Engineering in Rome

Modern education meets ancient technology in January Term journey

The structures of Rome not only support the city by their very foundations, but define it as well, incorporating elements of architecture and engineering logistics behind beautiful facades of art – masterpieces in their own right.

St. Thomas students experienced this in January, when 16 undergraduates spent four weeks immersed in Italian culture and Roman engineering. The students included 10 mechanical engineering majors; others were majoring in marketing, art history, computer science and business. All participated in a January Term course, Roman Structures and Art, which explored the Roman engineering influence on modern society. The interdisciplinary course focused on the art, architecture, design and construction techniques from ancient times through the Renaissance. The St. Thomas Bernardi campus in Rome was the perfect place for our learning to begin and also for our students to develop a “home base” for their studies.

My wife, Barbara, and I led the course, which represented the best of an engineering/liberal arts education. The course was structured to encourage the students to truly “experience Italy” and not just have “a trip.” Students studied engineering, science, history, geography, art, culture, religion, theology and philosophy, and how each area influenced the others.

Students kept extensive daily journals, worked in teams and presented project reports on topics from the diet of the Romans to the Circus Maximus (the location of “Ben Hur” chariot races). Each student also wrote a 10-page summary report on three of the topics studied and outlined his or her perception of contemporary Italy and 21st century America.

The course focused on the art, architecture, engineering design and construction techniques from ancient times through the Renaissance. We began in Rome by studying the many examples of ancient Roman engineering. To understand Roman engineering, we spent considerable time visiting many of the ancient structures, including the Pantheon, Colosseum, Nero’s Golden House, St. Peter’s (both above ground and the crypts below ground), aqueducts, fountains and many other sites. Several very experienced guides provided on-site lectures on the technical background of the structures as well as the political and social reasons for their existence and eventual downfall.

We were privileged to visit several sites that many local Romans typically do not see, such as the underground aqueduct Aqua Virgo built in 19 B.C. that still feeds Trevi Fountain. Our guide was an employee of ACEA (the organization responsible for the power and water utilities of Rome). An expert from the Arch-aeological Society of Rome led us through the Markets of Trajan, and we had special guides explaining the significance and the meaning of the paintings in the catacombs of Saints Peter and Marcellinus.

Dr. Alessandro Ranzo, an engineering professor from La Sapienza Univer-sity, along with three other professors gave us a half-day lecture (in a room where Michel-angelo studied) on roads, bridges and structures. Location visits took us to the Pons Fabricius, a bridge still being used that was built in 62 B.C., and the Via Appia, the first of the more than 50,000 miles of roads built by the Romans in the Roman Empire.

Travels outside of Rome included a weekend in Naples, Pompeii and Pozzuoli. In Naples we had an underground tour of recently discovered excavations under the city that became bomb-shelters during World War II. In Pompeii we walked in the ancient seaside city previously covered by ash from Vesuvius which provided another view of Roman society. The amphitheater of Pozzuoli was another site that is rarely visited but offers an even more complete study of what the ancient arenas looked like from below the spectator level.

The Renaissance was the focus of the last week of our course. We spent it in the Tuscany region of Italy, which included a visit to Pisa and its proverbial leaning tower (the most famous among many other “leaners” in Italy). Volterra, the seat of the ancient Etruscan civilization, introduced us to alabaster and the beginning of the arch – the predecessor of the Roman arch. In Florence we viewed the beauty of Medieval and Renaissance art – including Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of David – of handpicked marble from the Carrara marble quarry.

Throughout the four-week class, the students developed and maintained a Web site with daily entries and photos documenting their travels and impressions. Our days were long: 10 to 12 hours with much to see and even more to absorb.

Our objective for this course was to learn about the ancient engineers and their contribution to our current society. We actually learned more about culture, art, history and philosophy as we tried to understand more about the development of the Roman Empire and the contributions of the ancient engineers.

I believe our students also learned about how cultures develop and don’t just “happen.” Hopefully a different and more experienced understanding of another country and their people will be one of the “souvenirs” the students brought home.

This course was a privilege to prepare and conduct. The importance of an integrated curriculum with a multidisciplinary approach for all academic endeavors seems even more obvious now. We trust these students did in fact have “an experience” and not just “a trip.”

For an in-depth view of the course, go to: www.stthomas. edu/engineering and click on “engr298.”

Keith Zell, a graduate of the South Dakota School of Mines, came to St. Thomas in 2002 as a 3M Fellow and an adjunct professor in the mechanical engineering department. He recently retired as executive vice president of MTS Systems Corp.