ASEE.org
PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo MARCH 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 7
briefings
PRISM - BRIEFINGS

MINING - NEW SPOTLIGHT ON SAFETY

On Jan. 2, 2006, an explosion at a West Virginia coal mine left 13 miners trapped 262 feet below ground. All but one of them subsequently died. The tragedy, which made headline news around the world, seemed like a startling blast from the fairly distant past, when mining disasters were more commonplace.

“It shocked the industry, too,” explains Tibor Rozgonyi, head of the mining engineering department at the Colorado School of Mines (CSM) That’s because strict government regulations combined with new technologies have greatly improved mine safety in the United States, though it’s still a fairly hazardous occupation. Indeed, in the next month, four more miners were killed in two separate incidents.

New mining technologies include sensors to track environmental conditions in mines, sensors to make sure there’s no buildup of dangerous gases like colorless, odorless methane and new ways to vent gases. But, Rozgonyi says, even the best technologies and tightest regulations aren’t fooproof. “Human error cannot be 100 percent eliminated,” he says. At publication, the exact cause of the Sago Mine explosion was still unknown. CSM students get practical lessons in an old silver mine, Rozgonyi says, and spend about 40 hours going over health and safety regulations and procedures. With back-to-back disasters, it’s now likely that a few more hours of safety training will be added to the curriculum. —Thomas K. Grose


BOOK NOTES - GREEN IS GOOD

The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth - By Benjamin M. FriedmanEconomic growth is good for a country, argues Harvard economist Benjamin M. Friedman in his latest book. And not because it means people can live in finer houses filled with HDTVs,

iPods and a PC in every room. It’s because economic growth improves a country’s national character. In “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth,” Friedman argues that countries that experience growth are more democratic, politically stable, fairer, more tolerant and offer more opportunities to more people. Countries whose economies are in the doldrums tend to become intolerant, xenophobic, untrusting and uncaring. He notes the poor economic conditions that led to the rise of the KKK in the South and of Nazism in Germany. The key, Friedman insists, is ongoing growth, that people perceive that their incomes and status continue to rise. Rich countries with stagnant economies risk moral decay. —TG




QUOTED  

“Nobody wants arts or history anymore,” said Gautam Sidharth Singh, a first-year student majoring in electronic engineering at India’s University of Pune. “All of my friends want IT.”

—AS REPORTED IN THE WASHINGTON POST



TELEVISION - NYE ON THE NUMBERS

Bill Nye demonstrates how math and science work together when he guest stars on “Numb3rs.”Did you hear about how an engineering professor at Cal Sci helped the FBI solve a major arson case? No? And, come to think of it, you’ve never heard of Cal Sci either? Well, that’s because it’s a fictional research school that was central to an episode of the CBS crime drama “Numb3rs” last December, which featured the arson plot. And the character of the engineering professor was played by none other than Bill Nye the Science Guy, whose creative making-science-cool-and-fun TV shows have encouraged countless numbers of kids to investigate possible careers in science and engineering. Indeed, it was Nye who inspired “Numb3ers” creators, the husband-and-wife team of Nick Falacci and Cheryl Heuton. They were greatly impressed a decade ago when they caught a lecture Nye gave on the need for helping kids realize how interesting and useful science and math can be. “Bill’s tireless dedication to boosting math and science education in America has been a great example to us,” Heuton says. “Numb3rs” is meant to likewise showcase math’s essential coolness, she adds. So, they persuaded Nye to smear on some greasepaint and play a researcher in Cal Sci’s engineering school. The show stars Rob Morrow as an FBI agent who uses the mental talents of his mathematician brother to catch bad guys. Nye’s professor showed the crime stoppers how to recreate a back draft to help identify an arsonist responsible for setting deadly fires in Los Angeles. Bet that episode sparked a flurry of enrollment queries to Cal Sci’s engineering school —TG


INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY - PATENT PENDING

America’s university labs continue to be a wellspring of money-generating invention. U.S. higher education institutions earned $1.39 billion from intellectual property licensing revenue in fiscal year 2004, a 6 percent increase over 2003, according to an annual report of the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM). But 20 percent of that total went to just two schools: Columbia University ($116 million) and New York University ($109 million); more than half of that money was earned by just eight schools. And drug sales accounted for most of the revenue. The lion’s share of NYU’s money resulted from sales of Remicade, a drug used to treat several ailments, including Crohn’s disease and arthritis. Academic inventions were the basis of 462 start-up companies formed in 2004, a 23.5 percent increase over 2003. Since 1980, AUTM reports that 4,543 start-up companies have emerged from university labs, and as of the end of fiscal 2004, 2,671 were still in operation. AUTM attributes 2004’s big leap in startups to the late 2003 recovery of the capital markets after the dot-com crash three years earlier. U.S. institutions spent $41.25 billion on research in 2004. That’s a jump of 7.1 percent over 2003. The federal government accounted for $27.7 billion of that money; $2.94 billion came from industry. The schools filed 10,517 new patent applications in ’04, a huge increase of 32.8 percent over ’03, and 3,680 new patents were issued to schools in the year—a slide of 6.4 percent from 2003. However, there were 16,871 invention disclosures in the year, an 8.8 percent jump from the previous year. A total of 4,783 new licenses or options were executed, an increase of 6.1 percent over 2003. Schools reported 27,322 active licenses or options in 2004 and noted that 11,414 were generating revenues of some sort. —TG



MULTIDISCIPLINARY - GETTING MOTHER NATURE TO OPEN UP

Researchers are increasingly looking to nature for solutions to problems and templates for designs. Critters and plants ranging from houseflies and spinach to barnacles and cockroaches are under study by engineers and scientists hoping to unlock the secrets of their survival and put the answers to use in creating new technologies, processes and materials. That's the idea behind the new Center for Biologically Inspired Design (CBID) at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The CBID is the creation of an interdisciplinary group of scientists and engineers who believe that nature can help solve many human problems. “Georgia Tech is a great place to do this kind of research. It provides engineers who want to apply their expertise with biologists a new way to design solutions to problems,” explains Jeannette Yen, CBID director and professor of biology. The group members are encouraged to work with one another in biomimetic research, or biologically inspired design. Projects already underway include efforts by mechanical engineer Minami Yoda to develop an auditory retina based on a fish ear. Ken Sandhage, a materials science and engineering professor, is working with Nils Kroger, an assistant professor of biochemistry, to study nanostructure synthesis using the marine diatom, which is a microscopic, one-celled algae. And systems engineer Craig Tovey is studying the foraging skills of honeybees to help design Web-hosting optimization techniques. —TG



BY THE NUMBERS  
Number of doctoral degrees in mining awarded in 2004:
7


R&D - SPENDING, UP OR DOWN?

Certainly industry has greatly increased its funding of campus-based research since 1980. But has the cash influx stalled? In 1980, American universities received $493 million in R&D funding from industry; by 2003, the amount totaled $2.16 billion, according to the National Science Foundation. That’s a big leap. But on a percentage basis of total research expenditures by higher education institutions, the change hasn’t been that great. That $493 million was 3.8 percent of the $12.7 billion schools spent on research in 1980. That $2.16 billion was 5.4 percent of the $40.1 billion spent on R&D in ’03—an increase of 1.6 percentage points. On a percentage basis, industrial funding hit a high watermark of 7 percent in 2000; and on a total cash basis, industry spent the most in 2002, when it ponied up $2.19 billion, or 6 percent of the total amount spent. —TG


BIOMETRICS - FOOLPROOF FINGERPRINTING

In a more security-conscious America, biometrics is one hot area of research. That’s the science of using a person’s unique physiological or behavioral signature—a fingerprint or iris reading, for instance—to verify someone’s identity. But a team of investigators led by Stephanie C. Schuckers, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Clarkson University, determined that fingerprint scans can be easily fooled. Schuckers’ crew used fake fingers created with Play-Doh molds and dental material, as well as cadaver digits, to test the optical scanners that read fingerprints. The not-alive fingers worked 90 percent of the time. But, no sweat. Schuckers—who also heads Clarkson’s Biomedical Signal Analysis Laboratory—realized there was a simple solution. Real fingers perspire, and that sweat also creates a distinct signature. Schuckers’ team devised algorithms to read what she calls “changing moisture patterns” made by real fingertips. The result after her upgrade: fewer than 10 percent of the phony fingers could fool the scanner. —TG


HELP DESK - SCALING DOWN TO KEEP UP

Traditional software development tends to hew to the “waterfall” model, where a concept is developed, assessed, deployed and operated. But that’s a time-consuming process that can be outpaced in the go-go online world, where code for Internet services is often written on the fly and fixed as needed as it is used by millions of users. Rapid deployment is great for consumers and providers alike, but it requires Internet services to keep huge technical support staffs. And that’s an expensive proposition. Now a new lab at the University of California, Berkeley, aims to help budding inventors of technologies that use statistical machine learning, which could make such large support staffs unnecessary. The new Reliable, Adaptive and Distributed systems laboratory—or RAD Lab—will be funded with $7.5 million over five years with the money provided by three of the biggest names in information technology: Google, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems. Each company will give $500,000 a year to the lab. Moreover, the companies will provide expert consultants to advise the lab. Founding Director David Patter, a professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, says the companies gain from seeing ideas at the earliest stages of development, “and they will help point out the real-world obstacles that must be overcome.” If Berkeley’s RAD Lab succeeds, the waterfall model of software development could become a mere trickle.—TG


INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY - FEWER STUDENTS DOWN UNDER

AUSTRALIA—Where have all the IT students gone? Australian universities and employers are worried about an unexplained drop in students. All of the country’s 39 universities—37 of which house engineering schools—offer IT courses, but applications for the courses are down. Australian Computer Society (ACS) data show that in New South Wales, applications for universities’ IT courses declined by as much as 20 percent since the previous year. ACS spokesman Simon Kwan says this trend is echoed nationally with “other Australian states recording similar patterns.” Although some schools met enrollment targets, they turned away fewer students than in the past. Possible reasons for the downturn include higher-profile business programs luring more students away and a surging demand in the IT sector, which might mean more students are going directly into the workforce and planning on picking up their degrees later. ACS President Edward Mandla says that IT teachers need to rethink course content. Many academics think IT is “all about programming but it really isn’t.” —Chris Pritchard


ANCIENT CIVILIZATION - A NEW CODE TO CRACK?

Do khipu cords hold secret codes?Forget about the da Vinci Code. Here’s a real mystery: the Khipu code. The once-great Incan civilization of South America didn’t leave behind a written record. But among the Incan artifacts are
khipu. Khipu are cords of twisted material, usually cotton, dyed and knotted. And it’s long been fairly certain that the Incas used them for recordkeeping. But researchers have also long known that at least 20 percent of the knots have no numerical value. Now Harvard anthropologist Gary Urton, working with mathematician Carrie Brezine, has established that of 21 khipu from Puruchuco, which was an Incan coastal city in Peru, a third of them were embedded with “shared information,” knots that perhaps detailed the name of the khipu keeper or the town he was in. If there is a khipu code, and if it proves crackable, Urton says it will give us our first glimpse into the ancient empire from an Incan point of view. Moreover, it will expand the definition of what writing is, he adds. But is it decipherable? That’s a knotty question. And it’s one, Urton admits, that’s “still open.” —TG


AWARDS - INNOVATION PAYS OFF

One of the most prestigious prizes in engineering has been given to five educators, all ASEE members, for creating the Learning Factory, where multidisciplinary student teams develop engineering leadership skills by working with industry to solve real-world problems. The $500,000 Bernard M. Gordon Prize is awarded by the National Academy of Engineering.

THE WINNERS:

  • John Lamancusa, professor of mechanical engineering at Penn State and director of the Learning Factory.

  • Jens E. Jorgensen, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at the University of Washington and director of the Learning Factory at UW until his retirement in 2000.

  • Lueny Morell, director of university relations for Latin America at Hewlett-Packard and former professor of chemical engineering at the University of Puerto Rico, where she oversaw the Learning Factory curriculum development.

  • Allen L. Soyster, dean of the College of Engineering at Northeastern University. He was responsible for assembling the Learning Factory faculty and staff while he was at Penn State.

  • Jose L. Zayas-Castro, professor and chair of industrial and management systems engineering at the University of South Florida. He established the Learning Factory there and has introduced the concept to other universities.


PARANORMAL - SEARCHING FOR TRUTH IN STRANGE PLACES

Members of the Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE) go where traditional science rarely ventures: paranormal phenomena, UFOs, zero-point energy and strange creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster. So, they’re a bunch of new-age pseudo-scientists, right? Well, wrong, actually. Founded in 1982 by Peter Sturrock, a Stanford University astrophysicist (and UFO investigator), the SSE has grown into an 800-strong, international body whose core members are serious scientists and engineers from leading research schools, including Princeton, Virginia Tech and Cornell.

Sturrock started the SEE as “a new type of scientific organization, one that would foster the study of all questions that are amenable to scientific investigation without restriction” because too many “important areas . . . remain almost unexplored.” The SSE strives to keep an open yet skeptical mind on topics that many researchers ignore as bunk, says Robert G. Jahn, SSE vice president and dean emeritus of Princeton’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. Nevertheless, he adds, it’s a forum for “solid research and critical commentary.” Indeed, it publishes a quarterly peer-reviewed journal, “The Journal of Scientific Exploration.”

To be sure, a lot of today’s scientific dogma was originally scorned by the mainstream, including evolution and continental drift. Many scientific breakthroughs came from scholars willing to take risks, says Garret Moddel, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Colorado who joined the SSE about five years ago. “There’s really a need to venture out into uncharted territory.”

Moddel, who has degrees from Stanford and Harvard, says he decided to venture into terra incognita and perform research on paranormal phenomena—precognition, telekinesis, clairvoyance—after reading some of the literature and finding it convincing. He’s published a paper that concludes that such phenomena may be consistent with the second law of thermodynamics. And this spring at Colorado, for a second year, he’ll teach an honors course called Edges of Science that urges students “to distinguish fuzzy thinking and an irrational response to new scientific concepts from a healthy skepticism.”

Jahn, an expert in space propulsion who’s advised NASA, has for nearly 30 years studied what he calls “engineering anomalies”—essentially the human consciousness effect, mind over matter, if you will. His Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) lab has amassed scads of data he calls “incontrovertible” that have replicated by others, which indicate the phenomenon exists. But Jahn admits he can’t say why it happens.

This kind of research certainly has its critics. An editor at one journal once told Jahn he’d publish Jahn’s paper if he sent it over telepathically. Jahn and Moddel say they welcome criticism—indeed, that’s central to the SSE’s mission—but they argue that too many critics ignore evidence and literature. There appears to be no love lost between the SSE and another group, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal (CSICOP). Moddel says CSICOP tends to start with the notion that these things don’t exist and tries to debunk them. “We start out by asking: Does this exist?” Jahn’s even blunter, calling CSICOP “an assembly of carping critics who do no scholarly work of their own.”

Still, they acknowledge that research into the nether regions of science requires trekking into territories staked out by what Jahn calls “flim-flam artists, exploiters and misrepresenters,” which gives critics room to “engage in guilt by association.” Moddel is likewise wary of the “huge groups of people who accept these things uncritically.”

Certainly they remain willing critics, themselves. Moddel, for instance, says he finds about half the articles in the SSE’s journal “highly flawed.” Still, he adds, he’s glad they’ve been given a fair and open airing. And, who knows? Perhaps someday other researchers will find more convincing evidence for their claims. Moddel will certainly be keeping an open mind. —TG

 

FEATURES
TO THE RESCUE - By Anna Mulrine
ON THE MOVE - By Thomas K. Grose
THE HOUSE THAT KIM BUILT - By Mary Lord
horizontal line
COMMENTS
BRIEFINGS
DATABYTES
REFRACTIONS: Being Mistaken - By Henry Petroski
TEACHING TOOLBOX
A GOOD FIT - Co-op education, which celebrates its 100th anniversary, has become an increasingly important learning tool. - By Barbara Mathias-Riegel
ON CAMPUS: A Different World - By Lynne Shallcross
BOOK REVIEW: Merging Arts and Science - By Robin Tatu
TEACHING: A Nation of Techies - By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz
CLASSIFIEDS
LAST WORD: The Terrible Two's - By Clive L. Dym
BACK ISSUES

 

ASEE logo