ASEE PRISM - October 2000
briefings
Commercialism + Schools = Political Battle

illustration by Doug SternAre electronic commerce and education a good mix? Some federal lawmakers think not. Democratic and Republican members in both houses of Congress are backing legislation that would require parental consent before schools can allow commercial ventures to advertise to their students or collect marketing information about them.

There are a number of firms that give schools free computers or Internet access in exchange for being allowed to advertise to pupils and collect data about them. But Dan Fuller, federal programs director for the National School Boards Association, says the proposal is unnecessary federal intervention in the affairs of local school districts. Congress is "showing up a little late with a remedy for a problem that doesn't exist," Fuller claims. Many deals involving schools and commercial entities are innovative ways for districts to bring expensive technology to their students, he says, adding that  this is especially true for poorer districts. "Who should decide what is best for cash-strapped school districts?" he asks.

But for groups like Responsible Netizen, which wants commercialism kept entirely out of schools, Congress isn't going far enough. The bill would still allow children to be exploited, the group claims, and is urging policymakers to figure out noncommercial ways to help schools afford technology equipment. Fuller claims that's wishful thinking, since districts generally get only 7 percent of their funds from Washington and have only limited resources available to them locally.

Meanwhile, firms like ZapMe Corp.--a marketing firm that gives hardware and Internet access to schools--say that they don't collect information that would allow them to target individual children. The data collected, they claim, are general and anonymous. And Fuller says it's unlikely that any firm would breach that policy. "I don't think that a company would be in business for long once word got out" that it was taking advantage of students.

Attention Sea Slugs: Register 6 is Now Open

illustration by Tim TeebkenWe all know from experience that grocery shopping on an empty stomach can lead to unwise--and costly--purchases. That jar of imported, jellied eels doesn't look quite so appetizing the next day on a full belly. Now a University of Illinois researcher has found that our ability to shop smarter when we are satiated is a trait shared by much simpler creatures, including the lowly sea slug.

Rhanor Gillette, a professor of physiology and neuroscience at the Champaign, IL, college, has found that slugs are "hard-wired" to make similar decisions. When sea slugs (Pleurobranchaea californica) are ravenous, they'll aggressively forage for food, even attacking dangerous prey. But, Gillette determined, once their guts are full, they'll not only stop hunting for food, but shun it. Moreover, because slugs "can learn by experience the tastes of particularly nutritional prey and of prey with very dangerous defenses, we find that this simple animal can make very well-informed decisions about its daily foraging with only a tiny brain," he explains.

Culinary decisions can be a matter of life and death for the little critter. Other predators drawn to the same food source might also enjoy a sea-slug appetizer before their main course. Then, too, "Pleurobranchaea happens to be an enthusiastic cannibal," Gillette says, and foraging for food leaves it vulner able to attacks from its peers. "I entertain the view that higher vertebrates (including humans), with their more complex brains, are much like the simple Pleurobranchaea." In much the same way, he adds, we make food decisions "on integration of internal state, sensation, and memory of experience."

In other words, eat a hearty meal before heading for the supermarket, unless you really think you need a gallon tub of extra-gooey, marshmallow and fudge-ripple ice cream in your freezer.

Professors Sue Over Online Evaluations

illustration by Jack HornadyDisgruntled students unhappy with poor grades are finding that instead of getting angry, they can get even. A growing number of Web sites allow students to post anonymous reviews of courses and professors.

To be sure, students may be just as likely to post favorable reviews and comments, but the American Association of University Professors fears that these sites' lack of controls and anonymity offer great potential for mischief-making. Already one site, teacherreview.com, is at the center of a libel suit. Two professors at City College of San Francisco claim that the site's obscene remarks about them have destroyed their reputations and livelihoods. They argue that the site essentially blackmails professors into becoming easy graders. But the American Civil Liberties Union, defending the site, states that while some of the reviews are indeed obscene and disgusting, they are not libelous.

Iris Molotsky, AAUP spokesperson, admits it's a tricky area. "It is a free speech issue and we do not want to censor" sites, she says. Nonetheless, she adds, the review sites are a cause of "grave" concern. Some students may post too-detailed information about courses, thereby infringing upon a teacher's copyright and intellectual property rights, Molotsky says. And there is also, of course, the problem of inaccurate, unfair reviews that rely on hearsay or information that's not germane to the course. The fear is that if poor reviews lead to a dwindling number of students taking a course, it could affect a teacher's chances for promotion or tenure.

The AAUP suggests several remedies. One is to "ask universities not to post links to these sites," Molotsky says. Also, she adds, "We have to encourage students to be careful." Alas, college-age students are rarely known for taking a cautious approach to life. The chances seem great for many more lawsuits to come.

Wanted: More Women in Engineering

Is Lara Croft--the over-endowed, sexy (well, to some people) cyber-babe whose derring-do helped sell millions of computer games to goggle-eyed adolescent boys--the reason behind the shortage of qualified information-technology workers? Could be, at least in part.

It's a given that at least 800,000 programming and IT jobs can't be filled for lack of candidates. Yet the industry has failed to tap into 50 percent of the U.S. workforce: women. Only about 20 percent of IT professionals are women, and U.S. Department of Education statistics indicate that in the 1996-97 academic year, only 33 percent of undergraduate degrees in computer and information sciences were awarded to women. Women accounted for only about a third of master's degrees in those areas, as well.

The American Association of University Women, in a recent study, says the problem is not that young girls are computer phobic, but that they're turned off by cyber-culture. They find computer games mostly violent and boring, programming classes dull, and computer career options uninspiring, the AAUW says. "The way information technology is used, applied and taught in the nation's classrooms must change," the AAUW asserts. Among its suggestions: software that is not aimed at either boys or girls, but is relevant to either gender, as well as to students who are not "computer nerds"; infusing technology concepts and uses into broader subject areas, including music, history and the other sciences; and having parents and teachers urging girls early on to imagine themselves as designers and producers of technology by engaging them in "tinkering" activities that may stimulate a deeper interest in technology.

The Commission for the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology Development has also issued recommendations aimed at getting more women, minorities, and disabled people into the high-tech workforce. It wants to create an "implementation body" that would coordinate efforts to transform the IT industry's image into one that is more inclusive. Let's face it, Lara Croft may be the female answer to Indiana Jones, but a cyber-role model for girls she's not.

Help for Inventors on the Internet

Inventors Assistant League websiteMost people, it's often said, have at least one book in them. And it's probably also true that many people think that if they put their minds to it, they could come up with at least one good invention, as well--a real money maker. Who hasn't marveled at some simple, popular device and thought, "I should have thought of that, it's so obvious." But, if profitable ideas were so easily realized, well, we'd all be Bill Gates.

Truth is, inventing may come easy to some, but commercializing those ideas is an arduous, usually unsuccessful venture. Each week, the U.S. Patent Office issues about 18,000 new patents. But only three to five percent of patents granted become commercial successes. That's because many inventors don't understand business and haven't a clue as to how to sell their brainstorms. That also makes them susceptible to rip-off artists-- dubious brokers who charge stiff upfront fees and promise to successfully market ideas.

Now the Internet has come to the rescue. A number of Web sites are available to give inventors--from serious professionals to part-time, garage-shop tinkerers--good, sound advice and information. Topping the list is PatentCafe.com, the brainchild of Andy Gibbs, a successful inventor/entrepreneur. He first went online with free information in 1996 as GibbsGroup Inventors' Resources, which was based on his own personal library of data. The site morphed into the commercial PatentCafe in February 1999. Gibbs' revenue streams are advertising and sales of PatentCafe Magazine and other products. It still offers, however, reams of free information. Gibbs brags that, "There is no other site out there with as much breadth and depth, not even the Patent Office's Entrepreneur Magazine, which called it the 'category killer.'" The site includes patent, trademark, copyright, and intellectual property directories, as well as other information, advice, and community networking.

The Inventors Assistance League, www.inventions.org, is the online extension of a group that's been in business as a nonprofit organization since 1963. The IAL considers itself primarily a teaching organization, and sells a home-study course, but it makes available some online resources for free. And it soon plans to offer cyber courses for budding inventors. Yet another site is InventNet.com, which is also a nonprofit organization that charges an annual membership fee.

Inventors, however, should remember that scam artists also operate online, and they should stay away from brokers who want their fee upfront. As Gibbs says, success in inventing requires learning how business works. "It takes a lot of reading, a lot of research and a lot of hard work."

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