Dr. Benjamin Redekop, assistant professor of social science, had no idea how the engineering and business management students in his History of Science class at Kettering University might respond to an assignment that calls for them to recreate pre-modern scientific instruments using basic materials.
After all, most students at an engineering and business management university find the application of high-tech engineering and visionary business principles more akin to their future careers than the study of scientific discoveries made hundreds of years ago.
But since the summer of 2000, when Redekop first assigned this project to his SSCI-312: History of Science class, his students have continued to amaze him with their originality and commitment to the assignment by creating working replicas of exceptional quality. In many cases, these replicas allow students to reproduce the same experiments conducted by the original inventors and help students develop an appreciation of historical discoveries as they learn more about their scientific forerunners.
"The first assignment I gave to students was to recreate the air pump created by Robert Boyle, one of the early members of the Royal Society and the person generally considered to be the father of Modern Chemistry," the assistant professor of Social Science explained. "Boyle's air pump enabled the placement of objects and creatures inside the pump chamber before most of the air was pumped out to see what happened. By doing this, he went against the traditional assumption that a vacuum in nature was an impossibility."
As Redekop recalls, that first exercise was particularly challenging for his students, but most found it enjoyable. His specific hope is to offer students an opportunity to look back into the past of scientific history to learn how some of the greatest science minds conceived their inventions using basic, everyday materials and resources, such as wood, water and air. Based on student reactions to the assignment, Redekop plans on making this project a critical part of future History of Science classes.
In recent terms, this assignment has become a kind of competition in which he awards first, second and third place honors to student teams with the best projects. But Redekop is quick to note that all student projects are creative and inventive, and work to teach students just how arduous the development and use of these instruments was many years ago.
"I believe this project teaches students a number of important things that will help them in their careers," he said. "First, they work in groups and learn teamwork and project planning. Second, they learn greater respect for their forerunners in science and technology, people who hadn't the luxury of such materials as plastic or polymers."
Redekop also said that an important aspect of this project is to demonstrate the degree to which modern science is bound up with the available forms of instrumentation. "We can see and learn about things to the degree that our instruments allow us," he said.
Some of the most noteworthy projects turned in this past winter include a replica of Galileo's telescope made entirely of wood, except for the lens and brass fittings. Redekop also said that one project team developed a fully functioning wood clock operated by weights that keeps time to within four minutes per hour. Both projects took quite a bit of time, but Redekop doesn't require students to expend an exorbitant amount of effort on the assignment.
"Some students just run with the project," he said. "I can tell this is the kind of thing they like to do."
Another significant component of this exercise is the development of a written report detailing the history and use of the instrument, and the methods used by students to recreate their inventions. Redekop believes this written element represents a vital skill all students must develop, since most projects undertaken during their careers will require detailed documentation and reports. In his view, "a person can be a whiz with machines but still look like an idiot on paper if he or she doesn't know how to write."
Ultimately, however, Redekop feels students must remain aware of the scientific past as they move forward in both their educational and professional careers. "History and tradition can be an instructive force in our everyday life," he said. "It's good for our future engineers and business leaders to examine the past, including that of science and industry, as a means of understanding the present and preparing for the future."