PRISM Magazine On-Line  - December 1999

by David Brindley

Devolving in Kansas

chimp No, Darwin, you're not in Kansas anymore.

Last August, the Kansas Board of Education removed Darwin's theory of evolution as a requirement in the state's high school science curriculum. Although the move does not prevent the teaching of evolution—some of the state's largest school districts have vowed to continue teaching it—the vote does cut any questions relating to evolution from the state's standard tests. That makes it likely that little time, if any, will be spent on evolution in the classroom.

The decision is already hurting efforts to recruit faculty members, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, which also reports that there is a great deal of concern in the state legislature that Kansas science courses won't be taken seriously by college admissions counselors nationwide.

Evolution wasn't the only target. The big bang theory of cosmic origin, which contradicts creationist beliefs that the universe is the work of a divine being and not the result of a vast explosion, was also stripped from the science curriculum.

The war between religion and science over the origins of humankind and the universe is an old one. What is new is that creationists are attacking scientific theories as being just that: theories that cannot be observed or replicated in a lab. Therefore, the reasoning goes, evolution and the big bang cannot be scientifically proven.

Creationists may have won the latest skirmish, but the Kansas decision isn't likely to end the war. Ever since the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925—when John Scopes, a biology teacher in Tennessee, was tried and convicted for teaching evolution—the nation's classrooms have been the scene of continued challenges to scientific learning.

As to what became of Scopes, he left teaching after the trial. His new career? A chemical engineer in the oil industry.

Quake Engineers on the Job

When the earth starts rocking, Peter Yanev starts rolling.

Yanev is a seismic engineer and co-founder of the San Francisco-based risk management consulting firm EQE International, which specializes in evaluating damage from earthquakes. And with the recent series of destructive temblors, he's been busy.

Within 24 hours of the 7.4 magnitude earthquake that struck near Istanbul, Turkey, last August, Yanev and a team of investigators were on the scene gathering information and giving on-the-spot engineering advice to those affected most.

Such fact-finding trips also offer valuable opportunities for seismic engineers to gain firsthand knowledge of earthquakes and their impact. As Yanev explains, "We always send some junior engineers for their first time. It's a huge educational experience. There's nothing like the real thing. It's more physical—not just theory."

Yanev has been putting that theory into practice since he started EQE International in 1980. Today, it's the largest risk consulting company in the nation with nearly 600 employees, most of whom are engineers. Though the recent shaking in southern California's Mojave Desert didn't cause much damage, business continues to grow as more and more domestic companies seek to minimize a quake's impact by taking preemptive measures to shore up their buildings. That translates into a healthy job market for future earthquake engineers, says Yanev.

Is it more than just coincidence, though, that so many devastating quakes have hit recently? No, says Yanev, since earthquakes occur on a regular basis. What is different, however, "is several earthquakes occurring in heavily populated areas in a short amount of time. But that's probability for you."

And more business, no doubt, for the globe-trotting Yanev.

The Paper Chase

In a field sometimes measured in nano-seconds, is it fair to evaluate engineering professors based on journal articles? Not according to the Washington-based Computing Research Association, whose membership includes nearly 150 Ph.D.-granting computer science and engineering departments around the country.

A recent statement released by the CRA rejects the "publish or perish" dictate and urges academia instead to consider papers written for conferences, and "artifacts" or products created by professors on a par with published scholarly articles when evaluating professors for promotions and tenure.

Not doing so, the statement asserts, "ignores significant evidence of accomplishment in computer science and engineering . . . . [C]onference publication is preferred in the field, and computational artifacts—software, chips, etc.—are a tangible means of conveying ideas and insight." (The full text of the statement can be found at: tenure_review.html.)

In addition, the statement points out the crucial element of timeliness. While journal articles typically take one to two years to be published, conference papers take only seven months, on average, to go to press.

Still, the tried and tested method of relying on published articles in accepted scholarly journals has its merits, if only because of its accessibility. Want proof? Just try finding a professor's "artifacts" at the university library

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