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From the Teaching column of the October 2011 issue of Perspectives on History

Engineering History: Teaching the Past to Non-Liberal Arts Students

Michael H. Carriere, October 2011

Among the courses that I teach at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE)—where I am an assistant professor in the General Studies department—a favorite of mine is a class called "Public Policy in Urban America." The class is taken primarily by architectural engineering students, young people who will soon directly engage with the built environment in cities and towns across the country. As an urban historian, I start the course by taking them back to the optimistic days of post-World War II urban renewal—and I present to them images and blueprints of public housing projects in cities such as Chicago, New York, and New Haven, Connecticut. To my students, such designs initially seem sound. The decision to build up within the dense cityscape makes sense to them, as does the desire to surround such structures with open green spaces.

But then I expose to them the work of individuals like Sudhir Venkatesh, Joseph Heathcott, and Samuel Zipp, scholars who discuss how these projects were actually lived by those that called them home. These works show how government at all levels—along with market forces, the private sector, and other city residents—often conspired to make these seemingly utopian "towers in the park" something less than ideal. Historians are granted very few "Aha!" moments, but my students are generally quite surprised to witness this disconnect between theory and practice, between design and implementation. They leave my class with at least some understanding that there is more to good engineering than a sound blueprint.1 And I leave the course with a sense of achievement, of having made a contribution.

When I came to MSOE, I was apprehensive that my classes would be full of students who had little interest in what I hoped to teach them, who were, in fact only there to fulfill some sort of program requirement. I feared that my research would be hampered in these strange surroundings.

There is little doubt that teaching history at a "non-traditional" higher education institution—such as an engineering college—is full of challenges not present in other academic settings. Engineering students in particular are, broadly speaking, experiential learners who want to know how what you're teaching them will speak to their future careers. Debates surrounding historiography mean little to them, and overly scholarly writing only infuriates them (a conclusion that I surreptitiously share with them). These unique classroom characteristics have forced me to rethink how I present course material. I have learned to speak to them as an audience that knows little about large portions of American history, for example. I rely heavily on primary sources—and I try to get them out of the classroom as often as possible. Field trips work well, as do service-learning experiences. Such exercises, to borrow a concept from Laura F. Edwards' recent Perspectives on History piece on historical writing, allow my students to see that history is "the conversation between the past and the present through which meaning is revealed."2

By showing them how and why history matters, I am helping my students become not only well-rounded human beings, but also better engineers. My classes give them the context for the "real world" that they will enter after graduation, allowing them to see that the choices presented to them are contingent on a host of factors and histories. Yes, it is clear that the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math) are important at this critical juncture in America life. But, as Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley has recently argued, "We would be equally impoverished without humanistic knowledge as well. Science and technology teach us what we can do. Humanistic thinking can help us understand what we should do." I see this as my role at MSOE, and this job has allowed me to grow as an educator.3

At the same time, my tenure at MSOE has allowed me also to engage with my own research in architectural history and the history of urban planning in new ways. I now have a better understanding of how the built environment is actually built. I have also had the opportunity to collaborate with scholars in other departments: I am now, for example, the social scientist on a team of architectural engineers helping to plan the expansion of Sweet Water Organics, an urban, indoor farm housed in a formerly abandoned industrial building on Milwaukee's near South Side. Such projects appeal to my desire to see a new approach to urban renewal take root in American cities. But they also appeal to my more practical side. Liberal arts budgets are being slashed at universities across the country, while the STEM disciplines are being touted as being vital to the future of our nation. Perhaps the STEM disciplines are being slightly overrated, this mindset is affecting budgets in many institutions of higher learning. I would encourage my colleagues—particularly young job seekers—to begin to seriously take this development into consideration.4

All of these things came together for me in the spring of 2010, when I had the chance to teach a course titled "The Sustainable City." I designed this course with the goal of interrogating the movement towards "green" architectural and engineering practices in cities across the globe. We talked about things like Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, alternative energy sources, and the mechanics behind the infrastructure of things like high-speed rail. We read texts by such authors as William McDonough and Brenda and Robert Vale. My students were ultimately heartened by the fact that their desire to be environmentally responsible professionals could potentially lead to a good job in a high-growth field.5

Yet I also made my students consider questions of history, politics, public policy, and economics as we discussed the 21st-century city. What, I asked my students, is fueling this reimagining of the city, and why is it happening now? What conditions is this movement seeking to address? And who is—and who isn't—participating in these discussions? Using the works of such scholars as Mike Davis, David Harvey, Thomas Sugrue, and Jefferson Cowie to answer these questions, my students grappled with the realities of deindustrialization, "white flight," and the mobility of capital—as well as the policies that had fostered such developments.6

To further illustrate this relationship between engineering, history, and the present-day city, I had my students participate in a service-learning project. After going through proper governmental channels—and after consulting extensively with community members—they designed and built a community garden on a vacant city lot for the Dominican Center for Women, a group addressing issues of poverty on Milwaukee's Northwest Side. Their training as engineers gave them the skills necessary to complete such a project; my class gave them the context as to why such a project was possible in 21st-century Milwaukee, and why the garden would be a valuable asset for those in the surrounding community. At times like this, I wouldn't trade my job for the world.

Michael Carriere is an assistant professor at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, where he teaches courses on American history, public policy, political science, and urban design. He has written for such publications as the Journal of Planning History, Reviews in American History, and History News Network. His first book, tentatively titled Between Being and Becoming: On Architecture, Student Protest, and the Aesthetics of Liberalism in Postwar America, is forthcoming from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Notes

1. I have used Sudhir Venketesh's American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2000); Joseph Heathcott's "The City Quietly Remade: National Programs and Local Agendas in the Movement to Clear the Slums, 1942–1952," Journal of Urban History January 2009 (34): 221–242; and Samuel Zipp's Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010).

2. Laura F. Edwards, "Writing between the Past and the Present," Perspectives on History (January 2011), 31–2; 32.

3. Alan Brinkley, "Half a Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste," Newsweek, November 14, 2009, http://www.newsweek.com/2009/11/13/half-a-mind-is-a-terrible-thing-to-waste.html.

4. See, for example, President Obama's belief that the STEM disciplines are vital to the well-being of the United States, discussed in Erik Robelen, "Obama Touts STEM Education Report, New Initiatives" Education Week, September 16, 2010, http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2010/09/highlighting_some_new_stem_ed.html.

5. For example, William McDonough's "Design, Ecology, Ethics and the Making of Things" and Brenda and Robert Vale's "Principles of Green Architecture." Both the essays can be found in Stephen M. Wheeler and Timothy Beatley, eds., The Sustainable Urban Redevelopment Reader, 2nd edition (New York: Routledge, 2009).

6. Mike Davis, "The Urban Climacteric," in Planet of Slums (New York: Verso, 2006); David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (New York: Blackwell, 1989); Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1996); and Jefferson Cowie, Capital Moves: RCA's Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1999) all found their way on to my syllabus.