posted July 29, 1998

Course Reveals the Science Behind Everyday Technology

It's almost like magic. Tap some buttons, and the calculator adds.  Press the shutter, and the camera takes a photograph.  Turn the key, and the car's engine hums to life.

          Dr. John Krupczak of the Hope College engineering
  faculty realizes that although most of his students know how
  to make such things work, they are less clear concerning why
  they work.  Through his popular beginning-level course
  "Science and Technology of Everyday Life," in which students
  build equipment from radios to keyboards, he hopes to change
  all that.  He wants to take the mystery out of the objects
  they use daily, and in the process make them more
  comfortable with science generally.
          "Our daily experience is all this technology,"
  said Krupczak, an assistant professor of engineering.  "We
  have thousands of technological items, and are in daily
  contact with hundreds--the wristwatch, the alarm clock, the
  car, the computer."
          "So it makes sense to study this technological
  world that we've built around ourselves," he said.  "And
  embedded in it are all the principles of science put to
  use."
          "My objective is to explain to people how it works
  or to give them a sense of understanding, and therefore to
  increase their confidence in coping with it," Krupczak said.
          The need is not unique to his students, he noted,
  but exists nationwide.  In a 1993 presentation titled
  "Scientific Elites and Scientific Illiterates," David
  Goodstein of the Cal Tech physics faculty even went so far
  as to say that "roughly 95 percent of the American public is
  consistently found to be scientifically illiterate by any
  rational standard."
          The everyday devices provide a starting point.
  The students build and use their own pinhole camera, for
  example, learning about "light propagation" in the process.
  They construct a simple crystal radio, and learn about
  "electromagnetic waves."  They tear into and rebuild a four-
  cylinder automobile engine, learning about its components
  and combustion.
          The laboratory complements a lecture in which the
  concepts are explained more fully.  The course's text is a
  popular best-seller, "The Way Things Work" by David
  Macaulay.
          Krupczak first offered the course--designed for
  students who are not majoring in the natural or physical
  sciences--in the spring of 1995.  He is currently modifying
  it through a 14-month, $68,210 grant from the National
  Science Foundation (NSF), working with a team of student
  researchers to strengthen the laboratory exercises.  The
  exercises will be refined during the coming 1998-99 school
  year.
          In addition to using the experiments at Hope,
  Krupczak hopes to have them published for others to use.  He
  has also spoken about his work at national professional
  conferences, and had articles appear in journals such as the
  American Society for Engineering Education's "Prism."
          Through one of the projects being developed this
  summer, each student will build a stereo speaker.
  Krupczak's researchers have used sophisticated computer
  software and field testing to develop a project that works
  and teaches at the same time.
          The components are kept as basic as possible--
  including cardboard, wood blocks and common metal washers
  for the speakers.  The simplicity keeps the projects
  manageable for beginning-level students, with a side benefit
  being that the students may take many of their creations
  home.
          "To make a project that meets the need of the
  students is really an engineering exercise in itself," he
  said.  "It needs to be simple enough that they can do,
  complex enough that it has meaning and also interesting
  enough that there's some motivation."
          "You can follow the instructions and make the
  speaker work, and not learn anything about the science," he
  said.  "The challenge for me is to make sure that we take
  this opportunity to have the students learn something about
  the science."