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Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

Steven W. Collins
BIS 251
Bothell Campus

How Things Work: Electricity and Invention

Introduces basic scientific concepts needed to understand technologies encountered in everyday life. Focuses on electricity and its applications in various electronic devices, appliances, and systems. Readings in the history of technology develop the context in which discovery, invention, and innovation unfold.

Class description

This course is about the history and science of electricity and its applications in our everyday lives. The focus this quarter will be the discoveries and inventions in the nineteenth and early 20th centuries that gave rise to wired and wireless communication, electric motors and generators, and the system of electric power that brings electricity into our homes and businesses. Readings and assignments range across history, biography, and scientific concepts related to electricity. Students will encounter some of the most fascinating figures in the history of technology, including Benjamin Franklin, Michael Faraday, Thomas Edison, and Nikola Tesla. The course also makes use of an electric circuits kit to provide a hands-on experience with concepts and devices introduced in the lectures and reading.

Student learning goals

Be able to explain how electricity works, how electric power is produced, and how electricity is used in a wide range of devices encountered in everyday life.

Understand the history of electrical science and technology, including insights into how discoveries and inventions happen, how knowledge builds cumulatively and combines with experience to produce new knowledge and technologies, and the respective contributions of individuals, organizations, and larger cultural and economic forces.

Be able to build basic electrical circuits that demonstrate understanding of concepts introduced in the readings and lectures, including direct current (DC) electricity, batteries, resistance, capacitance and inductance, amplifiers, and radio circuits; be able to explain how such circuits work.

Improve scientific reasoning and problem solving skills.

General method of instruction

Mix of lectures, in-class worksheets and discussion. In most weeks, part or all of one day will be devoted to activities making use of the electric circuits kit that students purchase from the bookstore.

Recommended preparation

No prerequisites, but students should be prepared to use basic algebra and scientific notation. The class is designed for students not intending to major in science, math or engineering who need to fulfill their natural world requirement. Ideally, students should be interested in the history of science and invention, and curious about the nature of electricity and how we came to understand it.

Class assignments and grading

Usually includes a combination of exams (midterm and final), participation in class discussions and exercises, two or three short essays, and homework questions and problems (some or all of which may be done on line). Students are encouraged, but not required, to write one of their essays on their experience visiting the American Museum of Radio and Electricity in Bellingham (the instructor will organize and lead a group visit for interested students).

For further details, check the course website listed below for updates.


The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Additional Information
Last Update by Steven W. Collins
Date: 11/11/2011