Tag Archives: project-based learning

Forging Ahead, Greek fire through history and mechanical engineering

Tom Harris and one of the swords he made. (Photo credit: Marcus Woo, http://features.caltech.edu/features/393)

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

This week: Blogging from Close Up


I’ll be in the nation’s capital this week, during a 2nd week of contract teaching with the Close Up Foundation.

Close Up is devoted to helping students realize that they don’t meed to wait for some future nebulous date to be politically active.  Being active citizens–learning about issues, debating policies, influencing decision-makers–is not something they have to anticipate, it is something they can do now.

It offers in an intense “field-trip” all the best of experiential learning and (mini-scaled) project-based learning.  It is one of the most worthwhile high school experiences that exists.

So, this week, I will be sharing stories about students from around the county out of my favorite classroom in the world: Washington D.C.!

Note: any reference to students will be done anonymously.

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Filed under Editorials on education, Experiences

History and Project-Based Learning

I am committed to the concept of project-based learning as a teaching tool in history.  Projects can be small, confined to a single class period or two, or lengthy endeavors, that gobble up a couple of weeks or one class a week for an extended period.  In community college, my testing assignments were take-home mini-projects that students had to complete individually in two weeks time.  The main idea, here, is to get students learning by doing, not just reading, listening, or memorizing.  (Most memorizing does not actually lead to memorization, but that’s another post for another time.)

To introduce the general concept, I am borrowing two of Edutopia’s videos for a basic introduction:

I have covered many such projects (see posts in my Experiencing History – Project Based Learning category).  The general idea is to get students learning about historical content and historical method.  Thus, projects create two kinds of experiences:

  1. Experiences that help students better comprehend a foreign time and place, resulting in skills-building in problem-solving, collaboration, critical thinking, and presentation.
  2. Experiences that help students better comprehend how a historian operates, resulting in skills-building in problem-solving, collaboration, critical thinking, and presentation plus the skills a historian uses, such as critical reading, writing, argumentation, research, and peer review.

Projects of varying size and time commitment can be manufactured to create either type of experiential learning or both.  This is a much more effective way to build skills and create long-term retention of materials.  Entire units or elements of units can be taught in this way or projects can replace standard testing with application of learned materials. This provides students with more tools in the learning process, as well as more mechanisms for retention.

K-12 education may seem to offer more project types, and this is true to an extent, but there are many opportunities for academic level projects that should not be overlooked.  Some of these may be best achieved through collaborative electives, such as fiction-writing, documentary-making, historical archaeology, music programs, or oral history projects (that can be recorded), but department colloquia or conferences, journals, and peer review programs introduce projects that nicely emulate the actual responsibilities of professional academic historians.

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Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning