Roman Technology: Using STEM to Teach the Classical World

Nathalie Roy

With a push toward careers in science, technology, engineering, and math in the United States, STEM has been an educational buzzword for the past decade. Schools have added science instigator positions to their faculty, robotics programs to their curricula, and makerspaces to their libraries. Grant money from major industries has poured into schools for classes and after-school programs that teach kids about STEM.

This current emphasis on the sciences in school may seem a strike against the humanities, but what many of us Latin teachers may forget is that our curriculum is perfect for STEM collaboration and integration. The Romans were amazing STEM innovators. Why not capitalize on this aspect of the Roman world to build interest in our programs for those who might not consider studying Latin or the classical world?

Roman Technology

For the past two years, I’ve been teaching a class called Roman Technology. In its first iteration, the class was for upper level Latin students who focused on the technical writings of Vitruvius, Pliny the Elder, and other ancient STEM authors. Now, in the second year, Roman Technology has morphed into an elective class for middle school students interested in the ancient Roman world and the technology of Roman daily life, with no Latin language experience needed. In this class, we do daily interactive projects that focus on STEM from all aspects of the Roman world: household crafts, such as spinning and hair styling; construction methods, such as mixing and setting concrete; record keeping with wax tablets, papyrus, and abaci; hydraulic devices, such as aqueducts and water screws; weapons like catapults; and the list goes on. Name a segment of Roman life, and you can identify a form of technology that kids will love reproducing.

If you don’t have the opportunity at your school to offer such a class, don’t fret – the Cambridge Latin Course offers many opportunities for Latin teachers to integrate STEM topics as stand-alone projects. For example, in Unit 1, the Roman house’s use of rainwater, the masks of ancient theater, the heating system of bath complexes, and the eruption of Vesuvius are perfect for a little STEM exploration.

Students love the hands-on learning that STEM projects bring to their learning. Parents and administrators love the melding together of two seemingly incompatible subjects. These projects also garner interest from grant agencies, especially industry. There are dozens of grant opportunities for “innovative uses of STEM” from major companies like ExxonMobil and Lowe’s. In fact, I have fully funded my classes through such grants.

Surprisingly, the student population of my Latin classes rarely intersects with that of my Roman technology classes. Some students are not allowed to take language electives because they must focus on core courses to prepare for standardized testing. These kids may never get to take Latin. As classicists at the elementary/secondary level, we should consider expanding the avenues for study of the ancient classical world. STEM is an intriguing and fun way to introduce the ancient Romans to kids of all abilities.


About the author:

 Nathalie Roy teaches Roman technology, classical mythology, and Latin at Glasgow Middle School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA, where she enjoys researching and introducing the classical world to students through experimental archaeology and gamification.

She earned her B.A. and M.A. in classics at Louisiana State University where she also focused on pedagogy. She is a National Board Certified Teacher and serves as the president of the Louisiana Classical Association.