HM - February 2019 - McLean

Classroom Applications


Teaching Swords into Ploughshares
by Shannon McLean, Irondale High School, New Brighton, Minnesota

Though "swords into ploughshares" is probably not a phrase many of our students are familiar with, the idea can provide a useful framework as we ask students to consider the relationship between military technology and products we now encounter in our everyday lives. In order to help students think about connections between science, technology, and history, we can design inquiries that invite them to contemplate the origins of items we take for granted today.
Some of our students may know about the unorthodox origins of penicillin, but how many of them know the scientific origins of GPS, ergonomic chairs, or even clear braces? These “spinoffs”--commercially available products originally designed with astronautical intent--are an interesting way to have students begin investigating the advancements that NASA has contributed to modern society. Two simple ways to have students begin their investigation are through the NASA annual publication appropriately titled “Spinoff,” or the Spinoff website. Looking for a more direct way to introduce the ideas of spinoffs? NASA has curated a list of 40 of the spinoffs that they believe have had the greatest impact on society. As they examine these lists, students might consider:
  • What conditions existed that allowed these technological advancements?
  • How might elected officials and global geopolitics prompt developments in certain eras?
  • How does the ethos of a country impact the shape and direction of its scientific and research investments?
Importantly, students should pose their own questions as well.
To dig in deeper, students could choose a “spinoff” and create primary and secondary source sets that relate to that advancement or tell a story about a particular innovation. Using photographs, patent designs, newspaper stories, journal entries, speeches, artifacts, and numerous other primary and secondary sources, students might create a human timeline of innovation with their classmates, or trace the development of everyday items through their military or NASA iterations to make an argument about these items’ impact today. The possibilities are limitless, as the technologies that NASA and the military have created are constantly expanding their reach. The Library of Congress’ Digital Collections, US Patent and Trademark Office, and the Digital Public Library of America have incredible, student-friendly digital resources that would help both teachers and students dig deeper into the innovations that have changed our lives.
Helping our students understand that items we often use every day come from the technology that NASA and its contractors created for the  Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions and the Shuttle program provides students with the opportunity to connect the human experience in the past and present. Swords were indeed turned into ploughshares, as well as GPS, solar panels, enriched baby food, and memory foam.
Image credit: Swords into Plowshares: By Neptuul - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Shannon McLean is a history and government teacher at Irondale High School in New Brighton, Minnesota


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