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Mario Salvadori

The Changing Nature of Engineering The Bridge Vol. 27 No. 2, Summer 1997

An engineer's personal experiences form the basis for an innovative educational program that uses concrete, visual problems to teach abstract math concepts to students in innercity public schools.

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perhaps. in the philosophy and practice of education. M My path along the road to an academic career was never consciously concerned with educational methodologies. It never occurred to me that I might become interested. she never obtained a university position in Italy. my native land. much less active. having mastered 46 languages and started to open the doors of the mysterious Etruscan tongue. Moreover. and because of my rather unusual early education. it may be of some interest to the reader to find out how I was led. My purpose from the very beginning was to teach almost any subject I was interested in and not be concerned with how I would teach it. it is not unusual for an elementary or high school teacher to publish learned papers or win a national competition and by so doing earn an academic appointment within the public-university system. to a particularly happy educational career and. is that of the young Roman barber who. Because of this downward evolution. and they vary from country to country. Others. to an approach to education labeled by some American educators "the Salvadori educational methodology. The most famous example. In Italy." 3 . although recognized today worldwide as a seminal thinker in the field of elementary education. my career in education has followed a downhill path opposite that of some Italian school teachers: It started in an Italian university and is ending in an American kindergarten. were less fortunate. was elected to the prestigious chair of linguistics at the University of Rome. on the other. like Maria Montessori. without ever having attended elementary school. by chance. on the one hand.any are the paths to a successful educational career.

and under her warmth it became natural for me to love literature (at the time I spoke three languages: Italian. but he was also. and Spanish) and even to enjoy Latin declensions as if they were an amusing game. at which time I informed my parents that I refused to attend a school where the teacher hit the students' fingers with a ruler in order to elicit correct answers. Mother. French. and for purely psychological reasons.There is no denying that the way educators teach is deeply influenced by the way they themselves were taught. As a consequence of this decision. father may have been a first-rate teacher (he was). Although I was only 7 years old at the time. and the chanting of the multiplication table in unison with the other kids in the class. This second educational experience lasted all of 2 months. I became progressively more enamored with the humanities and developed a growing hatred for the sciences. To my unconfessed relief. my parents took my firm decision at face value and decided to educate me at home themselves. My fear of him as the unchallenged master of the household became sublimated 4 . On the other hand. opened my mind to the glories of science. Italy. my father took our family to Spain at the end of that year. and father. or at least pretended to be. a strict disciplinarian and a severe taskmaster. an engineer with an amazing background in the sciences and a few years as professor of electrical engineering at the University of Rome. home-cooked omelet I had to eat for lunch. a year I remember to this day for two funny reasons: the cold. and I began attending the French Lycee in Madrid. who according to the customs of the time had not attended school but had been tutored privately. Mother was sweet and protective. My education started with a single year in an elementary public school in Genoa. taught me the humanities.

Upon our return to Italy after an absence of 5 years. Unfortunately. physics. consisting of 5 written and 7 oral examinations. Yet. their application to what he referred to as "practical problems. I had become totally enamored with music. my middle and high school education followed the so-called classical curriculum. to solve at the very beginning of our scientificmathematical intercourse: "The hands of the watch are one on top of the other at 12 noon. I got lost on square one and hated math and science for the next 12 years of my educational life. above all. enjoyed each day of school and passed the terrifying final exam." I still have nightmares about the problem he asked me. I was totally unable to determine these unfathomable times by mathematical manipulations. established for those students who by money and/or brains were destined to attend the university. but was also demanding in math. I dreamed of becoming an orchestra conductor. most if not all of the male members of my family were engineers and since my early 5 . This was not an easy decision because. At what other times during the day are they one on top of the other again?" Besides not seeing any practical value in the determination of the watch hands' superposition. spending more time playing and concertizing with professional string players and singers than studying either the humanities or the sciences. and chemistry. The time had come for me to choose a career. with great glee. By then I was a fairly good pianist. meanwhile. I found it altogether fascinating. with high honors. The curriculum was particularly heavy on the humanities. particularly because father overvalued my capacity to grasp the abstract concepts of these two subjects and.into a hate-fear of math and science.

childhood I had been conditioned to say.D. almost by accident. After a month of attending lectures at the mathematics school delivered by some of the greatest mathematicians in Europe. . I started my own career in teaching as an "instructor in the theory of structures" in the faculty of architecture of the University of Rome. "I want to be an engineer. I fell in love with the subject I had previously hated. Yet. with a deep distaste for our "family" profession. I thought he was kidding. in mathematics?" he said. but he was also understanding: "Why don't you try a Ph. I unhesitatingly chose the latter. between starting an unpleasant career and trying a new one. I quickly signed up for the course in quantum physics taught by the young Italian Enrico Fermi. relativity theory. he knew that the main reason I did not like engineering was that I couldn't understand the math in it. I finished first in my class. painlessly introduced to the mysteries of quantum mechanics. It was there that I discovered. declaring to my amazed parents that I would never practice engineering." I was totally mystified by this seemingly meaningless statement. but within a week I became enamored with the abstraction and particularly the beauty of pure mathematics. I remember to this day the words with which my calculus professor began his course: "Let M objects be chosen N by N . and the other revolutionary ideas about the physical world that changed the way we look at it." It did not take much pressure from my loving parents to convince me of the total impracticality of my musical aspirations. thus. Father may have been strict. I entered engineering school. I was. purely taught by the Cauchy approach. . My pleasure increased when I discovered that the math curriculum would allow me to attend courses in physics. how to coax unwilling students (of the kind I myself 6 .

after which I would show them how simple the mathematical solution was when dictated by a clear understanding of the underlying physical problem. I decided on a different approach than the German theoretical methodology favored by most professors.had been) into a fascination with a new subject and. among other physical entities. areas. thus. because the numerical answers to structural problems always have physical meaning. They represent lengths. intuitive point of view. particularly. I decided to have the students look first at problems from a physical. (Who could have predicted then that 60 years later I would adopt the same approach in dealing with students in the elementary and junior high schools of New York City?) Architecture was ideal for my purpose. weights. I was assigned the additional task of assisting the professor of structures at the school of 7 . of the usefulness of mathematics in the solution of structural problems. too. Architectural students chose their career because they were attracted to the creative aspects of architecture while being almost totally uninterested in its technological aspects. volumes. A few years later. and enjoyed what they were learning. In teaching architectural technology. was fascinated by the creativity of architectural design but was also well aware of its technological aspects and. appreciated the importance of such an understanding to their future professional activities. to excite their will to learn. The students understood the physical meaning of what they were being asked to calculate. The circumstances of my first teaching experience could not have been more propitious. My approach worked like a charm. I.

not by the name of its inventor. but as the "Salvadori American method.engineering. I delightedly accepted this temporary assignment and. My tenure at the University of Rome lasted only 7 years because of my decision to leave Italy rather than fight in the second World War on the side of the Nazi-Fascists. when a famous professor of civil engineering was called to Washington by the war effort. I was 8 . kept going to the campus after the 4 months had expired. At times madness knows its hidden purpose and. My arrival in the United States in January of 1939 was made possible by the unexpected and never admitted help of my mentor and by then good friend Enrico Fermi. With this unexpected lecture. (The method was known for years in Italy. of course. I was offered a lectureship to teach elementary mechanics for an unspecified length of time. the hatred of the professor. after a sad year spent working in a factory while looking for a job. One morning he called me from his sick bed. within a month. which presented the advantage of giving a physical meaning to each successive numerical move toward the correct solution. I gained the admiration of the students and. asking me to teach a 9 o'clock class of 150 students! On the spur of the moment. In January of 1940. a professor at Yale University.") The enthusiasm of the engineering students confirmed my belief in a physical approach to the mathematical solution of engineering and architectural problems. Shortly thereafter. at a quarter of nine in the morning. to the surprise of my colleagues. I decided to introduce them to a brilliant American method for the solution of structural problems by successive approximation. sure enough. I was offered a 4-month position in Columbia University's school of engineering as a substitute lecturer in elementary mechanics.

starting in the 1950's. however. gave up the course. For the next 20 years. my books were not widely accepted in the mathematics community. I was lucky enough to be offered a position by Princeton University as a professor of architecture. I began designing architectural structures in the engineering office of Weidlinger Associates. Thus. My 5 years of experience at Princeton reinforced 9 . I developed 17 different courses in engineering mathematics and published a number of textbooks with titles ending in "Engineering Problems. having become too busy with the war effort to waste their time on engineers. In addition. my conviction was reinforced that the difficulties stemming from the abstract nature of mathematics could be overcome through the understanding of concrete problems.assigned to teach his courses. A renewed interest in this approach to structural theory was awakened in me when. The school of engineering had always relied on the mathematics department to teach the one course in engineering mathematics required of all its students." an indication of the importance of the physical approach to the solution of such problems. under the impetus of emerging technologies. At first. meeting architects not as students but as professionals. I was put in charge of engineering mathematics. I could not have found myself in a better spot at a better time. my books were adopted by an increasing number of engineering schools. and a tenured career at Columbia became a goal I could dream of reaching. Again and again. I proved to myself and to my students that the understanding of a physical problem should precede the adoption of a mathematical solution. The mathematicians. Despite this initial high-brow disapproval.

relevant) preamble that I can now explain my approach to education in the lower and middle grades of our schools. a cause to which I have dedicated a significant amount of my energies and time over the past 20 years. It is with apologies for this extravagant (but. This experience made my collaboration with some of the greatest architects in the world a wonderful experience. a bored child is not only unwilling but unable to learn. it was adopted by almost all American schools of architecture and was translated into 14 foreign languages. I believe.those at the school of architecture of Rome and inspired me to write my first book on structures for architects. I found that I could explain such concepts with words and pictures as clearly as with mathematical formulas. The book dealt with some of the most refined concepts of architectural structures. To my pleasant surprise. None of us ever learned anything unless we were interested in what we were supposed to learn. I thus had the opportunity to explain the causes of collapses to members of a jury. most of whom were totally untrained in the intricacies of structural design. I. This occurred 10 . as founder of the nonprofit Salvadori Educational Center on the Built Environment (SECBE). hated mathematics throughout high school because I neither understood it nor saw any purpose in it. The 1970s saw me relinquish some of my structural design activities in favor of work as a "forensic expert" in court cases involving structural damage or collapse. and I was almost as surprised by this discovery as my readers were. for one. but it did not contain a single mathematical formula. In all of this work. I have looked at education from the point of view of the student.

(Most of the really outstanding mathematicians and scientists have an extraordinary. the inanity of this approach is obvious to anyone who has been lucky enough to discover what mathematics really is: a pure. I believe that the rote approach is unacceptable in the United States. and the unfortunate fact of life that abstraction does not come naturally to most of us. Since mathematics is the only scientific subject in which there are no rules whatsoever but only agreed-upon assumptions. its only justification stemming from the logic of its development. Although it might be acceptable in countries with values different from ours. a serious but pure game. which we call axioms.because. and by showing students how to play the game through the application of math to concrete problems that interest them. at that time. both from an educational 11 . abstract game to be played according to accepted axioms. Moreover.) The difficulties that arise from the "game" quality and abstract nature of mathematics can be remedied in one of two ways: 1) by imposing an authoritarian acceptance of nonexistent mathematical "rules" (i. there are two different kinds of mathematical abstraction: the geometrical kind and the analytical kind. math was taught as a series of rules to be accepted without question.e. in contrast to the approach used in the humanistic subjects. because of the totally abstract nature of that field. I choose to discuss mathematics first. natural tendency to think geometrically rather than analytically. by teaching mathematics by rote) or 2) by explaining mathematics as it really is. which can be changed whenever suggested by a greater applicability to practical problems or upon pure creative whim..

I then told the students that without matrix 12 . His satisfied reaction was. First. sometimes we have to resort to imaginative examples or even metaphors. Second. we introduce students to any and all mathematical concepts and techniques by means of problems that are relevant to their daily lives and are at their level of maturity. How then should we teach math? In the SECBE "approach. called matrix algebra. "I understand. their impact on students is often amazing. To make this point. why is 2 x 3 equal to 3 x 2 ?" The correct answer to this question (though a meaningless one to the student) is: "Because this is an axiom of real number theory." I followed up by explaining that the axiom used in the example did not apply to certain numerical entities (usually labeled by capital letters) in a different kind of algebra. I showed the student that putting two apples on each of three plates or putting three apples on each of two plates resulted in the same number of apples. "Mario. But once these two principles are adopted. we do what I call "opening windows on the future. in which A x B is different from B x A most of the time. A seventh grader once asked me. Let me illustrate this approach with an anecdote." We allow the student to apply a less intuitive mathematical technique to a practical problem that may seem to be so abstract as to be useless in practice but that can be shown to be of great practical value." we adopt two basic principles. The concreteness of the problems and the students' interest in their practicality do away with the fear of abstraction and thus naturally motivate." Instead.and a political standpoint.

as is that of an integer. I walk along a circle." The student is now confused. Because the axioms of mathematics are so well adapted to the solution of problems. I do not walk on your line. I appear to be confused and say. Of course. and it is my turn to point out that an infinite straight line is a pure abstraction. but I had opened a window on a topic he might run into later on in his educational career.algebra (and computers) I could not have designed high-rise buildings with 100 or more floors. and then I play dumb and ask. it is hard for young students to believe that different axioms may be as "real" as those of number theory or Euclidian geometry." answers the student." I similarly point out that the Euclidian notion of a "point" is a pure abstraction. For this purpose. although it represents our reality if we work "in the small. I consider it essential to the understanding of mathematics to have students realize that the well-known axioms of elementary mathematics are as abstract as those of more advanced mathematics. 13 . I had not taught him matrix algebra. live on the Earth and if I keep going forever in the same direction I move on a spherical surface and go along a circle. I had both answered the student's question and opened his mind to the practical advantages of a more unusual. and I might even have stimulated his curiosity about such a career. like you. Thus. "I. "How long is that line we are talking about?" "Forever. I have the student state Euclid's axiom. I use the Euclidian axiom concerning how many lines can be drawn parallel to a line from a point outside the line. the students simultaneously encountered the arbitrariness of the operations of elementary algebra and were given a hint of the usefulness of matrix algebra. more abstract area of mathematics.

I then clinch the story of the Euclidian axiom by pointing out that toward the middle of the last century. "How come?" Usually. a German geometrician (F. when a human being first noticed that three stones. often believe that science explains natural phenomena. And that at the end of the 19th century. "I know. can be just as useful in solving "real" problems as apparently "more real. I start by asking a student how much he or she weighs and. Lobachevsky). I finally explain that the first two non-Euclidian geometries have been found to be very useful in the design of electrical circuits. at the same time but unbeknownst to one another.000 years ago. Einstein could not have constructed his general theory of relativity. In this way. To my surprise. upon being given a answer of so many pounds. including teachers of science. and three stars had something in common--the property of "threeness"--that was a demonstration of an amazing capability for abstract thought. one Hungarian (F. like those of matrix algebra or non-Euclidian geometry. I have discovered during my years of teaching school that not only students.F.B. three people.I go on to explain that 20. I 14 . axioms." yet still abstract. I use a question-and-answer session to do away with this belief. the same student or sometimes another states with great authority. Bolyai) and one Russian (N. proposed a geometry in which not one but two parallel lines could be drawn from a point outside a line.I. but also teachers. Riemann) proposed a geometry in which an infinite number of lines could be drawn parallel to a given line from a point outside the line." but that even more abstract axioms. and that without the Riemannian geometry. two geometricians. I hope to convince students that not only are numerical and Euclidian axioms pure abstractions which do not represent our "reality. I ask.

"Who. I state what is usually called Newton's gravitational law (which I prefer to call "Newton's gravitational hypothesis") and write the corresponding equation on the board." I agree with this answer but then ask the same student: "The earth pulls on you. (I am aware that because the Newtonian gravitational law explains much more than the attraction between two bodies. In fact. that two bodies attract each other in proportion to the product of their weights and in inverse proportion to the square of the distance between them?" Everybody agrees that this is what Newton stated and it is then for me to clarify that what he said was: "Two bodies behave as if they attracted each other . but once in a while one states: "By gravity we mean that the Earth pulls on us. if by the word explain they mean that it enables us to better understand how certain natural phenomena occur. Then I ask." At this point. "Is this what Newton said. It is because of gravity. And do you pull on the earth?" My question is usually met with general laughter. I cannot disagree with their statement.know. me? I don't think so. . No. but it would not check with our experiments. " where the "as if" clearly indicates that Newton did not know why the two bodies attracted each other but only described how they attracted each other. ." I play dumb and ask: "Did you say 'gravity'? What do you mean by gravity?" Seldom do seventh graders know the answer. the inverse- 15 ." On hearing the magic word "gravity. It is proudly recognized by a few students. it is said by some scientists to "explain" gravity. and the student says. An assumption that the force of gravity acts in inverse proportion to the cube of the distance between two bodies would be just as logical as that it acts in inverse proportion to the square of the bodies' distance.

and useful to introduce the elements of the history of science as we move along its path so as not to contribute to the basic ignorance and fear that science elicits in so many of our citizens.) I attribute this lack of understanding of abstract concepts and of the limitations of science to the absence of science history in our curriculum. is an essential part of 16 . but I wonder whether it is satisfactory to talk only about particles at a time when the very concept of a particle has vanished from physics. This. practical. While we learn in school the names and contributions of the creative men and women responsible for progress in the humanities. while the scientific world has gone through the first revolution of special relativity. More importantly. just as correct in limiting cases. then. our students are taught physics as if its development had stopped 300 years ago. This lack of historical context not only leads to the kind of misunderstandings I mentioned above. the second of general relativity. and the fourth of "string theories. It makes his theory more comprehensive. but also ignores the dramatic sequence of discoveries that have slowly brought us to our present knowledge in the sciences. There is no question in my mind that physics does not explain the cause of gravitation and never will. It would seem logical. students are amazed to learn that the equal sign we use in mathematics today was only suggested and adopted at the end of the 1700s. the third of quantum mechanics.square law is necessary to Einstein's general relativity theory. To focus on one minutia of math history." I am not suggesting that our middle school students should be taught still-evolving theories. math and science are taught as if they had miraculously descended on us from a celestial sphere. Our schools still live mostly in the Newtonian world. and certainly more elegant.

the continuing education of the teacher remains one of the most difficult issues in modern education. requiring inexpensive and easily available materials. The second essential part of the SECBE approach is to introduce abstract concepts through concrete. for example. they will be left behind by the rapid progress in subject matter and in pedagogy. the common yet extreme interest of students of all ages in the behavior of structures (including the influence of shape on the strength and stiffness of structural elements) can lead to an understanding of the variation of "strength through form" by means of simple experiments. Yet. seldom is time or compensation provided for the additional effort required. 1994. in times as dynamic as ours. it is possible to construct a geometrical proof of Pythagoras' theorem. using just a piece of paper.) Students of all ages love to participate in hands-on activities. perhaps the most memorable theorem in the history of geometry. Hence. and scissors. once everything is said and done. direct approach--essentially the same strategy we use with students. teachers are confronted with a serious dilemma: If they keep teaching the way they were taught. Salvadori.the SECBE approach to the teaching of science--to mention science's history at every step of its evolution so as to uncover its human dimension and to reduce its abstract nature. visual problems. We offer teacher-training graduate courses in 17 . (See. For example. Yet. There is no doubt among educators that. ruler. the entire educational system revolves about one pivot: the teacher. Our center has tried to address this problem through a modest. and they learn social skills along with their mathematical and physical concepts. Similarly.

I cannot end without expressing my hopes for the future of the U. Of course. not surprisingly. At stake is our position as a world leader in science and technology as well as our economic well-being in the 21st century. but not immediate miracles. they could not be more wrong. Strength Through Shape: Paper Bridges. administrators. and politicians have all become aware of the need for change. 1994. by delving deeply into the basics of math and science. both in terms of what children are taught and how they are taught it. the center can only do this on a limited scale and in schools in and around New York City. Still. We have reason to expect success. But. do not differ much from those that interest students. New York: Salvadori Educational Center on the Built Environment.S. M. I believe deeply that teachers. this statement is obviously correct. boards of education.math and science based on concrete problems of interest to teachers that. So. It is often said that educational problems cannot be solved by throwing money at them. they cannot by their very nature be solved through the use of appropriate sums of money. References Salvadori. we succeed in generating in teachers new enthusiasm for their work. while I am hopeful. 18 . No significant human activity has ever been motivated by money alone. If interpreted literally. The types of changes contemplated can take place only over long periods of time and with the focused efforts of many individuals and organizations. education system. I remain realistic. But if the statement is meant to imply that once the needs and solutions to educational problems have been identified.

A longer version of this paper. Weidlinger Associates. and founder. 19 . containing examples of hands-on classroom activities. Salvadori Educational Center on the Built Environment (SECBE).C. (212) 650-5497. a member of the National Academy of Engineering. author of this article and posthumous recipient of the 1997 National Academy of Engineering Founders Award. is honorary chairman. died 25 June 1997.About the Author: Editor's Note: Mario Salvadori. Consulting Engineers. P. is available from SECBE. Mario Salvadori.

by Mario Salvadori

by Mario Salvadori

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