Forging Ahead, Greek fire through history and mechanical engineering

Tom Harris and one of the swords he made. (Photo credit: Marcus Woo,

Forging Ahead

It wasn’t long ago when I realized that I was a huge nerd, a total dork, a complete geek!  Now, I have long known that I was a big history and civics dork, but it was only when I was attending NOAA’s Why Do We Explore professional development workshop at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History that I realized that I’m an enormous knowledge nerd!  (I’m pretty minimally competent when it comes to technology, so maybe I don’t get to be a geek.)

So, along those lines, I was pretty excited to read about a 2012 Caltech grad with a double major in mechanical engineering and history!  How cool is that!?  His experience brilliantly illustrates the value in multi-disciplined approaches often easily achieved through project based learning.  The intrepid student, Tom Harris, combined research of primary sources about Greek fire with modern scientific knowledge of fluid mechanics.  (Uh, AWESOME!)  He concluded that the weapon was not as effective when used by the Byzantines against the Islamic forces given the methods in naval battles, but acknowledged that his study was not definitive.  His conclusion corroborated some of the contemporary descriptions which suggested the range of Greek fire was limited.

But, let me share with you my favorite paragraph from the short article linked above:

Harris came to Caltech with an undeclared major, thinking he would study computer science. But, having been an avid Lego builder as a kid, he was drawn to mechanical engineering. He also has an interest in medieval history, which similarly dates back to his childhood—he loved pirates and knights, and both his parents were history majors—and after he took Brown’s medieval history class, his impression of the study of history changed. Instead of reading textbooks and analysis from other historians, Harris and his dozen or so classmates read and analyzed original documents.

This is what caught the young man’s imagination:  Instead of reading textbooks and analysis from other historians, Harris and his dozen or so classmates read and analyzed original documents.  The project, an undergrad thesis, resulted in good, quality, original history research.  BRAVO!!

Not only that, but Harris did it by uniting his interests–and, no doubt it took a lot of work with few overlapping core course requirements, from two different tracks.  For some reason, it is a trend in the U.S. that you either do science and math or humanities and language.  While it is one thing to suggest that individuals who do well in one track tend not to do as well in the other track, it is a mistake to encourage this artificial segregation of studies or competencies.  Harris demonstrates the limitations we self-impose on academic study and is exemplary for his cross-disciplinary pursuits.  And, he had fun!  Lots of fun!  The article quotes him as saying, “You could say this experience was about rediscovering my inner child and finding a more mature way of exploring these interests.”

Congratulations Tom Harris on the completion of your thesis and on your graduation from Caltech in the studies of History and Mechanical Engineering!  I hope many people take notice of your example!!


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Filed under Experiences, Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

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