Skip to Content
  American Society for Engineering Education
American Society for Engineering EducationAPRIL 2007Volume 16 | Number 8 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
Powering Up the Pipeline - Schools hope their innovative K-12 programs will propel more students into college engineering courses—and careers. - BY JEFFREY SELINGO
Germany’s Bright Flight - An engineering brain drain prompts Europe’s largest economy to seek reforms and coax its talented flock back to the nest. - BY THOMAS K. GROSE
Piercings, Not Pocket Protectors - Tufts engineering undergrads show young girls that engineering can be cool—just by being themselves. - BY MARGARET LOFTUS

LAST WORD: The Power of “We”  - BY RAY M. HAYNES



AEROSPACE: Cool Creature Takes WingAEROSPACE: Cool Creature Takes Wing

ABOVE: Wind Tunnel Testing of a Small-Scale Prototype of the X-48B.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a plane that looks like a manta ray?! Taking off this spring from NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base will be the X-48B, a blended-wing body concept aircraft from Boeing Phantom Works. The new aircraft, created in collaboration with NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, represents a dramatic departure from traditional tube-and-wing design. Instead of a tail, which it lacks, the X-48B relies solely on multiple control surfaces on its modified triangular-shaped wing for stability and control. The 500-pound, 21-foot-wingspan prototype has been in ground testing since the fall. It is scheduled to begin unmanned takeoffs, landings and slow-speed maneuvers soon. One-twelfth the size of a full-scale blended-wing plane, the X-48B is powered by three turbojet engines that allow it to reach speeds of roughly 140 mph and 10,000 feet in altitude. The altered design could offer more lift, longer range and as much as 30 percent greater fuel economy, an asset for military use. Commercial versions are not in Boeing’s market forecast—so booking a ticket will be a ways off. —Lynne Shallcross


AUTOMOBILE SAFETY - Road Risks Revealed

The four year graduation rate percentage for Tufts female engineering students is 99%More people die in car accidents than in motorcycle mishaps. Therefore, cars are more dangerous. Sorry, that’s faulty analysis, according to Traffic Stats, a new interactive Web site created by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety (www.aaafound- CMU engineering professor Paul Fishbeck says that looking at total fatalities is a poor way to assess risk; examining fatalities per mile paints a more accurate picture. Indeed, motorcycles are over 30 times more dangerous than cars per mile of travel. The Traffic Stats site allows users to apply that risk-assessment formula to many situations according to an array of factors, including mode of travel, age, gender, time of day and season. The findings can surprise. Watch out for that little old lady from Pasadena: An 80-year-old woman and an 18-year-old male are equally at risk behind the wheel.—TG


ACADEMIA - Parent Trap = Gender Gap

Why do so many women scientists veer off the tenure track? The answer, a new study suggests, is kids. Examining 1973-2001 results from the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Doctorate Recipients, University of Kansas economist Donna K. Ginther and Shulamit Kahn of Boston University’s School of Management found that academia’s gender gap is “entirely explained by fertility decisions.” Single, childless women in the physical sciences were 21 percent more likely to have a tenure-track job within five years of earning their Ph.D. than single, childless men. Married scientists of either gender were more apt to be on the tenure track than their single peers. But married males got a whopping 22 percent boost, compared with just 5 percent for married females. Children put women at a significant disadvantage: Having a preschooler pared a mother’s chance of snagging a tenure-track job by 8.1 percent. The mommy track did not derail all women scientists—those with school-age kids who pursued academic careers gained tenure and full professorships as quickly as their childless counterparts. But the study, Does Science Promote Women? Evidence from Academia 1973-2001, revealed that fathers always fare best: Their likelihood of making tenure jumps 2.9 percent for every child over age 6. Kids had no effect on whether dad made full professor. Nor are they responsible for academia’s other big gender gap: salaries.—Mary Lord


PLASTICS - Fishing’s New Lure  

What’s up, Doc? Ask that question to either David Hepworth or Eric Whale, and they’re likely to answer: carrots. The Scottish materials scientists have invented a new fiber-based plastic made from Bugs Bunny’s favorite orange vegetable. They extract nanoparticles from carrots and mix them with high-tech resins to create a biomaterial they call Curran. It can be molded into any shape and to any degree of stiffness and strength as needed. Curran combines the best elements of glass- and carbon-fiber materials, they say, and it could be used to replace them. It also benefits from being cheap and environmentally friendly. Possible Curran products could range from sports equipment to consumer goods to car parts to warships, they claim. The pair met when both were Ph.D. students at Reading University; they formed their company, CelluComp, in Fife in 2004. The firm’s first product—a fishing pole—debuts this spring. What, not a rabbit hutch? —Thomas K. Grose


EMISSIONS - Coal’s Greener PasturesFutureGen prototype  

Who wants yesterday’s fuel? Short answer: If it’s coal, most of the world does. Coal has a well-deserved reputation as a dirty, greenhouse-gas-spewing fuel that’s so 19th century. But the world remains addicted to it, particularly the growing economies of China and India. Global consumption of electricity is expected to double by 2030, and that demand cannot be met without coal-fired power stations. Sure, natural gas is cleaner. But it’s also less plentiful, increasingly more expensive and found in less secure areas of the world. Still, coal remains a chief producer of many noxious chemicals, particularly carbon dioxide, a leading greenhouse gas. But there are new technologies that could make coal more acceptable. Gasification plants burn coal in high-pressure, pure-oxygen environments that give off clean hydrogen, which can be used to turn turbines and produce electricity. But electricity demand is increasing so rapidly, gasification alone won’t solve the CO2 problem; and there are still CO2 emissions to deal with. To truly burn coal cleanly, the CO2 will need to be buried in deep underground reservoirs, a process known as sequestration. In the United States alone, there are enough potential burial sites to hold 1,000 years’ worth of emissions. America’s first coal plant of the future should come online in about five years. FutureGen, a 275 megawatt, $1 billion facility backed by the U.S. Department of Energy and 11 power companies, could be the model for coal plants of tomorrow. It will use both gasification and sequestration technologies to become the country’s first near-zero-emission coal plant. Four possible locations for FutureGen are under review, two each in Texas and Illinois, with construction expected to start in 2009. Coal may yet have a green future, despite its black history.—TG


INTERNET - World’s Fastest Wi-Fi  

AUSTRALIA—Shakespeare in .007 seconds, anyone? An Australian government engineer has unveiled what officials describe as the world’s fastest and most efficient wireless Internet link. The Sydney-based Information and Communications Technology Center, part of the publicly funded Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), announced that its researchers had sped more than 6 gigabits of data per second over a point-to-point wireless connection—zippy enough to transmit the Bard’s entire works in the blink of an eye. Movies could be downloaded in three-quarters of a second, says Jay Guo, director of the CSIRO’s wireless technology laboratory and the electrical engineer who spearheaded the research. (Movies currently consume seven minutes over Australia’s speediest commercially available Internet connection, which transmits 8 MB per second over the phone.) The new system achieves such speeds by exploiting the uncongested part of the electromagnetic spectrum above 55 GHz. “This wireless system is suitable for situations where a high-speed link is needed but it is too expensive or logistically difficult to lay fiber, such as in congested urban environments and across valleys or rivers,” Guo explains. “It’s also ideal for creating networks to meet short-term needs such as in emergencies or at large events.” CSIRO is negotiating with companies in Australia and elsewhere to exploit the breakthrough commercially. Don’t dump your broadband connection just yet: The experimental wi-fi has a range of just 6.25 miles. Even if that reach soon doubles, as Guo expects, Shakespeare’s global fans must still savor Hamlet the old, slow way. —Chris Pritchard


COMMUNITY SERVICE - Volunteers Earn Higher Marks  

A growing number of U.S. school districts require high school students to perform a certain number of hours of community service work to graduate. This can include reading to nursing home residents, volunteering at libraries or cleaning parks. The intent is to build character and foster a sense of altruism. But now a study has determined that students who do community service, either because of school policy or on their own, also improve their academic performance. Moreover, they also have better college graduation rates. Researchers at the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) at the University of Maryland reached their conclusions using data culled from the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988. Students who did volunteer work on their own did marginally better in school than peers who were required to do service. However, both groups’ academic success jumped impressively. For instance, students in school-sponsored programs performed 5.9 percent better on science tests than those who did no service; teenagers who did volunteer work on their own posted 7.6 percent higher scores. Students were 22 percent more likely to graduate from college if they had done volunteer work. Those who were active in student government also got slightly better grades, the study found. Boys seemed to benefit from civic service more than girls. Their reading scores, for example, were 9 percent better than boys with no service, while the girls’ scores were only 5 percent better. Males involved in community service were 29 percent more likely to graduate from university, girls 18 percent more likely. So the message to students is: Help yourselves by helping others.—TG


POST-KATRINA - Lending a Robotic Hand  

New Orleans—and its schools—are still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 disaster that nearly wiped the city off the map. Only half its 17 high schools, for instance, managed to open this past September. That’s one reason SolidWorks decided to hold its annual conference, SolidWorks World, in the Big Easy last January. The Concord, Mass.-based maker of CAD and educational software wanted to do something that not only helped New Orleans schools but promoted engineering concepts in the math and science curricula. It donated educational software to the Center for Science and Math, a high school that teaches math and science to interested students from all city schools, regardless of test scores or grades. Among SolidWorks’ gifts is Cosmic Blobs, a sort of virtual modeling clay that allows elementary school kids to use CAD software to design and animate all sorts of critters and gadgets. Another is COSMOSwork, which lets middle and high school students use computers to design such things as bridges or CO2-powered race cars. SolidWorks also donated five robot trainers made by Gears Educational Systems that teach electro-mechanical engineering techniques. “These are not toys,” says Marie Planchard, director of education at SolidWorks, but they are fun to play with. SolidWorks also raised $32,000 cash for the school by raffling off a Cobra kit car, assembled by the company’s engineers. “What we want to do is make math and science more engaging in terms of engineering,” Planchard says. —TG

“The image of an engineer with a pocket protector ... is gone. There’s a new wave of engineers out there and we’re here to stay.” —Deanne Bell, a mechanical engineer and a character on “Design Squad,” a new PBS TV Show aimed at getting kids excited about engineering.


FEDERAL SPENDING - Leaner Pork Barrel?  

A controversial—but for many universities, lucrative—form of federal financing is undergoing an overhaul in the new Democrat-controlled Congress. Democrats have vowed to rein in runaway “earmark” spending, or money set aside by influential lawmakers in appropriations bills for pet projects in their states and districts. In other words: pork-barrel spending. Earmarks directed to colleges and universities are essentially noncompetitive grants and have soared in the past few years to an estimated $3 billion. That total is three times as high as the roughly $1 billion designated for schools in 2000. Democrats want to place a moratorium on earmarks in the current fiscal year. They say earmarks will return in fiscal 2008 but only with much more oversight. Debate over higher-ed earmarks is hardly new. Critics have long claimed it bypasses and endangers the peer-review system that federal agencies use to fund the worthiest research. But supporters call earmarks an equalizer that funds much good research and contend the peer-review process often squeezes out smaller schools in favor of big research institutions. Of course, pork is an addictive treat in Washington, both for providers and recipients. Ultimately, Democrats may rediscover their taste for it, too.—TG


PANAMA CANAL - New Lane for Wide Loads

Ninety-three years after the Panama Canal opened, work on a third set of locks is commencing. Panamanian voters gave overwhelming support to the $5.3 billion project last October. A new lane is needed to accommodate the increasing number of supersized container ships that can’t fit through the original locks, which in conjunction with a series of manmade lakes and channels, allow ships to cross the 50-mile-long Isthmus of Panama. The old locks are 110 feet wide and 39.6 feet deep. The new set will measure 180 feet wide and 60.4 feet deep. The largest container ships built to accommodate the locks are called Panamax. But bulkier post-Panamax ships now account for 27 percent of shipping, a share that’s expected to reach 37 percent by 2011. The massive civil engineering project is expected to generate 40,000 construction jobs, a boon to a country with a 9.8 percent unemployment rate. A cautionary note: More than 5,600 workers died during the 10 years it took America to complete the canal.—TG


RENEWABLE ENERGY - Full Steam Ahead!RENEWABLE ENERGY - Full Steam Ahead!

Call it the race to the future. Set for 2009 at the fabled Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hydrogen 500 will feature cars powered by hydrogen fuel-cell electric motors. Organized by the Hydrogen Electric Racing Federation, the race aims to force breakthroughs in fuel-cell technology by prodding manufacturers to develop cars with motors that generate a minimum of 300 kilowatts (400 horsepower) and can sustain speeds of 185 mph for 500 miles. “For the first time in many years, racing will undertake a key role in the development of radical new technologies for production vehicles that are still on the horizon,” says federation President and CEO Peter DeLorenzo, who publishes, a Web site for gearheads. DeLorenzo says the race has captured the attention of industry leaders in Detroit. Just think, when the track announcer commands, “Drivers, start your engines,” there not only will be no deafening roar from dozens of high-performance engines, there won’t even be a loud hum. We’re sure it’ll still be exciting.—TG






Learn about diversity at ASEE
ASEE would like to acknowledge the generous support of our premier corporate partners.


American Society for Engineering Education