PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - NOVEMBER 2004 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 3



Researchers in St. Louis are having epilepsy patients play mind games, and the results may one day enable wearers of prosthetic devices to move their artificial limbs using only thoughts. The team, led by Washington University researchers, worked with an electronic grid that rests atop the brain and records electrocorticographic (ECoG) activity, or brain surface signals. That's an advance beyond using non-invasive electrodes outside the skull to measure what's called electroencephalographic (EEG) activity. Four patients had the grids implanted for up to two weeks so neurologists could pinpoint what part of their brains were inducing seizures. But the Washington team also hooked the grids to one-dimensional computer games, and in less than an hour, the patients learned to move the game cursor using only thoughts, achieving between 74 and 100 percent accuracy. Patients using EEG signals to control the game took months to learn to move the cursor accurately. One doctor likened previous EEG tests to the Wright Brothers' plane. "With our results, we're flying around in an F-16 jet." Tests using 2-D games are now underway, "but it is too early to disclose results," explains Daniel Moran, a biomedical engineer at the school. The grid is small, 8 cm by 8 cm, thin and pliable, and didn't cause the patients discomfort, Moran says. The long-term effects of such an implant are still unknown. Moran calls the results a big step forward toward developing a "brain-machine interface . . . one of the hottest things going in biomedical engineering today."
Thomas K. Grose


Solar sailTOKYO—Japan advanced one step for science in August with the world's first successful space deployment of a "solar sail," an ultra-thin mirrored sheet that scientists hope will pave the way to interplanetary travel. Called "a spacecraft without a rocket engine," by the Japanese Institute of Space Astronautical Science (ISAS), which successfully launched two large solar sails, the metallic sheets are propelled by reflecting light particles from the sun, accelerating as exposure time to the sun increases. First dreamed up in 1924, these nonfuel, continuously accelerating space sails are the only feasible method of traveling among the planets. They are much slower than conventional, heavy, and expensive rocket-fueled spacecraft.

The stuff of science fiction became reality after ISAS launched a compact S-310 rocket from Uchinoura Space Center in Kagoshima on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. The spacecraft was outfitted with two types of sails, each 7.5 micrometers thick. The first to be deployed, shaped like a four-leaf clover, was unfurled 100 seconds after liftoff at an altitude of almost 76 miles. After it was jettisoned, a fan-shaped version was unfolded at an altitude of 105 miles and 230 seconds after liftoff. The flight ended 400 seconds later, when the rocket splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.

U.S. and European scientists have space sail projects of their own. The difficulty up to now has been finding a material with the requisite lightness and durability. —Lucille Craft


Apple Computer's fashionable iPodThe music player of choice these days is Apple Computer's fashionable iPod. The credit-card-sized device can download and store on its internal chip thousands of songs, and replay them. And this fall, Duke University's 1,650 freshmen will be given one—gratis—by the school. The aim of the $500,000, year-long pilot project is for faculty and students to use the iPods as teaching and learning tools. Duke's iPods will come with an add-on recording device so lectures and interviews can be recorded, and notes dictated. Students and faculty will be encouraged to suggest ways to put the iPods to use, Duke spokesman David Menzies says.

School officials wanted to take a popular personal computing device that students were already using and adapt it for classroom use, and the iPod fit the bill. One other potential side benefit: iPods can be used to legally buy music online; that may help cut back on students using the school's Internet system for illegal music file-sharing. Are other universities interested in Duke's iPod experiment? "Oh, God, yes," Menzies says. "We're getting calls from all sorts of colleges and major universities. It's been pretty overwhelming."—TG



AUSTRALIA—When a building catches fire, the wiring often fails and the electrical system shuts down. But a solution may be at hand. An Australian engineering research team has invented an insulation that protects the wiring during a fire. The blaze's intense heat actually transforms the plastic insulation into a ceramic material that protects the cabling. The protective properties of this so-called "ceramifiable polymer" permit electrical devices such as sliding doors, elevators, computers and emergency equipment to keep operating during a fire. The insulating material has the attributes of plastic when temperatures are normal and a hard ceramic when temperatures soar.

Dr. Yi-Bing Cheng (left) and Dr. Don Rodrigo with their new fire-proof cablesPlastic insulation surrounding copper conductors breaks down in conventional wiring under extreme heat, causing the cable inside to short. Cables coated with "ceramifiable polymers" passed performance tests in which they were heated to 1,922 degrees Fahrenheit (1,050 degrees Celsius) and compared with conventional cables. Plastic used in regular cables lasted less than 10 minutes, flame-retardant plastic survived only slightly longer—but the newly developed substance continued to provide effective insulation even after two hours.

Two key members of the research team were Monash University engineers Yi-Bing Cheng and Don Rodrigo, who were responsible for developing a ceramic material that is blended with plastic. The team is also developing a form that can slow the spread of fire. —Chris Pritchard


A Pentagon goal is an 1,800-person, "ready to fight" infantry force that can be deployed anywhere in the world within 96 hours, complete with equipment (including armor). So the folks at the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) are looking for a contractor to design and build a high-tech airship capable of carrying such a unit en mass. Code-named Walrus, the airship will conceivably be able to carry between 500 to 1,000 tons and have a range of 6,000 nautical miles. It would combine proven lighter-than-air gas buoyancy with cutting-edge aerodynamics and propulsion systems. DARPA wants a model of the mega-airship ready by 2008 to test the "feasibility and viability" of the concept. Airships are safe and reliable, but current models are weather-dependent and require complex ground operations. Those are hurdles that engineers will have to breeze past if DARPA's Walrus is ever to fly. —TG


Digital People: From Bionic Humans to Androids by Sidney Perkowitz. Publisher: The National Academics Press, $24.95

Digital People: From Bionic Humans to Androids by Sidney Perkowit - Book CoverMachines that not only look human, but can think, reason, and feel emotion. Humans that are augmented with a variety of bionic parts that improve on what nature gave them. Thanks to the breakthroughs of digital electronics, the stuff of science fiction may soon become reality, argues Emory University physicist Sidney Perkowitz in his book Digital People: From Bionic Humans to Androids. Short, breezy, and nicely written, Perkowitz's book raises, but doesn't answer, the myriad ethical and moral questions inherent in rapidly progressing robotics and bionic technologies. But then, those are questions with no easy answers. Mostly, however, Digital People is a fun romp that lays out the historic antecedents—literary, mythical, and real—to what's going on in the labs of today: like the automated theater created by the ancient Greek inventor Heron. And did you know that robot comes from the Czech word "robota," which means forced labor? Perhaps sensitive androids of the future will consider the term a degrading epithet. —TG



CMU's Middle East campusThis fall, Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University's (CMU) new campus in Qatar, in the Arabian Peninsula, opened its doors. Around 25 students began working toward an undergraduate degree in computer science; another 25 or so are enrolled in a business program. Carnegie Mellon's Middle Eastern satellite campus is being funded by the local government, part of a $1 billion effort to bolster higher education in the oil-rich sheikdom. Texas A&M and Virginia Commonwealth universities have also opened adjunct branches in Education City, a 2,400-acre campus still under development in Doha, the capital city. CMU says the curriculum in Qatar and its admission policies are the same as those in Pittsburgh. Although it hopes to "slowly" increase enrollment, it has no plans to offer any degrees beyond computer science and business. School President Jared L. Cohon says the arrangement offers an "extraordinary opportunity" for CMU to contribute to an important region of the world. No doubt. But with tightening visa requirements in the United States choking the flow of students from the Middle East, opening campuses in the students' backyard may enable American schools to recoup those losses. —TG


There are four federal agencies that tend to fund academic research in the sciences and engineering: the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Education Department, and the Department of Energy. A recent study by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) found that only the Department of Education does all it can to ensure that grant recipients are in compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination at institutions that receive federal funds. All four agencies, the GAO said, investigated discrimination complaints and provided technical assistance to schools, but only Education regularly monitored grant recipients for compliance, as required by law. The GAO recommended that the other three agencies also regularly conduct compliance reviews. The report implies that a lack of robust enforcement of Title IX may help answer why women academics in science tend to earn less money and are promoted more slowly than their male colleagues. Experience, work patterns, and education are more significant reasons, it says, but "studies also suggest that discrimination may still affect women's choices and professional progress." Society of Women Engineers executive director Betty Shanahan welcomed the report, saying it "gives visibility to an issue that's important." —TG


Aerial view of the ruins of the Temple of ZeusAugust's Olympic Games in Athens put the spotlight back on the country where the majestic sporting event began. The ancient Panhellenic Games were the forerunner to the modern Olympics. And one of the four sites used for those games was Ancient Nemea, about 80 miles from Athens, where once stood the Temple of Zeus, built in 330 B.C. After 2,300 years, only three of the temple's columns were still standing: two that were part of the entrance, and one of the 32 columns that formed the peristyle. Two more of the peristyle columns were rebuilt in 2002, part of a reconstruction effort begun by University of California-Berkeley classics professor Stephen Miller. And A pair of the temple's columnsnow, under the direction of Berkeley professor of structural engineering, Nicos Makris, four more columns are being pieced together. Eventually, all 32 columns may be rebuilt. "That is our dream," Makris says. It's a realistic one. More than 70 percent of the ancient building material remains in-situ. Researchers believe that 700 years after it was built, early Christians sacked the temple and used its limestone to build a nearby basilica. The cylindrical columns were of no use to the church-builders, but were likely demolished to enable better access to the temple itself.

One of the 2.5-ton Each 42-foot column comprises 13, 2.5-ton "drums." Makris has done tests on the columns and believes they were made that way to help them withstand earthquakes. Columns constructed of joined pieces dissipate a lot of energy. And, indeed, the three columns that weren't destroyed by humans have remained erect in a quake-prone area for more than two millennia. Makris, meanwhile, marvels at the precision engineering and craftsmanship of the ancient builders. "It's humbling," he admits. The tolerances of the joints are within 1/32 of an inch, a standard of accuracy one would find in a modern aircraft machine shop. —TG


Above the Fray - By Thomas K. Grose
The Water Guy - By Pierre Home-Douglas
Storm Riders - By Stephen Budiansky
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Refractions: Answering Mail - By Henry Petroski
Bioboom: Bioengineering has become one of the fastest-growing majors. - By Margaret Loftus
On Campus: Learning is Legion - By Robert Gardner
Teaching: Necessary Evil - By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz
Faculty's Finest: Charley Johnson - By Thomas K. Grose
ASEE TODAY: The Making of a President - By Bethany Halford
LAST WORD: Too Late for Remediation - By Irving Kott


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