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ASEE PRISM
  American Society for Engineering Education
American Society for Engineering EducationJANUARY 2008Volume 17 | Number 5 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
FEATURES
COVER STORY: Game of Chance - TO STAY COMPETITIVE, AMERICA NEEDS A LEADER COMMITTED TO MAKING SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY A PRIORITY, EDUCATORS SAY. BUT NONE OF THE 2008 CANDIDATES OFFERS A SURE BET.  - BY JEFFREY SELINGO- BY JEFFREY SELINGO
FEATURE: Extreme Learning - CAR BOMBS, TSUNAMI SHELTERS, SPACE ROBOTS—UNIVERSITY LABS ARE MAKING THE STUDY OF ENGINEERING EVER MORE REAL. WHO WOULDN’T GET DRAWN IN WITH HANDS-ON PROJECTS LIKE THESE?   - BY MARY LORD
FEATURE: Too Little Respect - BRITISH ENGINEERS, ONCE THE PRIDE OF AN EMPIRE, ARE TYPECAST BY THE PUBLIC AND RARELY REACH THE EXECUTIVE SUITE. EDUCATORS EXPLORE CURRICULUM CHANGES TO GIVE THE PROFESSION A BOOST.   - BY THOMAS K. GROSE

DEPARTMENTS
COMMENTS
BRIEFINGS
DATABYTES
REFRACTIONS: Changing Study Habits - BY HENRY PETROSKI
CLASSIFIEDS
INTERACTIVE SKILLS: An Engineering Necessity – BY DR. LEE HARRISBERGER
LAST WORD: A Friend, Indeed - BY JAY BANERJEE

TEACHING TOOLBOX
TEACHING TOOLBOX: Fast and Curious - OFFER STUDENTS THE CHANCE TO WORK ON DESIGN WITH A LEGENDARY SPORTS CAR MAKER, AND THEY’LL SIGN UP—A GRAN VELOCITÀ.  - BY PIERRE HOME-DOUGLAS
TEACHING TOOLBOX: ON THE SHELF: Terrible Twins - BY ROBIN TATU
TEACHING TOOLBOX: JEE SELECTS: It’s About More Than Numbers - BY MAURA BORREGO


BACK ISSUES







 
FEATURE: Extreme Learning - CAR BOMBS, TSUNAMI SHELTERS, SPACE ROBOTS—UNIVERSITY LABS ARE MAKING THE STUDY OF ENGINEERING EVER MORE REAL. WHO WOULDN’T GET DRAWN IN WITH HANDS-ON PROJECTS LIKE THESE?   - BY MARY LORD  


Ka-booom! Kersplash! Vrrrooom!

Ask most engineers what drew them to the discipline, and crunching equations in the classroom probably doesn’t top any list. Studying explosions, building things, saving the planet—that’s more like it. Now, more than a decade after a National Science Foundation report on engineering education stressed the need for more hands-on learning, the lesson is beginning to take. A growing number of programs now give undergraduates a crack at cutting-edge research—often on socially relevant projects. Want to save lives when tsunamis strike? How about landing a robot on Mars or designing bomb-proof embassies? As these three labs demonstrate, the fundamentals can still be fun.

Testing Explosives

Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center,
New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology

Building car bombs and examining scorched sedans. Shooting supermarket chickens at helicopter windshields to calculate winged hazards. “Field work” takes on a whole new meaning at New Mexico Tech’s Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center (EMRTC), the nation’s leading lab for studying explosives—from tiny air-bag charges to 50,000-pound blasts.

Large-scale explosions like the one here, at New Mexico Tech's test site, are the kind used to produce industrial diamonds. Courtesy New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology/Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center
More Photos from New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology

Spread on 40 rugged square miles of desert near Socorro, the research complex includes a mountain with enough deep canyons to permit simultaneous “shots” at its 30 test sites. On any given day, researchers and students might be investigating the energy released by nontraditional explosives, programming robots to detect and defuse land mines, taking high-speed photographs of explosions or evaluating the vulnerability of embassies to blasts. “We get outside a lot,” says former EMRTC director Van D. Romero, New Mexico Tech’s vice president for research and economic development.

Indeed, business has been, well, booming in the post-9/11 era. Since its founding in 1946, the EMRTC has grown from a small discipline within the physics department to a mechanical-engineering powerhouse—with more undergraduate and graduate students than any other department. Today, the center performs some 200 to 300 field tests each year, mainly for federal agencies like the Pentagon and Homeland Security, but also for universities and industry.

Undergraduates have always played a key, if unglamorous, role in this research. For freshmen, the work often consists of laying cables, digging ditches, building structures and other “manual labor” for setting up tests, notes Romero. Upperclassmen get into instrumentation and analyzing data, as well as taking ultra-high-speed photos and creating computer simulations. “We don’t have students running around and blowing things up,” cautions Romero, noting that only fully trained, certified technicians can arm and detonate explosives. “Safety is first and foremost.”

While students and researchers “have a blast” trying to understand explosives and their effect on materials from plane windows and Army tanks to bank vaults, “the explosion is secondary,” says Romero. “We just do the science, math and engineering.”

That’s a crucial distinction. “We do the fun stuff, but we also do the fundamentals,” explains Romero. Blowing stuff up “is a way of getting students interested in science and engineering and in learning the fundamentals so they will have the ability to understand and solve problems,” he says. “If they don’t know the calculus, they’re not going to be much help to anyone.”

The program clearly instills more than the basics, given the Sandia and Los Alamos national labs’ demand for graduates. Career opportunities exist beyond the homeland-security bunker, too. As Romero notes, “there are 4 billion pounds of explosives used in the United States every year—legally,” in mining and other industries. Yet the majority of EMRTC undergrads become so enthralled with research that they aim straight for graduate school and end up in academia, igniting the next generation of young minds.

Simulated Natural Disaster

Tsunami Wave Basin, O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory, Oregon State University College of Engineering

The slight bulge of water rolling toward Seaside, Ore., hardly looked menacing. But its destructive power became viscerally clear to the students and researchers who built this scale-model simulation when a towering tsunami slammed into the beachfront promenade. “I’ve never had a project that people reacted to like this one,” says Daniel Cox, associate professor of civil and construction engineering and director of the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory at Oregon State University’s College of Engineering in Corvallis. “They really can identify with it.”

A small-scale tidal wave is released to test the strength of student-designed structures at Oregon State's College of Engineering - Courtesy Oregon State University College of Engineering
More Photos from Tsunami Wave Basin, O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory, Oregon State University College of Engineering

Studying the effect of natural disasters on coastal resorts is just a sample of the riveting—and socially relevant—research beginning to flow from the Tsunami Wave Basin, the world’s largest, most sophisticated facility for studying earthquake-generated monster swells. How fast does water rush through streets? What about debris? Could a vertical evacuation shelter work? From sediment scouring to the impact of global warming on shorelines, the scenarios that researchers can model and measure in the 160-foot-long tank are as vast as the sea itself.

Oregon’s Willamette Valley seemed an unlikely home for tsunami research when the $6.4 million facility—one of 15 that make up the NSF’s Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation—opened four years ago. Then the deadly 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck, followed by Hurricane Katrina a year later. Those disasters heightened concern about the Pacific Northwest’s own vulnerability to offshore faults and thrust Oregon State into the forefront of wave behavior and hazard-mitigation research. The center, which hosts up to five undergraduate research fellows each summer, also has become a major campus attraction, welcoming thousands of visitors each year.

Tsunamis may seem more the province of oceanographers than of civil engineers, but lab director Cox sees a natural fit. “What happens when waves hit is something we care about,” he explains. “If we know this building will stand, people can take shelter there rather than running through the street.”

Gauging a 35-foot tsunami’s impact on six blocks of real, if miniature, Seaside streets “makes it very exciting for students,” Cox adds. “It lets them put a tsunami shelter they designed out there and see what happens.” He believes such real-world projects may attract more women to civil engineering and graduate school because they involve more than “just a cool machine.”

Sophomore Brittany Snyder, who wound up working on the Seaside project last summer, is a convert. After a few “terrifying” weeks of insecurity spent hooking up equipment and teaching herself fluid dynamics, the civil engineering major gained confidence—and camaraderie. “I learned a ton, more than in my normal lecture classes,” says Snyder, whose experience running equations put her “one step ahead of everyone else” in physics class this past fall. Walking evacuation routes in a resort where she once vacationed convinced Snyder to abandon materials for structural and environmental engineering. “It really made it exciting, doing research that really matters,” she explains. “It was so relevant to my life, to all Oregonians.”

The tsunami basin plans a third Seaside simulation, with wireless sensors to monitor the impact of debris on infrastructure. Meanwhile, a $1 million NSF grant to install a wavemaker in a neighboring channel will expand post-Katrina research to hurricane waves. That system, which is a one-of-a-kind design, should be ready in late 2008—just in time for hurricane season.

Underwater with Robots

Neutral Buoyancy Research Facility, A. James Clark School of Engineering, University of Maryland

Limbs float weightlessly. Nothing rises or falls. Plunging into the giant swimming pool known as the Neutral Buoyancy Research Facility (NBRF) at the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, says its director, David Akin, “is the closest you can get to being an astronaut without having to live in Houston.”

The NBRF's weightless environment allows students to work with robots in space-like conditions.
More Photos from Neutral Buoyancy Research Facility, A. James Clark School of Engineering, University of Maryland

Housed on a leafy stretch of campus at the Space Systems Laboratory, the facility is one of just three neutral buoyancy tanks in America and the only one on a college campus. (NASA operates the others.) Some 50 feet wide and 25 feet deep, its pool can hold robots, equipment and people, providing a low-cost “weightless” environment for making space exploration safer and easier.

How NBRF landed in College Park is a space odyssey in itself. The saga begins in 1976, when Akin and his Massachusetts Institute of Technology colleagues founded the Space Systems Laboratory. Every Saturday evening, the researchers would wheel their robots across campus to the swimming pool, run tests overnight and clear out in time for Sunday’s swimmers—which, Akin says, “really sucked.” In 1990, Akin convinced NASA to fund a dedicated neutral buoyancy tank, but MIT had no room to build it. Maryland did, so Akin moved.

Since it opened in 1992, the NBRF has launched a host of important initiatives, from Ranger series robots that repair the Hubble telescope to space suits designed to study how the human body works in space. Current projects include deep-sea and medical rehabilitation robots.

Undergraduates are as actively involved in this research as Ph.D.s. “We couldn’t do the kind of work we do without undergraduates” helping to design, build and maintain equipment, says Akin. “It would be way too expensive.” And their ideas are equally welcome. After a doctoral student left this summer for the International Space University, for instance, two rising seniors took over a complex space-suit design project and “did a great job.”

Such hands-on projects are “a critical portion of engineering education,” says Akin, who learned to “see it, do it, believe it” as an MIT undergrad. Were there sufficient resources, he would “give every one of our students” the opportunity to develop a system from beginning to end.

Akin also has “always had a strong philosophy of involving students at all levels.” A good year might bring 20 undergraduates to his lab. All told, some 500 undergraduates have worked there during his 17-year tenure at Maryland.

Whether the abundance of hands-on projects explains the program’s high percentage of females, who account for 1 in 3 students, is unclear. As Akin observes, “it’s just kind of fun to jump in the water with your robot and watch it work.”

Many discover the sky’s the limit. Akin’s NBRF students have worked on the Mars Rover, built a flying robot camera, and won a recent NASA design contest for a work station with spacesuit appendages. And while the lab certainly attracts its share of rocket scientists, Akin prefers the strugglers. When they plunge into the tank with their creations, all those calculations and computer simulations suddenly click. Students realize “this is why I’m studying, this is how it works in the real world,” says Akin. “They really blossom. They just take off.”


More Photos from New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology

Mary Lord is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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