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.
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.
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?
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.”
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!