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(January 25, 2001, Gazette)

Of mice and pen

Dr. Ross PetersDr. Ross Peters

By Susen Johnson

You just never know who’s watching. That’s the lesson learned by Dr. Ross Peters, whose Web-posted lecture notes presented the semi-retired engineering professor with an unusual opportunity recently.

Since 1997, Dr. Peters has supplemented his undergraduate course The Engineering Profession, in which he uses examples of great engineers from history to set inspiring professional examples, with Web resources for students, such as his own lecture notes and helpful links to further reading.

“It was just the convenience for students,” he explained. “That and the fact that I wanted them to reach material in other locations, like professional engineering pages, and to explore relevant material at other institutions around the world.”

One of Dr. Peters’ Web-posted examples was of a British engineer by the name of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806–1859), best-remembered as the designer of the Great Eastern, the steamship that laid the transatlantic cable on the ocean floor from Ireland to Newfoundland in the 1860s.

“Though Brunel had been dead for several years before his ship came in to Heart’s Content, students always find his local connection interesting,” Dr. Peters said. “And I particularly like his drive to innovate, and also to accept professional, personal responsibility and risk.”

Someone else was interested in Brunel, too. Just before Christmas break, Dr. Peters got an e-mail from a BBC History Online assistant producer, who explained that she had found his lectures online and wanted to commission him to write an article. The paper would be posted on the BBC site in support of a broadcast documentary about Victorian engineers, airing this month (only in the UK).

Dr. Peters was surprised.

“Anyone who puts material on a site for students to read is aware that the whole world can look over their shoulder,” he said. “So the fact that they found the course notes is not surprising because any search would turn it up. But that they thought it worth basing an article on for the BBC – that was a bit flattering, and intimidating, too.”
Dr Peters’ final piece, for which he was also paid, is posted online at www.bbc.co.uk/history/discovery/bypeople/brunel_01.shtml.

Dr. Peters says the fact that unintended audiences sometimes read online postings impacts his Web work.

“You have to be more conscious of the quality of what you write, with it all waving out there in the breeze,” he laughed.

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