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Virginia Commonwealth University

Shark School
Why won't sharks attack lawyers? Professional courtesy, according to the old joke. Though not all attorneys go into a frenzy from a whiff of fresh blood, it is a fact that lawyers and legal intricacies can often reduce unprepared engineers and their work to so much chum. One engineering school has decided that the best way to prepare future engineers to swim with the sharks is to learn from them.

Tort for Techies
Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) recently joined forces with the Richmond, Virginia-based law firm Hunton & Williams to design a course that introduces third-year engineering students to some of the legal issues they will face on the job. Called "Science, Technology, and Law," the elective will be offered for the first time this spring. The law "professors" for the course will be Hunton & Williams partners, some of whom have engineering backgrounds.

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The changing nature of engineers' responsibilities makes a grasp of legal matters a real advantage, explains Henry McGee, founding dean of VCU's engineering school. "Engineering today is much broader than just technical issues," McGee says, "and we hope that this course will have a broadening impact on students."

Kevin Finto, a partner at Hunton & Williams and the lead instructor for the course, adds, "We often see engineers who come up with wonderful technical solutions, but don't understand that they won't work for some nontechnical reason, such as a government regulation."

Finto, a former practicing mechanical engineer, says the course will cover legal areas commonly encountered by working engineers, including intellectual property, product liability, regulatory authority, and antitrust issues. Emerging technology areas such as the Internet, bioengineering, and environmental engineering are especially fertile ground for difficult issues, he adds, because legal implications are still evolving.

Radically different course content and lawyers for instructors aren't the only curves "Science, Technology, and Law" will throw at students. Hunton & Williams lawyers will conduct the course using the Socratic method common in law and business schools, in which the instructor mostly poses questions to engage students in lively debate. "This is definitely not the ‘sage on the stage,'" McGee says. Finto echoes the sentiment, saying that the goal is to make the class as much like a law school course as possible, right down to a classroom with tiered seating, an open-horseshoe design, and swivel chairs that promote student-to-student interaction.

Quid Pro Quo
By awakening students to connections between engineering and other areas of society, VCU hopes to make more attractive job applicants of its graduates. Local industry in Richmond, in particular, has welcomed the three-year-old engineering school's presence as a potential source of technical talent. The widespread belief that a local engineering program is good for the area's economy is reflected in Hunton & Williams' pro bono involvement in the law course. "We see the engineering school as a driver for the city of Richmond," Finto says. "If the school does better, ultimately, the firm does better."

Though some law schools offer a course in engineering for law students, McGee does not know if other engineering schools offer a law course for undergraduate engineers. If VCU is unique, he doesn't expect it to last, postulating that in 10 years similar courses will be commonplace.

"We're trying to take advantage of the blank slate to look at curriculum matters afresh," he says. Hopefully, students will begin earning their fins in Finto's classroom, and avoid becoming shark bait when they enter the workforce.

—Ray Bert

Illustration by Bruce MacPherson
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Hawkeye Community College

Reaping Technology's Rewards
For farmers, help from above usually comes in the form of sunshine and rain. But some are harvesting another resource from the sky, and this one is man-made. It's a bird, it's a plane, it's. . . a satellite! satelite

Tapping into satellite technology may change farming at the end of the century as much as tractors did when introduced at the beginning of the century, according to Terry Brase, an agriculture technology instructor at Iowa's Hawkeye Community College. Brase designed the college's precision agriculture technology program, which trains students in technologies that can make farms more productive. The fledgling program started out with just one student a year ago. With two dozen now enrolled, Brase expects a bumper crop of five graduates this spring.

Students learn to determine the latitude and longitude of a parcel of land by accessing Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites; use a variety of diagnostic tools to analyze soil chemistry, moisture content, and other data; and then use Geographic Information System (GIS) technology to store and analyze that data.

farmer "Imagine a little boombox with a screen," explains student Jake Rechkemmer, describing the GIS unit installed in the combine on his family's farm. These units cost $6,000 to $9,000, which may seem expensive until you consider that a new combine costs from $130,000 to $160,000. As a combine runs through the field, the GIS screen flashes information on the total crop yield in bushels per acre, and the amount of moisture in the soil.

Planting the Seed
While the GPS and GIS technology is not new, farming applications are relatively recent, Brase explains. He developed the idea for the program five years ago, when the college's civil engineering department received two hand-held GPS units and gave one to the agriculture department. "I saw it as a far-ahead technology" for the department, he recalls.

"As an example, on a 50-acre field in the past, a farmer would apply lime over the entire field based on the average pH of the field," Brase explains. "Typically, 15 to 20 percent of the field would have the wrong amount, but the farmer would have no idea of the specific location of high pH or low pH areas."

Armed with information from a GPS Yield Monitor (which records the amount of grain harvested from an approximate area and the latitude/longitude) and GIS, a farmer might be able to determine relationships between soil chemistry and the yield. He might determine that fertilizer was needed in a particular area, or discover the effect  of weeds and insects on yield.

A Farewell to Farms?
Rechkemmer, who is now pursuing an applied science associate's degree at the school, is undecided as to whether he will return permanently to farming once he graduates. Many of his classmates are also debating whether to put their new skills to use on their own farms or to pursue agriculture technology-related careers.

Student Kevin Schaefer hopes to develop a career using GPS technology for field mapping; he has a job offer with a Des Moines-based company when he finishes the program in the spring.

Schaefer says the expertise he is developing at Hawkeye is in "very high demand. I've had offers to go elsewhere." Farming cooperatives and insurance companies are particularly interested in using the technology. "GPS is an in-depth way for insurance companies to gather information on a field and adjust the premium," Schaefer explains, while farming cooperatives will help farmers use the equipment for a smaller investment. Using the technology is "not extremely difficult, but it's in-depth. It's a lot of work getting the information and working with it on a computer."

Brase agrees. "The initial data collection is not difficult, but the final analysis and interpretation of the data can be extremely difficult. A lot of farmers are questioning the benefit, but the number of units put in combines is increasing dramatically," he says.

As more farmers look to the sky for something other than rain, programs like Hawkeye's are helping make sure there will be more experts to help them reap technology's benefits.

For more information, contact Terry Brase at (319) 296-2329, ext. 1319; e-mail: tbrase@hawkeye.cc.ia.us.

Siobhan Dugan is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Illustration by David Clark


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