Educating Students on the History of Engineering

The IEEE History Center launches a new hands-on course

2 April 2015

Photo: Stevens Institutes of Technology

Students at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, N.J., participated in a hands-on lab as part of a History of Engineering course led by the IEEE History Center, which challenged them to develop a device that can accurately tell time prior to the invention of the mechanical watch.
Last year, IEEE and the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, N.J., solidified an agreement that relocated the IEEE History Center to the university. With this new partnership, the History Center is helping raise awareness among students of the vital role that engineering has played in the story of human development.

As the center’s senior outreach historian and as the senior director, the two of us led a new course during the fall semester called the “History of Engineering.” Starting in prehistoric times through the 18th century, the course explored the role of engineering in society over time with the help of hands-on labs and a humanities curriculum. The labs help give students an appreciation of engineering problem-solving techniques in various historical contexts.

In one lab, the students assembled small-scale arches to better understand the choices that ancient Roman engineers faced when building structures. In another, the students examined how to store and share information on clay tablets using writing instruments and materials similar to that of the Babylonian communication system known as cuneiform—one of the earliest known methods of writing.

We also challenged students to think about the concept of time. We raised the question: How did Medieval society measure time prior to the invention of the mechanical clock? In building and calibrating sundials and sand clocks, the students encountered the challenges in making accurate, reliable, and portable instruments. In all these activities, the students had to consider the connection between technical solutions and the larger societal context.


Traditionally, history courses require students to write term papers. Instead we gave them an ambitious project. They had to figure out how the forward edge or bow of the naval vessel used in ancient times, the trireme, was able to take down a much larger Persian fleet at the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C. But to do this, they had to reproduce the vessel by first creating a 3-D computer-aided visualization and then using CNC technology, which controls the cutting and shaping of materials, to manufacture a 1.5 meter model. The performance of the model was then tested in Steven’s world-class tow tank testing facility, located at the Davidson Laboratory, a marine research laboratory. Students could work in teams and receive help from faculty and graduate students.

The tank uses an array of sensors to measure the model’s dynamic behavior. From the data, the students discovered the hydrodynamic advantages of these early vessels. We also challenged them to give a presentation as if they were ancient naval architects giving a talk to the Athenian assembly on the eve of the Peloponnesian War. The goal was to convince the assembly that if Athens were to prevail over its Spartan foe, more money had to be invested in their trireme R&D. The students got right into their roles and did a wonderful job. (You can visit Stevens's website for more on their presentations.)

This new course, which makes history come alive, would not have been possible without the culture of innovation and collaboration at Stevens. The entire faculty, including the provost and the dean of engineering, see the importance of bringing humanities and engineering together in the undergraduate curriculum. The IEEE History Center is working with Stevens to expand the scope and number of labs when the course is offered again in 2016.

John Vardalas is the IEEE History Center’s senior outreach historian and Michael Geselowitz is its senior director.

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