David Billington

Princeton University
2003 DTS Award

Dr. David Billington
Professor of Mathematics
Princeton University

NSF Award Recognition


Jeanne L. Narum, Director, Project Kaleidoscope, interviewing Dr. David Billington.

Let me respond just to your first question, what would a visitor to your classroom experience?

My classes, all lecture courses- two with large lecture courses of about 150 students- are entirely visual. They are open to all students in the university and are designed so that students leave with a set of images in their heads of the "grand tradition of engineering." My goal is to introduce my students to major engineering innovations and to the thinking of outstanding engineers; what I demand of my students is that they will be able to demonstrate (numerically and through expository writing) that "efficient, economic, ethical and aesthetic choices are all intrinsic to engineering design."

In my course on structural engineering, the lectures and visual images are designed to illustrate that structures, when designed by engineers, can be both beautiful and economic– what we call structural art. I hope they leave this course with a new interest in looking at the environment and for seeking out and judging for themselves large-scale engineering projects. The goal of my other course also open to students in all engineering fields and to students studying in fields outside of engineering is that students arrive at an understanding of how engineering has transformed the United States from an agrarian society into an industrial one. All students work through and learn how to make the same calculations as did the early engineers, and are introduced to the connections between building structures and building societies.

In developing three courses in introductory engineering, I had to consider that all courses are open to everyone in the university, and I found that the "scholarship" needed to develop them was much more challenging than that needed to work on courses for upper level majors or graduate students (it is much easier to connect these students to my research). The way it worked for me was that I was stimulated to step back and analyze how I was introducing students to engineering; when I was teaching architectural students, they would ask, "Why is it all just diagrams and drawings? Why can't we study beautiful things?"

So, I was stimulated into a new line of scholarship by bad teaching. I could find nothing in the literature that began to analyze "beautiful things," the engineering structures that are indeed good structural art in that they combine safe performance and competitive costs while simultaneously achieving elegant forms that surprise and please visually. All of my lectures are conceived as public lectures, growing out of or leading to a scholarly publication. Thus to say that I am integrating research and teaching is not quite right; I cannot make a distinction about which comes first.

It is the visual nature of my work, my lectures and courses, that shapes the project supported by the DTS award. Just as for my undergraduate students at Princeton, I want to give other scholars first-hand experiences with the materials, I want to transmit in person how through an examination of engineering structures one begins to dissolve the artificial boundaries between scientific, social and artistic world. This material is exceptionally seductive, once you see it, and this kind of examination must be facilitated in face-to-face interactions; it cannot be done by placing a lot of materials on the web and hope others begin to understand their import.

So, back to your original question, which I will rephrase: what would be the impact of coming into my classroom? For the casual visitor, for my undergraduate and graduate students, and for scholars participating in the NSF-funded DTS summer workshops, I repeat what I said earlier in an interview on Bridging New York for Great Projects:

    We live in an engineering culture. And it's important for [all of us] to see that engineering, in its true meaning, is really an integration of science. . ., of society. . . and of art. . . . And. . .once they see this, then we can begin the process which we so strongly need in our country, of the reintegration of knowledge, of combating the fragmentation and specialization that has forced discourse into separate boxes and that does not allow, therefore, the technical to think about the aesthetic, or the political to think about the technical.

    And when [those in my classrooms] understand that in order for the best structures to be built, the designers had to think about all these things, they will begin to put engineering and technology into a different context, not as a special school like all other professional schools in a university, but as part of the central core of understanding that is so essential to our society.