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Briefings

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By David Brindley

International Space Station

An Expensive Engineering Marvel Lifts Off

image courtesy of NASAA new era in space exploration, and what has been dubbed one of the most ambitious engineering undertakings in history, began in December as the first components of the International Space Station (ISS) were assembled 220 miles above Earth.

Astronauts joined the Russian-built Zarya and U.S.-built Unity modules and established electrical power in the combined unit, which will serve as a connecting corridor for the much larger components still to come. It took space shuttle Endeavour astronauts Jerry Ross and James Newman three space walks totaling 21 hours and 22 minutes to complete the initial assembly of the station.

The shuttle Discovery and a multinational crew of seven astronauts will visit the station next, on a resupply mission in May. In July, a Russian rocket will bring a Russian-built service module to the station. That module will provide the station's initial living quarters and life support systems. In January 2000, a Russian capsule will bring a three-person crew to the station, and from that point on the station will be permanently inhabited. Research work in a U.S. laboratory module is also scheduled to begin at that time.

image courtesy of NASAAccording to NASA, the Space Shuttle and two types of Russian rockets will conduct 45 missions to launch and assemble the more than 100 elements that will comprise the completed International Space Station. In all, 460 tons of structures, modules, equipment, and supplies will be placed in orbit by the year 2004.

While few argue the engineering marvel of the station, many engineers, scientists, and politicians do question the wisdom of spending the estimated $63 billion necessary to build the million-ton, 290' by 143' station, and the $100 billion or more needed to maintain the station during its 15-year life span.

The ISS is a cooperative effort of  the United States, Canada, Japan, and Russia; the European Space Agency countries of  Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom; and Brazil. The United States, however, is providing the lion's share of funding, including paying for the Zarya module.

The ISS has been criticized as too expensive, too ambitious, and even unnecessary, especially after the relatively inexpensive Mars Pathfinder mission, which cost just $100 million. But despite its critics, multiple delays, and continued cost overruns, the project survives. As more than one observer has noted, "it's too big to kill."

ISS Assembly Time Line image courtesy of NASA

1998

  • November and December: Zarya and Unity modules launched and linked.

1999

  • May: Discovery delivers equipment.
  • July: Russian rocket delivers the service module that will provide the initial living quarters and life support systems.
  • August: Atlantic delivers equipment for service module.
  • October: Discovery delivers integrated truss structure, other components, and crew begins truss construction.
  • December: Atlantis delivers thermal radiator solar arrays and another truss segment.

2000

  • January: The first live-in crew arrives in a Russian capsule. From this point on, the station will be permanently inhabited.
  • February: Endeavour delivers the Destiny laboratory module.
  • March: Discovery delivers supplies.
  • April: Italian multipurpose logistics module Leonardo and Canadian-built mechanical arm delivered by Atlantis added to station.
  • July: Shuttle crew installs a joint airlock and high-pressure gas assembly, and adds docking module and additional truss segments.

2000-2004

  • Final Phase: Japanese and the European Space Agency labs, centrifuge module for experiments requiring gravity, and U.S.-built habitation module for crew of seven added.
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Keeping Tabs On Students

Illustration by Steve PicaParents who want to know how their children are faring in college have a new tool: the Internet. At least that's the case at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, where parents need only log on to the college's Web site and punch in a user name and password to get up-to-date information on their kid's courses, grades, even phone bills.

The new program is part of the college's Web-based system that gives students "easy access to information that was always available to them but not necessarily easy to get," explains Donald Redman, who runs the service. Dubbed CNAV, for College NAVigation, the system allows access to transcripts, bills, and other information, and also acts like a computer matchmaking service that automatically links a student's interests with courses and extracurricular events. And it's popular: 70 percent of the students use it at least weekly, according to Redman.

Now parents can request their own CNAV account to access their children's records, though students have the ultimate say in how much information they allow their parents to see by checking off a number of options, including grades and bookstore bills. About 200 parents have requested accounts so far.

The CNAV wasn't actually designed to allow parental access, but some students shared their passcodes with their parents, who then reviewed the student records. When administrators realized that parents were also logging on, they decided to give parents their own accounts on the system.
For more information, see the Gettysburg College home page at 
http://www.gettysburg.edu/ir/cnav/ 

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Donors Provide Big Bucks for Engineering

We've all heard of corporate largesse, but a booming stock market is fueling a surge in individual generosity toward U.S. engineering schools. And the 1990s are shaping up to be the richest decade ever for engineering schools and departments across the country. Here's a list of top benefactors:

  • Gordon Wu, Hong Kong entrepreneur, $100 million to the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Princeton University, 1995.
  • Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg, $45 million to the Whiting School of Engineering, Johns Hopkins University, 1998. (This brings Bloomberg's total contributions to the Whiting School to $60 million-$15 million of Bloomberg's 1995 gift of $55 million total went to the engineering school.)
  • Estate of Mildred Topp Othmer, late wife of noted chemical engineer Donald Othmer, a portion of a $125 million gift to be used by the Walter Scott Engineering Center, University of Nebraska, 1998.
  • Fu Foundation, $26 million, to the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, Columbia University, 1997.
  • Peter Rossin, member of Lehigh class of 1948, $25 million to the College of Engineering, Lehigh University, 1998.
  • Tom DuPree, Jr., founder of Applebee's restaurants, $20 million to the College of Management, Georgia Institute of Technology, to promote technical entrepreneurship, 1996.
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Y2K Readiness Reporting

What's bugging public college administrators these days? The Year 2000 computer problem, for one. As of last October, public colleges that report financial information to their city or state must also disclose how they are dealing with the millennium computer glitch.

The Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GSAB), a non-profit organization that sets accounting reporting standards for state and locaal governments, now requires public universities and colleges to disclose in auditors' reports any significant amount of money spent on fixing the Y2K problem. In addition, public schools must describe how they might be affected if their computer systems are not repaired, and also detail how they have handled the issue so far.

Terry Patton, a GSAB project manager, says the new reporting requirements were spurred by "bondholders and investors who wanted more information about how public-sector management is dealing with the Year-2000 issue." Since repairing computer systems can be costly, investors in state and local government bonds want "to make sure that the bonds they hold will be paid back," Patton adds.

More information is available at www.rutgers.edu/Accounting/raw/gasb/tbpage.html .

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TA Strike Over But Issues Remain

Illustration by Matthew Baek In what amounted to the largest labor relations crisis facing higher education, University of California teaching assistants went on strike for four days last December. On the face of it, their demands were simple: collective bargaining rights. But the outcome of their dispute with the university could have dramatic effects on graduate education nationwide.

Student leaders had planned a two-week strike but went back to work after four days when University of California administrators agreed to talks with union officals.  Further complicating the matter, on December 11 the California Public Employment Relations Board ruled that TAs of the University of California at Los Angeles should be considered employees with collective bargaining rights. That ruling conflicts with a 1992 decision by the California Court of Appeals.

UC officials continue to be opposed to the idea of TA unions, according to Brad Hayward, a UC spokesman. The system is expected to appeal the Employment Board ruling.

The majority of teaching assistants at UC campuses are in the social sciences, but more than 500 TAs work in the system's engineering and computer science departments. And with graduate students teaching 15 percent of the courses at some UC campuses, in addition to leading most discussion sections of large lecture courses, they play a vital role in the university's functioning.

An estimated 9,000 graduate students on eight of the University of California campuses are currently members of labor unions affiliated with the United Auto Workers, but UC system officials do not recognize the affilitaion. "We have tried to engage the administration in a variety of ways to exercise our right to bargain," says Ricardo Ochoa, president of the Association of Graduate Student Employees/UAW at UC Berkeley.

But UC officials have remained firm in their view that though graduate students do receive a salary, the service they provide is really part of their education. That argument rests on the university's stance that campus jobs for its graduate students are part of their student scholarships and that the graduate students are just that, students who are apprenticing while they teach. Therefore, the students are not strictly university employees.

The results of the UC talks will be monitored by college officials nationwide. TA unions on 18 campuses around the country have already been recognized. And with graduate students making up 8 percent of total higher-education employment, or 198,000 workers, according to the National Education Association's latest numbers, the impact on higher education is potentially significant.

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Exit Exams Approved

Finishing college in Massachusetts could get more complicated. Under a new policy recently adopted by the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, public college students may soon be required to pass general education exit exams in order to graduate.

If public colleges go along with the plan, graduating students will have to demonstrate a minimum level of verbal and quantitative skills by as early as the fall of 2000. The tests may also assess computer literacy and mastery of subject matter in the student's major or concentration.

Does that spell trouble for the state's engineering students? Not according to Krishna Vedula, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. "I think that our students would definitely do fine." Vedula says. "They come out of our program very strong."

Other engineering school officials declined to comment on the proposed examinations until the board's plan, which is currently being worked out, is more clearly defined. And individual colleges still have to approve the tests as graduation requirements once the exams are set.

Still, Vedula is cautiously optimistic: "If the tests are designed and administered in a reasonable way, with input from faculty [members], they might be a good thing," he says.

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Accreditors Merge

Wall Street isn't the only realm for mergers these days. The two leading technology accreditors have agreed to integrate their functions, an action that will likely save engineering programs across the country thousands of dollars and valuable time by reducing costly site visits.

The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, which evaluates and accredits 2,300 programs at 500 institutions, will merge with the Computing Sciences Accreditation Board (CSAB), the accreditor of computer science programs at 156 institutions. The two agencies will be integrated over the next two years, with ABET eventually performing all accreditations and CSAB acting as an R&D arm of the two organizations. Each agency will keep its name and board of directors.

"The idea was to make visits more efficient and reduce the fees charged for accreditation," says Patrick DeMalva, CSAB's executive director. Just how much money schools will save has yet to be worked out. But with only one accreditor making site visits, "there's no question that there will be savings for engineering schools," DeMalva says.



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