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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo APRIL 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 8
briefings
PRISM - BRIEFINGS

GENETICS - THIS LITTLE PIGGIE IS GREEN

Think pig, think pink. Right? Perhaps not for long. Genetic engineers at the National Taiwan University (NTU) have created three little pigs that glow green in the dark if a blue light is shone on them. To be sure, other scientists have created partly fluorescent pigs before. But the NTU researchers say theirs are the first to glow entirely green. They’re transgenic critters: The effect was achieved by adding jellyfish DNA to pig embryos. Beyond their coloring, however, they are no different from other pigs. The effort to create green pigs is no mere novelty, however. Stem cells from fluorescent pigs injected into other animals—including humans—are easily traced. And that could do away with the need for biopsies or other invasive diagnostic techniques. It’s not easy being green, according to Kermit the frog; and it’s not easy getting green, either. It took the geneticists many attempts to create their pigs. So they’re going to mate them with ordinary pigs and hope the resulting offspring will also glow green. Then they’ll have greater numbers of glowing pigs to work with. Anyone for green bacon? Didn’t think so. —Thomas K. Grose


HARVEY MUDD - ENGINEER AT THE HELM

Maria KlaweMaria Klawe, dean of Princeton University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a respected computer scientist, becomes the fifth president of Harvey Mudd College this July. Klawe, who will be the school’s first female president, assumes her duties the same year the college celebrates its 50th anniversary. She replaces Jon C. Strauss, who is retiring after eight years at the helm. Klawe says she “can’t wait to get started.” And she praises the school’s “wonderful track record of innovation in undergraduate engineering, science and mathematics education.” Located in Claremont, Calif., Harvey Mudd is a highly selective school: a third of its pupils are National Merit Scholars, and 40 percent eventually earn Ph.D.’s.

Enrollment of women and minorities rose dramatically during Strauss’s tenure, a trend likely to continue under Klawe, who has long championed efforts to increase the number of women and minorities in engineering and science. Klawe has a B.S. and a Ph.D. from the University of Alberta. She’s held academic positions at the University of British Columbia, University of Toronto and Oakland University. At British Columbia, she served as dean of science from 1998 to 2002. She became dean at Princeton in 2003. Klawe also worked eight years at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif. —TG



MECHANICS - ROLLING OUT NEW CLASSES

As the market for hybrids increases, the need for more specially trained mechanics will, too.  Pictured here is Ford’s hybrid, the Escape.
Gasoline prices remain high, and that’s starting to boost the appeal of hybrid cars, which are more fuel-friendly than regular internal-combustion vehicles. Detroit’s troubled automakers all plan to introduce more hybrids in the coming months and years. One research firm says the U.S. market for hybrids will double this year to 2.4 percent. As more hybrids hit the road, the need for qualified mechanics will likewise increase. And a lot of them will be trained at community colleges that have strong engineering technology departments. This fall, Macomb County Community College in Warren, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, will start offering classes in hybrid mechanics. It will be the first of its kind in Michigan and one of the first in the country. Macomb developed the classes with a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Hybrids capture energy from brake friction and convert it to electricity; electric motors kick in to help reduce fuel consumption in stop-and-go city driving. But the technology uses wires carrying lethal amounts of electricity: up to 300 volts. That’s triple the amount coursing through power lines. Clearly, mechanics need to be careful. So do emergency responders—including ambulance workers, police and firefighters—which is why Macomb is offering the classes to them, as well as to budding hybrid mechanics. —TG


BUDGET - NONMILITARY RESEARCH TAKES A HIT

The huge costs of the Iraq War and hurricane relief forced Congress to trim spending in the 2006 budget. As a result, academic researchers will find it harder to get federal funding. Money earmarked for nonmilitary research inched up ever so slightly but didn’t keep up with the rate of inflation. So in real terms, there will be less money for research. Both the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) say they’ll OK about 1 grant application in 5. At the NSF, that’s a continuation of a long, steady decline in its approval rate. But the NIH’s funding ratio was 1 in 3 just five years ago. Essentially, the budget numbers are flat: staying at $28.6 billion at the NIH and at $5.5 billion at the NSF. Oh, and students got hit, too. Most student-aid programs were pared.—TG



BIOMED - NEW HOPE FOR DIABETICS

It’s a familiar experience for Type 1 diabetes patients—pricking their fingers to monitor their blood glucose levels. But if mechanical engineering professor Mu Chiao of Canada’s University of British Columbia has his way, it will eventually become a thing of the past. Chiao has assembled a multidisciplinary group of engineers and scientists to develop an implantable biosensor that will transmit information to a wireless display unit. The tiny chip, less than 3 millimeters square, will be sheathed in a material that will resist rejection by the body. The device would not be limited just to sensing blood glucose levels. Chiao says its applications extend from monitoring any chemical levels inside the body to delivering regular doses of medication. The sensor is a biomedical application of MEMS technology. Micro-electro-mechanical systems are basically silicone-based microelectronics—“systems on a chip”—that not only sense the environment but can act upon it. The biosensor will come with its own power source, ideally one that will last without replacement for five years. That’s currently one of the main obstacles Chiao faces. Another is the array of people involved in the research.  “We need to work with mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, cell biologists, medical doctors—and everyone speaks a different language,” he says. Doctors, for example, have certain demands for what the device should do and where it should be placed, but they don’t necessarily know what is feasible for engineers to build.” Still, Chiao says, his entire team is united by one goal: “a passion to create something that will improve people’s lives.” —Pierre Home-Douglas


CHEMICAL - HERE’S TO MORE RESEARCH

The complex and pleasing taste of a well-made wine results from a cocktail of many chemicals mixing it up during fermentation. But why and how they manage to produce such a beguiling drink is something that’s long stumped scientists. It’s a secret that many of them are still trying to divine. For instance, Carnegie Mellon University chemical engineering professor Lorenze Biegler wants to develop computer models that will help vintners to consistently make fine wines, rather than relying on the hit-or-miss methods now employed. Beigler is initially looking at yeast, which is key to fermentation. Alcohol is created when yeast consumes the sugar from the grape juice. “We would like to come up with a reasonably good model of how this yeast cell behaves,” he says. The object: to “control the fermentation process so we can make better quality wines.” He’s working with an “aroma lab” at the Pontifical Catholic University in Santiago, Chile. Researchers there are trying to pinpoint which chemicals produce the fragrances and flavors necessary for a good wine.

But wine’s heady flavors aren’t easily analyzed or understood. Indeed, the Chilean researchers are working with only white wines because reds are too complicated. Mark Chien, a wine-grape expert at Pennsylvania State University, says demystifying the processes that create good wines sounds easy in theory but isn’t in practice. “It’s a fascinating scientific exercise, but nobody’s been able to prove you can do something like that.” A most sobering thought.—TG


NANOTECH - THE BEST COMBINATION

The creation of tiny lasers—each smaller than a human hair—that could be used not only for telecommunications but also cancer and other disease detection is the goal of a newly funded, multidisciplinary initiative at England’s University of Cambridge. The $4.13 million research project is a joint venture among Cambridge’s engineering, physics and chemistry departments and is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The Cambridge group wants to design microscopic lasers based on liquid crystals and light-emitting polymers that have the best features of dye, gas and diode lasers but without each one’s drawbacks. Dye lasers are tunable to different wavelengths but are large. So are gas lasers, and they can’t be tuned; but they’re powerful and stable. And diode lasers are small but also cannot be tuned. If they succeed, the minilasers will be stable, will emit very pure light and can be tuned to any wavelength, from ultraviolet to infrared, by an electronic signal. Such lasers could be used as “labs on a chip,” able to combine spectroscopic measurement and analysis on a single chip. That will allow for instant, sophisticated analyses, rather than having to send samples to a lab. —TG




QUOTED  

“I’ve learned in returning to Harvard from Washington, that when one leaves Washington, one does not leave political life in coming to a university.”

—HARVARD PRESIDENT LAWRENCE H. SUMMERS AFTER ANNOUNCING HE WOULD STEP DOWN AT THE END OF THE CURRENT YEAR. PREVIOUSLY, HE SERVED AS SECRETARY OF THE TREASURY UNDER PRESIDENT CLINTON.



AGRICULTURE - LONG LIVE THE PAPAYA

Little-known fact about Hawaii: It’s the U.S. center for experimental biotechnology crops. Since 1988, regulators have green-lighted 10,600 applications to grow genetically engineered crops on 49,300 separate fields. Researchers like the year-round growing season; opponents think they also like the island’s somewhat isolated position in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Not surprisingly, the state’s a microcosm for the ongoing global debate over GM foods. A few years back, the entire Hawaiian papaya crop was under threat from a mysterious virus. A Cornell University researcher genetically spliced a tiny bit of the virus into papaya trees, essentially inoculating them against the virus. The vaccination worked; the state’s $16 million papaya industry was saved. Not surprisingly, papaya growers are big fans of biotech. But growers of Kona coffee beans, a product so loved by java mavens that it sells for $20 a pound, oppose plans to test GM coffee plants that will grow decaffeinated beans. Their fear: cross-pollination—should it occur—could render Kona beans less potent (and less marketable). Pineapple growers also are not interested in GM techniques. Antibiotech measures introduced in the state legislature have so far failed to gather enough support to pass. And Hawaii’s papaya growers hope that situation doesn’t change. —TG


FIBERS - TEXTILE ENGINEERS IN BIG DEMAND

The combination of cheap overseas labor and computerization and robotics drained the U.S. textile industry of hundreds of thousands of jobs. North Carolina alone lost 400,000 since 1990. That trend was also costly to North Carolina State University’s College of Textiles. During the last decade, freshman enrollment dropped 40 percent and graduates had to hunt hard for jobs. But technology is also revamping the industry. To be sure, the thousands of low-skilled mill jobs won’t return. But there is a demand for highly skilled textile engineers. And N.C. State’s College of Textiles is riding that recovery. This year, it has a freshman class of 230—the largest in 20 years. And the college says it could find high-paying jobs for twice that many graduates. Meanwhile, its researchers are working closely with industry, pursuing new technologies that redefine what fabrics are. For instance, a process called “nonwoven” turns petroleum-based pellets into fibers used for products ranging from air filters to disposable diapers. But engineers are close to blending nonwovens with natural fabrics—like cotton (as in blue jeans)—that will produce fabrics that can be fashioned into mass-produced clothes without spinning, weaving, cutting and sewing. That’s a big cost-savings. Other high-tech uses of textiles include bullet-proof vests, artificial arteries, material used on stealth bombers and antibacterial uniforms. —TG


SOFTWARE - GETTING DOWN AND LOSING POUNDS

West Virginia has a heavyweight problem: too many fat kids. So its schools are hoping a computer game will encourage some students to shape up. The game, Dance Dance Revolution (or DDR), requires players to mimic dance steps that flash up on a computer screen. At 62 percent, West Virginia has one of the worst obesity rates in the country. And it ranks first for high blood pressure and fourth for diabetes. Nearly half of its fifth graders are overweight. DDR players dance on a light- and color-coded mat, trying to keep up with the rockin’ computer. The manufacturer, Konami, a Japanese company, is contributing $75,000 to the cost of the $500,000 project. Each unit costs $750. The DDR machines are not expected to replace physical education classes but to give kids— particularly those who aren’t fans of traditional sports— another option to be active. The program targets kids ages 10 to 14 because it’s around that time in life when most of us develop lifelong exercise habits. And it’s hoped these students will learn to boogie down to trim down.—TG


DRAPER PRIZE - DIGITAL REVOLUTION

Willard S. Boyle and George E. SmithThe 2006 Charles Stark Draper Prize has been awarded to Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith for the invention of the charge-coupled device (CCD), a light-sensitive component at the heart of digital cameras and other widely used imaging technologies. When they drew up the basic design in 1969, Boyle, now 82, was executive director of Bell Labs’ semiconductor division, and Smith, 75, worked for him. The Draper Prize is awarded annually, and the recipient receives a $500,000 cash award.


GATHERING STORM - KEEPING AMERICA COMPETITIVE

More often than not, they’re duly released—usually in tandem with a press conference to help generate some publicity—then promptly forgotten, their recommendations ignored, regardless of merit. But last October, when the National Academies of Science (NAS) released a 500-page report that starkly warned that America was in danger of losing its competitive edge in the global economy, in part because it was underfunding research and development in the physical sciences and engineering, something odd happened. Lawmakers and the White House not only took notice—they took action.

The NAS’s “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future,” which was written by a panel of top academics, industry leaders and policymakers, certainly was the prime motivation behind the American Competitiveness Initiative, proposed by President Bush in his State of the Union address. The initiative would spend $136 billion over 10 years on programs aimed at supporting innovation. And legislation proposed by two Republicans (Sens. Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee) and two Democrats (Sens. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland) would implement all 20 of the report’s recommendations.

“Gathering Storm’s” emphasis on the need for more basic research in the physical sciences and engineering also struck a chord with the Board of Directors of the American Society for Engineering Education, which took the unusual step of endorsing its findings. Says Ronald Barr, ASEE president: “In endorsing the ‘Storm’ report, ASEE is on record that we agree with the report and we agree that something must be done. More importantly, ASEE’s long-range planning is now oriented not just at parochial issues that affect the organization but more importantly at the bigger national imperatives that affect engineering and technology education in America. Thus, ASEE is entering a more strategic era of its own.”

“Gathering Storm” argues that a strong economy is essential to America’s quality of life and security. It notes that 85 percent of the growth in U.S. per capita income resulted from technological change. But it warns that the “science and technological building blocks critical to our economic leadership are eroding,” while those of competing nations are strengthening. The United States, it says, faces two key challenges: creating high-quality jobs and developing new, clean and affordable energy. Among its main recommendations: increasing federal funding for long-term basic research (particularly in the physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, information sciences and defense) by 10 percent a year for seven years; vastly improving K-12 science and math education; abetting U.S. universities’ efforts to recruit the world’s top science and math students; and changing tax and patent laws so that America remains the best place in which to innovate.

Bush’s initiative includes doubling basic R&D spending over the next decade, which means an additional $50 billion in new spending; making permanent the R&D tax credit; and the training of an extra 70,000 high school science and math teachers. Meanwhile, the bipartisan quartet of senators has proposed the PACE Act (as in protect America’s competitive edge), a three-bill package that would implement all of “Gathering Storm’s” recommendations. And other lawmakers have introduced additional measures to improve science and math teaching. “None of it is law yet,” Barr notes, “but there appears to be a good deal of optimism that, at least, the Bush administration is hearing the alarm go off.” Moreover, given widespread, cross-party support for such action, it appears that this is one alarm Washington won’t ignore. —TG

 

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ALL THE RIGHT MOVES - By Alvin P. Sanoff
SHAKY GROUND - By Pierre Home-Douglas
THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT - By Nancy Shute
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TEACHING TOOLBOX
ALL THINGS GREAT AND SMALL - Universities are starting to establish programs to teach nanotechnology to children. But there’s controversy over how to present the information. - By Margaret Loftus
RESEARCH: Setting the Right Course - By Douglas M. Green
ON CAMPUS: A Winning Idea - By Lynne Shallcross
CLASSIFIEDS
LAST WORD: Opening More Books - By Jill Powell
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