ASEE Prism Magazine
briefings  

Fuzzy Math? Blame Your Cold Pills.

Next time you can't balance your checkbook, or you make mistakes with even the most basic arithmetic, you might want to look in your medicine chest. If you've been taking over-the-counter medications with antihistamines, they may be the reason why you've gone foggy with figures. Researchers at Youngstown State University say they've found a link that suggests that these popular cold remedies could make people susceptible to careless math errors.

Newly retired math professor Joseph Altinger says he first suspected the drugs a decade ago. "It happened to me. . . I'd been taking a sinus medication and I made three ridiculous mistakes, glitches really, like 2 plus 3 equals 7." So he conducted a little test. He didn't take the drug for several weeks, and made no more such errors. Then he took another dose. And once again, he caught himself making silly mistakes.

Altinger also gathered anecdotal evidence from students who had made embarrassing goofs on tests and quizzes. He discovered that an "amazing" number of them were taking antihistamines. So he enlisted the aid of two YSU colleagues—Sharon Shipton, a doctor of nursing, and Andy Chang, a statistician. They gave around 400 students basic arithmetic problems to do and then had them fill out a detailed questionnaire, which included questions about such things as age, marital status, parenthood, as well as any OTC medications they were taking.

Chang fed the results into a computer and the team discovered a correlation between math errors and antihistamines. They hope to submit their results to medical journals for publication in the near future. Altinger says he doesn't know why antihistamines would cause these momentary short circuits, but he thinks the effects are short-lived and go away once you stop taking them. Altinger doesn't suggest that people shouldn't use antihistamines, but if they do, he recommends that they carefully re-check any math work they do.

If the trio's findings are eventually corroborated by subsequent research, it would be just the latest bad news for OTC cold and allergy remedies. Many popular brands, including Dimetapp and Alka-Seltzer, were pulled from shelves in December after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that studies showed that an ingredient in many of them, phenylpropanolamine, or PPA, could cause strokes, particularly in young women.
Consumers may well decide that a runny nose is preferable to a brain on the blink.

Waves Into Watts

The island of Islay in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland is famed for its malt whiskey. But locals know it's also renowned for water as well as scotch—in the form of heavy waves that regularly pound its shores. Now a Scottish company has teamed with Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to produce on Islay the world's first commercial power station to harness the energy of ocean waves.

Last November, Wavegen began feeding electricity to the U.K.'s national grid and signed a 15-year purchase agreement with Scotland's Public Electricity Suppliers. The station is rated at 500 kilowatts and generates enough electricity for 400 local homes. It uses what is called the LIMPET device, which stands for Land Installed Marine Powered Energy Transformer. Photographs by Jamie Daughters

The LIMPET is located on the shoreline and its collectors are partly submerged. It uses an oscillating water column; external wave movement causes a variation in water levels that compresses and decompresses air trapped above, which then flows through two Wells Turbines. Wells Turbines are named for their inventor, Wavegen's co-founder and former Queen's professor of civil engineering Alan Wells.
Wells Turbines rotate in the same direction regardless of which way the air flows across its blades, so they're not hampered by the ebb and flow of the waves. David Langston, business development director, says the turbines are simple designs that need no gears or pitching mechanisms. "That's the beauty of them," he notes.

The origin of the power station traces to 11 years ago, when Queen's University set up a research power station at Islay. The university remains involved and will be part of a team that monitors LIMPET's progress.
Langston says Wavegen, which is located in Inverness, Scotland, has global aspirations and that the system should work in any coastal areas, even those with mostly placid seas. Right now, he says, the energy produced by LIMPET is priced competitively, but new technologies and increased volume should eventually make wave power a low-cost option. And certainly a greener one.

Cash 'N Carry for Computers

Computers are fast becoming major line items in the budgets of American schools. Gone are the days when schools relied on donations of corporate castoffs or the proceeds of 8th-grade bake sales to wire their classrooms.

According to research firm Market Data Retrieval, public schools spent nearly $6 billion—around $121 per student—on technology in 1999-2000, a 2.5 percent increase over the previous year. And the spending could become more intense. A bipartisan congressional body, the Education Commission, recently reported that wiring schools to the Internet has "transform[ed] learning in new and powerful ways" and that more time, energy, and money should be invested in boosting this "new learning opportunity." The commission strongly urges more federal and state funding for educational technology.

Keith Kruger, executive director of the Consortium for School Networking, hails the commission's report, saying it "puts forth a very visionary view." But that said, Kruger warns that schools need to do a better job of budgeting for IT.

Market Data Retrieval also notes that 60 percent of school funds are spent on hardware and 20 percent on software. That leaves precious little money for training and technical support, and is the opposite of how businesses spend on information technology.

Businesses know, Kruger explains, "that the real cost isn't hardware and software, it's training people and technical support. What's the use of having a state-of-the-art system if it takes weeks to fix it when it crashes?" he asks. His group promotes within schools a business concept called total cost of ownership (TCO), which takes into account maintenance and replacement costs as well as the purchase price.

When it comes to tech support, Kruger admits that schools face handicaps. They can't pay competitive salaries to hire full-time support teams. But, he insists, there are options, including training students to do some of the work, and using contract technicians.

The more reliant schools become on high technology, the more serious they must be about funding their IT programs and budgeting for the future. Indeed, one federal initiative—the e-rate program, which helps schools pay for Internet connections—requires schools to maintain an up-to-date technology plan. School chiefs are swiftly learning that education technology has many payoffs, but it doesn't come cheap.

Looking in on the Folks

Now even the family portrait has gone digital. Georgia Institute of Technology researchers have devised a picture frame that can help people keep tabs on elderly loved ones.

Here's how it works. Sensors hooked to a PC are placed around the house to be monitored, and the data they pick up are sent via the Internet to the digital family portrait—which presumably is hanging in the house of a relative, friend, or caregiver. So far, the Georgia Tech folks have focused on measuring activity in the kitchen, movements from room to room, and in bed. (For example, how long have they been in bed, are they sleeping well or restlessly?) The elderly people involved can decide what they want monitored so that the system doesn't become too intrusive.Georgia Tech

Icons on a flat-panel display mounted on the wooden frame indicate daily how much activity is taking place. "We are adding a second interface that updates on an hourly basis—when you touch the picture, you get a more detailed display. It resets after a few minutes," explains Elizabeth D. Mynatt, of Georgia Tech's College of Computing.
It is not an alarm system. It won't alert anyone that someone has fallen, for example. But it may be a good way to see how someone is recuperating after a fall or illness, Mynatt says.

The school has no plans of its own to take the system to market, "But we're open to working with companies who are interested in commercializing the portrait," Mynatt says.