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This issue of CDTL Brief features articles based on select presentations at the Teaching Workshop on Freshman Seminars conducted by the Faculty of Science on 22 April 2009.

September 2009, Vol. 12 No. 5 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
FSE1202: Great Discoveries and Inventions
Associate Professor Anjam Khursheed
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering/
Engineering Science Programme

Summary of the aims and format of the FSE1202 module

A new freshman seminar module in the Faculty of Engineering, FSE1202 “Great Inventions and Discoveries”, gives students opportunities to carry out their own case studies on innovation and conduct their own experiments. The course engages students by taking a hands-on/historical approach in learning fundamental scientific/engineering principles—an approach which has already been reported at the NUS,1 and which has been promoted by the creation of an intranet website supported by CDTL.2

The module centres around discoveries and inventions in the history of electricity and magnetism—a subject related to the present lecturer’s (A/P A. Khursheed) expertise. Topics covered in the first four weeks include electrostatics between 1600–1800, invention of the battery and the impact of the Oersted effect with emphasis on the rise of electric motors between 1820–1840.

Lectures in the first four weeks of the course comprises case studies on pioneers of modern science, and classic experiments/discoveries made within a certain engineering discipline such as electricity and magnetism. Basic scientific/engineering principles are introduced through historical stories to put students in the original inventor’s frame of mind. Students are given a historical problem or episode and asked: “what would you do?” The lecturer then compares students’ answers to what actually happened. Gradually, an interesting historical story in which students play an active part unfolds. At the end of the lecture, the lecturer performs several experiments to recreate different aspects of the historical episode under discussion using simple, readily available materials. Each week, students make their own simple experimental recreations and present them during tutorials.

After four weeks of lectures and practical weekly assignments, the class is divided into teams of two or three students. They are then asked to prepare ‘the lectures’ by making up their own case study presentations. Each team is given a different historical episode and assigned a different topic in a related theme. They are also requested to submit an electronic version of their case study. After the presentations, each team makes a practical demonstration/experiment related to their case study. The lecturer works with each team to improve their case study. Students typically finish the module by giving a poster presentation of their devices/experiments at a science fair that is open to a wider audience.

Demonstration: Electroscopes made from simple, readily available materials

An example of a device discussed in the second week of the course is the electroscope (see Figure 1). The electroscope is a good example of how recreating an important historical invention/instrument can aid students’ understanding of fundamental scientific/engineering principles. As the world’s first electricity measuring device invented over 300 years ago, the electroscope can quantify static charge imbalance and has great importance in the history of electricity. It is however, something that most students of electricity only read about. By getting engineering students to make and test an electroscope, they are able see and experience Coulomb’s electric force in action.

Figure 1. Photo of an electroscope used for demonstration purposes during the lecture made by the lecturer using simple, readily available materials such as aluminium foil, a paper clip, a glass bottle and brass door knob.

Normally, engineering students only learn about the electric force through complicated diagrams and formulae. When students recreate the electroscope, they become aware of many more effects beyond the ideal electroscope found in textbooks. In fact, most students’ homemade electroscopes did not work the first time. They subsequently learn, usually by troubleshooting in class, that humidity is an important factor in the experiment. Later, through presentations/discussions in the tutorial, they learn that there are simple and effective ways to reduce humidity. They also learn about the effects of many other design parameters such as the shape of the top conductor, the size of the aluminium foils and so on. In this way, students are able to see basic scientific/engineering principles in action through experimentation. During the first four weeks, the lecturer typically presents over 20 homemade experiments/devices to the class using historical case studies. The class then recreates these experiments/devices by themselves as weekly assignments.

Another example of a classic device in the history of electricity and magnetism for the FSE1202 class is Alexander Graham Bell’s liquid microphone (1876). Figure 2 shows a photo of a liquid microphone recreated by a student by mounting a paper funnel mounted on to a wooden frame. A copper wire attached to a stiff paper membrane below the funnel is suspended over a vinegar solution contained in a small copper cup, so it just dips into the solution. A battery makes connections with the membrane and cup so that a small electric current flows through the vinegar. When someone speaks into the top paper funnel, the sound vibrations modulate the electric current, which is subsequently amplified by a laptop or Walkman. This device has an intriguing history behind it and while it can be recreated using simple materials, it requires one to learn many valuable engineering principles in order to make it work.

Figure 2. A student’s recreation of Bell’s liquid microphone—the world’s first microphone.

Like the recreations of the devices, students’ initial case study presentations are extremely poor. Not knowing how to narrow down to a specific issue or historical episode, many students simply copy and paste chunks of secondary information from the Internet without first critically evaluating the information. They also do not know how to cite information and use primary sources. However, in subsequent consultations with the lecturer, students revise their initial case study presentations and learn to improve them. In most cases, the final poster presentation is a great improvement compared to the initial case study presentation.

In general, all engineering disciplines have a large array of classic experiments that can be recreated and linked with intriguing historical stories. Experience has shown that it is important to let students make up their own experiments and case studies freely without too much intervention. Thus in FSE1202, students are free to select a case study/ experiment from a list or suggest one of their own. Most students are often too ambitious; they commit themselves to carry out experiments that are either beyond their competence and experience or involve the use of materials that are difficult to obtain. Although most experimental presentations do not work or at least, perform badly initially, students are usually motivated to improve their own experiments. Hence it is best for the lecturer to act as a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.


1. A. Khursheed, (2005). Teaching engineering fundamentals by using a hands-on/historical approach. CDTL Brief, 8(1).
2. See Beginnings of Electricity and Magnetism—A Recreation.

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Inside this issue
Freshman Seminar: A Forum to Learn More by Teaching Less
FSE1202: Great Discoveries and Inventions
Freshman Seminar Module: A Mathematical Experiment
Promoting Individual Learning Through Small Classes
Teaching Sustainable Development to Freshmen
A Freshman Seminar in FASS: “Representing War”
At Last, Learning Can Really be Fun!