ASEE Prism Magazine Online - December 2001
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New Math, E-Cheating, Search and Rescue

Computer Screens Get in Shape

Electronic newspapers or magazines—computer screens that can be rolled up and stuffed into a pocket like a paper—may soon become reality. With the help of researchers from Kent State and Pennsylvania State universities, New Jersey's Sarnoff Corp. has developed the first flexible liquid crystal display (LCD) screen that's capable of displaying video images. LCD screens currently are made of glass. Sarnoff is using special transistors developed at Penn State that are made of plastic, rather than silicon, and liquid crystals from Kent State that can be sandwiched between sheets of thin plastic. “It was really a team effort,” says John West, head of Kent State's Liquid Crystal Institute. Sarnoff predicts that flexible LCD screens will be commercially available within three to five years. A representative says the technology also means that portable computers will become more lightweight and durable, as well as cheaper. In addition to electronic papers and magazines, the technology should help launch other consumer goods, including screens that are wearable. At any rate, flexible screens may be the biggest advance in publishing since Johann Gutenberg's movable type put a lot of monks out of work.


Ba-a-a-ad Times for dolly

EDINBURGH, Scotland — The Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, is home to the world's most famous sheep. Dolly, of course, scampered onto the global stage in 1996 as the world's first animal clone. Roslin opened in 1947 as an agricultural research center to help boost food productivity in war-ravenged Britain and has since become a leader in genetic research on farm animals. But largely because of public mistrust of genetically-modified foods, Roslin is shifting its efforts away from agriculture to biomedical applications of cloning technology, mainly stem cells and nuclear transfer. Indeed, the Dolly project was done not only to prove that scientists could create exact copies of elite farm animals but to take advantage of the technology's potential medical uses, explains Harry Griffin, assistant director for science at Roslin. But anti-GM sentiment in Britain and Europe makes it hard to sell the public on animals that have been genetically altered. There is little purpose in producing disease-resistant animals if consumers won't eat them. Of be nefit to farmers are efforts around Britain to make pigs leaner and meatier, to improve wool growth in sheep, and to make intensive pig-farming more environmentally friendly by producing pigs that excrete fewer phosphates.

Roslin also is moving away from purely agri-research for financial reasons. Since the 1980s, Britain's farms have attained such high productivity that Roslin is grappling with the law of diminishing returns. Because there are fewer but more productive farms, agricultural research funds are drying up. But people seem ready to accept high-tech drugs, so research dollars are flocking to biomedical projects. For Roslin, biomedicine is not such ba-a-a-ad direction to take.


Math on the Runway

Fashion designer Jhane Barnes uses fractal geometry to help her come up with beautiful prints. Fractal geometry produces patterns that repeat on a diminishing scale, resulting in abstract designs. Now, a new program in Ohio is using Barnes and her designs to help make mathematics less abstract to students. Ohio Math Works ( is a collaboration between public television stations and businesses to help students in grades 7-9 realize just how useful math is in real life. It was launched after proficiency test results showed that the state's ninth graders were still struggling with math. The result of the partnership is five 20-minute videos in which Barnes and her staff of mathematicians discuss the importance of equations to her work.

The kit also includes a teacher's guide. The kit was distributed free to math teachers at schools in low-income neighborhoods around the state. Other schools can purchase the video package at cost for $68. Other video kits show how math is used in the designing of theme park rides, the manufacturing of snack foods, and sports reporting. “The feedback we're getting has been quite positive,” says Jeanne Grueter, program development producer at WCET, a PBS station in Cincinnati. “Teachers tell us that the project has shown students how math is needed in their careers, creates interest in math, and increases students' motivation to learn math.” Grueter, who produced the videos, says Ohio Math Works is now working with the Agency for Instructional Technology to distribute the videos nationally in the 2002-2003 school year under the name Math@Work. And that sounds like a formula for success.


Cyber Cheating Down Under

SYDNEY, Australia — The newest threat to academic integrity in Western Australia comes from a university student who was caught “e-cheating”. The school called this relatively new phenomenon a growing problem.

Enrolled at Murdoch University in Perth, the student created a false e-mail account in the name of a staff member at the university's twin school in Malaysia. He then used it to impersonate the teacher by sending a request to a professor in Perth. The e-mail message asked for questions and answers for an upcoming examination which the impersonator would proctor. The request was regarded as normal because the teacher in Malaysia would be involved in grading students' papers.

Not only did the student keep the e-mailed information for his own use but he also gave the answers to two classmates.

The Malaysian campus found out about the scam before the test was given and tipped off its Australian partner. Murdoch administrators acted swiftly, expelling the main offender and disciplining the two others. Safeguards have since been put in place to reduce the risk of similar incidents. Staff have been instructed to verify by other methods, such as telephone calls, that any e-mailed request for examination questions comes from an authorized person.


Third World on the Move

Many of today's developing countries may soon propel themselves into the economic first tier, thanks to their embrace of technology and education. A recent study by the National Alliance of Business says that countries ranging from China to Mexico to Brazil are “building a technology infrastructure and an educated workforce that will enable them to leapfrog ahead at unprecedented speeds,” which could give them “economic parity with the United States and other developed nations.” The alliance warns that this more skilled global workforce could threaten America's competitiveness “if U.S. companies are forced to shift more of their production overseas to satisfy their growing need for skilled workers.” Though the world's pool of workers with high-end skills, including engineers and software developers, is growing, American companies may find it's not as easy to draw on that resource as it has been in the past, the report says. That's because of competition, as these fast-growing economies also start offering good jobs and wages. There are, however, benefits for America as well. An economic boom among developing countries would create strong overseas markets that should boost international trade.

The evidence that the developing world is rapidly gaining on the United States is stark. In China, computer use on a per capita basis grew 1,000 percent between 1992 and 2000. In India, the jump was 604 percent in the same period, and it was 565 percent in Brazil. Usage in America grew by just 148 percent. To be sure, such huge gains are easy to attain when starting from almost scratch. Urbanization is another good indicator that a country is morphing from a poorly-schooled agrarian society into a better-educated industrial economy. The urban population of Brazil grew from less than 70 percent in 1980 to 80 percent in 1999; in China it grew from 20 percent to 32 percent, and in Indonesia from 22 percent to 40 percent. Globally, the urban population rose from 40 percent to around 46 percent. During that same period, the world's literacy rate climbed from just over 60 percent to nearly 80 percent. In India, literacy jumped from 42 percent to nearly 60 percent. And between 1980 and 1997, enrollment in postsecondary schools also posted impressive gains in Third World countries. It leaped 28.4 percent in Turkey, 19.1 percent in Indonesia, and 15.6 percent in China. As of 1997, the numbers of postsecondary students in China and India were nearly half the U.S. level. If those growth rates continue, postsecondary enrollment in those countries will soon surpass U.S. totals.


Laptops For One and All

For today's college students, the laptop has become as essential as the textbook. Which is why the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill last year became the nation's first public university requiring students to purchase one. The program is being phased in over four years with each freshman class; in this academic year, half of UNC's 15,400 undergraduates now tote portable computers. “It's been working amazingly well,” says Marian Moore, vice chancellor for information and developer of the program. To help make it affordable, North Carolina worked out a deal with IBM that cut the price of mid-range laptops by about $800. The basic machine costs $2,400, including a four-year warranty, insurance, upgrades, and myriad software. Each year, UNC spends $2.4 million on a grant program to give 1,000 laptops to financial-aid students. All other students are pre-approved for a low-interest loan to cover the cost of the computers.

Moore says that the IBM deal ensures that all students use laptops that conform to a minimum standard, which has been set fairly high. Students are told that laptops, like textbooks, are mandatory, but then they are on their own to obtain one. “We treat them like adults,” Moore says. Classroom laptop uses include: allowing chemistry students to measure and collect data from lab experiments; helping calculus students visualize difficult concepts with state-of-the-art software graphics; and letting music students download and hear musical masterpieces. To help teachers make the most out of this new cybertool, the school's Academic Technology and Networks staff gave computer training to faculty members in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Most other schools that have instituted mandatory laptop requirements, including Wake Forest, hiked tuition to pay for the machines. As popular as they are, not all laptop programs have succeeded. The Massachusetts Board of Education recommended a three-year, $60 million program to hand laptops to all students attending public institutions. However, the legislature balked at the fat price tag because it would take too big a byte out of state funds.


Robots to the Rescue

Before September 11, the use of robots to help in search-and-rescue efforts after a disaster was purely an academic exercise. Robots had only been put to the test on obstacle courses, and the first fully functioning prototypes were still months away from handling a real-life emergency. That all changed when two commercial airliners were hijacked by terrorists and slammed into the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center, collapsing the 110-story landmarks and burying thousands of victims in tons of rubble, glass, and twisted steel. Engineers from private and academic research labs, including the University of South Florida's Robin Murphy, an associate professor of computer science and engineering, descended on Manhattan with 16 robots in tow and put them to work.

In the first 11 days after the tragedy, the mechanical rescuers helped find five bodies and were used to snoop through areas of the wreckage deemed too risky for humans to enter. They also helped rescue teams determine which parts of Ground Zero were too dangerous to enter, Murphy says. Indeed, three robots were lost in the debris and two others were damaged during the mission. Two of the robots were the size of a shoebox and controlled by a tether; the others were about as big as a small suitcase and operated remotely. Most move about on tank-like treads. Some robots carry color video cameras, others use infrared cameras to detect heat and sensors that can “see” colored clothing. All of the robots were developed with funds from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Defense Department. DARPA got involved after the Oklahoma City bombing when it realized that robots had the potential to help rescue disaster victims. The New York team was organized by the National Institute for Urban Search and Rescue's Center for Robot Assisted Search and Rescue. Companies involved included iRobot Corp. and engineering firm Foster-Miller, both headquartered in Massachusetts.

Murphy says the robot technology is so new that none of the WTC rescue teams were even aware of its existence. But they were impressedwith the robots' performance, she adds. And because this was the first real test of the robots, it gave researchers valuable information toward making design improvements. Future models will include sensors for atmospheric temperatures and gases. The robots also need to become more adaptable, so that various sensors can be added or replaced as needed on scene. “We walked away a lot smarter,” Murphy says.


A Fairer Shake for Postdocs?

A recent federal appeals court ruling will make it easier for postdocs and low-ranking faculty members to seek legal recourse if they think they've been cheated out of their fair share of intellectual property rights. Junior academics have long complained that when it comes to reaping the financial rewards of scientific discoveries, they're often shortchanged. Former University of Chicago postdoc Joany Chou insists that 11 years ago she discovered a variant herpesvirus gene that might be used to make a vaccine. Her lab chief Bernard Roizman, a top virologist, and the school patented the gene four years later. Though her case was dismissed by a federal judge, a three-member panel of the U.S. Appeals Court for the Federal Circuit in Washington unanimously upheld Chou's right to sue for proceeds, setting precedent, says Chou's attorney Paul Vickery. The appellate ruling, of course, did not address the validity of Chou's claim. “We still have to prove our case, but we're pretty confident of winning this on its merits,” Vickery says. The trial is expected early in 2002. Chou will seek “millions” of dollars, but hasn't set an exact amount yet. “We still have to determine how much the defendants made,” he explains.