PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - APRIL 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 8
briefings
PRISM - BRIEFINGS

ACADEMIA - NEW CHANCELLOR AT SANTA CRUZ

When Denice Dee Denton was appointed chancellor of the University of California—Santa Cruz in December, she became the fourth woman to be put in charge of a UC school. She also becomes the second engineer currently holding a top administrative post, joining Henry Yang, chancellor at the University of California—Santa Barbara. In 1996, Denton was named the first female engineering dean of a major research university at the University of Washington. At age 36, she was also the school's youngest dean. The 45-year-old academic was selected by UCSC after a year-long, national search that considered more than 700 applicants. UCSC President Robert C. Dynes called Denton "an accomplished scholar" who energetically advocates the role of higher education in society and an "innovative administrator." Indeed, last year Denton received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring for her efforts to promote diversity in science and engineering. —Thomas K. Grose


VIRTUAL REALITY - DISTRACTING THE PAIN

AUSTRALIA—Down-under IT engineers hold high hopes for a new virtual-reality computer game they helped develop to lessen pain levels in hospitalized child patients. A team at the Adelaide-based University of South Australia adapted virtual reality technology for use among children after examining promising U.S. research involving pain reduction among adult burn victims. A trial involving children with cerebral palsy, who had undergone surgery on ligaments in their legs and faced post-operative physiotherapy, resulted in a reduction in pain averaging 41.2 percent. Another trial with child burn victims achieved similar results.

To play the game, the child straps on head-mounted goggles, with a computer projecting images onto the lenses, or mini-monitors. Players use a sensor pack in the headwear and a simple mouse, but they actually drive the game by moving the head. The researchers adapted the equipment so users can rely on head movements, applying minimal finger pressure on a small mouse only as a trigger when firing at targets, instead of keyboards or joysticks.

Researchers believe that virtual-reality technology is superior to regular computer games, because it isolates the user from external distractions, reducing sensations of pain and anxiety. It's more engaging than watching a television show or DVD because the children are part of the game. Patients become fully absorbed and less aware of pain and procedures affecting them.

Child patients who rated their pain on a visual analogue scale as 7 or 8 out of 10 during the non-virtual-reality part of burns dressing were rating it as 1 or 2 when they wore the virtual-reality unit. At present, the technology is unsuitable for children younger than 5 because of their underdeveloped motor control skills. –Chris Pritchard


COMPUTER MODELING - THE DA VINCI CODE

The smile on the Mona Lisa's face will likely forever remain enigmatic. But a University of Michigan mechanical engineering student thinks he's solved a more worrisome mystery surrounding one of the world's most iconic paintings: why it's warping and cracking. Evan Quasney, 19, spent last summer as an intern to Marion Mecklenburg, the senior research scientist at the Smithsonian Institution. It's Mecklenburg's job to figure out how best to preserve priceless art. Quasney developed a computer model that decoded why DaVinci's masterpiece is rapidly deteriorating: It hangs on an exterior wall at the Louvre museum in Paris. When the outside temperature drops, so does the wall's. The room's humid air condenses on the cool wall, dripping water onto the wooden back of the painting.

Two other standard methods for reducing warping — applying wood battens to paintings' backs and cradling, a form of flattening a painting — actually make matters worse, his model found. The best preservation method, the model indicates, is an application of a gesso, a mixture of hide glue and calcium carbonate. That's a solution that's been in use for more than 500 years. No word yet on whether the Louvre plans to move the Mona Lisa to safer spot that could keep her smiling for centuries to come. —TG


GLOBALIZATION - GOOGLING FOR APPLICATIONS

As Google aims to transition from being a U.S. company with global influence to an internationally run company with U.S. headquarters, hiring engineers abroad is a major hurdle. "We are unquestionably not getting the quantity we would like," says Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Google's trouble recruiting top-tier computer scientists and engineers throughout the world is slowing the company's plans to make Google available on cellphones and other portable devices, Brin says.—Lynne Shallcross


PEOPLE - IF ONLY IT HAD BEEN AN ENGINEERING QUESTION

Hutchins, at a  broadcast of the show at Olin. Photo By Michael MaloneyWho wanted to be a millionaire? Grant Hutchins, a 21-year-old electrical and computer engineering junior at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, did. The Oklahoma native auditioned last summer for the syndicated, weekday version of the show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and won a spot as a contestant. Hutchins filmed the quiz show last October, and it aired in February. That meant he had to keep mum on the outcome for nearly four months. Although Hutchins is active in campus politics—he's president of the Olin Political Caucus—a question on politics thwarted his chances for huge wealth. When asked in which state did the term gerrymandering—or the redrawing of political districts to favor one party over another—originate, he replied Virginia. The correct answer is Massachusetts. Still, Hutchins went home with $25,000 in his pocket. He's not rich, but for a student, that's a pretty good payday. —TG


HIRING - LINE FORMS ON THE LEFT

Job hunting? Well, Harvard University is hiring. The Ivy League school plans to greatly increase the size of its division of engineering and applied sciences (DEAS) faculty. The number of DEAS faculty will increase from 60 to 100 over the next 10 years, a 60 percent jump, as plans now stand. "This phase will require substantial new financial and physical resources that are yet to be quantified in detail, so the plan may change," notes Michael Patrick Rutter, DEAS spokesman. Most of the hires will be in the fields of biological, medical and chemical engineering, and applied sciences.

The hiring blitz is part of a restructuring of the university's Faculty of Arts and Sciences to better promote and facilitate more multidisciplinary research. DEAS Dean Venkatesh Narayanamurti will now also oversee 90 physical sciences, physics and statistics professors. Also under consideration: turning the engineering division into a full-blown Harvard School of Engineering, Applied Sciences, and Technology. It's an idea, Narayanamurti says, that has "some merit." What he envisions, the dean told the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, "is something very unique . . . a connector between basic research in the sciences with the world of technology." Narayanamurti adds: "It's a very exciting period for the interfaces among the physical sciences and engineering."

The division has "institutionalized" a collaborative approach toward other disciplines, Narayanamurti says. Other hires he wants to make will be in the areas of bioengineering, astrophysics, systems and computational biology, quantum science and nanoscience. Interested? —TG

 


SALARIES - AT THE TOP

According to the book, College Majors Handbook With Real Career Paths and Payoffs, by Neeta Fogg, Paul Harrington, and Thomas Harrington, the salaries of engineers are among the highest of all major fields of study. Here's how they stack up, based on mean annual earnings for graduates with bachelor's degrees:

Chemical engineering

$75,579
Aerospace, aero/astronautical engineering $73,605
Computer systems engineering $70,084
Physics and astronomy $69,612
Electrical/electronics engineering $68,977
Mechanic engineering $68,806
Industrial engineering $68,411
Civil engineering $66,126

 


BOOK NOTES - BACK TO THE FUTURE

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed By Jared Diamond, Viking, $29.95Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed By Jared Diamond, Viking, $29.95

Throughout time, societies have generally faced the same dangers, including environmental and economic challenges, warfare and ignorance. Some survived. But many others ranging from the Mayans to the Mycenaeans crumbled. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed is a cautionary tale from Jared Diamond, the UCLA geologist and physiologist whose book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, won the Pulitzer Prize for its adroit explanation of why some civilizations prosper. "Advanced societies today face growing environmental and economic problems" that mimic those that destroyed past ones, Collapse warns. But Diamond offers hope: "The past offers us a rich database from which we can learn, in order that we may keep on succeeding." And today's societies have one advantage: The wherewithal to learn those lessons quickly. —TG



NOW YOU KNOW  
Percentage of engineering technology bachelor's degrees award to women in 2003: 11.7


ANIMAL RESEARCH - PILOTING FROM A PETRI DISH

DeMarse examines a dish of rat brain cells. - Photograph By Ray M. CarsonIn a lab at the University of Florida there's an F-22 jet fighter simulator being operated by . . . a small dishful of rat brain cells. And quite successfully, as well. The 25,000 rat cortical neurons are scattered in a dish affixed with a grid of 60 electrodes—a multi-electrode array—and hooked to a desktop computer. In the dish, the neurons reconnect to one another and form a living neural network, which is, for all intents and purposes, a brain, says Thomas DeMarse, the biomedical engineer researcher running the experiment. To "teach" the neurons to learn to fly the simulator, researchers devised a feedback system. The neurons were sent data on whether the jet was flying straight and level. The neurons sent signals back that altered the simulator's course, and that data was then returned to the cells. Eventually, the neural network modified itself based on the incoming data and essentially learned to fly the simulator.

DeMarse's team is learning how brains conduct complex computing chores, like pattern recognition. With that knowledge, he hopes to develop algorithms that mimic brain processes. The human brain, he explains, can perform some amazing feats that computers can't even begin to replicate. —TG


LEISURE - THE RETIREMENT LOUNGE

Freedom's just another word for the retirement blues. The hardest issue the newly retired face most often is not a financial squeeze. It's having all that free time on their hands and not knowing what to do with it. So says Richard E. Grace, a retired Purdue University vice president and engineering professor. Grace, 74, is author of the book When Every Day Is Saturday. He calls it "an engineer's approach to retirement. It's quantitative, not touchy-feely." The heart of the 174-page volume, which is based on research derived from a database of 700 retirees, is a self-assessment quiz. Readers score themselves in seven categories: freedom and leisure; financial independence; separation from work; family and friends; health; helping others. The lower your score in an area, the more likely it will cause you problems.

And what he's hearing back from readers is that freedom confounds them. "That was a surprise," he says, and shows that sound retirement planning should include a blueprint for making constructive use of a sudden overabundance of leisure time. That's especially true for retiring engineering academics who may be used to working many hours a week, he adds.

Grace admits that just before he retired at age 65 from Purdue, after spending 46 years there, he felt "frustrated" because he wasn't sure what to do with himself. He got involved with a local retirement group, which had a database of 1,700 people. And once he got the idea for the book, it was from that base that he culled the 700 respondents of his survey. Grace says most books on retirement tend to focus entirely on finances. And none takes his quantitative approach and allows readers to numerically assess their trouble zones.

Grace, who has to handle all the marketing himself, calls the book-signings and media interviews fun. Like most former teachers, he says, he enjoys an audience.—TG


BIOENGINEERING - SPECIAL DELIVERY

Passing a baby through a woman's bony pelvis is an engineering problem, says Robert H. Allen, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University. Doctors and midwives are sometimes working with only a centimeter or two to spare. And in 5 percent of births, shoulder dystocia occurs: That's when the baby's shoulders can't get through the pelvis. In 25 percent of those cases, the babies receive injuries to their brachial plexus nerves, which control arm movement and sensation. But a team led by Allen has built a birthing simulator that allows doctors to practice techniques for mitigating dystocia. The device has rubber gloves lined with force sensors that indicate how much traction is used by the deliverer.

There are three standard delivery procedures used for dystocia deliveries. One involves turning the baby so its spine faces the mother's belly; the second involves turning the baby so its spine aligns with the mother's spine; the third method is raising the mother's legs. A study conducted by the university's hospital determined that the first method required putting the least amount of force on the baby's head. Allen expects the birthing simulator to become a useful teaching tool; since dystocia births are fairly rare, even veteran obstetricians should find the trainer useful. Also, the device could be revamped to simulate other delivery-room scenarios, from breech births to forceps deliveries. —TG

 

 

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THE NEXT REVOLUTION - By Lucille Craft
SEND IN THE ENGINEERS - By Thomas K. Grose
FROM THE WHITE HOUSE TO THE PRESIDENCY - By Alvin P. Sanoff
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A NEW OPTION - A new breed of engineer works in the financial markets and develops products that predict returns and assess risk. - By Thomas K. Grose
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ON CAMPUS: A Higher Vision - By Lynne Shallcross
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