PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - DECEMBER 2004 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 4


PHOTO OF THE MONTH: DEEP SEA FISHING - A microplankton sample pulled from the depths of the Antarctic Sea was captured by a scanning electron micrograph. The photograph, which won honorable mention in this year's International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge, was taken by Dee Breger, director of microscopy in the department of material science and engineering at Drexel University.



The pectoral fins of the humpback whale look like one of nature's hideous mistakes. The fins' leading edge is not smooth like all other known sea animals' fins and flippers, but is scalloped with a series of protrusions known as tubercles. These bumps run counter to the "dogma" of aerodynamics, says Laurens E. Howle, a Duke University fluid dynamics engineer, which says air foils need to be smooth to avoid producing air disturbances, which cause turbulence. That's why airplane wings have smooth surfaces. But research conducted by Howle and colleagues at West Chester University and the U.S. Naval Academy, which tested 22-inch scale models of humpback whales' bumpy fins, came to a surprising conclusion: The scalloped fins actually increased lift, decreased drag, and could better withstand stall.

Howle doubts the findings will likely change the design of commercial aircraft wings. "Most wings are not operating close to stall," he says, and scalloped wings would be costly to build. But it could lead to changes in the design of helicopter wing tips and propellers, as well as racing yacht rudders. A bumpy-edged rudder might allow for tighter turns. Indeed, even though they're huge critters, humpbacks are very agile swimmers.
Thomas K. Grose


America's entire science and engineering workforce totals 4.7 million, according to statistics recently released by the National Science Foundation. But surprisingly, more than a fifth of those workers do not have at least a four-year degree: 811,000 have associates' degrees, and 225,200 have just high school diplomas. The majority of the workforce, 48 percent, have bachelor's degrees. Twenty-two percent have master's, 7 percent have earned doctorates, and 2 percent professional degrees. Most of those without a four-year degree—492,900—work in engineering, although they represent just 20 percent of the 2.5 million workers classified as having engineering jobs. Another 454,200 work in math and computer science jobs, but they comprise 40 percent of the 1.15 million workers in that category. Only 29,000 employees in the life sciences have less than a bachelor's degree. Gender doesn't seem to matter: About a fifth of the 3.6 million men employed in science and engineering, and about a fifth of the 1.1 million women, haven't earned four-year degrees. —TG



Average Earnings of Workers 18 Years or Older, by Educational Attainment: 1980-2002

Got any underachieving students in your classes? Show them this. Maybe it'll motivate them. According to census numbers of average annual salaries of American adults, as crunched by the American Council on Education, the average salary of bachelor's degree holders in 2002 was $51,194; 88 percent more than the $27,280 earned by high school graduates. The gap 20 years ago—using current dollars—was only 60 percent. If you had a graduate degree in 2002, your average salary was $72,824, or 167 percent more than what high school grads were earning. Workers with nary a diploma earned on average a measly $18,825. The good news for female college grads: the $37,909 they earned was 79 percent more than the $21,141 paid to women high school graduates. The bad news: It was 67.5 percent less than the $63,503 earned by their male college-educated peers. Male undergraduate degree-holders earned 94 percent more than the $32,673 paid to male high school grads. —TG


The Hubble Space Telescope has not only been a scientific success story since its launch in 1990—helping to achieve a number of major discoveries—but it's also captured the public's fancy, giving much beleaguered NASA a much needed public-relations winner. A rendering of the robotic space arm from MD Robotics that has been used on the International Space Station.But Hubble's gyroscope and batteries are starting to wane, and the telescope will likely stop functioning sometime between 2007 and ‘08. Four times in the past, Space Shuttle missions sent astronauts up to the telescope to do the maintenance necessary to keep it aloft. But in the wake of the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, NASA last January canceled a planned 2006 shuttle maintenance mission to Hubble. Too risky, NASA said. Moreover, scheduling had become a problem. As it is, NASA now says the earliest the shuttles will fly again is next May, and it takes at least 18 months to prepare a mission.

But NASA is becoming more convinced by its engineers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland that a robotic mission to Hubble—once considered a pipe dream—could succeed. Indeed, in October, NASA awarded a contract worth around $144 million to Canada's MD Robotics to build a "Dextre" robotic space arm to handle the repair tasks. MD Robotics was selected because its technology was more fully advanced than other robots under development.

Goddard spokesperson Susan Hendrix says it will be late summer or early fall of 2005 before NASA decides if a robotic mission can succeed. Meanwhile, at the urgings of Congress and the National Academies of Science, it is still considering a shuttle mission to the station. Also to be determined is whether any mission will simply replace Hubble's gyroscope and batteries or also bolt on two new instruments that have been built to further improve the space telescope. But a robotic mission—if Congress will pony up the necessary $1 to $1.6 billion it will cost—seems the most likely outcome. Edward J. Weiler, Goddard's director, says the technology to salvage Hubble robotically is off-the-shelf. "The real challenge is putting it together as a system." —TG


AUSTRALIA—Engineering schools are worried that outbursts of racism could hurt their efforts to attract foreign students. Several African students attending the University of Newcastle have been attacked recently, and a few similar incidents have been reported in other parts of the country.

Attracting foreign students is important for universities down under. The government has forced the schools to increase self-funding and rely less on subsidies. Last year, foreign students contributed the equivalent of $1.4 billion U.S. dollars to university coffers.

Australia's image as a good place to study was tarnished in the mid-1990s during the short-lived prominence of a populist right-wing politician with strident anti-immigration views. The country currently has good race relations with its large immigrant population. —CHRIS PRITCHARD



The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market - Book CoverThe New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market - by Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane. Princeton University Press.

Computers have not created mass unemployment, but they have created a major upheaval in the nature of human work," write authors/economists Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane in their book, The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market. Levy, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Murnane, of Harvard, say there's a growing divide between those who can and cannot "do valued work in an economy filled with computers." Yes, kiss goodbye to most blue-collar and clerical jobs. But, they claim, there will be loads of high-salary jobs for people who can think expertly and solve problems, for those adept at complex communications, and who can explain and interpret information. The skills needed for a cybereconomy can be taught, especially literacy and numeracy, Levy and Murnane conclude. But they take aim at standards-based curricula that stress learning facts that computers can learn in a nanosecond. —TG


A new type of LED developed in Fred Schubert's  lab at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The LED uses a novel omni-directional reflector.  Courtesy Rensselaer Polytechnic InstituteA standard incandescent light bulb will glow for about 500 hours. A fluorescent tube light might last 5,000. But now researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute say they've developed a LED (light-emitting diodes) bulb that will burn brightly for 50,000 hours—that's nearly 6 years, if left burning continuously. LED lights—which are tiny granules of semiconductor chips covered with arrays of plastic bulbs—have long life spans, and consume less electricity than standard lighting. That's why they're increasingly used for traffic signals and signs, and automotive lighting. But current versions aren't bright enough to replace standard bulbs. To increase LED brightness, the light generated has to be reflected inside the chips, and reflectors so far haven't been up to the task. But a team led by Renssalaer's Fred Schubert invented what it calls an ODR, an omni-directional reflector that reflects the light at nearly 100 percent. An ODR bulb, Schubert says, will consume half as much electricity as today's bulbs, making them a green option. Certainly LED lights will cost more, but consumers will have to factor in how much they'll save on electric bills. He's close to signing a deal with a major Asian LED manufacturer. —TG


Marc Prensky, an expert in the use of computers for education, says we fall into two categories: digital natives and digital immigrants. Most of us fall into the latter camp; we didn't grow up with computers. But about 95 percent of today's students are digital natives. A survey of 4,374 freshmen and seniors at 13 colleges, conducted earlier this year by the Educause Center for Applied Research, underscored Prensky's point. Nearly all of them own computers and use them constantly for writing reports, sending E-mails, and classroom activities. But surprisingly, only 12.7 percent of the respondents say computers improve classroom learning. A plurality of 48.5 percent say classroom computers are a boon mainly because they make things more convenient. The study says that while students have keen application skills, they're not particularly good at using computers to solve problems. As they learn to put their computers to better use, the machines should become better teaching tools. Not surprisingly, engineering students, followed closely by business students, were the most enthusiastic about computers in the classroom. Nearly 68 percent of engineering students had a strong preference for high-tech teaching methods. —TG


The world's fastest train is racing over steep grades and through tunnels on a short experimental track in central Japan. While backers of the exotic transit technology known as Magnetic Levitation (Mag Lev) struggle to find followers across the car-fixated United States, transportation experts in Japan are confident the ultrafast rail system will eventually make it off the drawing board and into commercial use.

It was Americans who invented a system of superconducting magnets to lift trains inches above their tracks and send them hurtling along a guideway. But it took the Japanese—creators of the enormously successful, high-speed Bullet Train—to perfect a floating train propelled by supercooled magnets. In effect, the Mag Lev "flies" at low altitude, zooming at speeds of up to 361 miles per hour. That's more than twice as fast as the Acela, America's quickest commuter train.

"The Mag Lev consumes only half as much energy as an airplane, and with only about one-quarter the carbon emissions," says Satoru Sone, professor of electrical engineering at Tokyo's Kogakuin University. "And for distances of 300 miles or less, traveling by Mag Lev actually saves time because you don't have to get to and from an airport. So it's definitely faster than a plane."

Building concrete guide ways, tunnels, and rolling stock for the levitated train system could hit a mind-boggling $90 billion, though researchers are struggling to trim billions by stretching out the snout to cut wind resistance, and mass-producing parts. The national government hasn't yet decided to provide critical startup financing. But Japan's rail-friendly constituency seems pre-disposed to support the plan.

Given Japan's aging and shrinking population, and uncertain prospects for the economy ahead, some argue Japan doesn't need a Buck Rogers floating train. Mag Lev advocates—while conceding there's still no guarantee the system will ever be built—remain confident the project will stay on track.

"Around the world, man has always sought ways of getting from point A to point B quicker," says Noriyuki Shirakuni, manager of the Yamanashi Mag Lev Test Center. "So as long as mankind harbors a desire for faster travel, the Mag Lev's day will definitely dawn."

Japan's Mag Lev system is being studied in the United States. But if the Mag Lev is ever built, the only location on the planet sufficiently rich and crowded enough to support it may be the few hundred miles of real estate between Tokyo and Osaka, Japan's two biggest cities. If—and when—Japan decides to break ground on its futuristic train technology, the Mag Lev will take at least 10 years to complete. —Lucille Craft


Engineering For Everyone - By Bethany Halford
Model Behavior - By Pierre Home-Douglas
Answering the Call - By Robert Gardner
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Tech View - By Mary Kathleen Flynn
Really Cricket: More British universities are offering degrees in sports engineering. - By Thomas K. Grose
On Campus: Rising to the Top - By Robert Gardner
Research: Delivering the Goods - By John Gilligan
Faculty's Finest: Kevin Kit Parker - By Thomas K. Grose
LAST WORD: Technological Paternalism - By Julia M. Williams


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