Going Straight to the Source

In an Engineering Seminar, Freshmen Discover Bancroft's Treasures

by Julia Sommer

Not too many freshmen get to fondle the nugget that started the Gold Rush, pore over Nobelist E.O. Lawrence's private papers (including a file labeled "atom bomb"), and examine Egyptian papyri dating from 2500 B.C. that describe antidotes for crocodile and asp bites.

But these are just a few of the items that the 14 students in "Engineering 24: Sources of Science, Engineering and Technology" get to see first-hand in a freshman seminar co-sponsored by the Bancroft Library and the College of Engineering.

Moving force behind the seminar is James Casey, professor of mechanical engineering and engineering's associate dean for interdisciplinary studies. He got the idea at a meeting of Bancroft's Committee for the History of Science, chaired by Peter Hanff, deputy director of the Bancroft, who is co-teaching the seminar.

Engineering then hired a professional historian of science-Glenn Bugos, who has a PhD in the history of science, technology and business-to round out the teaching triumvirate. (Bugos has become familiar with Bancroft's collections while working for such clients as Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream, BART and venture capital firms.)

Students have also benefited from guest lecturers, including Sally Hughes, Bancroft's oral historian of science and medicine; Karen Lewis, Hewlett Packard's archivist; and Steven Shackley, a research archaeologist at the Hearst Museum of Anthropology, where the class took advantage of his expertise on Native American culture.

"This class is a sophisticated kind of 'show and tell' using Bancroft source materials," says Bugos. "Students learn how and why scientists generate different types of papers over their careers to communicate with various audiences, why the papers are saved and indexed, and how to use them to generate history. We want students to learn about the spectrum of resources on campus and to understand the history of their new, temporary home-and to feel the excitement that comes from holding history in your hand and reading dead people's mail."

Students have passed around the audograph (precursor to the vinyl record) of Kroeber's famous lecture on human sexuality; von Guericke's 1672 book on the vacuum, "New Magdeburg Experiments"; and Clairaut's 1743 "Theory of the Figure of the Earth." A written and oral presentation based on source materials is required of each student.

Freshman Michael Nguyen says: "I was surprised at how interactive the class is compared to other freshman classes. I enrolled to get an extra unit and out of general interest-I wanted to take at least one course to help me explore options for my major. Getting to see primary sources is cool."

"This was a chance to go right to freshmen while they're still enthusiastic and young and have open minds," says Casey. "It's an opportunity to educate them about Bancroft's marvelous holdings, and for Bancroft to reach out to them."

Casey first used Bancroft in the '70s while working toward his PhD at Berkeley. He remembers tracking down an original copy of Galileo's 1638 "Two New Sciences," in Italian, about dynamics and strength of materials. "I was thrilled to see and touch the real thing," he recalls today.

When he returned to campus as a professor in 1990, Casey used Bancroft almost every day while researching an historical paper on Clairaut's hydrostatics. Most recently he has used the library's 19th-century science collections to write a paper on the great French engineer, Saint-Venant.

Engineering 24 is the first in a series of source material seminars that Casey and Hanff are planning for freshmen. It will be repeated spring semester.



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