October 8, 2007

First-Year Seminar Challenges Student’s Expectations

Alec Bernstein ’11 reflects on ‘Great Breakthroughs’ course

Alec Bernstein ’11 (Colts Neck, N.J.) is a civil engineering major enrolled in the First-Year Seminar course ‘Great Breakthroughs.’ The course, taught by Steve Kurtz, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, surveys and compares some of the most influential breakthroughs in science and technology. The following is a personal account of Bernstein’s experiences.

  • Students Explore Great Scientific Breakthroughs

“Great Breakthroughs” has changed my view of a liberal arts college course. I had originally thought that a liberal arts writing-based course would imply a lot of monotonous reading and writing, even if it was on a topic I enjoyed. Being an engineer, writing and reading are not my strongest subjects. So, when I first discovered I was in a First-Year Seminar based around engineering, I was ecstatic, but I never expected the class to be as interesting as it was.

The objective of the course is to identify and arrange the 25 greatest engineering breakthroughs of all time. So far, we have gone through Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, suspension bridges, rockets, water treatment, and many others.

When we discussed the internal combustion engine, Professor Kurtz took apart an actual engine from a leaf blower and explained all the different parts. We built an actual suspension bridge out of string that held the entire class, and my personal favorite was building a potato launcher and launching it at the sports complex.

The paper that I had dreaded writing turned out to be on any topic we thought had a great impact on society. The broad range of topics made the paper easy to complete. As a prospective engineer, I chose to discuss the more technical aspect of my chosen topic, which I found enjoyable.

Despite the fact that this course is based around writing and discussion, Professor Kurtz does an excellent job at balancing these with the more technological aspects of the course, providing a broad knowledge of the topics he discusses.

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