Author
Beth Cady Senior Program Officer National Academy of Engineering

Today in History

PostedWednesday, May 24, 2017 at 1:41 PM

Although we usually think of incorporating engineering lessons into other STEM classes, like science or math, an engineering activity can also bring a history class to life. Some resources list important historical events by date, so educators can choose an event to discuss from a historical perspective and include an engineering activity.

Take May 24th, for example. On that date in 1830, the United States’ first passenger railroad began running between Baltimore and Ellicott Mills, MD. Although some students might not have ridden a train, most would be familiar with the different types of passenger and freight trains that crisscross the nation, so discussions could center on the historical significance of beginning to use trains to move large numbers of passengers at much faster speeds than previously or the development of new systems that allowed people to communicate almost instantaneously over great distances. Older kids can use FasTracks Living Lab to determine constraints to and criteria for the design of a mass transit system, graph and analyze data, and improve the system.

Fast forward to May 24, 1883, when the Brooklyn Bridge opened to traffic. In addition to being the highest structure in the Western hemisphere, it forever changed the New York City area by connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn.  Students can discuss the historical and cultural significance of the bridge itself, including the turn of events that led to Emily Warren Roebling becoming the first female field engineer to work on a major construction site. In addition to designing and building a bridge, students can examine how the technology used to build the Brooklyn Bridge influences construction of bridges today as well as the contributions of all the engineers, entrepreneurs, and workers. Younger students can read about PT Barnum and his 21 elephants crossing the bridge to reassure citizens about its strength and try to build a bridge that holds that many elephants.

On May 24, 1962, NASA astronaut Scott Carpenter orbited the Earth on board the Aurora 7. Carpenter executed five experiments onboard the spacecraft while completing his 3 orbits, and was also able to successfully land the craft despite a malfunction of the pitch horizon scanner that forced him to manually control the reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere rather than relying on automated systems. In addition to resources to support student discussion of the history of the Mercury 7 program and its significance for the United States, NASA has many engineering lessons for elementary and middle school students as well as aeronautical themed lessons for older students.

More recently, airline travel between the United States and parts of Europe became much faster in 1976 when two supersonic Concordes flew together across the Atlantic from London and Paris to Washington, DC. The two planes, with special permission from the US Secretary of Transportation, flew in formation over the city and then landed simultaneously on two runways at Dulles International Airport. Although Concorde airplanes are no longer flying, students can discuss engineering facts about the planes, their design elements, and constraints related to fuel consumption and sonic booms before learning more about aviation and the principles of flight and designing their own (paper) supersonic jet.

These are just some ideas for integrating historical events, social studies, civics, ethics, and STEM into classroom activities or out-of-school time. Do you have a favorite engineering lesson related to a historical event? Log in and share your ideas!

Add a Comment
Add a Comment

Sort By
  • Gavriil  Michas

    Posted 2 years ago

    A wonderful and useful article with a mainstream of significant historic events. I couldn’t agree more!
    Concerning teaching materials and resources with historical significance and merit with Ethics for STEM-related classroom propagation activities and with NASA, allowed me to recommend the NASA History Office: https://history.nasa.gov/
    • Beth  Cady

      Posted 2 years ago

      Thank you for the link to the NASA History Office Gavriil! Very useful link!