Using Historic Drawings and Photos of Buildings to Engage Students In Engineering

The following is a guest post by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress.

While researching an article for the January 2016 issue of NSTA’s The Science Teacher Magazine, I ran across a blueprint of R. Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic Dome Home. I was reminded that analyzing drawings and photographs of historic structures can launch an investigation of real-world engineering practices.

Geodesic domes are often studied in K-12 classrooms for their innovative engineering design, efficiency, and strength. A series of triangles form pentagons and hexagons, resulting in a self-bracing framework providing enormous structural strength, while requiring a minimal amount of material and enclosing a maximum volume of space.

Richard Buckminster Fuller & Anne Hewlett Fuller Dome Home, 407 South Forest Avenue, Carbondale, Jackson County, IL

Richard Buckminster Fuller & Anne Hewlett Fuller Dome Home, 407 South Forest Avenue, Carbondale, Jackson County, IL

The dome home blueprint presents additional opportunities to extend this study in real-world contexts. For instance, Fuller’s original vision for geodesic domes was as nationwide, low-cost, affordable housing. Students might investigate the blueprint to explore related engineering concepts:

  • What are some of the engineering challenges you might face if you were trying to build dome homes for mass use?
  • What are some potential solutions for these challenges?
  • What considerations would you have to keep in mind while addressing these challenges?

Students might find instructions and build their own geodesic domes, further investigating the challenges of making this structure a workable home.

A Geodesic Dome that the author built with his 10 year old son, using drinking straws and pipe cleaners. What could you do with this structure to explore the concept of a “dome home?”

A Geodesic Dome that the author and his 10 year old son built using drinking straws and pipe cleaners. What could you do with this structure to explore the concept of a “dome home?”

Students might also research:

  • Was Fuller’s dome home vision ever realized? Why or why not?
  • What does the dome’s success or failure tell us about real-world engineering?

Chemistry Connections
Fuller Domes unintentionally provided key inspiration to scientists who made a seminal discovery in the field of nanoscience. In the 1980s, researchers knew they had found an extremely stable Carbon molecule containing 60 atoms, but struggled to identify its structure until one of the scientists recalled seeing a giant Fuller Dome on his visit to the 1967 World Exposition. A fun project for older students could be to use common materials such as paper and glue to create a sixty point polygon based on the design of a geodesic dome. This is exactly what the nanoscience researchers did to test their theory regarding the “Fullerene molecule.”

Related Resources
The Library of Congress contains many drawings and photographs of historic structures which may be analyzed to reflect on real-world engineering practices and principles. Search the Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey to find thousands of documents and images that you can use with your students.

Let us know how you are using primary sources in your science and engineering classes!

Section Looking South - Statue of Liberty, Liberty Island, Manhattan, New York, New York County, NY

Section Looking South – Statue of Liberty, Liberty Island, Manhattan, New York, New York County, NY

GENERAL VIEW, LOOKING NORTH, SHOWING THE 'SEA SIDE' OF THE STRUCTURE - Golden Gate Bridge, Spanning mouth of San Francisco Bay, San Francisco, San Francisco County, CA

GENERAL VIEW, LOOKING NORTH, SHOWING THE ‘SEA SIDE’ OF THE STRUCTURE – Golden Gate Bridge, Spanning mouth of San Francisco Bay, San Francisco, San Francisco County, CA

5 Comments

  1. Sherry L.
    January 26, 2016 at 12:22 pm

    Terrific post! Thank you for the intriguing information and visuals, especially that cross-section of the Statue of Liberty.

  2. J Payne
    January 26, 2016 at 1:29 pm

    This is a great idea to use with my students.

  3. Mary Johnson
    January 27, 2016 at 3:08 pm

    When I read about a recent Library of Congress announcement for the 2015 Holland Prize for architectural drawing I wondered how in the world a teacher could use such drawings in the classroom. This excellent post on Fuller’s dome – especially with the illustration of a dome built by a ten-year-old – made me realize that it is entirely possible to teach with architectural drawings! The HABS/HAER/HALS collection link provides plenty of material to get started, too.

  4. Susan Freeman
    January 31, 2016 at 7:03 pm

    Thanks for the intriguing post! I teach arts education courses in the Stanford Graduate School of Education, and much of the course content focuses on STEAM, the integration of the arts with science, technology, engineering, and math. Each year I ask my students, most of whom are teachers, to make a study of the architecture of unique buildings on campus, considering the buildings from design, engineering, and artistic perspectives to understand how to teach the relationships between visual art, the sciences and mathematics, and real world experience. Your post about Bucky Fuller’s domes and architectural drawings will provide my students – and theirs – with some great ideas!

  5. Bonnie
    February 3, 2016 at 9:07 pm

    I see the potential for using this in a museum setting as part of our educational program. Thank you –

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