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ASEE PRISM
  American Society for Engineering Education
American Society for Engineering EducationNOVEMBER 2007Volume 17 | Number 3 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
FEATURES
COVER STORY:  ‘PATCH AND PRAY’ - BY THOMAS K. GROSE
FEATURE: GM SHIFTS GEARS - BY MARY LORD
FEATURE: EYE ON THE WORLD - BY PIERRE HOME-DOUGLAS

DEPARTMENTS
COMMENTS
BRIEFINGS
DATABYTES
REFRACTIONS: Thinking Simple - HENRY PETROSKI
CLASSIFIEDS
LAST WORD: Don’t Overlook Industry - By DONALD A. KEATING & EUGENE M. DELOATCH

TEACHING TOOLBOX
TEACHING TOOLBOX: Knowledge Builders - WITH ‘ELECTRIC PICKLES,’ SPACE-SHUTTLE TILES AND OTHER ATTENTION-GRABBING STRATAGEMS, COLLEGE AND GRADUATE STUDENTS SEEK TO INSPIRE A YOUNG GENERATION OF POTENTIAL ENGINEERS. BY BARBARA MATHIAS-RIEGEL
JEE SELECTS: The Habit of Learning - SCOTT JIUSTO AND DAVID DIBASIO
ON THE SHELF: Our Town, Our World - ROBIN TATU


BACK ISSUES







 
FEATURE: Eye on the World - CALL IT ‘GLOBALISM FOR GEARHEADS.’ A UNIVERSITY-STATE-BUSINESS PARTNERSHIP IN CALIFORNIA CREATES TECHNOLOGY—FROM NEW CANCER TREATMENT TO INTERNET ACCESS FOR POOR CAMBODIANS—THAT IS BOTH GROUNDBREAKING AND SOCIALLY USEFUL. BY PIERRE HOME-DOUGLASMicromechanical flying insect  


Imagine a steerable needle that lets surgeons implant radioactive seeds more accurately in a cancerous prostate, or a drone aircraft no bigger than a moth that can zip around blazing buildings to gauge temperatures and warn firefighters of toxic fumes. Think of the benefits that wireless Internet access could bring to underdeveloped rural villages.

These aren’t dreams. Each of these projects is being developed as part of a University of California partnership with the state and industry to create technology that is both groundbreaking and socially useful, and that could have worldwide applications.

“You know those courses like ‘Physics for Poets?’” asks Ken Goldberg, an engineering and computer science professor at UC-Berkeley, one of four participating schools. “Well, this is ‘Globalism for Gearheads.’”

Known by the acronym CITRIS, for the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, the initiative focuses on developing innovative problem-solving tools in eight broad subject areas: culture, education, emerging economies, health care, homeland defense, transportation, energy, and the environment.

CITRIS links more than 300 professors and researchers at four UC campuses--Berkeley, Davis, Merced and Santa Cruz--with industrial researchers from more than 60 corporations, including Hewlett-Packard, IBM,  Intel, Microsoft, and Sun Microsystems. Half the UC faculty members involved are from engineering departments. The rest come from a variety of other fields, including physics, architecture, chemistry and even political science.

“We are all very motivated by the vision of the impact that our innovations will have on society,”says Gary Baldwin, CITRIS’s executive director, “and that is a huge sell for corporate sponsors. It’s a big enough vision that they can really get their arms around it. To go to a large company and paint a vision of changing the world really finds resonance with people in these firms.”

A Different World View

CITRIS is one of four entities launched in 2001 following a call from former California governor Gray Davis the year before to create a network of California Institutes of Science and Innovation. The other three are QB3, the California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research; Calit2, the  California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, and CNSI, the California Nanosystems Institute.

The timing for CITRIS seems perfect. As participant Eric Brewer notes, the world view of engineering students seems different in 2007 from what it was a couple of decades ago, when he was in school. “Most students today aren’t that worried about whether they will get a job or whether they will have money but what kind of person they will be and what kind of impact they will have on society. And if you want to have impact, this work is extremely rewarding.”

Brewer, a professor in Berkeley’s computer science department, embodies the combination of cutting-edge research and civic-mindedness at the core of CITRIS, having himself achieved financial success in the 1990s high-technology boom. Now he is working with a dozen Ph.D engineering students and members of several faculties to figure out new technologies that can bring the Internet to people who live in some of the world’s poorest regions, including Ghana, Cambodia, and rural India. The work is part of the Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions (TIER) project.

The possible payoffs from better Internet access extend far beyond enabling more people to surf the net. Brewer points to a pilot project that involved designing a variation of Wi-Fi wireless networks that covers much greater distance with the same bandwidth. Developed in partnership with Intel Research, the system has enabled eye specialists in southern India to examine patients in remote clinics via a high-quality video conference. The project has proved so successful that Brewer says that by next year, 50 clinics will be handling a half million clients a year.

“The meat of our problem is really social science. You need to understand the people you are working with.”  UC-Berkeley Professor Eric Brewer, describing the challenge of working in developing countries The challenges Brewer and his colleagues face in turning dreams into reality are vastly different from what an engineer would confront in a developed country, and illustrate the varied, interlocking nature of CITRIS work. “The meat of our problem is really social science. You need to understand the people you are working with--everything from religion and culture to what is affordable, how you are going to do maintenance, whether people will take care of things. The list goes on and on.”

He compares these challenges to the requirements for building a company--with at least one big difference. “With a company you have a pretty good idea after a couple of years whether it’s going to make it or not; whereas this work was more of a blind jump. I really didn’t know where it was going to go.” Brewer knows a thing or two about setting up a company. He co-founded the internet software firm Inktomi, which rocketed into the Nasdaq 100 before Yahoo! purchased it for $235 million in 2003.

For the TIER  work, Brewer has adopted the same philosophy he used when President Clinton asked him to set up FirstGov.gov, the official portal of the federal government (recently renamed USA.gov). “You can’t do the traditional ‘plan everything and then execute.’ Instead, you need to plan a little bit, execute a little bit and fix things as you go along. You don’t know exactly where you are going, but you are more likely to get a solution that way.” He says he has more enthusiasm for the CITRIS project, which has received funding from the National Science Foundation, Intel, Microsoft, and Infinity, than any he has ever worked on. “It has all the fun of multidisciplinary engineering with actual field tests and trials, as well as travel too.”

Fighting Fire and Cancer

If Brewer’s work demonstrates how to find solutions at the macro level, bringing better internet access throughout vast regions of the planet, then Ron Fearing’s CITRIS work is focused on the other extreme--the micro scale. The electrical engineering and computer science professor at Berkeley is principal investigator on the Micromechanical Flying Insect (MFI) project. The goal is to develop a one-inch-long (wingtip-to-wingtip) device capable of sustained autonomous flight.

Just building a flying machine that small has presented its own problems. “Basically, we had to create a whole new fabrication technology, including laser micro-machining of carbon fiber,” Fearing says. He has joined forces with mechanical engineers and biologists to understand the aerodynamics of and other aspects of insect flight, as well as wing design and insect sensors. “There are so many things you can learn from nature that you can apply to robotic systems.”

Fearing envisages equipping the MFIs with “smart dust tagging,” another CITRIS project co-ordinated by Professor Kristopher Pister that involves building miniature sensing and communication packages the size of a grain of rice which would contain batteries, computer, sensors and communications.

“Flies could move along and distribute these packages to build up a quick communications network,” Fearing explains. “Say in the case of a fire, the sensors could monitor things like carbon monoxide and temperature levels, giving firefighters a good idea of what is going on so they could marshal their resources accordingly.” Another scenario: a swarm of MFIs could track down pollutant sources or report on which regions are receiving pollutants.

With health care a major concern inside and outside engineering, it’s not surprising that some of the most innovative work going on in CITRIS centers on this area. Among his other CITRIS projects, Ken Goldberg is trying to improve cancer treatment, especially in the case of tumors lodged in vital organs, such as the prostate. Like some other organs, the prostate is flexible, and inserting a needle into it to apply radioactive seeds or thermal treatment is, as Goldberg says, “like hitting an apple bobbing in water,” especially when you add in the slight deformation of the needle that occurs during insertion.

Typical imagining techniques like MRI and X-rays can build 3D maps of the prostate, but during the actual procedure ultrasound is typically used, which yields a fuzzy image—kind of like driving in a blizzard, Goldberg explains.  He and his CITRIS team, including former student and now post-doctoral researcher Ron Alterovitz, are creating computer models to assist in the steering of the needle--something like an autopilot that integrates radar, altimeter, and other data to guide planes to a safe landing in bad weather.

During his research he discovered that surgeons typically learn by intuition how to rotate the needles they use to turn them slightly and guide them into position. How about a more flexible needle that could be steered around corners? Working with mechanical engineers and staff at Johns Hopkins, Goldberg’s team is designing a new kind of needle that can be combined with the software that he is developing. The resulting product will enable surgeons to work much more precisely than in the past, reaching previously inaccessible locations in the body and creating less likelihood of missing the precise target and damaging a healthy organ.

Goldberg says he has benefited from the way CITRIS connects people with similar interests. “One of the problems we’re always facing is that people in engineering are working in their own department with their own labs,” he says. “It’s often difficult to find out what people are doing in the next building or even the next office. So CITRIS tries to seek out people--not just in engineering but outside it too--find out what they are doing, and make connections between different research groups.”

A new CITRIS headquarters on the Berkeley campus is scheduled for completion in early 2009. The state of California contributed $88 million toward its construction. “This will contribute enormously to the future of CITRIS,” says Gary Baldwin. “Each academic discipline has its own culture. The cultural boundaries between academic departments have to be broken down and the best way to do that is to have people sitting next to each other and interacting in the same building.”

Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based in Montreal.

 

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