How to teach Infrastructural History in School

Waddell Truss Bridge at Volga State Preserve. Photo taken in August 2011

 

Joint Article with Sister Column:

 In connection with Files’ series on In School in Germany. More on the series can be found here.

History- a subject that goes beyond borders and looks at things that we never knew about, getting us to think about them, putting them in the context of our own lives and the environment we are living in. It goes beyond the borders of geography and how the countries were developed. It goes beyond arena of sports events and looks at the development of each kind and how the men and women contributed to it. It digs deeper into how the country was mapped out in terms of landscape, networks of infrastructure and the social aspects which led to revolution and redesign by reformists and those who wanted to make their place better than before.  In other words, one has to dig deeper to find the truth and challenge what had been written in the past but was now rebuked because of new evidence.

In school, especially on the secondary level, history is a must, and it is important that students know about the history of their country and the rest of the world for two reasons:

1. To help them become acquainted with their own region and country and discover who they are and where they came from and

2. To encourage them to find out more about themselves and where they live, by looking and exploiting the aspects that are seldom mentioned.

As there are certain requirements written by law and because of certain time constraints, only a peck of the history that exists is even taught in the schools, and when it is taught, it is with the traditional social form of teaching: the book and frontal teaching (German: Frontal Unterricht). It is not surprising that the interest in history among youngsters up to 18 is near the bottom of the food chain, in both countries- more so in the US than in Germany because of the strive of educators to have the students achieve high results in the international tests for math, reading and sciences. But as we see in the PISA studies, and which will be discussed in the Files’ article about Frontal Teaching, sometimes student involvement and allowing them to discover something new can encourage a positive education result, even better than the recent studies.

But even with these constraints, the teacher can make some space for some new things that cannot be found in books themselves- at least not yet, that is. And when students are encouraged to do some work on their own, whether it is analysing a text and writing a review about it or presenting about it, then they will benefit from it in a way that they can add the knowledge to what was taught in the past and have fun doing it. This is where the topic of Industrialization and Infrastructure enters the picture.

During my internship at a Gymnasium in Germany, I had an opportunity to dig deeper into the history of the development of Germany in the 1800s by looking at aspects like the creation of democracy, Otto von Bismarck’s creation of the German state in 1871 and how Germany became a super power and remained so until the end of World War I. At the present time the students are talking about Germany, Europe and the age of industrialization between 1871 and 1914, where several aspects, such as imperialism, socialism, worker’s union and environment are being introduced. Even the expansion of the transportation infrastructure and the landscape made of steel will be mentioned. Believe it or not, this is the topic the author of the Chronicles and Files is about to do.

Talking about the infrastructure and comparing it between Germany and the US does produce their similarities in terms of inventions and the development of materials for the construction of buildings, railroads and bridges, yet how does a teacher present these aspects to the students without boring them.  Let’s look at the topic of bridges, for example. There are two different arguments for and against presenting this topic. The contra part would be the simple fact that a bridge is a bridge, crossing a ravine connecting point A and point B. If it fails or is too old, then it is replaced. The pro part to this topic feature the arguments about unique bridge designs, bridge builders that were common, including those who immigrated to the States from Germany, like Ralph Mojeski, Lawrence Johnson, Albert Fink, and Gustav Lindenthal, to name a few. Then there is the switch from iron to steel mainly because of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and lastly the consolidation of 28 bridge builders into the American Bridge Company in 1901 and its competition from other bridge builders in the west, as well as outside the country.

Nathan Holth once presented this topic as a whole during his time as a student teacher (his PPT presentation can be seen here). Some of the unique features, include the builder’s plaque, portal bracing of the truss bridge and ornamental features can enable historians to determine how the development of bridges came about in the US between 1871 and 1914. As I will be the second pontist to present this in a couple weeks time, the topic will be on a wider scale as Germany and US have some similarities with regard to bridge construction. The difference is with regards to the fact that the German concentration seems to be more on canals and railways than with highways, like in the US. Also the full establishment of steel companies, like Thuyssen-Krupp before 1871 enabled Germany to expand the steel-building landscape, constructing bridges and high-rise buildings in large cities, like Berlin and Hamburg, in addition to its fleet of ships.

The question is if one wants to present bridge building in connection with the industrialization- be it in the US, Germany, Europe or when comparing between two countries, what aspects are important and should be presented to the students, keeping in mind that the topic is industrialization, and the time frame is betweenthe 1870s and 1914, the time of World War I?  Which aspects should the students research on in their own spare time? And lastly how should it be taught in high school in comparison to college?

Put your comments here or on the Files’ or Chronicles’ facebook pages as to how you would approach an exotic topic like this, while keeping the topic of Industrialization in mind.  The results of the session, which will be in a couple weeks, will be presented in the Files and sister column the Chronicles.

 

 

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One Response to How to teach Infrastructural History in School

  1. Clark Vance says:

    I’m not sure how much I’ll have time to write on this but the topic attracts my interest.

    I give a brief overview of the profession to my introductory class. Military engineering and its outgrowth civil engineering arose from economic needs. Roads (and thus bridges) were needed to move troops around to ensure subjugation and tax collection, or to facilitate trade. As iron became more economical than stone or wood, it replaced those materials and provided the same capacity for a lower cost. With consistent concrete becoming available, designs requiring the greatest economy have used a combination of concrete and steel to provide the lowest cost infrastructure.

    I can appreciate the beauty of purely functional, efficient structures. They serve their purpose at a low cost. I also appreciate efforts to add visual interest to a design by use of ornamentation that harmonizes with the overall shape and function of a structure. Modern works can be beautiful.

    I also enjoy seeing the old structures. They range from simple, functional forms to attractively ornamented structures. Preserving the more interesting gives depth to our surroundings and to our understanding of modern works.

    I believe we should preserve our remaining Model T Fords and steam locomotives, however I don’t believe preserving them should prevent our taking advantage of more efficient modern designs. Bridges have the unfortunate characteristic of being placed in important locations and sometimes being difficult to move out of the way when they no longer serve their purpose. Preserving all old structures simply because of their age is never going to have wide support where the purpose of having the structure is mainly economic.

    So what should we preserve for our students and the general public? There should be a decision matrix that accounts for more factors than I care to try enumerating in this comment. I hope we can preserve enough that students can see a continuum of development leading them to a deep understanding of why we choose certain designs and materials for modern works.

    Looking at the above I see that I have written mainly about educating future engineers. The main idea can be broadened to include preserving any history, not just that of technology. Ideas and cultures develop over time and the stages in that development provide insight into the current state and future direction of most parts of our culture.

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