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Tom Lee’s “Things About Stuff” is Still a Hit

Prof Tom Lee with an AM radio he made in elementary school. Photo credit Andrew Brodhead
November 2021

Professor Thomas Lee created and teaches an Introductory Seminar titled, "Things About Stuff." This engaging, student-driven course about invention has become a hit with many students. 

And the 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," says Tom. "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 Tom 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.

Students 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. 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," adds Tom.

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.

Tom Lee is the principal investigator of the SMIrC Lab, which has been a driving force in developing the theory of radio frequency (RF) CMOS integrated circuit design as well as in educating tomorrow's RFIC designers.

 

Excerpted from "Stanford course dives into untold histories of inventions," Nov 8, 2021. 

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