ASEE.org
PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo FEBRUARY 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 6 - SPECIAL ISSUE: 2006 ANNUAL CONFERENCE
briefings


MIT - Kid-Friendly Laptops for the Third World
MIT - Kid-Friendly Laptops for the Third World

The $100 Laptop Initiative is Nicholas Negroponte's solution for helping bridge the information technology gap. The idea? Stripped down, green-colored, durable laptops powered by a handcrank that can be sold for $100—thus making it possible for them to find their way into the hands of millions of disadvantaged children in the developing world. By turning the crank for 10 minutes, each user would get 30 minutes of computer time. Internet connections would be of the wireless type. Negroponte, cofounder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, has set up a nonprofit group to sell millions of the tiny laptops to third-world governments, which would then give them to kids. But at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis last November, some observers were critical of the scheme. One participant said access to clean water and better schools was a more important goal, and another saw the initiative as a marketing scheme to sell Western IT to the world’s poor. Others raised concerns about future environmental problems after the cheap, green machines stop working and need to be properly disposed. One bad omen: When U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan tried out a prototype at the conference, the crank came off in his hand. —Thomas K. Grose


BOOK NOTES - FIXING SCHOOLS

“Crash Course” By Chris 
                    WhittleOnly two-thirds of American school kids graduate with basic or better-than-average math and language skills, and the odds are even worse for poor and minority students. In his new book, “Crash Course,” Chris Whittle offers a number of recommendations to fix U.S. schools. Whittle is CEO of Edison Schools, a private company that manages public schools, mainly in tough inner-city districts. Only good salaries can attract good teachers, Whittle maintains. He'd double or triple teacher salaries. To pay for them, he'd increase class sizes and make more and better use of student tutors; students would also spend more time doing independent study. Whittle also urges the federal government to spend more than the current $260 million a year on education research and development. The amount, he says, should be closer to $4 billion. The United States, Whittle insists, needs to develop better ways to design and manage schools. Clearly, that point is inarguable. —TG




QUOTED  

"Helping our faculty balance the demands of their careers with family responsibilities is critical if our universities are to attract the brightest young people to the professorial ranks. While these efforts will benefit faculty of all disciplines and both genders, we especially hope that they will contribute to increased numbers of women pursuing academic careers in fields in which they have long been underrepresented, such as science and engineering."

— STANFORD PRESIDENT JOHN HENNESSY



TRANSPORTATION - SLIPPERY SOLUTION

The salt used to make roads covered with snow or ice passable can play havoc with the structure of highways and bridges. But engineers from two cold-weather states are working on solutions. Russ Alger, director of the Institute for Snow Research at the Michigan Technological University, has developed a pavement-coating product that makes de-icers more effective, so fewer applications are needed. Last winter, when the solution was tested on a Wisconsin bridge notorious for its wintertime accident rate and the amount of salt applications it needed, there were no accidents and salt trucks dumped only half the average amount of de-icers on its roadbed. The solution, a blend of epoxy and aggregates, soaks up the de-icers, then releases them slowly, as needed. Salt also causes roadbeds to deteriorate, particularly bridge decks. Concrete used for paving bridges is reinforced with steel bars, called rebars. But as salty water seeps through the concrete, the bars start to corrode and expand, which causes the concrete to pull away from the bars and break up. Civil engineers at Purdue University are experimenting with enhanced polymers that could double the lifespan of rebars. The experimental bars are made with plastic reinforced with either carbon or glass. Robert Frosch, an associate professor of civil engineering, says glass is mainly used now because it’s cheaper than carbon. —TG


MANUFACTURING - A HAIR HERE

T he world’s tiniest holes have been “drilled” by engineers at Cardiff University. Researchers in the school’s Manufacturing Engineering Center have developed machinery that can produce holes in stainless steel narrower than a human hair. The team has drilled holes as small as 22 microns; a human hair is between 50 and 80 microns in thickness. The process is called electrodischarge machining (EDM), and the holes are made with an ultrathin electrode with a diameter of just 6 microns. “The electrode is an electric discharge that wears away the metal, but it produces a very regular hole, which is tubular,” says Frank Marsh, spokesman for the center. Near-nano-size holes will help engineers working in medical and computing engineering. “Engineers are trying to shrink the mechanical aspect of their products to catch up with the electronics, which have already been shrunk,” Marsh says. —TG



NANOTECH - A HAIR THERE

And while we’re on the subject of hair, an Ohio State University mechanical engineer and his colleagues recently completed the first comprehensive study of human hair on the nanometer level. Using an atomic force microscope and an electron microscope, researchers led by Bharat Bhushan—an expert in the area of nanotribology, or the measurement of really small things—examined not only the fine exterior details of hair but also the complex structure inside each strand. Washing, drying, combing and brushing hair creates friction, and that causes wear and tear, they found. Examining the complex inner layers of hair shafts could someday lead to products that treat hair from the inside, Bhushan predicts. He also thinks nanotribology could be used to invent nail polishes and lipsticks that are wear-resistant. Now, if they could only figure out a way to stop hair from turning gray. —TG


WEATHER - A WAY TO NAIL THE FORECAST

imagery courtesy cmss/ssecWe need only look to last year’s devastating hurricanes to realize how much we remain at the mercy of nature. And we're still not terribly good at predicting weather. But Charles Meneveau, a professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, working with graduate student Yi Li, has devised a mathematical formula that could lead to better computer models for predicting turbulent flow. Turbulence occurs when a gas or liquid flows chaotically. It’s a common phenomenon that's hard to understand and predict. One characteristic of turbulence is intermittency, which is an abrupt, highly concentrated change of speed in a fluid’s flow. These changes are fairly rare, but when they happen, they can be very violent. They're hard to track using computer models because they require vast numbers of calculations and enormous computing power. But Meneveau and Li's “advected delta-vee equation” is a simple formula that's a shortcut for predicting intermittency. It instead tracks two particles as they move through turbulence, not unlike a pair of balloons being buffeted by wind gusts. They hope it can be used in models to not only predict movement within bodies of water but also weather patterns. —TG


INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY - FASTER THAN FAST

AUSTRALIA—Researchers down under have developed an IT system that offers the world’s fastest transmission of “unhackable” data. A team of physicists at the Australian National University developed the technology, which employs specially generated electronic “keys” to encrypt a message. Upon receipt of the encrypted message, the recipient uses a precisely matching decoding key to recover the original message. Only a receiver with an identical secret key can correctly decipher the encoded message. This advance in quantum cryptography is far superior to current technology and will be of interest to defense and intelligence organizations as well as the banking and finance sector because of its ability to thwart eavesdropping. “Security of conventional cryptographic methods relies on the complexity of mathematical operations, but the security of quantum cryptography is guaranteed by the laws of physics,” says team leader Ping Koy Lam. The researchers are now looking for investors to help fund the commercial developments of their system. —Chris Pritchard


BUSINESS - OPPOSITES ATTRACT

The business and technology pages of newspapers and magazines are rife with stories about Western businesses establishing beachheads in developing countries like India. But India’s Tata group—a conglomerate whose interests range from automobiles to IT—is investing in the other direction. Tata is opening an automotive engineering and technology center in England’s Midlands, an area that was once the heart of the U.K.’s auto industry. And a Warwick University electrical engineering professor is earning kudos for being instrumental in bringing the project to fruition: He’s Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya, who’s also head of the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) at Warwick University. A knight and onetime adviser to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Bhattacharyya continues to act as an adviser to companies in such countries as India, China, Britain and South Africa. And his WMG has worked hard to establish links between industry and academia. Tata’s U.K. center will eventually employ 1,000 people and focus on such things as body engineering, gears and final styling. Tata told the Financial Times that the “idea is to plug into technology at a higher level than is possible in India.” —TG



BY THE NUMBERS  

Women now make up nearly half of Ph.D. recipients in the United States, but they comprise only about one-fourth of professors.



MATHEMATICS - ADDING THE COOL FACTOR

mathmovesu.comMath is important to Raytheon. Raytheon is a $20 billion defense contractor based in Massachusetts, and many of its 80,000 employees need strong math skills. Indeed, it hires 4,000 engineers every year. So the company was alarmed when it saw the results of a survey of middle-school kids it had commissioned. Most of the adolescents said they would eat vegetables, go to the dentist or clean their rooms rather than study math. And 43 percent said they didn't understand the math they were taught. Yikes! Perhaps that explains why U.S. eighth graders managed only 15th place in an international study of math skills. And by the time they graduate from high school, American students rank near the bottom of the heap among industrialized nations when it comes to math scores. So Raytheon set up the Web site mathmovesu.com to show kids “how math plays a role in cool careers.” Celebrity endorsers include champion skateboarder Tony Hawk and soccer star Mia Hamm. But it also highlights other math-dependent cool careers, including videogame designers, concert-tour managers and fashion designers. Raytheon is also giving away $1 million in grants and scholarships to kids, schools and teachers who come up with “cool ideas” to teach math. —TG


KATRINA - ENGINEERING CUTS AT TULANE

More than five months after Katrina hit New Orleans, her wake is still rippling through Tulane University. In December, university officials announced a restructuring plan that will cut three undergraduate engineering departments—civil and environmental engineering, electrical engineering and computer science and mechanical engineering. The two departments that remain are biomedical and chemical engineering. “I argued very strenuously that these degree programs should be retained,” says Nicholas Altiero, who prior to the hurricane served as the dean of the School of Engineering. In addition, five doctoral engineering programs were also cut. At the undergraduate level, the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering will be reorganized into two new schools: the School of Liberal Arts and the School of Science and Engineering. Altiero has been named dean of the new School of Science and Engineering. A group of engineering students have formed a group to protest the closures.—LS


SECURITY - CRACKING THE CODE OF ARMOR

Kalpana Katti - Photo by: Dan Koeck/North Dakota State University - The abalone is one of the most primitive of mollusks, but its shell may someday yield secrets for creating high-tech armor and protective coatings.In the shell of the abalone—a marine gastropod—nature has devised one of the best armors. The outside layer is very hard and can withstand strong impacts. The beautiful inside layer—which scientists call nacre, and jewelry aficionados call mother-of-pearl—can absorb energy if the outside layer does break. It’s a material that's still little understood. However, two civil engineers at North Dakota State University, Kalpana Katti and Dinesh Katti, are using complex computer modeling and state-of-the-art measuring equipment (including an atomic force microscope and a spectrometer), and they’ve begun to crack the mysteries of the abalone shell. The Department of Defense sees nacre as a potential armor covering for aircraft. By studying nacre after it had been fractured, the Kattis discovered one key reason for its toughness: it is composed of interlocking platelets that resemble hexagonal bricks and mortar: a simple, yet effective design. The abalone is one of the most primitive of mollusks, but its shell may someday yield secrets for creating high-tech armor and protective coatings. —TG


FOREIGN STUDENTS - FEWER STAY HOME

Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, where there has been a 41 percent increase in Chinese students since 
2002.TIGhter visa controls enacted after the 9-11 attacks, coupled with much more aggressive competition from overseas schools, continue to conspire to reduce the number of foreign students studying in the United States. But the falloff seems to be easing. According to an annual survey by the Institute of International Education (IIE), foreign students enrolled at U.S. universities in the 2004-05 school year totaled 565,000, a decrease of 1.3 percent from the previous year. In 2003-04, the decline was 2.4 percent. Foreigners seeking associate degrees were down 5.6 percent, undergraduate students levels dropped by 2.9 percent and graduate enrollments slumped by 3.6 percent. Those declines were offset by a nearly 23 percent increase in foreign students studying in non-degree programs. Fewer foreign students hits American universities where it counts: in the pocketbook. Tuition and fees paid by foreign students total $13.3 billion. Most foreigners—18 percent—come to the United States to study business and management. But engineering students are a close second with 16.5 percent. Enrollments from Middle Eastern countries were down 2 percent to 31,248. That's an improvement over 2003-04 when they fell 9 percent. Student numbers from Saudi Arabia fell by 14 percent to 3,035, after declining by 16 percent in 2003-04. India sent over the most students: 80,466, an increase of 1 percent. Enrollments from second-place China were also up 1 percent, to 62,523. But in the previous year, Chinese enrollments fell by 5 percent, and overall, since 2001, they're down 20 percent.

One place Chinese students are heading is Scotland. The number of Chinese students studying at Scottish universities has swelled from 600 six years ago to 3,567. That's largely due to a new law that allows foreign students to stay in Scotland and work for two years after graduation.

Indeed, education officials in England say the Scottish law is attracting foreigners who might have otherwise gone to schools south of the border. For instance, before the law, the ratio of Indian students opting for English universities to Scottish ones was 80/20. It's now 70/30. Foreign students contribute $619 million to the Scottish economy, and Chinese students account for $65.4 million of that amount. And, hoot mon, that's a fair amount of dosh. –TG


 

FEATURES
A CHALLENGING MATCHUP - Time-consuming wrangling with industry over intellectual property issues are making negotiations more difficult. - By Thomas K. Grose
A SURPRISING SHORTAGE - There’s a worldwide need for engineers, and even populous India isn’t graduating enough to meet its needs. - By Thomas K. Grose
HEARING THE CALL - Engineers across the board are working to improve the quality of life for the deaf and hearing impaired. - By Lynne Shallcross
horizontal line
COMMENTS
BRIEFINGS
ASEE TODAY
CLASSIFIEDS
LAST WORD: Hispanics in Engineering - By Louis A. Martin-Vega
SPECIAL ISSUE: View the 2006 Annual Conference Special Issue for information about ASEEs annual conference,including workshops, plenary speakers and special tours. Find out why Chicago is the place to be in late June.
BACK ISSUES

 

ASEE logo