PRISM Magazine Online - March 2000
E-Education Has Its Foes

Photograph by Chris Maynard/NYT PicturesThe conventional wisdom has been that computers in the classroom are a good thing, but the notion is attracting an increasing number of critics. Indeed, William L. Rukeyser, head of the California-based lobbying group Learning in the Real World, which wants to un-wire our classrooms, says Americans are now questioning the value of classroom computers. And San Francisco author Clifford Stoll's recent book, High Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don't Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections of a Computer Contrarian, sold well and garnered good reviews. Yet the reality is that computers are becoming entrenched in U.S. schools.

Market Data Retrieval's survey of American public schools, "Technology in Education 1999," found that more than 90 percent of K-12 public schools have Internet access, up from 70 percent two years ago. U.S. schools spent $5.5 billion on computers in 1998-99, or $119 per child. Within the past five years, computers for instructional use have doubled to 8.2 million nationally, and more than 50 percent of schools say a majority of their teachers use the Net for teaching purposes.  Similar trends are occurring abroad. In Britain, for instance, the Labor government's goal is to bring all schools online, and the country's largest supermarket chain runs a Computers for Schools initiative.

Rukeyser admits that his side is losing the numbers game, but thinks that someone should measure how effective all those machines really are. And Stoll bristles at the notion that he is fighting a rear-guard effort. "I'm fighting an advanced battle," Stoll maintains, and he doesn't think his message is being ignored. "I do feel like I am making headway. Two years ago, there was no debate [on this subject] and today there is significant debate."

Although both sides continue to argue the merits of e-education, it would seem the issue's already been decided. Computers are now as common in classrooms as books and chalkboards. And, for better or worse, it's unlikely anyone can stuff the cybergenie back into its bottle.

Aussie IT Grads Go for the Green

SYDNEY—Australians have always been known for their wanderlust. But now, universities are starting to worry because large numbers of footloose would-be IT teachers are heading for industry jobs here or better paying academic jobs overseas, often in the United States. "My son is taking a computer science degree and I don't expect him to hang around for long," says Doug Grant, head of the school of information technology at Melbourne's Swinburne University of Technology.  Industry estimates are that one in five young IT graduates leaves Australia annually—about 1,000 a year.

Aussie IT Grads Go for the Green"Very few of the best and brightest stick around to do Ph.D.'s," Grant laments. "Their attitude is: 'If I'm good enough to start a Ph.D., I'm good enough to get a high-paying job.' You can't blame them—they've got very portable and in-demand skills."

Indeed, it's largely the promise of a bigger paycheck that is fueling the exodus. Sydney-based Peter Beadle, director of the Motorola Australia Research Center, says "it's widely known that a person with a Ph.D. will not get significantly more money in industry than someone of the same age without a Ph.D. who went into industry sooner and already has a few promotions and salary raises. The person without the added qualification is higher on the corporate ladder and the others simply can't catch up," he says. About 80 percent of the researchers at his center are Ph.D's. "The Ph.D's know how to do research," he says. "I'd like more of them but there aren't enough."

Ironically, as more Australians leave the country, universities have begun relying more on foreigners to fill IT posts. But for the most part, they are hard to get, too, according to Darrell Williamson, dean of the faculty of engineering and information technology at the Australian National University in Canberra. "We can't attract people through salaries except those from South America or South Africa," he says. "The Indians would rather go to Silicon Valley." After four years, one of his students who went to the U.S. following graduation is earning $70,000, which is more than a full professor's salary in Australia. Another administrator managed to fill two vacancies with Europeans who took big cuts in salary but were attracted to the Australian lifestyle.

Universities blame the problem on the spectacular surge of the IT industry. "Students are headhunted halfway through their last year," explains Williamson.

The IT flight has taken Australian academicians somewhat by surprise and they don't have any quick fixes. One suggestion involves raising salaries for IT profs with money from other budget categories. Grant thinks Australian academia needs to accept the fact that higher pay is required in some disciplines because of market forces. Others are arguing for a tax on IT companies that could help pay for preparing future workforces—a step the government isn't likely to take. "Most Australian IT companies are so small that a tax likely wouldn't raise adequate sums," says National University's Williamson. "We're in a difficult position," he says.

                                                                                                              —Chris Pritchard

A Dang Big Computer

A Dang Big ComputerHey good buddies, if y'all thought banjo music was only associated with a kind of retro, hayseed Americana—like The Beverly Hillbillies or the Grand Ole Opry—you're wrong. It seems that a-pickin' and a-grinnin' can also go well with the sleek cyberworld of high-speed supercomputers.

When teams of scientists at the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory recently spent a weekend with experts from IBM and VA Linux Systems building the lab's most powerful supercomputer, they hired a banjo player to pluck out a few ditties to replicate the atmosphere of an old-fashioned barn-raising.  That, says Remy Evard, Argonne's manager of advanced computing, reflected "the spirit that the project will support." The resulting computer—nicknamed Chiba City, after a fictional locale in William Gibson's sci-fi novel, Neuromancer—is the "world's largest computing cluster available for open-source development," Evard explains. The machine, which will be open to university, government, and industry researchers, has 512 central processing units from VA Linux Systems and IBM Netfinity servers for cluster management, file storage, and visualization.

Evard says open-source computing is attractive because developers can share their work with one another. There were several open-source systems to choose from, but Argonne says they opted for Linux because "it's the most powerful and the most developed." Moreover, "Linux has the buzz." Initially developed in 1991 by Finnish scientist Linus Torvald, Linux's fans claim it's the fastest, strongest operating system going, and a multimillion-dollar industry has grown up around it, though the system can be downloaded for free.

How long can Chiba City hold the "world's largest" title? "It may last for a while," Evard says. "There are not as many people driven to help grow open-source computing." And shucks, if a bigger cluster is built somewhere else, the folks at Argonne can always bring back the banjo picker and try again. Yee-haw!

Congress Ups Pentagon Spending

A lot of engineering and computer profs may soon be saluting the Pentagon. Congress increased the Defense Department's fiscal 2000 science budget by 11 percent over 1999, to $8.7 billion. And, historically, the military is especially generous to electrical engineering and computer science researchers.

According to the National Science Foundation, 45 percent of DoD funds go to engineering research, while 21 percent go to math and computer science projects. Of the $8.7 billion, nearly $1.8 billion will be spent on basic research, a 5.8 percent increase over fiscal 1999. Many in academia welcome the influx, noting that military spending on basic research in the 1960s led to advances in Internet, semiconductor, and laser technologies. Among the military's latest priorities are several areas that could have non-military applications, including development of ultra-small power sources and super-strong building materials.

But critics of military-funded research say that the Defense Department should not be paying for basic research that has benefits beyond the battlefield. Gary Chapman of the University of Texas says basic research should be the purview of other agencies, such as NSF and the National Institutes of Health. Chapman, who heads the 21st Century Project that studies science and technology policies, argues that military research should stick to "breakout technology"—like miniature nuclear explosives and non-detectable weapons—that could threaten national security if it fell into the wrong hands. Such research is a necessary evil, he says, but could be done at lower spending levels. Besides, Chapman says, the link between military research and the Internet and other high-tech civilian advances is over-hyped.

Chapman would also like to see more public debate on military projects. He doubts there would be much support for developing unmanned bombers and biological weapons. But legions of academics fear that their research would go unfunded if not for the Pentagon. And they're hoping the defense dollars keep marching in.

Curling Up in a Cardboard Chair

JOHANNESBURG—It sounded like an engineering homework assignment: Design a chair out of corrugated cardboard that can support a 160-pound person. But there was more at stake for Helmut Lubber than a grade. This project was part of a $1.2 million contract for disposable furniture for South Africa's 1999 elections.  Using Lubber's design, South African packaging company Nampak Ltd. stamped out 25,000 of what they believe is the world's first commercially produced
cardboard chair.

The chair starts out as a 4 foot 5 inch by 4 foot 11 inch rectangle of double-thick cardboard, cut and perforated on the same die-cutting machines Nampak uses for corrugated boxes. The sheet breaks into seven pieces, with no wasted cardboard. The key to making this weak material bear a heavy load is a lattice of six vertical, interlocking cardboard sheets under the seat. The chair can be assembled in less than a minute.

South Africa already had metal and wood furniture and voting booths in storage. To transport the bulky and heavy existing furniture both to and from the polling stations, however, would have cost twice as much as the country spent to purchase and deliver cardboard furniture and booths, according to Giel van Niekerk of Xcel Engineering, the company contracted to handle logistics for the Independent Electoral Commission.

Nampak may call the furniture "disposable," but in the poor villages and squatter camps where the furniture was deployed, nothing that can be reused is thrown away. Several months after the elections, South Africans in tin shacks and mud huts across the nation are still sitting on cardboard polling-station chairs, savoring another benefit of democracy in the new South Africa.

                                                                                                               —Don Boroughs

Dancing with Engineers

The aerospace engineers at Lockheed Martin Corp. are used to looking at a design and asking, "Will it fly?" But recently, they worked on a very different sort of project and had to ask, "Will it dance?"

Washington-based sculptor John Dreyfuss concocted a 21-foot-long, wedge-shaped monolith that's the centerpiece of Gandhara: East West Passages, a modern dance performance choreographed by Dana Tai Soon Burgess that debuted at Washington's Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The sculpture is pushed, pulled, and climbed upon by the nine dancers, so it had to be durable enough to withstand countless performances and shipments to new venues in New York and London, yet light enough to be mobile. That required a building material beyond the artist's ken—his prototype of plaster-coated Styrofoam was too heavy and too fragile.

Photograph by Margo I. Schulman/The Kennedy CenterLockheed Martin got involved after a chance cocktail party meeting at the artist's studio between Dreyfuss and Dain Hancock, then head of the company's Fort Worth division. Hancock heard Dreyfuss explain his quandary and suggested that, perhaps, his engineers could help. "So we donated time and expertise to bring the sculpture into existence," explains company spokesperson Theresa Crawford.

Lockheed Martin Skunk Works project manager Richard Bott oversaw the project and brought in some outside help. Because Dreyfuss' original piece couldn't be budged, SMX Corp. engineers visited his studio with a portable laser tracking machine. They created a near-perfect computer copy of the model. That information was downloaded into a Lockheed Martin computer and, using the same software used to design jet fighters, was turned into a three-dimensional image and e-mailed to Scaled Composites Inc., which developed a lightweight composite for the sculpture's "skin."

The final piece is more durable than steel, but weighs a mere 380 pounds and is easily manipulated after being fitted with casters. So did it dance? Well, the reviews for the performance were mixed, but the critics agreed that the movable sculpture turned in a boffo performance. Take a bow engineers.