PRISM Magazine Online - April 2000
Conducting Experiments Online

Conducting Experiments OnlineEver wonder what happens to a beverage can when it's subjected to 200 pounds of pneumatic pressure? Probably not, since the outcome is fairly predictable. But if your interest is now whetted, you can visit a Web lab designed by engineers at the Illinois Institute of Technology to find out. With one click, you can send an empty can rolling down a chute to be crushed by two ramrods, all in just under six seconds. You then get to view six photos of the action.

The can crusher may not qualify as scintillating entertainment, but as a mechanical-engineering experiment, it gets two thumbs up. IIT students using the crusher are also given data along with the photos. The crusher is one of three Web-based, demonstration experiments designed by IIT to show that some lab work can be done in cyberspace. Michael Hites, interim director of the school's Computing and Network Services department, says that the department has earned a three-year, $230,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to see if it can develop an online-based engineering curriculum.

Hites doubts that an entire course can be taught online, but he thinks cyber-labs have great potential, especially when combined with traditional live laboratories. Clearly, Web labs have the potential to expand the use of distance learning. But Hites thinks they will also become a necessary part of all engineering curricula "since experimentation equipment is moving toward higher degrees of computerization, and many are becoming network appliances."

Another benefit of online lab experiments is they allow anytime, anyplace access for students. Still, Hites says, for learning experimental methods, live lab work remains unsurpassed.  And, as some of us may recall from our own student years, when it came to crushing beer cans, the hands-on approach was usually the most satisfying.

Squabble Over Cybersquatters

Squabble Over CybersquattersGo to the   Web site and you won't find anything about the hallowed Ivy League school--it's the Web home of a consulting firm. is operated by a Milwaukee-based signaling and intercom company. ? That's a Colorado publishing company.

Businesses trading on famous campus names are nothing new. College towns are usually peppered with small businesses that borrow their names from the neighboring big school. But with the proliferation of the Internet, some Web entrepreneurs see the use of well-known collegiate brands as a quick way to build an audience. Higher education domain names end in .edu, but many casual Web surfers may not make that distinction.

Now some colleges are now cracking down on unauthorized Web sites that use their names. And new federal, anti-cybersquatter legislation gives them extra ammunition. Violators face fines of up to $300,000 if they misuse domain names that belong to, or are close to, trademarks. Harvard is among the first schools to use the law. It's suing a University of Massachusetts student who has registered 60 Internet names that include either "Harvard" or "Radcliffe."

But Carl Brevetz, of the National Association of College and University Attorneys, says there is no consensus among schools on how to treat Internet name borrowers. "It's evolving on a case by case basis," he says. Many institutions tend to show some tolerance to unauthorized cyber-uses of their names, so long as it's clear there is no connection to the school.

Indeed, in cases like Princeton, a college and its hometown share a name, thus somewhat eroding any proprietary claims a school may make. "The key is confusion. If [a site] seems even remotely connected to education or research, then it's a problem," Brevetz says. Most schools find that a simple cease-and-desist letter is enough to scare off cybersquatters. For example, purported to be an inside look at a women's dorm and featured scantily dressed young women, some wearing N.Y.U. T-shirts. A letter from New York University attorneys was all it took to convince the operator to shutter the site.

Cell Phones:  Convenience at a Cost?

Cell Phones:  Convenience at a Cost?Cell phones have exploded in popularity, but are users dooming themselves to long-term memory loss? Research conducted at the University of Washington suggests that it's possible.

Henry Lai, a research professor in the school's bioengineering department, trained 100 rats to swim to a submerged platform in a large tank of water. Half of the rats were bombarded for an hour each day with pulsed microwaves--radiation similar to that emitted by mobile phones. Eventually, the platform was removed. The control-group rats kept swimming to the area where the platform had been. The microwaved rats swam about more randomly. "They seemed to have trouble making a map in their heads, like the normal rats did, so they could recall where the platform was," Lai explains.

So should cellular-phone users worry? Other studies suggest that cell-phone health fears are overheated. "Validated scientific evidence supports the conclusion that neither mobile phones, nor their associated base stations, if they comply with current maximum exposure guidelines . . . present a health hazard," a British House of Commons report determined last fall. Recent Australian and Canadian studies reached similar conclusions.

But Lai notes that there is so far very little research into the "health effects" of mobile phones. Lai admits he doesn't own a cell phone, but not necessarily because of health fears. "I simply don't need one. Professors are not that busy."

Boot Camp for Computer Cops

The e-commerce revolution is well underway, but security is key to its long-term success. That point was underscored earlier this year when hackers--cyber-vandals--wreaked havoc on such popular Web sites as Yahoo, eBay, and Amazon. So it's no wonder that cyber-security has become a hot new way to make big bucks on the Net.

Consulting company Datamonitor says the Internet security industry will be worth $3.9 billion this year, and will jump to $7.4 billion by 2003. At Stake Inc., a security company recently started in Cambridge, MA, by Ted Julian, a former consultant at Forrester Research, had no trouble raising $10 million from venture capitalists. But one problem that could stymie the growth of the security industry is a lack of qualified people. "There are not that many security specialists out there," Julian admits.

Toward easing that shortage, the White House is seeking congressional approval to spend $91 million to combat hackers and cyber-terrorists. Some of the money would be used to give students college scholarships in exchange for public-service work later at a Federal Cyber Service, a proposed cyber-crimebusting agency. Julian applauds the idea as "ROTC for security."

Prabhaker Mateti thinks it's a step in the right direction, too. Mateti, an associate professor at Wright State University in Ohio, was recently awarded a $69,000 National Science Foundation grant to develop a class in cyber-security. It's an area that's been too long ignored, he claims, and he is unaware of any other classes at the undergraduate level. That's a missed opportunity, since many hackers are young people with sophisticated computing skills, but undeveloped values. Classes in cyber-security may motivate young computer whizzes to use their skills more constructively.

Mateti notes that his first security class offering was quickly oversubscribed. Demand for classes could grow rapidly as students begin to grasp the industry's potential and start to view cyber-security as a career option--one that not only pays well, but lets them play cyber-cops-and-robbers.

The Engineering of Art

Is organic life merely the sum total of its genetic code? Or do environmental factors play a role in shaping the final product? The nature or nurture debate is a long-standing one, but Natalie Jeremijenko, an engineer and acclaimed "techno-artist," thinks that trees might give us new insights.

Natalie JeremijenkoIn a project she calls OneTree, the Australian-born Jeremijenko cloned 100 black walnut trees. This spring, the trees will be planted in a wide variety of locations around the San Francisco Bay area. "Because the trees are biologically identical, in subsequent years they will render the social and environmental differences to which they are exposed," explains Jeremijenko, who is former director of the Yale University Engineering Design Lab and a recent recipient of a Rockefeller Fellowship. "They will become a networked instrument that maps the micro-climates of the Bay Area."

The trees' growth will be monitored by a Web site, perhaps for as long as 50 years. The project is consistent with Jeremijenko's body of work. "I look at ways that information and technology can be seen to be materially active, not just 'out there' in the tradition of cyberspace," she says.

Jeremijenko, 33, says she's comfortable with being called an engineer or an artist, "whichever is more useful for the project at hand." Academics often marginalize artists for failing to deal with "important or critical issues," she explains. "For engineers, artists seem to work without the constraints that define their work. Of course, artists have their own constraints: What galleries will show, limited budgets, and accountability to audiences. These are different from the ones within which engineers work."

Jeremijenko also argues that technology isn't neutral, that all technological applications and devices are designed to serve someone's interests. "If you examine who uses a technology, then you gain a better understanding of who benefits and who doesn't. Traditional engineering education often does not equip engineers with methodologies to ask this question, nor to understand the implications of this on the technologies." The cold war and the space race once inspired engineers, she says, but today consumerism drives innovation.

Despite her growing stature as an artist, Jeremijenko says she's "primarily" a product-design engineer. "Traditional" products she has worked on include an electronic highlighter, sports equipment, and the graffiti machine that allows a palm pilot to recognize handwriting. "But even this work is continuous with my 'art' projects," she says,"stimulating consumers to rethink the ways they interact with products."

Amazing Feats

The National Academy of Engineering has announced the engineering achievements that had the greatest impact on the quality of life in the 20th century. For more information, see

1. Electrification

11. Interstate highways

2. Automobile

12. Space exploration

3. Airplane

13. Internet

4. Safe and abundant water

14. Imaging technologies

5. Electronics

15. Household appliances

6. Radio and television

16. Health technologies

7. Agricultural mechanization

17. Petroleum and gas technologies

8. Computers

18. Laser and fiber optics

9. Telephone

19. Nuclear technologies

10. Air conditioning and refrigeration

20. High performance materials