PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - OCTOBER 2004 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 2
briefings
Engineering Feat - The Sundial Bridge at Turtle Bay opened July 4 in Redding, Calif. It is Spanish engineer-architect Santiago Calatrava's second completed work in this country. The bridge took 10 years and $23.5 million to complete.

PRISM - BRIEFINGS


INNOVATION - G.I. JOE GOES ROBO

The art of miniaturization and the advent of increasingly lightweight materials notwithstanding, Prototype of a specially designed exoskeleton that will make carrying heavy loads easier.soldiers in the field are still required to lug heavy loads on their back. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has long been interested in exoskeletons that could help soldiers carry more weight without extra effort. Now researchers at the University of California-Berkeley's Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory have devised prototypes of a self-powered exoskeleton that show great promise. The BLEEX (Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton) allows a wearer to carry a 70-pound backpack with ease. BLEEX consists of two leg braces that strap onto combat boots; the backpack connects to the braces at hip level. A small engine (one version uses gasoline as fuel) provides power to the computer and hydraulic system. A local area network processes data from 40 sensors and operates hydraulic actuators to keep the device in step with the wearer. Latest versions allow a BLEEX pilot to walk, squat, bend, and climb stairs. Eventually, says Homayoon Kazerooni, the mechanical engineering professor who oversees the lab, running and jumping will be possible. Though Kazerooni says a gasoline-run exoskeleton is no more dangerous than a jeep, he's not satisfied that gasoline should be the fuel of choice. "We're experimenting with all kinds of power supplies." Except, of course, the human kind. —Thomas K. Grose



QUOTED:


BOOK REPORT - THREAT TO INNOVATION

Innovation and Its Discontents: How Our Broken Patent System Is Endangering Innovation and Progress, and What to Do About It
Authors:
Adam B. Jaffe and Josh Lerner
Publisher: Princeton University Press

Innovation and Its Discontents: How Our Broken Patent System Is Endangering Innovation and Progress, and What to Do About It - Book coverThe U.S. patent system was designed to protect inventions and cultivate innovation. But two leading experts— Brandeis economist Adam B. Jaffe and Harvard investment banking specialist Josh Lerner—argue in a new book that the system is bogged down by litigation, thanks to changes made in 1980s. Unless there are fixes, U.S. innovation could be hampered, they claim in Innovation and Its Discontents. Many infringement cases are so complex they're beyond the ken of juries and judges. They suggest that "special masters" should preside over the trickier parts of such cases. They also argue that too many dubious claims are being granted and would like to see a more robust, multilevel patent review system installed. Moreover, the authors want a procedure in place that could allow for a re-examination of patents already issued. —TG


EDUCATION - IS DIVERSITY TAKING A DIP?

Last fall, an American Council on Education Report noted that minority enrollment at the nation's colleges and universities soared 122 percent between the academic years of 1980-81 and 2000-01, rising from just under 2 million to 4.3 million. But is that impressive record in danger? This year, many top universities report that applications from African-American students have slumped. They were down 28 percent at Ohio State University, 25 percent at the University of Michigan, and 12 percent at the University of California-Berkeley. Several issues may be at play. Affirmative action programs are still alive at most schools, despite last year's Supreme Court ruling that said that although race can be a factor in admissions, it can not be the deciding factor. That perhaps led to the false impression that affirmative action programs have ended when they've only been modified. Another factor: There have been a lot of big tuition hikes, and many grants for minority students now fall short of students' needs. Budget cuts have also meant less recruitment in low-income neighborhoods. Sam Agronow, Berkeley's director of policy, planning, and analysis, says that headlines last year warning that the University of California system would be cutting back on enrollments, coupled with less money for recruitment, might have discouraged many black high school seniors and caused a drop in applications. And money available for outreach programs remains tight at Berkeley, Agronow adds. It's worrisome, he admits, but it may not portend a trend. "It's too early to use the T word." —TG


TECHNOLOGY - BIOMETRICS BOOM

Projected Total Annual Global Biometric Revenues (U.S. $, millions)Biometric security technologies—electronic devices that scan physiological or behavior traits, such as faces, voices, fingerprints, handprints, and signatures—should become a $1.2 billion market this year, the International Biometric Group (IBG) says. That's up from $719 million last year, a 40 percent leap. The main buyers now are government agencies, with growth building in the corporate sector. But the market will really take off when products for consumers become more available. IBG expects the market to surge from $1.85 billion in 2005 to $3.7 billion in 2007, hitting $4.64 billion the following year. Fingerprint authentication will be the prime mover in the field; the market for that technology should streak from $198 million last year to $1.5 billion in 2008. The market for face-scanning devices should grow from $50 million to $802 million. So, be prepared for your close up. —TG

Biometrics Market Breakdown


DESIGN - SAYING IT WITH CHOCOLATE

California State Polytechnic InstituteThe mechanical engineering department at the California State Polytechnic Institute knows how to say thank you. They have developed a delicious chocolate bar in the shape of a gear for promotional purposes and to thank alumni donors and friends of the college. The molds were designed in Auto-CAD by mechanical engineering assistant professor—and chocoholic—Glen Thorncroft. "They're designed with an involute shape so the teeth would mesh. The gears had to be correct. All the ME's out there would have made fun of us if the gears weren't engineered correctly," says Thorncroft. — JO ANN TOOLEY


TELECOMMUNICATIONS - CHEAP TALK

Want to talk to someone at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff (UAPB)? Well if you've got a headset/microphone for your PC, just go to its website—www.uapb.edu—and use "Click to Talk," an online service that will let you call anyone on campus from your computer. The school is a pioneer in converting to Voice Over Internet Protocol, a phone service that piggybacks on the Internet and sends voice data digitally to phones or computers. Now other schools are going to net-based systems, including Dartmouth, Brandeis, and Brigham Young. And many more, including the universities of Nebraska and Chicago, are considering making the switch. Maurice D. Ficklin, UAPB's technical services director, says he's constantly getting calls from interested schools such as Harvard, MIT, and Georgetown. IP systems are expensive to install, but costs can be recouped. Outgoing long-distance calls are much cheaper. Schools can also reduce maintenance charges by combining servers for data and voice networks. UAPB has quadrupled its number of campus lines, but its monthly fees to a local telecom have dropped from $40,000 to $16,000. Although it still charges students for phone service, it now pockets that revenue instead of passing it on to a phone company. "Cost recovery," Ficklin says, "is the main reason for going to IP." —TG


BUSINESS - JAPAN-TREPRENEUR

OSAKA, JAPAN—Eighteen students, ages 22 to 71, have become Japan's first class of "engineering entrepreneur" majors, at an unusual program launched last spring at Osaka Sangyo University (OSU). Japanese engineering schools have been adopting more real-world and engaging elements such as project-based learning and internships. The two-year OSU entrepreneur program marks perhaps the most radical renunciation of conventional classroom learning in this country. Students are divided into teams of three, assigned specialist instructors, and shepherded as they try to convert paper ideas into profitable products. Classrooms are kept open holidays, weekends, and late nights.

The program manifesto reads like a page from Dale Carnegie, calling for strong self-reliance, grasping customer needs and translating these accurately into designs, teamwork, mastering the basics of patents, protecting intellectual property, and obtaining venture funding.

The new program is not meant only for turning out entrepreneurs. It is meant also to bolster the fortunes of the surrounding Osaka industrial region, famed for its history of craftsmanship but lately fallen on hard times. The focus will be on low-tech, high-value-added products, says OSU program faculty member Osamu Yamada. "IT, nanotech, and biotech require too much startup capital. When it's make-or-break on thin capitalization, low-tech is the way to go. Companies in eastern Osaka have unique know how. It's vital that we partner with them. We need to sell products that others can't make. I want our entrepreneur students to firmly grasp this."

In 2000, OSU became the first university in Japan to set up its own venture business, after Yamada's lab developed and began marketing a new porous ceramic material with potential use ranging from medicine to space technology. Plenty of other ideas are waiting to be hatched in the university lab, OSU proclaims. —Lucille Craft


PUBLISHING - SLOPPY STATS

Like the adage says, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. Now a survey by two Spanish statisticians claims that scientific and medical journals are rife with statistical errors. Emili Garcia-Berthou and Carles Alcaraz of the University of Girona reviewed an entire year's worth of Nature articles (2001) as well as a random sample of 63 British Medical Journal (BMJ) articles from the same year. They found that at least one error appeared in 38 percent of the Nature articles and that 25 percent of the BMJ pieces also contained at least one bad stat. Most of the mistakes were minor—usually numbers that were improperly rounded off—but it's possible that 4 percent of them may have inflated the importance of insignificant findings.

BMJ deputy editor Kamram Abbasi says the findings "didn't surprise me. We all know that peer review is an imperfect process." Highly specialized, highly intelligent peer reviewers rarely catch major research-paper errors, he says. "So the chances of them picking up on small numerical errors is highly unlikely." Since few if any findings are in dispute, and most of the errors are trivial, it's unlikely the statistical errors were committed intentionally. The BMJ does have statisticians vet articles, but asking them or editors to recalculate all the math included in its 7,000 to 8,000 annual submissions would be not be worth the effort, he says.

In a Web-centric world, however, it is possible to post online the raw data used for each article printed. Interested readers could then do their own fact-checking. Both Nature and the BMJ are considering such a step. But if past experience is an indication, researchers might not want to cooperate, he says. "Asking for raw data can be a prolonged, painful process." Moreover, Abbasi says, a lot of raw data "can be messy and pretty damn unreliable." Still, he thinks it's an idea whose time has come, and one that will lead to more transparency in scientific and medical communications. Clearly, that's a good thing. —TG


COMPUTERS - TOPS IN TERAFLOPS

Earth Simulator, Thunder, IBM's Blue Gene/LJapan has hung on to bragging rights for the word's fastest supercomputer for more than two years now. That's not too surprising since its top-rated machine—the Earth Simulator (ES)—debuted at a speed faster than the combined power of the 20 fastest U.S. supercomputers at that time. The ES can crunch numbers at a mind-boggling 35.9 teraflops—or 35.9 trillion calculations per second. The latest listing of the world's top 500 fastest supercomputers—compiled by Jack Dongarra of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, with colleagues from Germany's University of Mannheim and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory—was released in June and it showed ES still atop the heap. The new number two, Thunder, housed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, clocks in at 19.94 teraflops. That's impressive, but no threat to ES.

Nevertheless, the June ranking may be ES's swan song. IBM and Lawrence Livermore are toiling to finish a new monster, Blue Gene/L (which will be used for genetic research), that in theory will reach an astounding 360 teraflops. While no machine ever hits its theoretical limit, clearly Blue Gene/L will be dazzlingly fast. Two prototypes of Blue Gene/L made the top 10, checking in at No. 4 and No. 8 with speeds of 11.7 and 8.65 teraflops, respectively. Dongarra says if IBM can get the behemoth running by November 1, it will likely take the top spot on the January list.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory plans to build a new science and engineering research center that will house a Cray computer initially capable of hitting 50 teraflops and, potentially, 250 by 2007. But Dongarra says there are plans to upgrade ES, so don't consign it to the history books just yet. The June list also showed the growing prominence of cluster machines, which harness the power of banks of PCs, providing supercomputer speeds at less cost (ES, for instance cost about $400 million to build). Cluster architecture is now the most common type of supercomputer: there were 291 cluster machines on the June list, up from 208. "The price point for clusters," notes Dongarra, "makes them very attractive for many applications. However, there is still a place for specifically designed scientific computers." —TG


METHODOLOGY - DECISIONS, DECISIONS

AUSTRALIA—Engineers often have to make complex decisions that can have serious consequences. Israeli engineer Samuel Sela, working temporarily in the mechanical engineering department at Melbourne's Monash University, has come up with a way to help them navigate the tricky decision-making process. His method is based on the Pugh Analysis Charts, developed by Scottish professor Stuart Pugh. Pugh Analysis is a process for finding solutions by building on the simple strategy of "pros and cons" lists.

Sela has taken the idea a step further, using quantitative tools and statistical methods. His method involves assigning a team and leader to a problem. Team members are drawn from different relevant areas, such as mechanical, electrical, and software engineering, as well as management. Team members first decide which factors require consideration—cost, performance, and company requirements for example. Each team member gives the problem a score based on how much he or she rates each factor. The team leader has the additional responsibility of rating each factor based on its importance to the company but doesn't let team members know what those rankings are. This scoring is then statistically analyzed and the best alternative presented. "One of the advantages of this method is that it is ‘personality free', " Sela says. "No one person can override the views of another, as each does his or her own scoring." —Chris Pritchard

FACT SHEET: Engineering Discipline With Highest Starting Salary (B.S.): Chemical Engineering. AVERAGE STARTING SALARY, JUNE 2004 (UP 1.9%): $52,819


 

 

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