Our public schools are clearly getting wired. Nearly $6 billion was spent in
the 1999-2000 school year on technology, according to a recent survey by research firm Market Data Retrieval. More than 60 percent of that money was spent on hardware, while 20 percent was spent on software. The remaining 17 percent was spent on training teachers to use the high-tech gadgetry.
Perhaps at first blush, those figures sound impressive. But teacher's unions and other education experts fear that too much money is being allocated for
top-flight equipment and too little is being spent on making sure that the equipment is used to its best advantage. The result of these spending priorities is clear from the study. Only 46 percent of teachers say they have "intermediate" computing skills and 28 percent call themselves beginners. A mere 8 percent refer to themselves as "advanced," MDR says.
Jamie Horwitz, spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers, says he's not surprised by the
results. "This has been a major issue for us," he says. The AFT believes that computers should be integrated into all class
rooms, and not relegated to computer labs. Even instructors in areas as far-flung from science and math as English and history should be using computers to enhance their teaching, Horwitz says. "History teachers should be able to show students how to do research on computers."
The AFT thinks the problem, in part, is "vendor-driven" and schools are easily sold more equipment than necessary. Also, it's easier to justify big IT budgets on impressive-looking hardware than on training classes. Yet, as Horwitz notes, in the private sector, it's well known that for every dollar spent on machines, a like amount should be spent on training. The Morino Institute urges that 70 percent of
academic tech budgets be spent on organizational development, including teacher training, and 30 percent on hardware and programs. It says teachers must learn how to fully integrate computers into their curricula to ensure that students gain all the benefits that IT can deliver.
But Horwitz is not too optimistic that spending priorities will soon change. Teachers, he notes, have long suffered from a technology gap. "The AFT represents a group of white-collar workers who don't
have phones on their desks," he says.
After being hit by a conflict-of-interest allegation last No vember, the Accrediting Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET) was feeling exonerated in mid-December. An external investigation the organization had authorized found no evidence to substantiate the charge.
But ABET, the accrediting agency for college-level engineering programs, was
still awaiting the reaction of the U.S. Department of Education, and had submitted the external review to department officials. "We've never been involved in this kind of process before," explains ABET head George Peterson. While Peterson indicated that there was relief with the probe's findings, he was not surprised. "The facts speak for themselves," he says, and the report was an affirmation of ABET's longstanding procedures and policies.
Word of the potentially embarrassing charge was received at ABET's Baltimore office on November 7, 2000, in a letter from the Department of Education. The department had received a written complaint from a retired University of Missouri computer-engineering professor alleging a conflict of interest in the school's hiring of a new chairman for its department of electrical engineering. The man hired last
May was Lex A. Akers, who had been director of engineering at the University of Texas-San Antonio. The problem was that Akers was also a mem
ber of the accrediting team that visited the Missouri campus in December 1999 to conduct ABET's review of the school's college of engineering. It was also in December 1999 that the college created a search committee to fill the electrical engineering post.
Frederick N. Springsteel, the complainant, claims that the school was urging Akers to seek the post back in March, even though the ABET team's report wasn't completed until the following month. Moreover, Springsteel indicated that Akers had been a tough reviewer in the past, whose disparaging comments about three computer-engineering degree programs led to their demise. Missouri officials say they know of no past problems with ABET reviews. The dean of the College of Engineering,
James E. Thompson, says he understood that Akers' report was finished before he applied for the job. Akers was one of 22 people who sought the position, and college officials thought his work as an ABET accreditor only underscored his abilities.
ABET hired an outside counsel, Claude Edward Hitchcock, of the firm Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger and Hollander, to conduct "a thorough investigation," including interviews with all key
parties. Hitchcock's findings: "While the matter was characterized by coincidences, there were absolutely no facts that supported either a finding of a conflict of interest or even the appearance of a conflict of interest."
Hitchcock told Prism that after talking to the individuals involved, there was no question that Akers was hired for his abilities and that no ethical breaches had been made. "That came through loud and clear," he says.
When it comes to automotive buying power, women are unsurpassed. Fully 80 percent of all new-car purchases are either made by or influenced by women.
Yet it is only recently that Motown has address the needs of its largest customer base when designing its products. The Ford Motor Company is in the lead in
catering to female buyers--particularly those who are mothers and spend many hours each week transporting kids from here to there and beyond and back. To make its Windstar minivan easier for women to drive, Ford assembled a team of 30 female engineers to help tailor the vehicle to the needs of many women. The team--known as the Windstar Moms--came up with several changes. Among them: a larger gas tank to help
keep fill-ups to a minimum, a thinner steering wheel, and "sleeping baby" floor lights that gently light up darkened interiors without harsh dome lights.
And it's not just family cars that are getting the benefit of feminine input at Ford. Female engineers also helped create adjustable foot pedals for women in an upcoming edition of the sporty Mustang, a car with a market that's 53 percent women. The pedal allows them to sit further--and more
safely--away from the steering wheel. Over at DaimlerChrysler, there is yet another engineering group known as the Women's Product Advocate Team. General Motors Corp. has no formal teams of female engineers. At least not yet.
But Bruce M. Belzowksi, of the Office for the Study of Automo
tive Transportation at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, says he would not be surprised if all automakers begin assembling cadres of female engineers to help make their
products more appealing to their largest market.
While using women to come up with specific, gender-friendly changes is new in some respects, Belzowski says car makers have always used women to help market their products. But this goes one step further. "It sounds like a very good idea," he says.
Rhodica Baranescu agrees--and she's not only an automotive engineer, but the president of the Society of Automotive Engineers. Says Baranescu: Making sure that women's viewpoints are
reflected in the design of new cars is good business, plain and simple.
If this is the start of a trend racing from Detroit to Stuttgart to Tokyo, there could be one big problem. Women receive only about 20 percent of all engineering degrees. That could mean that the demand for female engineers could quickly
drain an already small talent pool. Baranescu says the SAE is involved in several school-level projects geared toward attracting youngsters--boys and girls--to engineering. One project allows the kids to build and race simple design model cars, which allow them to have fun while learning about such things as friction, force, and symmetry. Getting more women into the industry won't be easy, she admits, and it will take some time, "but it will happen." Baranescu notes that when she
joined the International Truck and Engine Corp. 20 years ago, she was one of just three female engineers. Now the company has nearly 40 women working as engineers.
Baranescu says the overwhelmingly male-dominated auto industry has become much more friendly to women engineers. "The barriers are dropping," she says. "It's a good time for women." That would certainly seem to be the case--now that the country's major automakers have realized it's good
business to cater their designs to their core customers.