The proliferation of talk shows in recent years has focused largely on dysfunctional families or politics, but you won't find any fistfighting married cousins or rhetoric-spouting pundits on Harvey Mudd College's FutureWatch. The talking heads on this show are scientists, authors, and inventors, sitting in front of a giant backdrop of outer space, conversing about the hottest issues in science and engineering. Show topics have included Internet security, the Y2K problem, and cloning.
Created in 1997, FutureWatch has an audience of nearly 1.5 million and is distributed on cable TV, radio, and via the Internet. It is co-produced with the MediaVision Division of California State Polytechnic University, an innovative university multimedia center that provides more than 150 on- and off-campus courses.
The program evolved out of a brainstorming session between Harvey Mudd College President Jon Strauss; Leslie Baer, HMC's college relations director; and Rudy Vargas, producer/director at Cal Poly/Pomona's MediaVision. The group was interested in helping the neighboring communities understand the important issues in science and technology, and a talk show seemed to be an appropriate medium.
Baer, who created a radio show in a previous job, knew how programs could be syndicated. Cal Poly had a TV studio the schools could use to tape a show. From there, the idea took off and FutureWatch was born.
The producers realized early on that to capture a wide audience, some of the fare would have to be lighthearted and quirky. They enlisted Saul Landau, a popular public radio commentator and visiting professor at Cal Poly, to take a satirical look at bad science and technology gone wrong in a regular segment called Hot Air. A recent broadcast had Landau musing about the large number of polar bears off a small Alaskan island becoming hermaphrodites-apparently due to large quantities of PCBs ending up in Arctic water and entering the bear's endocrine system. Not only has Landau's fine sense of irony helped attract a wider audience, his public radio connections have helped get the show into more markets.
Other semiregular segments include ScienceLine, which looks at the most interesting and compelling stories within the realms of science; and Good News, which describes how science, technology, and engineering innovations benefit our lives.
The show tackles a wide variety of issues. Recent shows include "116 Ways to Make the World a Better Place," "Protecting Your Interests on the Internet," "Beating Heart Attack: New Discoveries about the Human Heart," and "The Biotech Century." The roster of guests is also an interesting mix, including renowned science fiction author Ben Bova; Peter Kostmyer, executive director of Zero Population Growth, Inc.; and former U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day, to name a few.
Mostly missing from that roster are Harvey Mudd and Cal Poly professors. Of the 52 guests who appeared on the show the first year, just two were from the schools. Baer says that is by design. The public relations department is not shirking its duty by focusing on national experts, however, "From our point of view, we get a lot of name recognition without having to beat our chest," she explains.
FutureWatch, which recently taped its 50th segment, started with no funding but plenty of resources in the form of faculty members at both campuses. Baer and her staff, who produce the show, count on faculty members to help compose the right questions to ask the show's guests.
Baer, who also serves as co-host, estimates she and her staff spend about 10 days per month getting the programs on the air. The program recently got a funding boost when HMC officials earmarked part of a $500,000 National Science Foundation innovative teaching grant for FutureWatch.
The producers hope the show's audience continues to grow-plans are underway to get FutureWatch on public television-and so far Harvey Mudd has heard from only one dissatisfied viewer. The caller was from a college in Los Angeles, wanting to know why Harvey Mudd was broadcasting in its territory.
See www.futurewatchonline.org for an archive of past programs and a list of radio cable stations that air FutureWatch.
While he doesn't believe his students today are any more intelligent, Dhushy Sathianathan, an engineering graphics associate professor at Penn State University, says he can detect a lot of difference between the amount of engineering expertise gained by his current students and the ones he taught, say, six years ago.
He doesn't credit his teaching, and he promises that he's not grading any easier. The difference, Sathianathan says, is the College of Engineering's Learning by Industry-Driven Design program he helped create. The program consists of The Learning Lab, a manufacturing laboratory where students work on industry-sponsored projects, and the drastically revised format of the first-year engineering design course Engineering Design and Graphics 100.
Instead of focusing solely on engineering theory and principals, ED&G 100 brings real-world experience into the classroom. Freshmen don't just tackle academic projects, they test their prowess on actual problems found in industry.
The goal of the program, explains David Wormley, Penn State's engineering dean, is to transform engineering education "from a passive classroom experience into an active learning community."
The program revamp got its start earlier this decade as part of Penn State's involvement with the Engineering Coalition of Schools for Excellence in Education and Leadership (ECSEL). Seven schools make up the coalition, which is part of a National Science Foundation initiative to improve undergraduate engineering education.
The ED&G 100 course evolved from fun class projects, such as designing and building a crush-proof container for an egg and then testing it by dropping it from a rooftop, to projects that are "hands-on and more experimental by design," and accentuate basic engineering principals, Sathianathan explains.
First-year student Stephanie DeSalle speaks excitedly about her project, designing an Archimedes scale using cylinders to displace water. "We could use as many [cylinders] as we wanted to displace a certain amount of water," DeSalle explains.
"You'd have to go through a number of equations to decide which was best for your design."
Students' second project is sponsored by a specific company. One class recently worked on a project for Ohio-based Ingersoll-Rand, which manufactures hydraulic systems and heavy machinery. Engineering faculty members from Penn State met with industry representatives on site in Bryan, Ohio, to review their manufacturing processes and discuss issues the company was interested in having addressed by the student teams. From that observation emerged a project to redesign of the company's material handling system.
"They have carts that are pretty much on their last leg," DeSalle explained a few weeks into work on the project. "They needed something that was ergonomically more efficient and good for workers." In addition, Ingersoll-Rand asked for equipment that would optimize the load that could be carried as well as the use of space on the plant floor.
DeSalle says that she and her classmates took the project more seriously because industry eyes would be looking at what they produced.
But, Sathianathan emphasizes, the company benefits from the exercise as well. "It's exciting to have 400 people looking at your issue," he says, plus the manufacturers get their names in front of potential employees. That's why Penn State now has a number of companies waiting to sponsor ED&G projects.
In addition to working on a design, DeSalle said, the students in the class gained because working on projects forced them to operate as they would in a professional setting and as a team.
The students work in groups of four or less, and are reshuffled into new groups of the same size for the second project. "We have to schedule regular meetings, meet deadlines," DeSalle explains. "We're learning both the business and the engineering aspects" of the career.
Along with winning praise from its student and industry participants, ED&G 100 recently won an Outstanding Practice Award from the Association for Educational Communications and Technology's Division of Instructional Development. The course also helped earn the engineering college The Boeing Company's 1998 Boeing Outstanding Educator Award.
But perhaps the biggest reward is that ED&G 100 has succeeded in "having students be aware and understand what engineers do right from the start, from freshman year," Sathianathan says. "So when they go into their next level of courses, they are far more confident in what they do."