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A Stanford course dives into untold histories of inventions

First-year students learn about the winding paths leading to inventions and experiment with electronics.
An image of students working on an electronics device
Students use a multimeter to measure the voltage of a hard drive while transforming it into a battery-free telegraph. | Photo by Andrew Brodhead

Computer chips and an unknown class agenda awaited students in the Introductory Seminar Things About Stuff as they trickled into their cozy classroom off the Main Quad one recent Monday morning.

The day kicked off with the meandering history of silicon. At first, researching the element was so unimportant that it was likened to “studying dirt.” But decades later, its use in radar sets helped the Allies win World War II and set the stage for the semiconductor revolution – the triumph of dirt. Back in the classroom, a modern-day use of silicon – needed in nearly all electronic devices – sat before each student: bare computer chips, so that the students could see the intricate beauty that is normally hidden from view.

In this electrical engineering course, first-year students control the course’s direction by posing questions about whatever inventions pique their interest. Then, they learn about the largely untold stories behind those devices, whose histories as recounted in history books and on Wikipedia are often truncated and linearized for ease and clarity.

The true annals of invention, however, tend to be much messier – and more interesting. “My message to them is that there is rarely a linear narrative,” said instructor Thomas Lee, professor of electrical engineering. “Oftentimes, it’s just little bits of art and random discoveries made centuries apart and in places distributed across the planet that alchemically combine to create a revolution.”

Students not only hear histories of inventions but dabble in technology creation themselves. In the lab portion of the class, students power up calculators with batteries they make from pocket change and other household items, build spinning motors from hard drive scraps and improvise wireless communication systems with LEDs.

For some students, Lee’s course provides the first opportunity to immerse themselves in the scientific process. Coming out of high school, many have only read about science in textbooks and participated in highly structured labs. In this course, students have the freedom to experiment with things and stuff.

“I love the fact that more than one student in the very first lab said, ‘I never knew science could be this much fun,’” Lee said.

Ambiguous beginnings to an ambiguous course

Lee is the inventor of this engaging, student-driven course about invention, which he has taught for over 15 years. But he didn’t quite realize what a hit it would be when he first designed it.

At the request of his department chair in 2004, he agreed to offer an Introductory Seminar.

“Being the lazy person that I am, I didn’t do anything concrete about it until it was time to create a syllabus and formally list the course,” Lee said.

He gave the course the placeholder name Things About Stuff and kept the moniker because the vague title also let him defer crafting the course description. That lack of strict definition is essential to what the course has become.

“I realized that this freedom was valuable because every group of students will have a different set of interests,” Lee said. “Rather than fitting them into the course, why don’t we fit the course to them?”

From the beginning, the course was a series of improvisations rather than a collection of pre-planned lectures. As Lee discusses the hidden histories of one invention, students raise questions about others, related or not. Curiosity drives the course trajectory – topics flow endlessly from one to another.

Further, projects in the lab tend to be open-ended. As long as each student learns something important, Lee is pleased.

“Every day is a complete surprise – to me, as well as to the students,” he said.

Student and teacher takeaways

The current course description compelled first-year student Katelyn Chen to apply to the Introductory Seminar. To her, hearing the stories behind inventions and participating in hands-on activities, all with a renowned professor who happened to perform with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, sounded like the culmination of the Stanford experience. She was especially excited by the prospect of tinkering with electronics, which she had never done before.

Now that she’s in the course, her favorite part is the lack of limitations.

“I don’t have any electrical engineering knowledge, but that’s OK,” she said. “Even if during class we’re talking about psychology or what science actually means, [Lee] is still able to talk about that.”

Through the course, Chen hopes to gain knowledge about electrical engineering that can be applied to other fields, especially mechanical engineering, a discipline she wants to pursue.

In return for teaching the course, Lee gains not only the satisfaction of igniting students’ scientific minds but also societal insights that he may otherwise miss. Since questions posed by students change from year to year, they allow him to keep up with trends and cultural shifts, providing a glimpse of what each generation’s college students care about.

“I’ve learned as much or more from them than they’ve probably learned from me,” he said.

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