ASEE Prism On-line, February 2000
MRIs in a Heartbeat

Photograph by Keith WellerDoctors have long known that magnetic resonance imaging scanners give much more detailed pictures of heart muscles than other options currently in use, like ultrasound equipment. But MRI scanners are time consuming and costly—it can take six to eight hours to get the results. Ultrasound's benefit is immediacy—a necessity when patients are undergoing a standard treadmill stress test and doctors want to see how their hearts cope with exertion.

Enter Jerry Prince, a professor at Johns Hopkins University's Whiting School's electrical and computer engineering department, and graduate student Nael Osman. The pair have developed software that, combined with other modifications, enables MRIs to present detailed data within minutes. Their creation, called the HARP MRI, for harmonic phase magnetic resonance imaging, could revolutionize cardiac stress testing. Initial results of clinical tests at Johns Hopkins Hospital are promising.

Because the HARP MRI saves valuable time, it could be a cheaper alternative as well. "Time is money," Prince notes, and the less time technicians need to work on each test, the less expensive it is. Also, better diagnoses can more quickly lead to further tests or treatments, another cost-saving factor. Moreover, MRIs adapted with HARP technology can be used for a variety of cardiac tests, thus lessening the need for other types of scans.

Prince says that the technology should be commercialized within the year, though an actual product may take a little longer. Osman predicts the HARP MRI may, at first, overwhelm doctors. "They're not used to getting this much information." And there's more to come: Osman says that they'll soon have a "real time" version that will provide images in, well, a heartbeat.

America’s Best Colleges?

Your twin children Junior and Blossom graduate from high school next year, and already you're thinking about which university they'll attend. They are both science-oriented and excel at lab work. They're also ambitious, mature, talented, creative honors students. So, clearly, they belong at schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford and Harvard, and not at the Moo U. upstate. The elite schools ensure that geniuses like Junior and Blossom end up in successful careers. Right?

Perhaps not. Princeton economist Alan Krueger, working with Andrew W. Mellon Foundation researcher Stacy Berg Dale, has found that what guarantees future success are a student's personal attributes and abilities, not what school they attended. They studied graduates from 34 universities who entered college in 1976. And those students who were most geared to succeed, did succeed, regardless of their alma mater.

But surely, science and technology students who attend top schools—where fatter budgets mean state-of-the-art laboratories—benefit from having access to all that first-rate equipment? "We didn't take that into account," Dale says, "and I wouldn't want to speculate." But graduates of schools that spend more money per student tend to do marginally better. "So it might be related." But overall, she adds, what matters most is the quality of the student, not the quality of the school.

National Engineers Week, February 20-26

 "Engineering has been the greatest single contributor to improving our quality of life in the 20th century. It will do even more in the 21st—what we engineer will be increasingly biological and/or very small and/or very smart."

— Wm. A. Wulf, President, National Academy of Engineering

Remarkable Restoration

The earth shook and the vaulted ceiling came crashing down, but engineers were there to put it back together again.

Only two years after a devastating earthquake collapsed sections of the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, the church has reopened its doors to the public. The 13th century church complex is Italy's most important Catholic shrine after St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, and St. Francis is Italy's patron saint.

Photograph: AP/Wide World PhotoHailed as "the miracle of Assisi," the $37 million restoration combined high-tech engineering, computer software, and even some medieval building techniques to make the basilica more structurally sound than before. The vaulted ceiling required the most work. After 1,300 tons of debris had been removed, the fallen sections of the ceiling and the supporting entrance arch were rebuilt using original bricks and some medieval techniques.

During the earthquake, 180 square meters of invaluable frescoes by Cimabue and Giotto—the two artists considered the "fathers" of Italian painting—crumbled to the ground in hundreds of thousands of pieces. The artwork is being pieced back together by a team using special software that allows them to scan and virtually reassemble the paintings before physically putting the fragile pieces back together. Frescoes of two of the eight saints attributed to Giotto—Saints Vittorino and Rufino—have been restored 70 percent and are back on the arch at the entrance.

Two other destroyed vault sections—some 120,000 pieces containing Cimabue's St. Matthew and a section of starry sky—could be restored by 2001. Workers also used syringes to inject specially made mortar designed to hold together paintings that were still intact after the temblor.

The historic structure has been reinforced with a system of wood and the ultra-light, ultra-strong aramidic fibers used in bulletproof vests, all attached to the roof with cables. Ringed by a steel cradle, the basilica can now withstand earthquakes of up to 12 on the Richter scale.

Giorgio Croci, the engineer in charge of the structural restoration, is proud of the results. "This was a unique and exceptional project," he said. "It gave us the chance to experiment with a series of innovative measures that now can be used in other situations."


Maryam Miller`

Division Over Math

As far as 200 leading mathematicians are concerned, the increasing use of alternative math programs in school districts across the country just doesn't add up, because the programs ignore fundamental math skills. So when the U.S. Department of Education labeled 10 of these programs as "exemplary" or "promising," the math whizzes—including four Nobel laureates—decided to act. They wrote to Education Secretary Richard Riley asking him to reconsider the endorsements, and they took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post explaining their position. The academics call the programs—including such popular titles as Connected Mathematics Program, Core-Plus Mathematics Project, Everyday Mathematics, and MathLand—"fuzzy math" that "dumb down" math curricula.

Among the basic skills some of these new-wave math programs skip: long division, dividing fractions, and multiplying two-digit figures. Everyday Math lets kids as young as kindergartners use calculators to help them count. The Education Department cited the programs after they were reviewed by a 14-member panel, and has said it has no plans to retract its endorsements. But the letter-signers note that the panel didn't include any practicing research mathematicians or scientists.

Betty Tsang, a research physicist at Michigan State University who was one of the signatories, says that since the ad appeared, she's been hearing from parents across the country. "It's amazing, I get one or two calls a day." She's convinced that the federal government will relent, eventually. "The fact that they responded to our letter shows they've noticed us." Tsang sees nothing wrong with blending some of these "math appreciation" courses into curricula that emphasize basic, traditional skills. But, she adds, allowing students to graduate without knowing their multiplication tables and other math fundamentals is a formula for disaster.

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