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American Society for Engineering EducationOCTOBER 2006Volume 16 | Number 2 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
Trouble on the Horizon - BY THOMAS K. GROSE
Tulane's Next Move - BY JEFFREY SELINGO


Let Go of My Legos - Those little bricks are a wonderful way to teach engineering to youngsters. BY ALICE DANIEL
BOOK REVIEW: An Inconvenient Truth - BY ROBIN TATU



The folks at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research’s Quantum Materials program like to point out that the science-fiction element in the hit movie “Superman Returns” does contain some truth: that crystal-growing can produce some dramatic outcomes. In the film, archvillain Lex Luthor swipes crystals from the Man of Steel’s Fortress of Solitude and grows a continent with them. The fact is the institute’s program has used crystallography to create some very stunning new materials. Quantum materials are substances subjected to extreme temperatures and circumstances, resulting in new and unusual phenomena at the subatomic level. Electrons in quantum materials behave in ways contrary to traditional science. “Our researchers have created crystals with bizarre new qualities,” says program director Louis Taillefer, including high-temperature superconductivity, strange phase transitions, odd forms of magnetism and new physical properties. A superconductor is a material that conducts electricity with no resistance, but it’s a phenomenon that was thought to occur in harshly low temperatures of -200 C. But copper oxide works as a superconductor at a much higher temperature. The properties of quantum materials may help improve the performance of wireless devices and magnetic imaging tools. And wouldn’t that be super? —Thomas K. Grose


COMPUTERS - Feeling Understood - BY THOMAS K. GROSECOMPUTERS - Feeling Understood  

QYOTED: “He’s a smart engineer. He understands how to make money, and he understands marketing and what it takes to push something out the door.” —SANDY MUNRO, PRESIDENT OF MANUFACTURING CONSULTING FIRM MUNRO AND ASSOCIATES, IN RESPONSE TO ALAN MULALLY’S APPOINTMENT AS FORD MOTOR CO.’S NEW CEO. Can computers read minds? Yes, say researchers at Cambridge University and MIT. We’re not talking about cyberpsychics or chip-assisted crystal balls but computers that do what we humans do subconsciously: infer from facial expressions and head gestures what people are feeling. Using a video camera to scan users’ faces, a computer at Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory can in real time discern whether they agree or disagree with what they’re seeing on the screen—if they’re engaged or bored, comprehending or confused. Sadness, excitement, surprise and anger are some of the other feelings it can pick up. The computer studied 24 different facial features, from flared nostrils to changes in the corners of the mouth. The computer was shown 100 film clips that featured faces—including actors and nonactors—exhibiting a range of emotions. It was able to correctly identify the feelings of the actors 90 percent of the time and of the nonactors, 65 percent of the time. When a panel of 20 humans was shown the same clips, only 6 percent of the panelists scored as high or higher than the computer. The technology has life-saving capabilities, says Cambridge’s Peter Robinson, who developed the software with Rana el Kaliouby of MIT’s Media Lab. Robinson is working with a major auto manufacturer on a dashboard computer that could alert drivers when they’re drowsy or distracted. Sounds like a high-tech backseat driver. —TG


EARTHQUAKES - The Big One in Buffalo - BY THOMAS K. GROSEEARTHQUAKES - The Big One in Buffalo - This fall, for the first time, a full-size, fully furnished wood-frame townhouse is going to be subjected to a shaking akin to a major earthquake. The simulated quake will take place at the Structural Engineering and Earthquake Simulation Laboratory at the State University of New York-Buffalo.  

This fall, for the first time, a full-size, fully furnished wood-frame townhouse is going to be subjected to a shaking akin to a major earthquake. The simulated quake will take place at the Structural Engineering and Earthquake Simulation Laboratory at the State University of New York-Buffalo. It’s the only American simulation lab big enough to accommodate the three-bedroom, two-story structure, which weighs 73,000 lbs. The house has been undergoing increasing levels of simulated seismic rattling on the lab’s twin, movable shake tables. The final tests in November will mimic the kind of quake that hits once every 2,500 years, like the one in 1994 that devastated Northridge, Calif. In that quake, 24 of the 25 deaths occurred in wood structures. In the U.S., wood is the dominant building frame material used for residential construction. But most civil engineering students aren’t required to study wood design, and little is known about how well wooden buildings withstand quakes. “We want to revolutionize the building of wood structures for seismic performance,” explains Andre Filiatrault, a professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering at Buffalo. The test house is outfitted with 250 sensors and a dozen video cameras that will give researchers detailed information. Researchers know the test house will be badly damaged. Hope it’s insured. –TG



TOKYO—While richer countries like Japan and South Korea race to gird their broadband infrastructures and devise expensive applications, less-affluent countries are also leaping into the digital era with formidable speed—via their cell phones. India, says Infosys Technologies CEO Nandan Nilekani, illustrates how mobile technology is enabling the world’s poorest citizens to “leapfrog” over the fixed-line era. India is adding mobile users at a white-hot rate of almost 50 million a year—next to a total fixed-line user base of just 65 million. With handset prices plunging to as little as $10 apiece and rock-bottom mobile rates of only about a penny a minute, the trend is clear, says the chief of the Bangalore-based outsourcing giant: In any country where a broad “legacy” fixed-line infrastructure is lacking, mobile communications can close the digital divide. Nilekani sees a market split—high-end users of fancier devices, entertainment and education applications on one end; a vast pool of low-end consumers on the other. “We should not lose sight,” he says, of “the equally huge opportunity at the lower end of the game.” Low-denomination prepaid cards are allowing the poorest users to join the digital era; ubiquitous technology, via rural kiosks, will eventually bring all of India’s 600,000 villages online. Nilekani’s remarks were delivered in a session on “Asia’s digital ecosystems” at the June World Economic Forum gathering of business, government and civil society leaders in Tokyo. —Lucille B. Craft


AGRICULTURE - Giving the Scarecrow His Brain - BY THOMAS K. GROSEAGRICULTURE - Giving the Scarecrow His Brain  

“Intelligent scarecrow” sounds like a contradiction of terms. But that’s exactly what a team of computer science seniors at the University of South Florida’s College of Engineering came up with for a project aimed at helping the state’s $40 million aquaculture industry. Fish farming is big business, but stock is often lost to predator birds. And many of the birds are protected species, so they can’t be harmed. The team came up with “Erebus,” a scarecrow in a USF football jersey whose head is crammed with sensors, cameras and a micro PC. When Erebus detects motion, its cameras kick in, and intruders and nonintruders are distinguished by color-recognition software. The scarecrow also e-mails the farmer (or calls his cell phone) to report the incident. Moreover, it has speakers that blast out sounds of loud gunshots and it hits the birds with a high-speed, but harmless, water cannon. Workers at the ponds wear orange vests so Erebus knows they’re not trespassers. The students think similar smart scarecrows could be used to police other crops from poaching fauna.—TG


CAREERS - What’s in a Name? Plenty - BY THOMAS K. GROSE  

The United Kingdom is a country where electricians and plumbers routinely call themselves engineers and are widely considered so. Not exactly a great inducement to study engineering at a university. (One can almost hear British students skeptically asking, “Four years of schooling so I can unclog toilets?”) To help counter that fuzzy perception, the country’s Engineering and Technology Board has set up a “science, engineering and technology careers and lifestyle portal” to better promote and explain what real engineers actually do. The Web site,, is aimed at young people who love technology and gadgets but perhaps never considered turning their avocation into a vocation, or never knew how to. Information ranges from career and education advice to a database of role models to news about games and gadgets, health, sports and music—all with a tech or science slant. Youngsters looking to find out what’s new and cool in plumbing will, however, have to look elsewhere. —TG


FABRIC - Nice (Smelling) Threads - BY THOMAS K. GROSEFABRIC - Nice (Smelling) Threads  

Will we someday wear clothes that make us smell good—or, more accurately, keep us from smelling bad? Engineers at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania think so. Engineering professor Ali Razavi is heading a team of engineering and business professors to build a 12-inch, roll-to-roll machine that can coat fabrics with microscopic nanoparticles that have a variety of properties. The possibilities include: shirts and blouses coated with particles that detect and destroy the bacteria that cause body odor; hospital uniforms covered with particles that sense infectious diseases; military uniforms enriched with particles that detect chemical or biological agents; and fabrics with improved fire-retardant properties. If B.O.-battling clothes catch on, commuters worldwide who daily cram into crowded subway cars will breathe a bit easier.—TG


FEAT - A Memorial That Takes Flight - BY THOMAS K. GROSEFEAT - A Memorial That Takes Flight - Memorial under  construction and (left) a model of the completed project  

The task for the late architect James Ingo Freed was to design an Air Force Memorial that would “evoke flight and the flying spirit.” The fact that the just-completed structure of reinforced concrete clad in a nearly inch-thick skin of stainless steel succeeds is a testament to the genius of Freed, who died last December at age 75. That it was actually built, however, is a testament to the creativity of the engineers at Ove Arup & Partners, who turned Freed’s sketches into reality. The monument in Arlington, Va., near the Pentagon, which honors Air Force veterans, was inspired by the Thunderbirds bomb-burst formation, where jets shoot up vertically and veer off in different directions, leaving behind arching contrails. The result is three curving spires, the tallest 270 feet in height, the shortest 201 feet. Wind and vibration could conspire to create oscillations that would doom the memorial. To counter those forces, the spires contain 13 steel boxes hidden from view, each housing a 1-ton metal ball 20 inches in diameter. The free-rolling balls act as dampeners that allow the spires to sway—but not dangerously so. —TG



GOOGLE - Searching for Answers - BY THOMAS K. GROSE  

So just what is Google housing in its gigantic new computing center in The Dalles, Ore., along the Columbia River? The ever-secretive, $6 billion company that revolutionized Internet search engines isn’t saying. Industry blogs speculate the complex—two buildings the size of a pair of football fields topped off by a couple of large cooling towers—will be a “server farm.” A recent New York Times article speculated it’s likely meant to further beef up Google’s already impressive operational infrastructure. That infrastructure not only supports Google’s superfast search engine but a growing number of other Web-based products and services, including Gmail and Blogger. Computing is migrating to the Internet and Google is already offering Web-based applications that were once PC-based (and the domain of Microsoft), including word processing and spreadsheets. Microsoft realizes that, too. That’s why it’s investing $2 billion next year on capital expenditures; Google will spend at least $1.5 billion. Microsoft and Yahoo! are building data centers in Washington, about 130 miles north of Google’s. Google knows the faster a search request is completed, the happier the customer. So it has an estimated 450,000-plus servers in dozens of clusters around the world to ensure the near light speed of its operations. That fiber-optic-linked network of servers is essentially a supercomputer. As Danny Hillis, a supercomputing expert told the Times: “Google has constructed the biggest computer in the world, and it’s a hidden asset.” —TG


GLOBALIZATION - Outward Bound Down Under  

AUSTRALIA—Fast-growing Chinese and Indian economies are partly responsible for Australia’s severe shortage of engineers. More and more students from these countries are picking up degrees in Australia but then returning home after graduation. To make matters worse, Australian engineering grads are also taking jobs in China and India, which have vast mining and infrastructure projects. Australia feels the engineering pinch the most in its important mining sector but also in water quality and arid land management. The country graduated 110 mining engineers last year, but 150 were needed. All told, 5,000 engineers graduated from Australian universities in 2005; 20 percent of them were foreign students. A recent survey of 33 companies by Engineers Australia, a professional association, revealed a shortfall of 777 engineers. Though bad for employers, this reality creates almost guaranteed employment for engineering graduates. Although the situation is not expected to improve anytime soon, Australian engineers who’ve taken posts in developing countries tend to return home in due course with prized practical
experience gained on significant projects. –Chris Pritchard


FACTOID: Country with the most broadband subscribers: IRELAND - WHERE U.S. RANKS: 12



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