Students find forgotten treasures

History of Science and Technology course has students questioning modern ‘throw-away society’

Students at the University of King’s College are trying to bring to life neglected old things.

A new course, Artefacts: The Material Culture of Science and Technology, has students rummaging through cabinets in various departments, scouring archives and libraries, and knocking on professors’ doors looking for old things to study — specifically, scientific instruments. They’ve spent the semester studying and researching the history of science education at King’s. The university now boasts of a History of Science and Technology program, but a century ago, the school offered astronomy and physics.

Students Alex Somerville and Alisha Cheek work with their professor on the museum display. Photo: Rachel Ward
Students Alex Somerville and Alisha Cheek work with their professor on the museum display. Photo: Rachel Ward

In a program of textbooks, research and intellectual thought, these students – and there are only five – have been going to museums and talking to curators. They have been writing papers based on photographs and objects instead of only referencing peer-reviewed journal articles. The course instructor is a retired astronomy professor and curator with the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, and says students can learn so much from studying actual things and things connected to the very school at which they’re studying.

“It provides them with a way to understand how concepts were developed and how they were different from current theories,” said Randall Brooks. “Obviously in science, theories are constantly evolving and changing as new information is tweaked out of experiments.”

For example, computers change drastically every couple of years.

“My iPhone is probably a million times more powerful than the one that took Apollo 11 to the moon and back,” he said.

One of the students, Chris Feunekes, says the class was the perfect fit for him, since he’d like to go into museum curation once he graduates this spring.

“It’s one of the only classes I’ve taken here (in which) you do most of your learning outside of class,” said Feunekes. He came across a fire piston in the Dalhousie University physics department. The piston shows the correlation between temperature and pressure increase, but he says historians don’t know where it comes from, or who invented it. The piston was locked in a cabinet, he says, and staff had to pick the lock to get it out.

The students have studied some pretty interesting — and old — science-related items, including a 351-year-old textbook, Eucild’s Elements of Geometry. The book was tucked away in the King’s library’s special collections, and Laura Little, another student, came across it. She says she really connected with the old, thick, leather-bound book, whose photocopied contents are studied every year in the first-year Foundation Year Programme.

“They’re all bound in cardboard readers from Julia’s Printshop,” said Little, who wants to go into museum curation as well.

The display in the King’s library shows a variety of King’s and Dalhousie-related artifacts. Photo: Rachel Ward

“All this stuff is a testament to our culture, and what we’re doing and what we plan to do,” she said. “We’re in such a material world, to quote Madonna, and we often overlook things and objects. We’re in this throw-away society, where you get a new iPhone every couple of years.”

Some of the things, once on dusty shelves and in locked cabinets, are on display at the King’s library, and will be until the class resumes, likely next fall. The museum display is the final project for their class, and a tradition Brooks and others hope will continue with future classes. One professor who’s been sitting in on classes, Melanie Frappier, is planning a directed study for students and other faculty interested in doing similar research next semester, and she hopes Brooks will return next semester.

Alex Somerville, a linguistics student, says he’s greatly enjoyed the class’ hands-on approach.

“It takes history out of the history books,” he said. “It’s the value of historical sites. It’s the value of historical homes. It’s the value of archival collections. It’s the real thing. It’s legacies of the past.”