Creative Education
2011. Vol.2, No.2, 63-70
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/ce.2011.22009
Introducing Engineering Students to Historical/Cultural
Perspectives through Story-Centered on-Line Learning
Luis A. Godoy
Department of Civil Engineering and Surveying, University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, Mayaguez,
Puerto Rico.
Received March 25th, 2011; revised April 18th, 2011; accepted May 5th, 2011.
Several authors argued that history of science should be an integral part of science education; however, there are
many obstacles to carry out an implementation within this approach, including that lecturers normally lack a
necessary historical background (a situation that is largely aggravated in engineering faculties), and the impossi-
bility of including new courses or credits in an already tight curriculum. The development of on-line modules
that engineering students can work outside their normal schedule of classes, introducing historical/cultural per-
spectives, is presented in this paper. E-learning and knowledge management strategies are used in the context of
science education at undergraduate and graduate levels. The approach is based on learning-by-doing in a virtual
environment, and specifically presents story-centered activities, in which the student is f aced with a problem and
plays the role of an expert to provide a solution to the case. The specific case considered develops in the form of
a controversy concerning the origin of the studies of column buckling. Two sets of information are available for
navigation in the module: specific information that the student can explore (containing historical material di-
rectly connected to the case provided), and more general information (providing the historical/cultural context to
the problem). A first application has been made with civil engineering students, who had to write a two-page
white paper as a consequence of their work on the problem. The interest generated in the participating students
and the positive evaluation of their experience seems to indicate that this type of activity can serve to enhance
traditional engineering lectures by incorporating a historical dimension. The present web-based approach could
be extended to tackle similar conflicts in fields for which there is ample documentation available in the literature
or in other historic a l episodes which may lead to ri c h d is cu ss io ns .
Keywords: E-Learning, Engineering Education, Historical Approach, Science Teaching
The need to include history of science as an important part of
science education has been argued by Klopfer (1969a, 1969b),
Herget (1989), and Matthews (1994), among others, during the
last 40 years. The reasons behind such claim are similar to
those that may be found in support of the study of history of
science itself, as exposed by Kragh (1987). Although the role of
history of science in science teaching has been mainly consi-
dered for high school education, its role in engineering educa-
tion should also be emphasized. Current American and Euro-
pean accreditation standards state that historical and cultural
perspectives should be part of the education of every engineer.
The study of history and evolution of concepts as part of
learning a discipline is important to provide a historical di-
mension to education; otherwise students tend to believe that
the concepts and methods that they use are the product of just
the last few years of research. This time dimension is also cru-
cial to locate their own work as part of an old tradition. There
are other reasons why the history of a discipline should be part
of the way we teach. An examination of the order in which
structural topics are taught in engineering courses (statics/
strength of materials or mechanics of materials/structural ana-
lysis/elasticity) illustrates that we follow the sequence in which
those topics were investigated in the history of the discipline.
In supporting a historical perspective, Kopfler (1969a) states
that teaching a historical episode requires information on the
considered topic; understanding concepts and principles as they
were understood in the period considered; and a framework
regarding science and scientists during those times.
Several techniques have been used to introduce historical
perspectives, such as lectures, reproduction of early experi-
ments, dramatization, role playing, readings of original texts,
and others. However, the main limitation seems to be the lack
of historical background of lecturers in charge of a course. Thus,
the possibility of having modules with a historical perspective,
which may be directly used by students with little or no advice
from their local lecturer, becomes attractive.
This paper reports on the development of a module within
the context of teaching buckling phenomenon to engineering
students. Most engineering students are taught about “Euler
buckling load” in Mechanics of Materials, Strength of Mate-
rials (at undergraduate level), and Theory of Elastic Stability (at
graduate level) courses. The developed module is based on
historical research done by the author (Godoy, 2007, 2010) and
others, including Timoshenko (1953), Truesdell (1968), Ben-
venutto (1991), Heyman (1998).
Learning-by-Doing in a Web-Based
The efficacy of student active learning has been investigated
by a number of researchers, and reviews may be found in com-
pilations by Prince (2004) and by Froyd (2007). Prince found
evidence that supports most forms of active learning. He con-
cluded that different implementations of problem-based learn-
ing emphasize different elements and this makes it difficult to
state a general assessment of this approach; however, it seems
that this “positively influences students attitudes and students
habits. Studies also suggest that students will retain information
longer and perhaps develop enhanced critical thinking and
problem-solving skills” (Prince, 2004).
Basically, the strategy of learning-by-doing supports that
students learn by performing activities aimed at reaching a
pre-established goal, and not (only) by listening to an instructor
in a lecture. Advocates of learning-by-doing stress the role of
doing as part of preparing to perform in a profession. Accord-
ing to Schön (1987), the main features of reflection in action
are learning by doing, coaching rather than teaching, and creat-
ing a dialogue between coach and student. Effective forms of
lear ni ng by d oi ng i n r e al la bo ra to ries have been implemented in
Engineering Education, especially for capstone courses. Alter-
natively, a methodology of building a simulated scenario, in
which the student can learn-by-doing while interacting with
fictitious characters (some of whom provide coaching), has
been proposed by Schank (2002) as an effective form of active
learning. Most simulations described by Schank and co-work-
ers deal with training to perform managerial tasks. A review on
the potential relevance of this approach as part of the education
of engineers has been recently presented by the author (Godoy,
In the early tools developed by Schank and coworkers,
simulations as close to reality as possible were developed, in-
volving animations and multimedia; however, the cost of such
implementations may become prohibitive if a realistic simula-
tion is attempted (Schank, 2005). An alternative has been pro-
posed in the form of Story-Centered Activities (SCA), which
are also forms of active learning in a computer environment
(Schank & Cleary, 1995). In SCA the participant performs
tasks to reach a goal; however, SCA do not attempt to create
fictitious characters or realistic situations to represent real life.
As an example, Schank and Cleary describe a master’s course
in which a mission is given to the student through an e-mail
from a fictitious character (Schank & Cleary, 1995). This
communication includes details of what should be the outcome
of the work to be performed as a consequence of the research.
In this example there is no navigation dimension (which is the
most expensive part to implement in simulations). To help stu-
dents do their work, guidelines and reading materials are pro-
vided for download from internet sites. The guidelines provided
list the activities that should be completed in each case to
achieve something. Examples of step-by-step guides may in-
clude: “Read through the analysis objectives and evaluation
requirements listed in the e-mail; Download the template for
the analysis and recommendation report; Download and read
through the case material on the case”; etc. The final report
submitted by students should respond to specific questions,
which include an analysis of a situation and recommendations
about how one should proceed next. This form of active learn-
ing does not employ videos or recordings and is far simpler to
implement than a more realistic simulation. The evaluation of
the report produced by the participant is made in an asynchro-
nous mode. In broad terms, this may fall in the category of
problem-based learning, in which a significant problem is
posed to the students in order to provide motivation for learn-
The educational model for this initiative falls within what is
known as a constructivist approach. There is not just one con-
structivist theory, but there is a group of researchers in educa-
tion who share some fundaments about how a student learns
(Duschl & Hamilton, 1992, Ashman & Conway, 1997). The
main references in this field are based on the works of Jean
Piaget (1972, 1974) and Lev Vygotsky (1931/1997a, 1931/
1997b), which have been extensively employed in the USA
(Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999).
The basic assumptions of constructivist theory, which are
accepted in this work, may be written as follows: 1) Knowledge
is a construction of the person. Thus, it is not conceived as
something that a teacher can transfer directly to a student be-
cause the teacher has knowledge and can give it to the students.
In the constructivist approach there should be an involvement
and participation of the student. 2) This construction is an ac-
tive process. The student will make meaningful learning by
means of activities. The present project is centered on activities
carried out by the student in the simulated environment. 3) This
activity of the student takes place in a context of cooperation
with others. This cooperation could be implemented in a com-
puter environment through the forum and chat rooms; however,
this has not been implemented at present. 4) The learning acti-
vity is done within a historical and cultural context. Learning
changes as a consequence of the existence of cultural artifacts
available during the process. The cultural artifacts in this pro-
ject are the computer simulations, which are part of present day
technology of education. The first three premises are shared by
both Piaget and Vygotsky, but the fourth is the new aspect con-
sidered in the works of Vygotsky.
Design of the Story
The activity has been designed following the work of Kieran
Egan on the use of storytelling as part of teaching. Egan (1986)
proposed a model for planning a teaching activity and organ-
ized it around a story. To facilitate construction of the story,
Egan presented five activities and questions for each one of
them. This scheme has been followed by the author in design-
ing the present activity, and the approach is given next:
1) Identifying importance: What is most important about this
topic? Why should it matter to students? What is affectively
engaging about it? Buckling is usually considered as a mysti-
fying phenomenon, an unexpected sudden failure of a structure.
Buckling problems are included in most engineering programs,
with differences in emphasis depending on the branch of engi-
neering considered and on the instructor’s preferences. It is part
of “Mechanics of Materials” in sophomore courses, and in
graduate structural courses. Thus, adding a historical dimension
to this topic may have a larger impact than other more specia-
lized topics that are not always covered. It should be clear to
students that column buckling problems have been faced by
engineers for over two centuries as a matter of survival of wood
constructions. The discovery of buckling phenomenon should
be seen as a truly amazing achievement: Scientists in the XVII
Century had no understanding of buckling problems.
L. A. GODOY 65
In the first section of the paper we discussed arguments in
support of the introduction of a historical perspective in science
and engineering courses. However, it does not follow that stu-
dents have a clear idea of the benefits that this perspective may
bring to them. Preliminary interviews conducted with the group
of students at the University of Puerto Rico who later partici-
pated in the on-line activity, show that they believe that it
would be good to have some historical background but cannot
identify reasons in support of a historical perspective.
Students find that an activity is engaging whenever they have
to do something as part of that activity. Doing is usually more
engaging when they construct at least part of the knowledge
that they use.
2) Finding binary opposites: What powerful binary opposites
best catch the importance of the topic? As stated by Egan, in
every story there is usually more than just one set of binary
opposites. In terms of historical characters, an excellent pair is
Petrus van Musschenbroek (PvM) and Leonhard Euler, who
both addressed buckling problems in the XVIII Century from
quite different perspectives and backgrounds. At another level,
there is an opposition between different ways of arriving at
knowledge: The experimental versus the mathematical way.
This also means a conflict between the more traditional XVIII
Century experimentalists (such as PvM) and the “modern”
theoreticians or geometers (such as Euler). Those binary oppo-
sites are central to the development of the present teaching
3) Organizing contents into story form: What content most
dramatically embodies the binary opposites, in order to provide
access to the topic? What content best articulates the topic into
a developing story form? The opposition of the two historical
characters regarding who was the pioneer of buckling studies
has the necessary tension as to generate a conflict and a story.
The search for the origins of a discipline requires an inquiry
into who contributed what and when. A key content that drama-
tizes the binary opposites to present day viewers is a considera-
tion of primacy in an important discovery, such as the buckling
of columns.
The chosen topic (origins of buckling studies) and the activi-
ties carried out by students (discovering the level of under-
standing in each author) can be articulated in a story in which
context and circumstances take part and are required ingredi-
4) Story conclusion: What is the best way of resolving the
dramatic conflict inherent in the binary opposites? What degree
of mediation of those opposites is it appropriate to seek? Clos-
ing the story should be done by the student, not by the designer
of the activity. This conflict can only be solved by assessing the
available evidence, including a time line (dating discoveries),
and a comparison of how each author addressed the phenome-
non. Use should be made of the fact that PvM identified the
buckling problem and searched for a predictive model via ex-
periments, whereas Euler used a theory and found a problem
that needed an explanation. For a long time, Euler did not un-
derstand the phenomenon that was behind the equations.
Although PvM was the first to investigate the phenomenon
and identify the controlling parameters, he did not have a the-
ory under which this behavior could fit. Euler, on the other
hand, had a theory but this could not be clearly identified with
reality. Some historians of science believe that an intermediate
“Euler-Musschenbroek buckling load” identification should be
made to acknowledge both contributors. This story provides the
possibility that the student discovers such gray aspects in the
historical reconstruction.
5) Evaluation: How can one know whether the topic has been
understood, its importance grasped, and the contents learned?
To verify that learning has occurred, the written production of
the student should be considered. A two-page white paper is a
sufficiently short piece of writing so that it can be completed in
a limited time (say two hours), and at the same time should
contain substantial understanding in order to convince an im-
partial reader about who should be considered as the father of
buckling studies.
This story telling exercise provides a good planning base for
the teaching activity, and the next stage is the translation of all
that into an on-line module.
On-Line Learning Module
This section describes details of a computer-based learning
tool developed by the author to introduce a historical dimension
in an engineering (advanced undergraduate/graduate) course.
The activities reported in this paper are performed by students
in a computer-simulated environment, in which they are as-
signed a role and follow a mission. This strategy has been pre-
viously employed by the author to teach structural failures to
engineering students (Godoy, 2009b, 2010b). The reader can
access the present module in Internet at (Godoy, 2010c).
In the opening page (Problem statement, see Figure 1) the
participant finds a communication from a credible fictitious
character, the secretary of an “Institute for the Understanding of
Mechanics from a Historical Perspective”. The participant
Figure 1.
Module screen with pr oblem statement.
Evaluation of Student’s Performance
learns that he/she has been awarded an exploratory grant to
investigate the contributions of Petrus van Musschenbroek
(PvM) to the field of column buckling. The participant is now
requested to write a two-page white paper to argue why PvM
should be considered the father of buckling studies instead of
Euler. Graduate student survival often depends on grants, so
they know that even the fictitious possibility of a grant being
awarded to them has to be considered with care.
A group of 23 students participated in this activity during
2010, as part of a Master’s course at the University of Puerto
Rico. The navigation took approximately 2.5 hours, whereas
The site contains a large amount of information regarding the
specific scientists considered and the context in which PvM
lived and worked. The information that is specific to the case is
organized in the form of a decision tree, as schematized in Ta-
ble 1 and Figure 2. The information that provides a context to
the case is organized as in Table 2 and Figure 3, under the label
“Ask the experts”. There is a library with a list of publications,
including books and papers on the Musschenbroek, and books
on the history of structural mechanics. Finally, specific instruc-
tions on the white paper that the participant should write are
provided under “Report”, as shown in Figure 4.
Two experts reviewed the module, one with a background in
information and telecommunication technologies, whereas an-
other expert reviewed the engineering contents. The contents
expert noticed that not enough information had been included
on the contributions of Euler, with the consequence that it was
difficult to assess the relative merits of PvM. The technologies
expert suggested the use of visual images to illustrate cultural
aspects of Holland at the time when PvM lived there. As a con-
sequence of those reviews, sections on “Holland in the XVII
and XVIII Centuries” and “What did Leonhard Euler write on
compressed columns?” were added. Figure 2.
Navigation through the case.
Table 1.
Organization of the navigation tree in t he module.
PvM in early and present day
Who was PvM?
Show me pictures of PvM
Why his family should be consid-
ered in any account of PvM?
…the life of PvM
The fabrication of scientific instru-
ments in Holland and Europe
I want to learn about the 1729 ver-
sion of compressed columns
I want to learn about the 1762 ver-
sion of compressed columns
What was the i mpact of th e work of
…what PvM wrote on compressed
Show me the list of all books pub-
lished by PvM
How old is the concept of stability?
Why more structures did not fail
due to buckling in ancient and
medieval times?
What did Leonardo contribute to
this topic? Leonardo in Wikipedia
… knowledge on c ompressed col-
umns before PvM
What did Merssene contribute to
this topic? Merssene in Wikipedia
I need to learn more about…
… what Euler w ro te on compre ssed
columns What did Euler contribute to this
topic? Euler in Wikiped i a
L. A. GODOY 67
Table 2.
Organization of expert advice in the module.
Paintings by Johannes V ermeer
Paintings by other famous Dutch artists
Canal house a r chitecture
Dutch culture: p ainters, homes
Land reclam ation in the Netherlands
Tell me about H olland in the XVII
and XVIII Ce nturies
Show me pic tures of old Holland today
History of science in Wikipe di a
Perspective s of the historians of e l asticity
“Wiggish” perspective
Bias in the reconstruction of the hist ory of mec hanics
Ask the experts
Tell me about history of science
How/where can I read ear ly books?
Figure 3.
Asking the experts screen.
writing the white paper took them another 2.5 hours.
Assessment Prior to the Intervention: Pre-tests were not ad-
ministered in this case but in-depth interviews were conducted
with each student to learn about their background and perspec-
tives in relation with the proposed intervention. The results of
the interviews were fairly consistent: 1) Students knew the
name of Euler and acknowledged that he must have written the
buckling formula that has his name, but could not identify in
what century Euler lived. 2) Students could not identify benefits
for studying the history of buckling or any other topic in me-
chanics, except that it may be interesting to learn something
different for a change. 3) Students had the impression that the
contents that they study in engineering are the outcomes of
recent research. 4) Most students had taken a Humanities
course at undergraduate level, however, they did not know that
Holland was an important power in Europe for a long period in
Figure 4.
Screen containing instructions to write the white paper.
Assessment of learning: The evaluation of the performance
of students was based on the two page white paper that they
wrote to complete the activity. The main question here is: Has
the story of PvM and Euler refined further their understanding
of the complexities behind science/engineering history? As
stated by Egan, degrees of refinement of understanding are
difficult to measure.
A check-list (in the form of questions listed in Table 3) was
prepared to verify if the students addressed the topics that they
were expected to discuss. The first ten questions correspond to
argumentation about the case, and the last five questions con-
sidered the proposal for future work. A qualitative evaluation of
the white paper was carried out, er the level of know- to consid
Creative Education
2011. Vol.2, No.2, 63-70
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/ce.2011.22009
Table 3.
Questions used for t he evaluation of the white paper.
Did the student… A B C D
… state the prob lem being addr essed?
… explain the phenomenon u nder consideration?
… describe what was known before PvM?
… include a summary of PvM life and achievements?
… summarize th e work of PvM on buckling?
… summarize t he work of Euler on buckling ?
… comment on why Euler did not give credit to PvM?
… interpret why all credit has gone to Euler for centuries?
… argue why PvM sh ould be considered the father of buckling studies?
… identify the context in w h ich PvM and Euler worked?
… write a proposal for a one year research?
… include what will be the work?
… propose how th e study will be organized?
… identify difficulties in performing the study?
… describe the broad impact of the research?
ledge and the quality of the argumentation for each question.
Each question was rated as A, B, C (in the form of grades usua-
lly assigned in evaluations), and D if the topic had not been
addressed by the student. This instrument allowed establishing
differences in the quality of the responses.
Assessment after the Intervention: A post-test was adminis-
tered in order to identify student’s perceptions after the activity.
The post-test contained a number of statements and the students
had to answer using a Likert scale containing three possibilities
of agreement.
Some statements in the post-test attempted to identify rea-
sons why investigating the history of a discipline may be im-
portant, such as
The early sources of research in a scientific discipline are
important because they allow…
- … reconstructing the history of the discipline.
- … identifying the context in which the ideas developed.
In contrast, other questions addressed the idea that history is
not relevant because we only use current ideas (contents) and
practices (methodologies):
The history of a di scipline is not relevant today because…
- … we now use the most up-to-date versions of all
- … the methods we now use to arrive at new knowledge
is different from how it was done say 200 years ago.
The importance of the historic/cultural context is considered
in two statements: In a general statement the importance of the
context is highlighted, whereas in a specific statement it is di-
It is crucial to understand the historical/cultural context in
which a researcher works to reconstruct his/her contribu-
tions to science.
PvM lived in Holland at a time in which the country was
one of the main European powers, but he could have made
his discoveries in any other country.
Regarding how important the fame and recognition of a sci-
entist are in attributing to him/her the priority of a discovery,
there were two statements:
Euler was considered the pioneer in buckling studies be-
cause of his fame.
The prestige of a scientist is crucial in the evaluation of
his/her discoveries.
Other statements addressed the historiography of science
The facts in the history of science do not speak by them-
selves and it is necessary to write argumentation about
The errors made in the history of science are always cor-
rected in a short time because the available evidence allows
clearing all doubts.
The questions were not paired as they have been done here
for the discussion, but were mixed in a random way.
Because the student population that used this module was
small, results are not presented here, but they showed a clear
improvement in student’s perspectives with respect to pre-in-
tervention interviews.
Student Evaluation of the Activity
To evaluate the effectiveness of the learning module, the
students answered five open questions with their opinions of
the activity. In general terms, it may be said that students
greatly enjoyed this activity. The t wo most relevant que stions
are discussed next:
Do you consider that you learned as in a standard lecture,
more than in a standard lecture, or less? All students re-
sponded that they learned more than in a standard lecture,
and their reasons were:
“Because I had the opportunity to investigate a topic, which
is not possible to do in a normal class due to time con-
“Because we learned different things: in a normal lecture,
learning focuses on the understanding and application of the
concepts, but here we learned about how those concepts
were de v eloped.”
“What I learned here I will remember, I will fix it much
better thanks to the activity.”
L. A. GODOY 69
“The nature of the material was not so difficult to under-
stand, so that we could learn it by ourselves.”
“I think that the learning material was very interesting and
motivated us to continue doing research without any limita-
“In historical topics, in which there is argumentation and
bibliographical research, we learn much more than in a
normal class because the student constructs his own
knowledge about a topic.”
“Because the time dedicated to study was more than in a
standard lecture.”
Students valued several aspects of this activity and identified
its strengths and weaknesses:
“It helped us to improve searching, argumentation and
writing skills.”
“It provided a historical background to the course that we
“Thanks to this activity, we studied in detail the context of a
discovery, and the main aspects about how it developed
(historic context, society and historic times).”
“It was a change with respect to other activities carried out
in the course.”
“For the first time, we had to consider historical and cul-
tural aspects in engineering.”
“Knowledge was acquired at a deep level, because we ar-
rived at that knowledge by ourselves.”
“Most graduate students should be interested in learning
how the knowledge that is used at present was discovered in
the past.”
“We do not have experience in writing proposals and this
activity was helpful to identify the components and format
of a proposal, even a short one like the white paper re-
“The activity was appropriate for the kind of topics dis-
cussed in it, but may be less effective for other topics that
require heavy use of equations.”
“I found little information in Internet about PvM and his
buckling experiments, but there was much more available
about Euler.”
“Not every topic in a course can be taught using this meth-
odology because of the time it requires to complete the
“It takes time and concentration to organize our ideas and
write them in a coherent document.”
This paper illustrates the development and application of an
on-line module to learn historical perspectives in relation to an
engineering topic. The module is highly interactive, allowing
the student to navigate the on-line module to learn with a pur-
pose in mind, which is provided by the mission that needs to be
Some preliminary conclusions may be drawn at this stage:
An on-line tool, such as the one discussed in this paper,
may be employed in class as a self-contained tool, without
the need to consult a local teacher or a real expert.
Students usually view history as dominated by battles,
kingdoms and power. But here they are able to see that his-
tory is also hidden behind the engineering achievements of
the past: there is a hidden history in their engineering disci-
pline, not only in the history books and museums.
Students enjoy working in this form and consider that they
learned more than in a traditional lecture. The reasons why
they learn more are because they had to apply the concepts
immediately; and they were active investigators instead of
passive listeners.
Learning retention may increase because students can asso-
ciate knowledge to a story instead of keeping knowledge in
the vacuum.
Students enjoy that they can “construct” knowledge “by
doing research”.
Students appreciated having an activity that is completely
different than t raditional lectures.
Students believe that the effectiveness of the activity is
related to its contents being “soft”, but are not convinced
that this technique may work well for more technical con-
tents that are full of equations.
Future work in this field includes employing this on-line
module with a group of undergraduate students during the next
two years; this, however, is outside the scope of this paper.
This work was possible thanks to the support of NSF-CCLI
grant DUE-0736828: “A Computer-Based Simulated Environ-
ment to Learn on Structural Failures in Engineering” (Program
Director: Ann McKenna). However, the results and opinions
expressed are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily
reflect the views of the funding agency. The author thanks the
contribution of graduate student Jean Batista-Abreu in the im-
plementation of the on-line tool.
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