PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo NOVEMBER 2005 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 3


INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY companies are in the business of selling us products that put more and more information at our fingertips ever more rapidly. So it seems odd that one tips of the bigger ones is warning about information overload and suggesting that consumers cut back on their intake of e-mails, instant messages and text messages. But that's what the British affiliate of Hewlett-Packard did with the release of a recent study it commissioned showing that a majority of British workers are addicted to instant jority information. And like most addictions, this one is counterproductive.

Illustration by Scott MenchinThe study of 1,100 workers by the University of London's Institute of Psychiatry concluded that most of them suffered from an ailment it termed "infomania." Some 62 percent checked work messages after hours or while on vacation; 50 percent will respond to an e-mail immediately or within 60 seconds. The trouble is, all this info-gathering isn't making them any more productive. On the contrary, their IQ test scores dropped by an average of 10 points after they spent too much time reading and responding to electronic messages. They weren't getting dumber; the effects of the information overload made them perform worse. Researchers said the effect of "over-juggling" e-info was worse than losing a night's sleep (3-point drop) or smoking marijuana (4-point drop). Bottom line: Computers and mobile phones can make workers more productive-if they don't overuse them. Notes HP spokesman David Smith: "We are in danger of being caught up in a 24- hour, 'always-on' society." So sometimes it makes sense to just switch off. —Thomas K. Grose


A Briefer History of Time - by Stephen Hawking; Bantam PressA Briefer History of Time
by Stephen Hawking; Bantam Press

BACK IN 1988, Cambridge University's Stephen Hawking proved that, for a theoretical physicist, he was also a very able and witty writer. His "A Brief History of Time" managed to explain in jargon-free English the existence of the universe to the masses. It tackled the Big Bang, black holes and the nature of time-all in about 200 pages. It struck a popular chord and has since sold 10 million copies worldwide. But apparently for some readers it was still too deep and long. So Hawking has taken his modern classic to a new dimension, condensing and updating it. Gone are some of the harder-to-grasp concepts. Instead, there's more space given to relativity and quantum theory. —TG

Students enrolled in engineering programs in

LA: 10,483
AL: 10,273
MS: 3,123


WHAT TO DO WITH the filthy flood waters that inundated New Orleans was a Hobson's choice for Louisiana officials: either pump it into the recently cleaned-up Lake Pontchartrain or into the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico. They chose the former. But one Duke University environmental engineer warns that the consequences will most certainly be dire, resulting in "long-term, harmful implications for the lake ecosystem and future human use of the area." Duke's Karl Linden says shunting the water into the lake may have been the "better" option, but "make no mistake, this choice is only the lesser evil." Linden understands the logic that was used: by containing the polluted waters in the lake, there is at least a chance of taking remedial action in the future. Nevertheless, the outlook for Lake Pontchartrain looks grim indeed. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency samples showed that the floodwaters were about as dirty as untreated sewage. Linden says the lake's oxygen levels will drop, nutrients and microbial levels will rise, fish will die and algae will bloom. And for humans, he warns, contact with the water will likely pose major health risks. The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation worked to restore the lake to a level of cleanliness that allowed manatees to populate it. Says Linden: "This is a very sad development." —TG


STATES THAT WANT TO PROSPER need to invest in higher education. That's the verdict of a 50-state analysis on the public and private payoffs of higher education conducted by the Institute for Higher Education Policy and funded by the Lumina Foundation for Education. For degree holders, the payoff was clear. Nationally, the average annual income of workers 25 and older with bachelor's degrees is $48,417; high school graduates earn $23,000 less. Even in low-income states, a sheepskin makes a big difference. Montana college grads earn, on average, only $35,622-but that's still $14,500 more than those with high school diplomas. For states, the benefits are a mix of the tangible and intangible. College graduates are much less likely to become unemployed or require public assistance. And they're also more likely to do volunteer work and vote.

Michigan is one state that's gotten the message. A recent six-month, state-funded study on higher education and economic benefits found that in those states with the healthiest economies, typically 40 percent of their residents had undergraduate degrees. Only 22 percent of Michiganians have college degrees. Worse, about half of Michigan's degree-earners leave the state by the time they're 29. Currently, 222,000 residents earn degrees each year. The study recommends doubling that number by 2015-a goal embraced by Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Not an easy task in a state where a quarter of high schoolers drop out before graduation and half the number of students who enroll in higher education quit before they get a degree. Michigan's once-proud industrial base has been crumbling for years. The upshot is a jobless rate of 7 percent, about a third more than the national average. Granholm is convinced that more college grads can greatly ease that problem. But churning out more degree holders will be a costly endeavor for the cash-strapped state. For instance, a key proposal is to guarantee that residents who qualify for college will get all the financial support they need. But as the report makes clear, whatever the cost, the payoff will be much greater. According to the report, in 1999 the $1.5 billion Michigan spent on higher education reaped $39 billion in economic benefits — or $26 for each dollar spent. That's a return any investor would be happy with. —TG


TOKYO — Japan has long been criticized for lagging decades behind other leading industrial economies when it comes to promoting a gender-free workplace. Universities and research labs are no exception. "Despite a national policy to become the world leader in science and technology, many female scientists are forced to give up their careers to raise children," major daily paper Yomiuri Shimbun reported recently, describing the results of an interim government study. Particularly as Japan’s workforce ages and shrinks, dismantling barriers to female advancement has taken on a new urgency.

Women are still routinely passed over when it comes to hiring in research, many female scientists say, because the possibility of their taking time off for maternity and childcare brands them potential liabilities. Possible remedies are being vetted, such as setting up a system to dispatch substitutes when a female scientist goes on leave, rewarding universities and research institutes that aggressively hire women and creating gender quotas. Academic societies have set what are, for Japan, ambitious goals: the Association of National Universities, for instance, announced that it seeks to raise the proportion of female instructors to 20 percent by 2010. At present, only 1.2 percent of engineering professors are female. —Lucy Craft


SAFETY - GETTING SMART ABOUT GUNSAROUND 1.7 MILLION U.S. children live in homes with loaded, unlocked firearms, and one-third of adults have handguns, rifles or shotguns at home, according to a survey published in the Pediatrics online journal in September. Faced with frightening statistics like these, industrial and manufacturing engineering professor Donald Sebastian is battling to make homes with guns safer for children. He and his colleagues at the New Jersey Institute of Technology are developing a smart gun, one that can tell friend from foe, user from nonuser. Within the first tenth of a second of the trigger squeeze, the gun's computerized sensors can measure the size, strength and structure of a person's hand and stop the gun from firing if the shooter isn't authorized. The smart gun has all sorts of potentially far-reaching benefits- stopping a thief from using a stolen gun is an obvious one, but Sebastian's focus is on safeguarding the kids. —Lynne Shallcross


DARPA - THE DESERT DASHA DIRT-COVERED Stanley, Stanford University's robotic- guided Volkswagen, got a bath of champagne to celebrate his first-place finish in a Pentagonsponsored $2-million race across the Mojave Desert. Stanford's driverless VW Touareg, which used its computer brain and sensors to conquer steep drop-offs, obstacles and tunnels along the 132-mile course, beat out the four other vehicles that completed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) Grand Challenge. The October race, which included 23 teams from 36 states and four foreign countries, was designed to foster technology that will make warfare safer for humans. There was significant improvement from last year's inaugural race, when none of the automated vehicles made it to the finish line. Following Stanley's finish of six hours and 53 minutes came Sandstorm, a red Humvee from Carnegie Mellon University; H1ghlander, a customized Hummer also from Carnegie Mellon; and Kat-5, a Ford Escape Hybrid designed by Louisiana students who lost a week of practice and some of their homes to Hurricane Katrina. Terra-Max, a 16-ton truck, was last to complete the course, though not within the 10-hour deadline. The taxpayer-funded race is intended to spur technological advancements for unmanned military ground vehicles. —LS


TAKING A CUE from the human brain, a team of researchers from a trio of British universities has developed a new microchip that can store vast volumes of data in really tiny spaces-so small that cell phones of the future could have the memory capacity of today's desktop computers. Physicists at Imperial College and Durham University, working with materials engineers at the University of Sheffield, have devised a network of nanowires that perform computing functions and decisions at the nodes where they meet, which is akin to how neurons and axons work in the brain. Potentially, the new chip would have the storage capacity of a hard drive but would cost no more than a memory card. That could greatly expand the number and types of applications available for cell phones. Russell Cowburn, lead researcher and nanotechnology professor at Imperial, says nanotechnology allows microchips to act like semiconductors, which rely on electron "spin" and magnetism. Traditional microchips use an electronic charge. The new chip employs a 3-D electronic architecture rather than the flat, two-dimensional structure of today's microchips. Cowburn likens it to storing goods in a cupboard instead of stacking them on a table. —TG


ENGINEERING MARVELS that combine aesthetics with performance often become tourist attractions. Think the Hoover Dam or the Golden Gate Bridge. But in most cases, these monuments to civil engineering are not kinetic. However, the Falkirk Wheel, a rotating boat lift in Scotland that opened three years ago, is not only massive and lovely, but it moves with powerful grace. Not surprisingly, it's become a major tourist draw. Though based on a 19th-century concept, the Falkirk Wheel is the world's first rotating boat lift. It connects two canals: the Union and the Forth and Clyde, which is 115 feet below. The wheel replaced 11 locks, which were dismantled in 1993.

British Waterways wanted a new solution that combined function with attractive design, a "working sculpture." The wheel — which cost nearly $156 million — turns two gondolas, each capable of carrying four 66-foot-long boats. It uses simple physics, mainly Archimedes' principle of displacement, because each boat- and water-filled caisson weighs the same. It also makes use of a system of cogs. The result: the 10 hydraulic motors that turn the wheel and move 660 tons of water and steel use a mere 1.5 kilowatts of electricity — about the same amount of energy needed to boil two kettles of water. —TG

"The corps works for Congress, and when the boss says, 'Design for a Category 3 storm,' culturally the corps is not going to go back and say this is wrong."



DOWN, BUT NOT OUT -  By Thomas K. Grose, Mary Lord and Lynne Shallcross
FIRST TO FILE - By Bethany Halford
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REFRACTIONS: Raising Grades - By Henry Petroski
HIGH-TECH TEXTBOOKS - E-books are on the rise in some classrooms, but the publishing industry is still working the kinks out. By Jo Ellen Myers Sharp
TEACHING: Starting With Square One - By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz
BOOK REVIEW: Power Play - By Robin Tatu
ON CAMPUS: Road to the Real World - By Lynne Shallcross
LAST WORD: Reflecting on Katrina - By Marybeth Lima


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