Courses in history generally refer to the Renaissance as a “rebirth” associated with monumental changes manifested in art, architecture, and science. Scholars tout the contributions of classical antiquity to the Renaissance, but many times, they say little of the contributions of the Middle Ages. Yet, the developments made in the Middle Ages contributed to the “rebirth” the occurred in the following centuries.
Next fall, the Honors Program will offer a new course, “Engineering the Renaissance,” that explores these developments through a study of the field of engineering around the time of the Renaissance. The three-credit course will be co-taught by Dr. Mark Law, an engineer and the director of the Honors Program, along with Dr. Mary Watt, a professor of Medieval and Early Modern Studies.
“[The course will] focus on innovations of the late medieval [period] and the early Renaissance,” explains Dr. Law. “[We will examine how] innovation was driven by society and vice versa.”
The course requires an interdisciplinary approach with an emphasis on both engineering and Medieval and Early Modern Studies. Dr. Law came up with the idea for the course after “stumbling across” Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel, a book detailing some of the innovations of the Medieval Ages. He contacted Dr. Watt about creating a course related to this subject.
“I was extremely excited by the possibility of exploring how the cultural spirit of the late Middle Ages drove the innovations in engineering that led to the marvels of the Renaissance,” explains Dr. Watt. “I had worked with Dr. Law before on several administrative matters, so I already knew what a dynamic and engaged educator he is. A few of our shared interests suggested to us that combining our two fields could create a really great learning experience for students and for us.”
To facilitate this experience, Dr. Law and Dr. Watt will incorporate several different teaching strategies. They will devote one of the three hours each week to lectures, films, and readings, and they will use the other two hours for projects and discussions. Building endeavors are among Dr. Law’s ideas for projects.
“[Students might] construct a windmill and measure its power output,” Dr. Law proposes.
The engineering applications are clear, but the historical aspects of the projects will be an integral piece of the endeavor as well.
“I am hopeful that as students approach the building projects I can provide them with the information and perspective they need to think about the purpose for which these machines were originally designed, the historical context in which they were imagined and the challenges their realization presented to the original builders, “ Dr. Watt explains.
Furthermore, through the course, students may gain insight into the ways in which the historical perspective can inform the present one.
“I would like students to understand the crucial role that imagination and creative innovation play in creating a world that not only serves our present needs, but can also adapt as our needs and sense of place in the world evolve,” Dr. Watt says.
The course is designed for both engineering and humanities students. In fact, Dr. Law states that he hopes the course will “attract an equal number” of these students. Though the course will be offered for the first time in the fall and is only scheduled for that semester, he is open to offering it subsequent semesters as well.
“I would love to see it offered regularly, but it depends on student interest,” Dr. Law says.
If the “student interest” is there, it will not only mean that the course will likely be offered again, but it also means that, just maybe, the Renaissance will be seen as a time of rebirth made possible by the engineering advances of the Middle Ages.