navigating on land. The penalty for error was often death,” Vardalas notes. “To command the hostile environment of the sea, advances in science and engineering were essential.”


The students who participated in the REACH pilot walked away with a richer understanding of the relationships between technology and history. Student Veronica Feather noted, “If society needs to advance, it will ask something of technology and science. But then sometimes science will advance faster than society. That in turn will advance society.”

The program was a success with the teachers, too. “My experience with IEEE has shown me the importance of including scientific processes as a part of history,” Lilley said. “Society’s progress is contingent on new ideas becoming reality. And engaging students in hands-on experiences allows them to make connections between history and science, reinforcing their understanding of the challenges faced by past generations and giving them insight as to those they may face in their lifetimes.”

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

Learn More