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  American Society for Engineering Education
American Society for Engineering EducationDECEMBER 2006Volume 16 | Number 4 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES

LAST WORD: The U.S. Edge in Education - BY RICHARD H. BRODHEAD

TAKE A TABLET - Tablet computers have the potential to redefine the way engineering is taught. - BY CORINNA WU
YEAR OF DIALOGUE: Scholarship in 60 Seconds - BY JACK R. LOHMANN


ROBOTS - Engineers to the Rescue

To be successful, an academic must plan in advance.
Camel racing has a long tradition in the Gulf States of the Middle East. Unfortunately, it also had an appalling human-rights record. The jockeys were young boys, some as young as 4, most of whom were virtual slaves, kidnapped from South Asia. Typically they were kept in prison-like conditions and were underfed to keep them lightweight. And there may have been around 40,000 of them in captivity. Moreover, the races are long (three miles), dangerous and grueling, in 112-degree heat. Pressure from human-rights groups led to a crackdown. Qatar passed a law requiring jockeys to be at least 18 years old. But now engineers have come up with robot jockeys that are controlled remotely, and they are ending the need for human riders altogether. The Swiss consumer robotics company K-Team sells rider robots ($5,500 each) that weigh just under 60 pounds, are only 2 feet tall and can hold a rein in one hand and a crop in the other. Racing enthusiasts, initially skeptical, are now enthusiastic. Qatar expects all jockeys will be mechanical by next year. –Thomas K. Grose


Materials - Blink and You’ll Miss It Materials - Blink and You’ll Miss It

How fast is the world’s fastest sled? The crash test sled at Holloman Air Force Base, outside Albuquerque, N.M., scoots along a 3.2-mile-long rail track at speeds of 6,400 mph. And next year, a scheduled test is expected to hit speeds of Mach 10, or 7,500 mph. The sled is used to test high-speed crashes, weapons impact and other mega-fast scenarios, like space vehicle reentries. But wear and tear on the track—originally built in the 1950s—can hamper the sled ride, spoiling a test or causing a catastrophic failure. To prevent that from happening, inspectors closely examine the rails for blemishes—a time-consuming procedure. Enter Bob Brockman, a civil engineering professor at the University of Dayton. He’s been asked to come up with ways to predict where and how quickly materials can deteriorate under very high speeds. Brockman also hopes to develop coatings or other protections that can prolong the lifespan of the rails. If he succeeds in creating a model, it may have other uses, such as predicting when a tire is close to blowing out or when a jet engine is about to crack—dangerous material failures that are now hard to forecast. Says Brockman: “This is an area that has a lot of trickle-down value.” —TG


SPACE - Roving Around MarsSPACE - Roving Around Mars  

QUOTED - I think that in science we’re still king of the hill but we’re going to have alot of challenges in the decade aheadWhat a trek. For 21 months, the Mars rover Opportunity chugged across nearly six miles of shifting sands, large rocks and small craters to finally reach its biggest destination in late September. Cindy Oda, mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, says the hardy robotic explorer “takes a lickin’ but keeps on tickin ’.” It’s now at the lip of Victoria Crater, a 200-foot deep, half-mile wide hole on the surface of Mars that features daunting cliffs and many layers of exposed rock. If Opportunity can get within knocking distance of those rock layers, researchers will be able to peer far back into Mars’ environmental history. Scientists think thos e layers will reveal plenty about the red planet’s past, particularly if there was ever water there. “This is a geologist’s dream come true,” says Steve Squyres, the Cornell University astronomer and geologist who is the principal investigator for the mission, which also includes Opportunity’s brother ‘bot, Spirit. When the two rover bots landed on Mars nearly three years ago, scientists doubted they would survive more than three months in the hellish Martian environment. But both machines are still working well more than 30 months later. Back then, the notion that Opportunity would ever reach a Holy Grail destination like Victoria was an unlikely dream. Spirit, meanwhile, was on the other side of Mars conducting wind and dust tests and soaking up the maximum amount of energy for its solar panels. And so, the Martian chronicle continues. —TG


OCEANS - Oh to be Stranded There  

No man is an island, but humankind has come up with a novel way of making artificial islands. Some two and a half miles off the coast of Dubai, Dutch dredging company Van Oord is using its “trailing suction hopper dredgers” to build 300 islands from scratch. The dredgers suck sand from the seabed, then shoot it with pinpoint accuracy to a new locale. Dubai first hired Van Oord to use the dredgers to rebuild and extend its beaches—damaged by erosion and rough seas—by 100 feet. The 300 islands in The World project are arranged to form the shapes of the Earth’s continents. The isles’ sizes range from 150,000 square feet to 450,000. Each will be privately owned (prices range from $6.9 million to $1.8 billion, if you’re interested). They’ll be protected by a 15-1/2 mile-long sea break that Van Oord is constructing with its dredgers. Van Oord is also building two of the three largest-ever artificial islands off Dubai. The Palm Islands project will feature three islands, each in the shape of a palm tree. — TG


ROBOTS - Having a Ball  

ROBOTS - Having a BallHey look, Ma! No legs! Nor wheels nor treads, either. The “Ballbot” is a 95-pound, battery-operated robot that scoots around on a single urethane-coated metal ball. Developed at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotic Institute by Ralph Hollis, a senior research scientist, the thin, tall (it stands about 5 feet) Ballbot is omnidirectional and designed to steer more easily around people and furniture and be better able to get into tight spaces. “We wanted to create a robot that can maneuver easily and is tall enough to look you in the eye,” Hollis says. Traditional robots with wheels require wide bases that reduce their mobility; humanoid ‘bots with legs are very complex and expensive. Ballbot’s onboard computer, sensors and three gyroscopes keep it upright. Retractable legs keep it standing when it’s not moving. Next, Hollis’ team plans to add a head, as well as swinging arms to better improve its balance. Hollis, who has been working on robots since the 1950s, is obviously still on a roll. — TG



This past fall, the University of California, Berkeley, launched a new, graduate-level certification program in the emerging discipline of SSME, or Services Science, Management and Engineering. SSME is a multidisciplinary approach that merges the skills of such seemingly disparate areas as economics, computer science, engineering and management. Many other schools are also dipping a toe into services science, including Stanford University, Georgia Institute of Technology and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The aim is to bring improved skills to the service sector, which employs more than 75 percent of Americans, and to help manufacturers improve their marketing, design and customer services. The push for the new discipline comes from industry, which says too many graduates today don’t have the skills needed for the growing service sector. IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Electronic Data Systems are among several companies that are behind the movement, IBM in particular. That’s not surprising; Consider that Big Blue earns half its revenues from services these days. And it’s not the first time IBM has helped promote a new academic discipline. It was a big supporter in the 1950s of the development of computer science as a separate area of study and research. Last January, IBM collaborated with North Carolina State University to launch a new master’s level SSME curriculum initiative. They not only helped fund the initiative but were also involved in designing the curriculum. The NCSU effort brings together teaching and research from computer science, computer engineering, business strategy and management sciences. The services sector, it would seem, is no longer just about flippin’ burgers. — TG


SAFETY - A More Secure Ride  

AUSTRALIA A leading safety group studying auto accidents suggests small children in Australia are being switched to grown-up seatbelts too soon. Melbourne’s Monash University Accident Research Center recently determined that based on height criteria nearly half of children ages 4 to 11 aren’t appropriately restrained in passenger vehicles. In a survey of 700 parents, researchers found that many 4- and 5-year-olds are using adult belts. They also discovered that children ages 5 to 11—those in the booster-seat age group—were overrepresented in serious casualty and fatal car crashes compared with children under 5. A booster seat permits children to use the more comfortable adult lap/sash belt while positioning them high enough to see out the window. Australian law requires babies under 12 months to be in fitted and adjusted restraints, but for older children the law is vague. In the United States, the recommendations are that children be in booster seats if they are between 3 feet 4 inches and 4 feet 8 inches. Increasingly worldwide, height, rather than weight, is used to determine the appropriate belt. However, most child-restraint manufacturers provide recommendations based on weight. —Chris Pritchard


BIOMED - Cracking the Case  

Seismologists measure “acoustic emission data,” or sound waves, to determine the magnitude of earthquakes. Engineers use the technology to check the integrity of bridges and large buildings. “I asked, ‘Why not use the same approach to study stress fractures?’” recalls Ozan Akkus, a biomedical engineer at Purdue University. When “microcracks” occur in bones, they can lead to stress fractures—like shin splints—if they’re not detected early enough. And microcracks also generate sound waves. So Akkus has created a prototype device to measure them. He’s working with researchers at the University of Toledo to come up with a wearable device that would give people early warnings that they were close to developing a stress fracture. Given enough rest, bones will repair themselves. Not only are the elderly at risk—so are otherwise young and healthy athletes, dancers and soldiers in training: anyone involved in strenuous, prolonged physical activity. Even racehorses could be monitored. About 70 percent of young thoroughbreds are afflicted with fractures. — TG


MATH - Subtract the HappinessMATH - Subtract the Happiness  

Prepare to be inspired as you walk into Patrice Zotos’ math classroom. Cut out of brightly colored paper, tacked above the blackboard, reads “Organization + Effort + Attitude + Aptitude = Success.” Zotos, a middle school math teacher in Oakland, N.J., says instilling confidence in her students is crucial to their success. But according to a study released in October by the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy, efforts by Zotos and other U.S. math teachers to make students believe in themselves isn’t translating to success. The report, based on the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, found that countries like the United States, which promote self-esteem, happiness and real-world relevance in math, are lagging behind other countries with less of a feel-good focus. The study shows the highest scoring nations as having the least happy, least confident students. This comes only a month after a report from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics recommending a more back-to-basics approach for elementary and middle schools. While the Brookings report doesn’t suggest happiness causes low achievement, the study’s author and others say it can’t come at the expense of mastering the fundamentals. Zotos argues that U.S. teachers do indeed teach the basics, but relevant lessons, like learning how to calculate a waiter’s tip, stick with the students because they can understand and use them. “Math shouldn’t be painful,” she says. “It should be inspiring and open up worlds for them to pursue later.” —Lynne Shallcross


CIVIL - (Re)Building Bridges  

Montreal — It’s a story you might expect to find buried in the back pages of a newspaper: An overpass collapses and five people are crushed to death by falling concrete. Some accident in a Third World country? Actually, it happened in Laval, Quebec, a suburb north of Montreal on Oct. 1.  For engineers like professor Saeed Mirza of the civil engineering department at Montreal’s McGill University, it was a tragic reminder of the crumbling state of infrastructures everywhere. “This is not just a Quebec or Canadian problem,” he says.  “It’s worldwide. We need to stop building new roads and bridges right now and fix what we’ve already got.”  Early indications are that the collapse of the 36-year-old structure may have been caused by salt spread on the road in the winter to help melt snow and ice. The theory is that the salt, mixed with water, seeped through cracks into the steel reinforcing bars embedded in the concrete, eventually causing them to corrode.  Although the overpass that collapsed had been inspected visually only a year ago, Mirza says that the inspectors may have missed important clues that could have alerted them to problems inside the structure. There are new techniques that can supplement visual inspections. They include ground-penetration radar, liquid penetration tests—even ultrasound. But according to David Lau, a civil engineering professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University and a member of the Ottawa-Carleton Bridge Research Institute, even these technologies are not the whole answer. “They are useful tools that allow you to obtain data at a specific spot but unless you know exactly where to look, you can miss a serious problem.” Lau advocates a more comprehensive approach, including a regular detailed structural evaluation with sophisticated computer analysis methods. This becomes more essential as a structure ages. “It’s like a car,” Lau explains. “When it’s new you may only need an oil change, but if it’s 20 years old with 200,000 miles on it, you are going to have to do something more to keep it running properly.” Lau has another suggestion: “Every time an old bridge is upgraded or a new one is built, we should implement monitoring systems—embed some sensors in the structure—so engineers can receive data to help them easily assess its condition.” — Pierre Home-Douglas

FACTOID: In 2005-06 across all ranks and all institutions the average salary for female faculty was 81 percent of the amount earned by men


BOOK REVIEW - The WoziWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon by Steve Wozniak  

In 1975 , a brilliant electrical engineer with a counterculture mindset and passion for Bob Dylan hooked up with Steve Jobs to form Apple Computer. Steve Wozniak’s career there was short-lived; he pretty much retired after surviving a 1981 plane crash. But he was the engineering genius who got the idea of combining the familiar “qwerty” keyboard with a video screen and computer circuitry to make the world’s first personal computer. Thanks to “Woz,” computers became fairly cheap and ready-to-use. His innovations are legendary; experts often refer to the circuitry he invented as “elegant.” Just published: his autobiography, “iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon.” And for anyone interested in the origins of the PC industry and how Woz did it, it’s a must-read tome (though a slim one at just 313 pages). “iWoz” also covers Wozniak’s many other life adventures: promoting rock concerts, philanthropy—even teaching fifth-grade computer classes. But what will fascinate most readers is his account of how he and that other Steve started a revolution. —TG





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American Society for Engineering Education