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American Society for Engineering EducationMARCH 2007Volume 16 | Number 7 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES

REFRACTIONS: Weighing the Differences - BY HENRY PETROSKI
LAST WORD: Retaining Students—and Their Hopes and Dreams - BY NARIMAN FARVARDIN

A RENAISSANCE ENGINEER - Integrated engineering trains students in a wide range of fundamentals, making them particularly attractive to small- and medium-sized companies. - BY BARBARA MATHIAS RIEGEL
ON CAMPUS: Earning Your Education - BY LYNNE K. SHALLCROSS


EMBRY-RIDDLE: Grounded, but Not for LongEMBRY-RIDDLE: The school's fleet was heavily damaged.

Nobody expected to return to the “Plywood Palace” for the spring semester. That’s what students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University are now calling the main administration building. It’s boarded up thanks to a Christmas Day tornado that tore through the campus with 120-mph winds. Hurricanes are obviously at the front of everyone’s mind at this Daytona Beach, Fla., school, but tornadoes, not as much. No one was hurt, but the tornado shattered windows, took down trees and hurled planes around the campus, causing up to $60 million in damages. The tornado destroyed the airplane hangar and 40 of the 65 training aircraft, displaced 200 staff and faculty members and forced a six-day delay in starting classes. The campus has rebounded quickly: All 5,000 students returned in January, and damaged planes were replaced with dozens on short-term lease. Insurance will cover all but about $1 million of the damages, not including the administration building. —Lynne Shallcross


COMPUTERS - Time Sharing

  Percent of engineering-degree holders who began their academic careers by earning at least 10 credits at community colleges = 20%.Purdue University is the champion of distributed computing. The concept behind distributed computing is taking advantage of the machines’ downtime. By assembling a huge network of PCs and supercomputers whose computing power can be tapped when they would otherwise be idle, it enables researchers from around the world to harness all that processing power. To free up its computers when they’re not busy, Purdue uses a version of an open-source application called Condor, created 15 years ago by engineers and scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Purdue’s 4,300 computers spend 45 percent of their time doing work for the Condor pool—an amount of time equal to that spent on their intended purposes. No other university makes so many computers available to Condor. Says Miron Livny, the Wisconsin computer scientist who developed Condor: “Other campuses should follow Purdue’s leadership.” —TG


FOREIGN STUDENTS - Enrollments on the Upswing

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States tightened foreign student visa requirements. The predictable result: Foreign enrollments at U.S. universities fell. Visa regulations have since eased, and recent surveys indicate that foreign student enrollments are on the mend. According to the Council of Graduate Schools, its 475 members report that enrollment of foreigners increased 1 percent this school year, reversing three years of declines. New student numbers are up an impressive 12 percent. Council President Debra W. Stewart credits both better government policies and more outreach by grad schools, and she’s “optimistic that this encouraging trend will continue.” What’s more, first-year engineering student enrollments jumped 22 percent, and total engineering enrollments were up 3 percent. Nearly half of the engineering and science grad students at U.S. schools are foreign-born, and American industry worries that if foreign students study elsewhere, key technical and research jobs could be harder to fill. The number of first-year engineering students from India leaped 32 percent, while the total number of engineering students from India was up 8 percent. First-year engineering students from China increased their numbers 20 percent, but overall enrollments of Chinese engineering students were down 2 percent. Meanwhile, the Institute of International Education says the total number of new foreign students studying in the United States increased 8 percent this past fall, to 142,923, after several years of declines. The total number of all students from abroad studying in the United States was 564,766, only marginally less than 2004-05. It also found the U.S. State Department issued 591,050 student and exchange visas in the year ending September 2005—a record number and a 14 percent increase over the previous year. The Institute predicts “that overall enrollments are likely to rebound.” It also says that U.S. students were heading overseas to study in record numbers. Nearly 206,000 studied abroad in 2004-05, an 8 percent increase over 2003-04. Schools like Harvard and Yale are for the first time promoting overseas study, and universities with long-standing overseas programs are expanding them. Most American students head to western Europe, particularly the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and France. But nearly 6,400 U.S. students studied in China last year, a huge 35 percent increase over the preceding year. That’s another clear indication that Chinese universities are growing in stature. —THOMAS K. GROSE


ANIMAL KINGDOM - Let Snakes Do the PredictingANIMAL KINGDOM - Let Snakes Do the Predicting  

TOKYO—The belief that dogs, cats, bees and other animals go into a frenzy just before an earthquake dates back to ancient Greece and is a common element of many folk cultures. While American scientists generally hold animal forecasting with the same regard as snake oil, a city in southern China recently announced it’s installing a system that relies on herpetological monitoring to forecast the onslaught of a temblor. Snake farms—the serpents are a prized ingredient in local cuisine—are being outfitted with cameras and Internet links that will keep the slithering critters under observation 24/7. While many animals have been credited with the ability to sense the onslaught of a quake, the director of the earthquake bureau in southern Guangxi province says snakes are more sensitive than other creatures, fleeing their nests and even colliding with walls up to days in advance of a quake, even one as far as 75 miles away. In 1975, the city of Haicheng, population 1 million, was evacuated just before a 7.3 magnitude quake struck, purely on the basis of animal jitters. However questionable the science, the evacuation order saved perhaps more than 100,000 lives.

Japan, another earthquake-prone nation, has also been reluctant to abandon the notion that animal behavior can warn of oncoming quakes. Universities continue to study the behavior of creatures such as catfish, which are said to swim violently or jump in advance of a quake, reacting to a rise in electromagnetic signals. But clear, unequivocal evidence that the catfish are jumpin’ because of a flight reflex and not for other reasons—protecting territory, for instance—has yet to be established. —Lucy Craft


ROBOTICS - By A Whisker  

Rats can navigate in pitch-black darkness thanks to their whiskers. When rat whiskers brush up against something, how they bend sends signals to the critter’s brain, allowing it to visualize the object’s shape. Seals, too, make good use of their whiskers. When swimming after prey, a seal’s whiskers allow it to track its quarry’s fluid wake. Now a Northwestern University researcher has developed arrays of robotic whiskers that work in much the same way as rats’ and seals’. “We show that the bending movement, or torque, at the whisker base can be used to generate three-dimensional spatial representations of the environment,” explains Mitra J. Hartmann, an assistant professor of biomedical and mechanical engineering. When Hartmann’s robotic rat whiskers sweep across a small sculpted head, strain gauges determine different points on the head by sensing how the whiskers bend. A computer program turns the spots into a 3D image of the object. Wider whiskers that have more surface area were able to mimic seals’ and ascertain the speed and direction of fluid flow. Robotic whiskers could be put to use on assembly lines or probing pipelines. They may also help land-based autonomous rovers and underwater vehicles avoid collisions. —TG


SPORTS - Bad BallSPORTS - Bad Ball  

As the NBA season continues into spring, it’s once again playing with traditional leather basketballs. And grateful players may have two University of Texas, Arlington, physics professors to thank. When the season began last fall, the NBA put into use a new synthetic ball devised by Spaulding that supposedly offered better grip and bounce. Players complained it actually behaved more erratically and was slipperier. They also claimed it was cutting their fingers. The Dallas Mavericks commissioned UT Arlington’s Jim Horwitz, physics department chairman, to do comparative tests on the balls. He and physics professor Kaushik De concluded the composite ball had a better grip when it was dry but became slipperier once it got wet with sweat from players’ hands. It also had less bounce, they said, and didn’t bounce as straight as leather ones. The NBA cut the new ball’s debut short and returned to leather balls in January. Clearly, a slam-dunk decision. —TG

WORLD WIDE WEB - Net History  

The World Wide Web is just barely 13 years old, but already much of its early history is lost or at risk of being junked. To the rescue comes the new Web History Center, created by William Picket, a historian at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, and Marc Weber, a technology journalist. The center has offices at Rose-Hulman and the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. Early financing came from Rose-Hulman alumni Dennis Paustenbach and Christian Taylor and from CommerceNet, a pioneering e-commerce company. Founding members include the Stanford University Libraries, the Internet Archive, Rose-Hulman and the Charles Babbage Institute. The center hopes to collect and preserve oral histories, images, software and documents. Key players and Web pioneers including Robert Cailliau and Jean-Francois Groff are also involved in the project. The Center’s Web site——quotes Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive: “The good thing about digital media is that you can save everything. The bad thing is that you can lose everything.” —TG



Tax laws that have helped universities spend millions of dollars renovating their football stadiums are likely to come under close scrutiny in Congress. Lawmakers began looking at the tax breaks last year, and the changeover from Republican to Democratic control of Congress isn’t likely to stymie the probe. Former Senate Finance Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, told The Wall Street Journal that he’s puzzled by “how tax deductions for boosters who lease luxury boxes at college football stadiums help poor kids afford college.” That also seems to be the angle his Democratic replacement as chairman, Max Baucus of Montana, wants to pursue. Team supporters pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for a luxury skybox, but federal tax law allows them to deduct 80 percent of the cost as a charitable contribution. Luxury suite income gives schools the wherewithal to issue tax-exempt bonds to finance renovations. Schools have also helped fund stadium overhauls by selling naming rights to companies. Corporations can deduct the payments from their tax bills, and the schools don’t pay taxes on the revenue, either. Former University of Michigan President James Duderstadt told the Senate committee that treating these financing deals as charity is “perverse.” It is, he said, “fueling an arms race in college sports, driving universities to debt-finance massive stadium expansion projects, exploit young student athletes and tolerate multimillion-dollar coaches’ salaries.” Several big stadium projects are in the works. —TG

TUITION - Parents Associate High Prices With QualityTUITION - Parents Associate High Prices With Quality  

T uition and fees at four-year public universities increased 6.3 percent in the 2006-07 academic year to an average of $5,836, according to the College Board. At four-year private schools, tuition and fees average $22,218, up 5.9 percent. The College Board says between 1993 and 2004, average tuition jumped 81 percent. According to The New York Times, many private universities have hiked tuition to stay in line with schools they consider peers. Why? Because “families associate price with quality,” it reports. Simultaneously, however, those same schools are also greatly increasing the amount of student aid they offer. During that same period that tuitions skyrocketed 81 percent, the College Board found, campus-based financial aid zoomed up 135 percent. Still, those kinds of total costs could put a sheepskin out of the reach of a lot of deserving kids. —TG


PYRAMIDS - Has The Mystery Been Solved?PYRAMIDS - Has The Mystery Been Solved?  

Built some 5,000 years ago, the Great Pyramids of Giza still mystify archeologists and engineers. But a Drexel University materials engineering professor says he’s solved at least one of the giant edifices’ mysteries: Not all the limestone blocks used to build them were quarried; some were cast using an ancient form of concrete called a geopolymer. Michel Barsoum says that by casting the massive blocks in situ at the tops of the pyramids, the Egyptians didn’t have to figure out how to lug them to such heights. It’s long been assumed that the builders cut all the limestone blocks at quarries, hauled them to the sites and hoisted them into place. Barsoum, who is Egyptian, says most of the blocks used were indeed cut and hoisted. But for crucial areas of the pyramids’ construction, such as the peaks, he says, they used cast stone. The raw materials needed to make that form of geopolymer are lime, limestone and diatomaceous earth, all cheap and plentiful around the world. Longer-lasting and less polluting than modern Portland concrete, Barsoum says it could become a useful building material in emerging economies. Everything (really, really) old is new again, indeed. —TG

R&D - Pay It ForwardR&D - Pay It Forward  

Is money poured into research and development an expense or an investment? The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), a unit of the U.S. Commerce Department, is experimenting with counting R&D as an investment when calculating Gross Domestic Product, the same way it counts payments for a new plant or software. It’s using R&D figures compiled by the National Science Foundation. The BEA says if R&D was factored in, the country’s GDP would have increased an average 2.6 percent between 1959 and 2002; the total GDP in 2002 would have been $278 billion higher than the official amount of $10.5 trillion. And the effect of R&D is increasing, it says. It would have accounted for 6.7 percent in real GDP growth between 1995 and 2002. The BEA expects to start including R&D spending in official GDP calculations by 2013. —TG


ENVIRONMENT - Green Scene  

Given its Irish heritage, Boston understandably has an affinity for all things green. Late last year, it said it became the first major U.S. city to require private—not just publicly funded—building projects of more than 50,000 square feet to meet a set of “green” building standards. New Boston buildings will have to meet at least 26 of the 69 points in the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system. The LEED criteria touch on such things as energy and water use, building materials, siting and design. Given that Pasadena and the state of New Mexico already have similar laws on their books, and the Washington, D.C., City Council also embraced the LEED criteria last December, Boston’s pioneering claim is somewhat debatable. But there’s no doubting Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s enthusiasm. “Green buildings are good for the environment, public health and the bottom line,” he says. True, over time, green buildings can cut operational costs, but the upfront costs of building them are higher. —TG

“My own hope is that the engineering community will devote part of its effort to devise and apply technological advances to meet some of the rudimentary needs of water, fuel, housing, health and information.”—Former President Jimmy Carter, in response to the National Academy of Engineering’s call to its members to identify the greatest engineering challenges of the future.


TEXTILES - Making a Grand EntranceTEXTILES - Making a Grand Entrance  

AUSTRALIA—A chemical engineer down under has invented a garment so loud it makes Hawaiian shirts seem subdued. “It’s not rocket science—it’s rockin’ science,” quips Richard Helmer, a weekend guitarist in a local rock band and researcher at Australia’s government-funded Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. His “wearable instrument shirt” enables wearers to play simply by moving one arm to pick chords and the other to strum an imaginary instrument’s strings—like an air guitar except sounds are real. His team—including IT specialists, chemical engineers, electrical engineers and textile experts—spent three years perfecting the textile-based interfaces. The sensor interfaces can be embedded in any conventional shirt along with custom software linking gestures to a library of audio samples. Move over musical socks, there’s a bigger game in town. —Chris Pritchard


SAFETY - Buckle UpSAFETY - Buckle Up  

New research shows that unbelted backseat car passengers are not only at risk of grave or fatal injuries in head-on collisions, but they put belted drivers at similar risk. Drivers’ injuries were caused by the backseat passengers smashing into the front seat at great force. The State University of New York, Buffalo, study validated the results of the researchers’ previous work, which analyzed the data of 300,000 fatal crashes. “Based on our results, state laws should mandate that everyone in the vehicle must wear a safety belt, no matter where they sit,” says James Mayrose, a mechanical and aerospace engineer and the lead researcher. Most states still do not require use of safety belts in backseats. Another Buffalo study found that the middle back seat is the safest. It studied fatal wrecks involving backseat passengers from between 2000 and 2003. Belted backseat passengers were 59 to 86 percent more likely to survive wrecks than front-seat occupants, and those sitting in the middle seat were 25 percent more likely to survive than others riding in the back. —TG




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American Society for Engineering Education