a cool prototyping process

Industry cheered and instantly embraced rapid prototyping--a method of quickly and relatively cheaply making models of parts or products--when the process became available in the 1980s. But now the iceman of the University of Missouri at Rolla cometh, with a radical new version of rapid prototyping that should send chills of anticipation  down the spines of manufacturers.

Professor  Ming Leu is working on a process that substitutes plastic models for ones made of ice. He calls it Rapid Freeze Prototyping, and it will make the process even  faster, cleaner, and less costly.

Rapid prototyping, also called desktop manufacturing, enables a computer-run machine to build a  model directly from three-dimensional computer drawings, either to exact size or to scale. These models are made of layer upon layer of polymer resin, and they give manufacturers a better idea of how a part or product will look and work without having to build expensive prototypes. While rapid prototyping has been an innovation that's cut manufacturing costs, it still not an inexpensive thing to do. Moreover, it's not clean: most systems emit unhealthy dust and smoke. "I began looking for a more environmentally-friendly process," recalls Leu, a professor of integrated product manufacturing in UMR's department of mechanical and aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics. "And I thought, 'Why not water, which is abundant and cheap?'"

Unlike most systems, Leu's icy version--which works in a sub-zero environment about the size of a household freezer--uses nozzles to drip or stream water, building  first the outside shell, then filling it with water. Food coloring can be used  to color different parts.Leu is now hoping for a federal grant to continue his project. With an infusion of cash, he says, his cool idea for the next generation of rapid prototyping could be ready for commercialization within two to three years--if there are no slip-ups.

too much education?

As teaching  migrates from real classrooms to virtual ones, how important is it for teachers and students to interact on a personal level? Is a degree awarded to a student who has never set foot in a classroom worth less than one earned by more traditional methods? These are questions that may have to be answered quickly as Internet-based distance  education continues to boom. Between 1995 and 1998, the number of higher education institutions offering Net-based courses rose from 22 percent to 60 percent. And more and more schools are awarding both undergraduate and post-graduate degrees that can be obtained entirely online.

The American Federation of Teachers argues that degrees that do not contain at least a component  of face-to-face interaction between teacher and pupil are second-rate. The group proposes a set of quality standards for university-level distance education programs, and key among its recommendations is a requirement that full undergraduate  degrees include some classroom time.

AFT President  Sandra Feldman says that "it is critical that we hold these programs to a high standard of academic rigor and ensure interaction between faculty and students, and students and other students. . . . If we fail to do this, these degrees and the people who earn them will not be accepted in the workplace and elsewhere."

But Edward Guiliano, president of the New York Institute of Technology, which does award degrees that require no classroom time, says the AFT is fighting against an unstoppable trend. All schools, he notes, are seeing an increase in older students who are returning to academia because their careers require continuing education. And because these students are also often holding down full-time jobs, schools must be prepared to allow them to access courses when it's convenient for them.Guiliano admits that surveys show that students who have some contact with their teachers  have higher levels of satisfaction. But what defines interaction? "Does video  conferencing count as face-to-face interaction?" he asks. And even if satisfaction is lower, that doesn't mean that a course isn't good, he claims. Guiliano says an online degree offered by NYIT is not inferior to one it awarded by traditional  means. "The caliber of the degree is the same, it is the distribution that's  different."Still,  Guilano cautions, not all courses and degrees being offered online are worthwhile.  Students seeking a top-notch degree, even from a distance, should stick to those offered from schools of proven quality.

The benefits of federal investment in university-centered research and development are certainly manifest. America's economy has flourished over the last decade in large part because of technology-driven productivity gains. Yet, a recent report finds, Congress could seriously jeopardize future research--and its potential payoffs--by  nickel-and-diming the country's research schools for indirect costs.

Each year, the federal government spends about $15 billion on scientific research at U.S. universities. Three quarters of that money is for direct costs of the projects, but a quarter of it covers indirect costs, including building maintenance, heating  and cooling, and salaries of administrative staff.

Some of these funds are meant to be reimbursed. Nonetheless, the report by the California  think tank, RAND, for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, says that despite Congressional grousing, universities have collected only 70  percent to 90 percent of the reimbursement funds they're due. That means that each year, research schools pay between $700 million to $1.5 billion to cover costs that should be borne by the government. Congress began thinking of ways  to rein in these expenses 10 years ago, when news stories claimed some schools  were overcharging for indirect costs.

In forwarding  the report to Congress, OSTP Director Neal Lane wrote that suggested policy changes aimed at further reducing these costs are counterproductive. If implemented,  he claimed, "the resulting shift of costs to universities would be detrimental to research enterprise," forcing schools to either cut back on research or pass the costs on to students in the form of higher tuition. "The federal government should not introduce new obstacles to the recovery of valid facilities costs  that might discourage university leadership from making needed investments in  research facilities," Lane wrote.

In other words, squeezing universities over minor expenses could save the government a few bucks. It could also discourage future breakthroughs that might be worth billions.

new and notable

One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw.

By Witold Rybczynski, Scribner, New York; 2000, 173 pp., $22. 

When noted architecture writer Witold Rybczynski was asked to identify the best tool of  the millennium, he considered the saw, the plane, the chisel, and had almost decided on the carpenter's brace when his wife suggested the screwdriver. One  Good Turn is the story of mechanical genius involving two commonplace objects  that hardly anyone even thinks about. It is the screw that really intrigues  Rybczynski. Without it, he writes, there would be no telescope, no microscope--in  short no enlightenment science.

reclassification at carnegie

The more things change, the more . . . well, the more likely some people will applaud and some will hiss. And that's been the case with new changes made to the Carnegie  Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, the main "taxonomy" of American  colleges and universities.

The listing is a primary tool for researchers of higher education (and also the foundation  for U.S. News & World Report's annual school rankings). The overhaul meant that roughly 640 schools were reclassified, mostly those institutions awarding doctoral degrees. And while some schools are pleased with their new classifications, others feel their categorizations don't fairly capture their full identity.

Jacki Calvert, a Carnegie spokesperson, says the classification's architects know the new approach  isn't perfect. Between a preliminary version published in early summer and the  final version published in October, some schools were allowed to alter their  listings, she said.

The update was needed because the classification hadn't changed in six years and was woefully out of date. The foundation wanted to address two points with this new version: put more emphasis on schools' teaching and the numbers and types of degrees  they award, and focus less on how much research they perform or federal research funds they receive.

For instance, the old classification divided research and doctoral institutions into four categories, heavily influenced by the amount of federal support they received. The new version has two classifications: doctoral extensive (schools that award  at least 50 Ph.D.'s a year in more than 15 disciplines); and doctoral intensive (schools that confer many fewer doctorates in only two or three disciplines).

Calvert stresses that this is an "interim" classification and that a planned 2005 version will have greater scope. That listing will place schools into several categories and include an interactive facility that will enable users to generate their own customized classifications.

Still,  for institutions that feel aggrieved by the new classification, five years may seem like a long wait. Again, the foundation is sympathetic but doubts that annual updates are likely because it "lacks the staff and resources" to accomplish  such a feat.


More briefings