Teaching Teachers Tech History

The IEEE History Center hopes to add technology lesson plans to social studies classrooms

8 August 2012

It’s often said that engineers rarely get the recognition they deserve. One reason could be that people simply don’t realize how much technical work goes into their smartphones, computers, and other everyday devices—or that engineers are responsible.

IEEE wants to raise the public’s awareness of engineers’ contributions to society. And because it’s desirable to reach people at an early age, the IEEE History Center along with Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J., organized a recent series of workshops for high school educators. The classes, taught by History Center staff and geared to U.S. social studies teachers, explain how to incorporate the history of technology into lesson plans.

 “Science and technology have played important roles throughout the millennia,” says John Vardalas, outreach historian for the History Center. "But tech topics are often left out of history-class lesson plans.

“Although the teachers are well versed in topics like politics and economics, we found that many don’t feel knowledgeable enough teaching about technology’s role in history,” Vardalas adds. “So we decided to focus our outreach efforts on teaching them how to include technology topics in their lessons.”

The History Center’s strong relationship with Rutgers University came in handy. The university cosponsors the center, and several of the center’s staff are also professors in the school’s history department. The university’s Institute for High School Teachers offers workshops that earn educators professional development credits—needed for their job evaluations and pay increases—so the History Center teamed up with the institute to hold workshops on tech history. Three were held in March, and two more are planned for October and February. All the workshops are held in New Brunswick on the Rutgers campus.

Class time is divided in two parts. The first covers technology’s impact on people’s lives, government, and the economy through different periods of time. In the second part, teachers brainstorm ways to incorporate what they just learned into lesson plans.

The first workshop, “World History as Maritime History: The Technological Enablers to 1500,” covered how early sea-faring explorers faced countless challenges crossing oceans—including charting a course through unknown waters. That led to technical developments in nautical tools, like the compass and the mariner’s astrolabe—an instrument used to determine latitude. Without such devices, it was nearly impossible to navigate a ship out of sight of the shore, although Pacific islanders made do without them. “The economic, political, and military advantages conferred by these technologies profoundly influenced the global patterns of human history,” says Vardalas, who presented the workshop. For example, European countries used their high-tech navigational equipment to expand their trading domains, project the power of their gunpowder weapons, and create empires that lasted up to 500 years.

The second course, taught by the History Center’s archivist and institutional historian Sheldon Hochheiser, discussed the evolution of telecommunications from 1844 (the year Samuel F. B. Morse opened the first telegraph line in the United States, from Washington to Baltimore, transmitting the message “What Hath God Wrought”) to 1914 (the year AT&T completed the first transcontinental telephone line). In the mid-19th century, the discovery of electricity led to the possibility of fast communication over long distances. The workshop covered the work of early telecommunications pioneers, including Morse and his development in the 1830s of the world’s primary language of telegraphy—Morse code—and Alexander Graham Bell’s work on the telephone and a transcontinental telephone system. These advances made it possible for people around the world to connect in a way that was previously impossible.

The technology behind skyscrapers was the focus of the third workshop. Alexander Magoun, outreach historian of the IEEE History Center, discussed how these tall buildings came about thanks to cheap steel made with the Bessemer process around the mid-19th century and Elisha Otis’s safety elevator. “The rise of factories and mass rail transit led to urban overcrowding, which presented a problem with two possible solutions: build out or build up,” says Magoun. Skyscrapers made it possible to do both, as office workers concentrated in city centers while immigrants extended the limits of working-class neighborhoods.

The October and February workshops will cover the history of television, which focuses on the effects of improving cameras, transmission range, and displays on news and entertainment; and the history of timekeeping, which focuses on measurement methods throughout history such as Stonehenge, the sundial, and mechanical, electric, and electronic clocks.

Based on what they learned in their workshops, the teachers came up with about 30 lesson plans that, divided by century, are available for free on the IEEE Global History Network’s Education Portal. The History Center is on the lookout for more lesson plans to post, so if you’re a teacher who has developed a plan on some aspect of the history of technology, submit it under the Contribute Lesson Plan area of the portal.

“Our goal with these workshops and lesson plans is to see them multiply,” Vardalas says. But due to a lack of funding, the center is struggling to keep the workshops going, he adds.

IEEE, with the help of Rutgers, funds the History Center’s basic infrastructure. Many of the center's programs, however, including the teacher workshops, are supported by donations from corporations and individuals. Donations to the History Center are collected through the IEEE Foundation.

Vardalas says he hopes the workshops will continue because he believes they can make a significant difference in the public’s perception of engineering.

 “Every student in high school takes social studies, so this is a great opportunity to reach them and help them understand the role of engineering in society,” he says. “The students can see that technology isn’t all just geeky stuff—but that there’s humanity in technology and that technology is important.”

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