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Bigger, Faster, Stronger . . . Higher
(Investigating Popular Faith in Technology)

In this lesson, students analyze popular feelings and beliefs about two major disasters: the sinking of the Titanic (1912) and the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger (1986). Through their investigation, students will compile evidence about how much people respected, relied upon, and admired technological progress in the case of Titanic as well as Challenger, and draw conclusions about how these tragic disasters affected popular opinion about technology. In addition students are encouraged to examine their own lives, considering whether their own reliance on technology (computers, television, home appliances) is harmful or helpful.

Students will have the opportunity to:

  • learn about the role of technology and its impact in two major historical events: the sinking of RMS Titanic and the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
  • develop concepts from various sources about events, and will be able to express these in a classroom setting.
  • develop critical thinking skills regarding various online, print, and video resources regarding these two events and make conclusions about the validity of such sources.
  • conduct research and interviews with persons who were alive at the time of the 1986 Challenger disaster and will be able to interact with them about what they remember about that event.

Estimated Time
24 hours for distributing & collecting surveys, plus 4 - 5 hours (minimum) of class time researching and preparing reports.

Necessary Materials

  • Lost Liners video
  • TV and VCR
  • Access to computers with an Internet connection
  • Multimedia presentation software (optional)

Relevant National Standards
This lesson addresses the following national technology standards established by Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning,

  • Understands the relationships among science, technology, society, and the Individual
  • Knows ways in which technology and society influence one another (e.g., new products and processes for society are developed through technology; technological changes are often accompanied by social, political, and economic changes; technology is influenced by social needs, attitudes, values, and limitations, and cultural backgrounds and beliefs)
  • Knows that alternatives, risks, costs, and benefits must be considered when deciding on proposals to introduce new technologies or to curtail existing ones (e.g., Are there alternative ways to achieve the same ends? Who benefits and who suffers? What are the financial and social costs and who bears them? How serious are the risks and who is in jeopardy? What resources will be needed and where will they come from?)
  • Knows that science and technology are pursued for different purposes (scientific inquiry is driven by the desire to understand the natural world and seeks to answer questions that may or may not directly influence humans; technology is driven by the need to meet human needs and solve human problems)
  • Knows ways in which social and economic forces influence which technologies will be developed and used (e.g., personal values, consumer acceptance, patent laws, availability of risk capital, the federal budget, local and national regulations, media attention, economic competition, tax incentives)

Teaching Procedure

  1. The teacher has the class view Lost Liners, in particular the segment on the Titanic. (Fast forward to 10:02 for an introduction to the Titanic, and use the video segment 19:10 - 50:00 for the main story of the Titanic.) In introducing the segment mention should be made of the "hype" surrounding the ship's size and capabilities. The teacher might highlight that the ship had been dubbed "unsinkable" by many, and that its speed was considered unrivaled. In this introduction, the teacher might mention the complacency surrounding the US manned space program by the time of the Challenger launch. (For example, launches were no longer broadcast on the major networks, space travel was deemed so safe that a "teacher-in-space" had been allowed on a shuttle mission and a "journalist-in-space" soon would be, as well as members of the US Congress.)

  2. While the Lost Liners segment is viewed, students should take note of instances within the segment about the pride that the White Star Line and the British people had regarding the Titanic, and that they believed the ship was beyond fault. One example of this might be Captain Smith's ignoring the ice warnings and ordering Titanic "full speed ahead." Another example of this might be the luxurious accommodations on board the Titanic, especially for first class passengers.

  3. After the segment is concluded, the teacher should continue the discussion by asking students to compare their observations. Ask student to consider the benefits afforded by the pride people took in the ship's speed and power, as well as its elegance; ask them also to consider the drawbacks. Then, move the discussion forward by noting that technologic advancements in general are sometimes considered both a blessing and a curse. Ask students to generate examples. The construction of nuclear power plants, for example, has afforded people a cheaper, cleaner energy source, but brings also certain risks. While industrial growth has allowed us to producer food more cheaply and in greater quantities, it has also has brought pollution, sometimes dangerous work conditions, and unemployment caused by mechanization and automation.

  4. Next, explain to students that they will investigate reactions to a contemporary tragic disaster: the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle. The students should then survey two persons who are old enough to recall the event, and who can generate opinions about what happened and why. (This should be someone born at least before 1978.) Since the survey asks participants to expand on some answers, it is suggested that enough time be allotted for participants to read the survey and completely answer questions. It is recommended that the teacher allow at least 24 hours for the class to distribute the survey and collect them from participants. The following items might be included in the student survey (or print and copy the Challenger survey, and distribute to students):

    • Circle your age group: 25-30 30-45 45-50 50-55 55 or above
    • Where were you when you first heard about the explosion of the Challenger?
    • What can you remember about the event and its impact on you?
    • What do you think caused the shuttle disaster?
    • If the opportunity were available, would you accept an opportunity to fly on the shuttle now?
    • Do you feel that the space program should be continued, eliminated, scaled back, or expanded? Please explain your answer.
    • Do you feel that the space program serves a useful purpose in regard to developing and increasing technological knowledge that is usable in everyday life? Please explain.

    Since the survey is detailed, and the results should represent a relative cross-section, it is suggested that no participant complete more than one copy of the survey.

  5. Once the surveys are returned to the students, the teacher may want to lead a discussion in which students report on the results they received. In that way, students in the class can compare answers they received. (In addition, should the teacher have time and desire to do so, this might be an opportunity to have the class view archival news coverage of the Challenger explosion.)

  6. Once the class has sufficiently reviewed the results of the survey, the teacher should allow students to compare the Titanic and Challenger disasters. How did popular faith in technological advancements affect people's reactions to these disasters? Did they help cause these disasters? Was there too much trust in technology? An over-reliance on it? Too much complacency?

  7. Next, allow students to research the factors that contributed to each disaster and how popular opinion about them was recorded by the media. Students may begin research using information about the Titanic from this Web site, the Online Resources listed below, or by performingg research in the library. (Note that it may be possible to contact someone in the community who was alive at the time of the Titanic sinking and can share information about that event with the class. If possible, that person might be invited to school to share his/her recollections, or interviewed by a student with a tape recorder and the interview played for the entire class.)

    Specific issues to investigate include:

    • The specific cause of both the Titanic sinking and the Challenger explosion.
    • What effect each disaster had on national culture and on prestige in the respective nations (Great Britain for the Titanic, the US for the Challenger).
    • Are some of the same concerns and fears of technology still with us today (for example, fear of using computers and the Internet, nuclear power, etc.).
    • How each nation was able to deal (or not deal) with the loss of life and recovery from the disaster.

    The class can be divided into groups. Each group might investigate the all the issues, or each group might be assigned one of the issues, such as the White Star Line's insistence to have the Titanic go "full speed ahead" or NASA's overruling of Morton Thiokol's recommendation not to launch Challenger in such cold temperatures.

  8. Once the research is complete, class time should be set aside for students to develop multimedia presentations (using Power Point, HyperStudio, or similar presentation software) to showcase their findings. The following is a sample format for a multimedia presentation:

    • Presentations must be at least five minutes long.
    • There must be a title slide with the full names of all group members.
    • A bibliography slide with at least four resources used must be created at the end of the presentation.
    • At least four clipart files must be used.
    • At least two sound files must be used.
    • Slide transitions must be animated.

  9. Set aside class time for students to display their presentations to the entire class.

Assessment Recommendation
The following rubric may be used to evaluate student research and participation:

  • Research (maximum 20 points): How much research did the group complete? Was the research constructive to the final project?
  • Presentation skills (maximum 20 points): How effective was the group in the presentation? Were they well organized?
  • Speaking ability (maximum 20 points): Was the group able to express themselves in a manner understandable to the audience?

Extension/Adaptation Activity
Younger students and students without access to computers and/or the necessary software to develop multimedia presentations should be encouraged to use poster board, art clippings from magazines or newspapers, and other materials to develop their presentations.

Online Resources
NOTE: Online resources about both the Titanic and Challenger are in great number. The resources noted below are a sampling of available Internet sites regarding the events. It is also recommended that teachers and students conduct further web-based research for other sources that may be useful in learning about the events.

In addition, many non-web sources are available for the sinking of the Titanic, such as Walter Lord's book, A Night to Remember, as well as many related video sources. The same is true for the Challenger disaster. In addition, at the time of the Challenger explosion, many families had videocassette recorders, and may have recorded network news coverage of the event.

Titanic Resources:

Challenger resources:


The Blame Game

Bigger, Faster, Stronger . . . Higher

Titanic Artifact Activity

Hypothermia on the High Seas

Lost Liners Scavenger Hunt

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