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Space Race Advertising

Hyped in Space

The folks who brought you the Marlboro Man and "Good to the Last Drop" knew how to mix fact and fantasy. When it came to the 1950s space race, Madison Avenue pretty much let fantasy take over. With big contracts from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Pentagon, aerospace companies ran otherworldly campaigns in the pages of Aviation Week, Missiles and Rockets, and Fortune. Ads showed, for example, moon bases and gardens, and a solar-powered vehicle to ferry passengers and cargo across the solar system. The intent was to attract young engineering talent, as author and historian Megan Prelinger explains in a new book, Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957-1962, due out May 25. A former materials tester for Boeing, Prelinger says that the ads were often a ploy to recruit top workers to build bombs, fighter planes, and other implements of war for the defense industry. - JAIMIE SCHOCK

Image of Toyotas
Toyota Controversy
At Odds

As the ongoing saga over runaway Toyota vehicles continues, several engineering academics have become embroiled in the controversy. The car manufacturer has recalled millions of vehicles, responding to complaints that they're susceptible to sudden, unintended acceleration. Toyota has insisted that the problem - which federal officials say has caused 43 crashes and 52 deaths - is mechanical, not electronic. But in late February, David Gilbert, an associate professor of automotive engineering at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, testified before Congress that he could cause Toyotas to suddenly accelerate by introducing short circuits into their electronic throttle systems - flaws that the internal computer didn't record, and that kept the cars' fail-safe system from activating. Mechanical engineering professor Chris Gerdes, director of Stanford University's Center for Automotive Research, backs Toyota's claim, saying that the short circuits Gilbert created could never happen "in the real world." Exponent Inc., an engineering consulting firm Toyota hired, reached the same conclusion. Raj Rajkumar, a computer engineer at Carnegie Mellon University, counters that Gilbert's work still raises valid doubts about the electronic fail-safe system. An earlier Exponent study that found no electronic flaws in Toyota's accelerators was also sharply criticized by Michael Pecht, a University of Maryland mechanical engineering professor, for using a sample - just six cars - that was far too small. -Thomas K. Grose

Image of concept Micro Air Vehicle

Flexible Flier

Dragonflies are swift and agile, which is why Haibo Dong, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio's Wright State University, studies them. His team recently created the first full-body 3-D simulations of the quad-winged insects in flight. It was a three-year process that began with videoing the insects with three high-speed cameras, then using advanced computer-vision algorithms to create the images. mechanical insectDong's goal is to build a four-winged micro air vehicle (MAV) that can fly and flit like a dragonfly. Having the 3-D simulations will enable Dong's researchers to better understand the insect's flow physics, how its wings and body deform and flex in response to each other as it flies. While it is exacting work, the result should be an MAV that has more lift, maneuverability, and speed than two-winged types. MAVs as small as dragonflies could have many military and civilian uses, ranging from chem-bio weapons detection, surveillance, and environmental monitoring. Dong expects to build the first prototype later this year, but it may take another five years before dragonfly MAVs are commercially available. -TG


The current average salary for a full professor of engineering at U.S. four-year public and private colleges. Engineering professors ranked second in pay only to law professors ($134,146) in a list of 33 fields.

Sources: College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, Chronicle of Higher Education

Youtube Image of Flight of the Jumbo
College Applications
New Media Version

Tufts University prides itself for having an admissions process that encourages the offbeat. For years, applicants have had the opportunity of writing optional essays on topics like "Are we alone?" In a new twist, this year's crop had the option of making short videos to support their applications and posting them on YouTube. According to the New York Times, 1,000 out of 15,000 applicants did so. A few even garnered thousands of hits on the popular video site. As Lee Coffin, dean of undergraduate admissions, told the Times: "There is a real technical savvy out there in this generation . . . One kid is talking, and then all of a sudden, he's in the water, to show off his underwater camera." Michael Klinker, who hopes to study mechanical engineering, filmed a remote-controlled, flying blue elephant helicopter he built, playing off the theme of Tufts' mascot, Jumbo. That clip has garnered nearly 15,000 hits. Coffin stresses that not having a video won't undermine an applicant, and neither will a badly made one. The traditional, non-optional personal essay still matters most because "it's important to be able to express yourself elegantly in writing." -TG


With a reservoir of more than 1.7 trillion barrels, the oil sands of northern Alberta are one of the richest deposits of petroleum on the planet. But they have also cost Canada a black eye in the international environmental community for the amount of greenhouse gases and polluted water involved in turning the tarlike bitumen into higher-quality heavy oil. The University of Calgary is hoping to help change that with the recent creation of the Alberta Ingenuity Center for In Situ Energy, headed by Engineering Professor Pedro Pereira-Almao. The goal of the engineers, geoscientists, and chemists working at the research facility is to develop a chemical process using nanosize catalysts that will both extract and upgrade the bitumen in its underground reservoir - in situ - leaving "all the carbon and greenhouse gas emissions down-hole," as one researcher puts it. Engineering Dean Elizabeth Cannon adds, "We are known as the green engineering school in the heart of the oilpatch." - PIERRE HOME-DOUGLAS

Pearl River Tower, Guangzhou, China
Green Architecture
Gem of a Design

The world's greenest skyscraper will open its doors this fall in Guangzhou, China, operating at 58 percent more energy efficiency than a traditional tower. The Pearl River Tower is a ZEB, or zero-energy building, which is designed to use renewable energy sources in order to produce at least as much energy as it takes from the grid - and in some cases, excess electricity, to be sold back to the local utility. Most ZEBs are small structures, but not the Pearl River, which is 2.3 million square feet. Because skyscrapers squeeze a lot of square footage into buildings that are tall and narrow, that poses a design challenge for ZEB technology. For instance, as Fortune's Brainstorm Tech blog notes, there's not much roof space for solar panels. In addition, heat from lights, computers, and people requires most skyscrapers to run air conditioners nearly year-round. But the Chicago architectural firm SOM has devised solutions for Pearl River. It uses roof solar panels to power metal window blinds that track the sun and open and close automatically to cut down on solar heat. It uses wind turbines capable of generating power even from weak winds. And the tower is wrapped in a double-glazed skin that traps heat from the sun and shunts it to a heat exchanger. The tower's owner wanted a ZEB not only to cut energy costs but also to boost its green cred - understandable, perhaps, since the company in question is China National Tobacco Corp. -TG

Jeffrey W. Talley
Engineered Calm

Jeffrey W. Talley, the head of Southern Methodist University's new Institute for Engineering and Humanity, is not your typical professor of environmental and civil engineering. For one thing, he's a two-star U.S. Army general who spent time in war-torn Iraq helping to rebuild Sadr City, one of Baghdad's poorest, most dangerous neighborhoods, where many Shiite militias are entrenched. Before taking charge as the Army's chief engineer in Baghdad, Talley did some research and discovered that in areas where rebuilding occurred, violence dropped. So he had his troops work to restore roads, water, housing, and soccer fields-not where they were most needed but in communities where militias were active, according to the Chronicle for Higher Education. That way, Talley told the paper, "you're using engineering as a tool." That kind of thinking has gotten Talley, a reserve officer, promoted at an almost unprecedented pace.

It's also what motivated SMU to make a huge push to woo the Irish Catholic from the University of Notre Dame, a school where he had sunk deep roots. The mission of the new graduate-school institute ultimately won him over. Now, he requires SMU students to complete a project that devises housing, water, sanitation, or energy solutions for disadvantaged communities in the United States or elsewhere. Meanwhile, Talley, 50, also has ongoing duties at Fort Knox, where he commands a training division. "Luckily," he tells the Chronicle, "SMU is willing to share me." -TG

Bloom Box
Flower Power

The launch of a power source is rarely a red carpet event. But Arnold Schwarzenegger and Colin Powell were on hand for the introduction of the Bloom Box, a solid-oxide fuel cell touted as promising inexpensive, emission-free energy. So were top executives from Google, eBay, Wal-Mart, FedEx, and Coca-Cola. The brainchild of K.R. Srihar, former University of Arizona aerospace and mechanical engineering professor and director of the Space Technologies Laboratory, the Box can generate electricity wirelessly and is intended to replace big power plants and transmission-line grids the same way laptops offer alternatives to desktops and cellphones to landlines. Critics question the steep price - at present, one refrigerator-size unit costs $750,000 or more. But so far, Bloom Energy's customers have been more than satisfied. Last year, eBay saved over $100,000 on energy costs after the company purchased five units for its campus. And Srihar believes that over the next few years, he can reduce costs to $3,000 per unit, making the box commercially viable. If he's right, it will be springtime for fuel cells. - ALISON BUKI

Useful Pests


If there's ever a nuclear holocaust, the only survivors will be cockroaches and the Rolling Stones, the old joke goes. The part about the roaches is actually quite accurate, as the universally despised insects are more or less immune to nuclear radiation. That's why engineers at Texas A&M University want to turn them into remote-controlled detectors that could be sent to scope out areas possibly contaminated with nuclear waste - places where terrorists may have, for example, planted a dirty bomb. The roaches would be fitted with tiny backpacks carrying sensors and low-energy communication systems. Devices that stimulate their leg muscles or antennas would allow controllers to direct their movements. "It's like a cattleprod for cockroaches," William Charlton, lead researcher and an associate professor of nuclear engineering, told National Defense magazine. Initially, his team was going to build roachlike robots, but they required too much power. "A biological platform doesn't take any power to move," he explains, and cockroaches can run flat out for 35 minutes. They're also strong enough to carry a 3-gram load for three months. Cue up the Stones' hit, "Beast of Burden." -TG

Who Hacked Google?

Investigators pursuing Web attacks on Google and dozens of other U.S. companies may have identified possible involvement by two important Chinese schools, based on the use of computers at these institutions, the New York Times reported. Jiaotong University in Shanghai has an international reputation as a top tech school, while Lanxiang Vocational School has a strong computer-science reputation - and close ties to China's military. Both colleges vigorously deny involvement in the spyware attacks. However, according to the Financial Times, investigators also say Jiaotong's networks are so closely monitored that they would have been an "odd choice" for nonuniversity hackers trying to avoid detection. A prestigious school of 33,000 students, Jiaotong has alliances with several top U.S. colleges, including Duke University and the University of Michigan, and has also collaborated with major-league tech companies, including Microsoft and Cisco Systems. The Times quoted a Duke spokesman as saying that the North Carolina school was troubled by the allegations and would "explore" them with Jiaotong. -TG

On Top Down Under

The Journal of Engineering Education has been rated a top-tier journal by the Australian Research Council, which ranked the ASEE scholarly publication among the top 5 percent of nearly 21,000 international research journals. JEE is the only journal in engineering education to receive the top rating, and one of only six journals listed on the Thomson-Reuters Social Sciences Citation Index in the category of education and education research to receive an A* rating. "We are very pleased and inspired to be recognized as a global leader in educational research. I am especially grateful to our Australian colleagues and our JEE partner the Australasian Association for Engineering Education for nominating and supporting JEE through the extensive evaluation process," said JEE editor Jack Lohmann. ASEE President J.P. Mohsen added, "JEE is clearly having global impact in advancing the body of knowledge on engineering learning." -TG

Robot Chef - photo by Noris Basilio
Diners' Delight

Four years ago, Fanxing Science and Technology of China created AIC-AI, "the world's first cooking robot," which can rustle up thousands of disparate Chinese dishes. Since AIC-AI burst onto the culinary scene, the New York Times reports, roboticists around the world have devised "a veritable army of new robots designed to serve and cook food." Japan's Motoman SDA10 has spatula arms that can handle savory pancakes. The Famen restaurant in Nagoya, Japan, serves ramen noodles, prepared by two giant robot arms. The Learning Algorithms and Systems Laboratory in Lausanne, Switzerland, came out with the Chief Cook Robot, pictured, which can make omelettes - provided someone first cracks the eggs.

Despite these impressive displays of kitchen prowess, it's not likely that we will soon - if ever - see many robotic eateries. For one thing, the machines are very expensive. Then why use them? It's a cool way to show off what robots are capable of - and watching pancakes flipping is more entertaining than a display of car frames being welded. The owner of the Famen restaurant, who also owns the robotics company Aisei, opened the ramen bar as a clever promotional gimmick. Moreover, linking robots to dining is a good way to curb the unease many people have with the machines. "We figured, what better way to get people to interact with a robot than have something that offers them food?" Paul Rybski, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, told the Times. His team created Snackbot, which, as the name indicates, is a robot designed to serve light meals. -TG

Photo by Noris Basilio



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