ES.272 | Spring 2003 | Undergraduate
Culture Tech


Course Meeting Times

1 session / week, 1 hour / session

1 session / week, 2 hours / session

Each session is either used as a lecture (discussion) or a lab, but which session is used for which purpose changes weekly.


The Experimental Study Group (ESG) is an alternative academic program that offers experimental, small group learning in the core freshmen subjects within a community-based setting. This course, as part of the ESG Seminar Series, offers students the opportunity to participate in a small discussion-based class taught by an MIT upperclassman under the guidance of a faculty supervisor. Students James Rising (S.B. ‘05, Philosophy) and Amilio Aviles (S.B. ‘03, Aero-Astro) taught this seminar, loosely supervised by ESG faculty. Seminars taught in this format are all graded Pass/Fail and receive 1/2 of the academic credit assigned to regular academic classes.


Culture Tech evolved from a more extensive, two-semester course which formed the centerpiece of the Integrated Studies Program at MIT. For 13 years, ISP was an alternative first-year program combining humanities, physics, learning-by-doing, and weekly luncheons. Culture Tech represents the core principles of ISP distilled into a 6-unit seminar. Although many collections of topics have been used over the years, the modules presented here are a representative sequence. 


This class is divided into a series of sections or “modules,” each of which concentrates on a large technology-related topic in a cultural context. We will use most of two modules previously developed by the ISP program for depth and parts of three others for variety. The class starts with a four-week module on Samurai Swords and Blacksmithing, followed by smaller units on Chinese Cooking, the Invention of Clocks, and Andean Weaving, and ends with a four-week module on Automobiles and Engines.

There are two class meetings per week, at which assigned readings and related topics are discussed. In addition, there will be a series of hands-on projects that tie theory and practice together. The discussions range across anthropology, history, and individual development, emphasizing recurring themes, such as the interaction between technology and culture and the relations between “skill” knowledge and “craft” knowledge.


The 6 units for this class are divided as follows:

  • Meeting Times - 3 hours per week, divided into one 1-hour meeting and one 2-hour meeting
  • Reading - 2 hours per week, or about 40 pages per week
  • Writing - 1 hour per week, or a total of about 10 pages for the semester

The writing is split up into one 4-5 page paper, one 2-3 page paper, and a series of evaluation topic questions to help us track students’ reading. The papers are largely on topics of the students’ choice. The topic questions ask for short answers (1-2 paragraphs) which require information from the readings, and will be administered (as take-home assignments) every week or two.


Participation 40%
Short Paper 10%
Long Paper 30%
Topic Questions 20%


This list is organized as a sequence of class meetings (of which each two make a week). Each class time has associated readings and discussion. Citations and questions for the readings and details about lab activities can be found on each module page.

The Samurai Sword and Blacksmithing
1 Introduction to Japan
2 The katana
3 The samurai’s cultural origins
4 The code of the samurai
5 Zen and the samurai
6 Civil war and unification
7 Giving up the gun
8 The Tokugawa state
Chinese Cooking and Food
9 The context of Chinese food
10 The interplay between Chinese food and culture
John Harrison and Clocks
11 Harrison and the longitude problem
12 Clock design issues and engineering
Andean Weaving
13 Peruvian textiles and culture
14 Quipus
15 Peruvian textile techniques
16 Textiles and their functions
Automobiles and Engines
17 Early history of the automobile
18 Engine design and engineering
19 Suburbanization
20 American rites of passage
21 Fast food and American culture
22 Scientific thinking, Zen, and motorcycles
23 Cultural change and progress
Course Info
As Taught In
Spring 2003