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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo DECEMBER 2005 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 4
briefings
PRISM - BRIEFINGS

CLASSROOM - THE PRESSURE’S ON

Do some of your students struggle with alertness during your lectures? Well, if sleepyhead students are a problem in your classes, don’t even think about making your material more interesting or your delivery more entertaining. There might be an easier cure: acupressure. Researchers at the University of Michigan Health System found that students who self-administer acupressure—a regimen of light tapping or massaging—at stimulation points on the legs, feet, hands and heads were able to fend off classroom fatigue. Those who used acupressure but instead focused on relaxation points did not fare nearly as well.

The study used 39 students attending an executive education program at Michigan’s School of Public Health that required them to sit through three days of all-day lectures. To assess how tired the participants were, the investigators used the validated Stanford Sleepiness Scale. The finding, says Richard E. Harris, a researcher at the school’s Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center, “could be very good news for students who have trouble staying alert at school.” Further study, he adds, might “determine whether acupressure also can have an impact on performance in the classroom, as well.” Talk about pressure to get good grades. —Thomas K. Grose


REPORT CARD - “B” IS BETTER

A new campaign to whip grade inflation at Princeton University is making “real strides,” the school reports. The policy seeks to curb the number of A’s awarded. In the 2004-05 school year, A’s accounted for 40.9 percent of grades, down from 46 percent. The goal is to reduce A’s to less than 35 percent. A’s awarded in engineering courses dropped from 48 percent to 43.2 percent, and in the natural sciences, the A’s held steady at about 36.4 percent. In social sciences, A’s were down nearly 4 points to 38.4 percent, but the biggest decrease was in the humanities, where the percentage of A’s awarded fell from 56.2 to 45.5. The committee overseeing the policy says if similar progress is made this academic year, the goal will be met. For now, however, what used to be referred to as the “Gentleman’s C” remains safe. —TG




BY THE NUMBERS  
In 2001, U.S. industry spent more money on tort litigation than on research and development.


PHYSICS - A SHAKY IDEA

Let’s say you’re attempting to put a bit of salt on your fries, but the salt’s not flowing out of the shaker too well. The top’s not clogged, so what do you do? Probably bang on it a bit and shake it even harder, right? But researchers at Duke University have determined all that banging and shaking will likely make matters worse. Physics professor Robert Behringer, working with postdoc researcher Karen Daniels (who has since joined the faculty at North Carolina State University), has discovered that the more that granules in a container are agitated, the more likely they are to clump together into a rigid mass. That led them to develop a method to either make granules “freeze” into a solid-state crystal formation or “melt” so they flow like a liquid. “Our technique,” Behringer says, “allows us to both control and measure the effect of different ways to energize a granular material, which has not been possible before.” The real-world applications, he says, could help solve some “common engineering problems,” like predicting the stability of a dirt embankment or how best to un-jam coal or gravel hoppers and grain silos. Working with a container full of plastic beads, Behringer and Daniels first stirred the mix and saw that the top beads became more disordered and flowed more like liquid. But when they sharply vibrated the container, the movement of the top beads became more uniform and the mix solidified. “As I shake it harder, everything freezes up,” Daniels says. Conclusion: If you shake and rattle granules, they won’t roll. —TG


ELEMENTS - RESETTING THE TABLE

In 1869, Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleyeve published the first Periodic Table listing the world’s known elements, which together make up almost everything there is. Today, scientists recognize 83 elements, which are differentiated by the positive electrical charge in their central nucleus. There are another 10 trace elements, the byproducts of the radioactive breakdown of the two heaviest elements. Another 20 elements are manmade.

Nineteenth-century researchers figured out that by listing elements by weight of their atoms, it’s possible to see recurrences of their chemical characteristics. (They’ve since been arranged by how much charge their nucleus holds.) That inspired Mendeleyeve to devise the table, which placed the elements in rows and columns. But sequences were broken up, and even Mendeleyeve realized it wasn’t an adequate format. The best arrangement, he felt, would be a cylindrical helix, but that’s a 3-D abstraction—no good for a chart. So scientists over the decades have tried to improve the table’s design.

The latest version comes from Oxford University ecologist Philip Stewart. It’s based on the galaxy Andromeda and is a counterclockwise spiral he’s dubbed the Chemical Galaxy. Elements that are chemically linked spin out in arms from the center, which is home to neutronium, the heaviest of the elements. “The intention,” Stewart writes, “is not to replace the familiar table but to complement it and at the same time to stimulate the imagination and to evoke wonder at the order underlying the universe.”

Stewart’s galaxy chart certainly looks better than Mendeleyev’s prosaic table. It looks so good, in fact, that it’s become a popular poster. Want one? Head here: http://www.sciencemall-usa.com/petapo.htmlTG



EDUCATION - EDGING THE COMPETITION

Autonomy has long been the byword for America’s colleges and universities in setting policies. Though the federal government accounts for a third of spending on higher education, it pretty much stays out of things. Is that about to change with the U.S. Department of Education’s formation of a 19-member commission charged with delivering a “comprehensive national strategy on the future of higher education?”

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says no. It’s not about intrusion, she says; it’s about “how we can get the most out of our national investment.” That still sounds like meddling to the Cato Institute, a right-leaning think tank. “If they’re going to have a national strategy, who is going to implement it other than the federal government?” asks Neal P. McCluskey, a policy analyst at the institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, as quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The commission is to focus on rising enrollments and costs and how colleges can help make America more competitive.

Eleven of the commissioners have backgrounds in higher education, including the panel’s head, Charles Mil-ler, former chairman of the University of Texas Board of Regents. Four members are retired university presidents, three are professors and several members come from the business community. The American Federation of Teachers was irked that no one from a teachers’ union was included and wrote to Spellings to say that an organization such as theirs that represents thousands upon thousands of faculty members should have been on the commission. —TG


QUOTED  
"America must act now to preserve its strategic and economic security by capitalizing on its knowledge-based resources, particularly in S&T, and maintaining the most fertile environment for new and revitalized industries that create well-paying jobs."

- NORMAN R. AUGUSTINE, RETIRED CHAIRMAN AND CEO OF LOCKHEED MARTIN CORP.


INNOVATION - RED-HOT RESEARCH

AUSTRALIA—Veena Sahajwalla can’t resist red-hot ovens. “They’re so attractive and fascinating,” jokes Sahajwalla, who recently won a major prize for developing an economically effective way to make high-grade steel from waste plastic. Sahajwalla is a professor at the University of New South Wales School of Materials Science and Engineering.

“About 40 percent of the world's steel is produced in electric arc furnaces operating at 2,912 degrees Fahrenheit,” she says. Up to 30 percent of the coal in these furnaces can be replaced with recycled plastic, and she is aiming for even more. Not only does waste plastic replace coal as a carbon source, but it also acts as a fuel—reducing power for the furnace. The extreme temperatures of steelmaking eliminate pollutants such as dioxins.

In her lab, Sahajwalla used scrap from automobile wrecking yards and discarded home appliances from trash bins as well as industrial waste metal to make steel—plastic from bottles and bags supplied the heat. She is negotiating with leading steel producers in Australia and the United States. —Chris Pritchard


ROBOTS - SKATING ALONG

Photo by John Bush, David Hu, Brian ChanPhoto by John Bush, David Hu, Brian Chan

The Robostrider is comprised of a 7-Up can fitted with three sets of stainless steel wire legs; it’s powered by an elastic band connected to a pulley to move the middle set of legs. It may sound like a junk-room robot, but darned if the contraption built by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers can’t skim across the top of a water surface. The Robostrider mimicks the movement of water striders, insects that skate across the surface of ponds and oceans. Earlier research at Stanford University determined that baby striders move as well as adults, but paradoxically, they weren’t swimming because their tiny legs weren’t able to create waves. MIT associate professor of mathematics John W.M. Bush, along with Brian Chan, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, and David L. Hu, a math grad student, solved the riddle using math, high-speed photography and flow visualization techniques. It seems the tips of the strider’s spindly legs make microscopic indentations in the water as they rest on the surface. The insect uses its middle legs to oar itself forward while the water in the indentations quivers like a drumhead. The sculling does create little waves, but they don’t move it forward. Instead, what propels the bug is subsurface vortices. Fine leg hairs keep them afloat. And they’re peppy, too: Striders can reach speeds of 150 centimeters per second. Once the team figured out how the little buggers moved, they cobbled together the Robostrider to prove their point. –TG


RITA - BOUNCING BACK

Two Gulf Coast universities are on track to complete their fall semesters, despite being knocked out of business for several weeks by powerful Hurricane Rita, which blew through parts of Texas and Louisiana in late September. Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, sustained wind and water damage to buildings, blown-out windows and downed trees; 20 campus roofs were either destroyed or heavily damaged. Tons of debris had to be cleared as well. Lamar reopened its campus Oct. 17, and classes resumed two days later.

McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La., recommenced its fall schedule on Oct. 24. President Robert Hebert says the process of reopening the school was arduous and frustrating. Each room of each building had to be inspected and OK’d by teams from several state agencies, including environmental and architectural assessment teams. The state’s Office of Risk Management sent in mechanical and engineering inspectors. And because Louisiana had been whacked by the even-more destructive Hurricane Katrina only weeks before Rita, “state assessment crews have been stretched pretty thin,” a school official notes, and that slowed the process. —TG


SOLAR POWER - BRIGHT IDEAS

University of Colorado students nabbed first place in the 2005 Solar Decathlon, beating out 17 other teams in a quest to create the most attractive, effective and energy-efficient solar-powered home.

The two-week contest, which created a solar village on the National Mall in Washington, began under cloudy skies and rain. But students in engineering, architecture, computer science, public relations, marketing and other disciplines persevered with their solar creations. The houses, designed by teams from the United States, Canada and Spain, were judged on architecture, livability, comfort and how well the homes provided energy for space heating and cooling, hot water, lighting and appliances. The homes also had to provide enough extra power to fuel an electric car.

Cornell, California Polytechnic Institute and Virginia Tech finished second, third and fourth, respectively, in the Department of Energy contest. The Colorado students used the poor weather to their advantage, developing a strategy to gain points using the energy they collected on a series of very cloudy days to keep their car charged. A University of Colorado team also won the last competition, held in 2002. –Lynne Shallcross

Photos by Stefano Paltera / Solar Decathlon  - Top Right: University of Colorado's prize- winning house - Bottom: Cornell's house, which took 2nd prize
Photos by Stefano Paltera / Solar Decathlon - Top Right: University of Colorado’s prize- winning house. Bottom: Cornell’s house, which took 2nd prize

 


SALARY - DIPLOMA DOWNER

Is the sheepskin losing its economic advantage? Business Week magazine crunched the latest (2004) income figures from the Census Bureau and discovered that for four years in a row, real income for bachelor’s degree-holders has fallen. Last year, real income for degree-holders dropped 4.9 percent. Income for high school-educated workers dropped just 0.2 percent; for those with “some college” education, the falloff was 4.5 percent; and associate degree-holders’ income edged back 2.5 percent. Those with advanced degrees, however, saw their real income rise 2.5 percent. Still, earnings for those with undergraduate degrees are 10 percent higher than they were in 1994. So it would take some time for the college advantage to be erased. Business Week surmises there might be several reasons for the decline: skilled jobs heading overseas, an oversupply of college-trained workers, technology that requires fewer skills to use or an ongoing, but temporary, effect from the bursting of the tech bubble. Whatever the cause, the trend should worry universities. –TG

 

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TECH VIEW: Logging on to Class - By Mary Kathleen Flynn
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A LESSON IN SAFETY - It took a tragedy to focus the engineering curriculum on safety in product design. - By Nancy Cowles and Zachary Hill
RESEARCH: The Challenge of Change - By Dave Woodall
ON CAMPUS: Mind Your Manners - By Lynne Shallcross
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