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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

FEATURE: Get SMART - A new government program helps students pay for an education in science and engineering. - BY THOMAS K. GROSE - ILLUSTRATION BY SARAH WILKINSFEATURE: Get SMART - A new government program helps students pay for an education in science and engineering. - BY THOMAS K. GROSE - ILLUSTRATION BY SARAH WILKINS  


Jennifer Lopez, who is receiving a full scholarship, finds the idea of defense research appealing because her family has a history of military service. Jennifer Lopez’s first two years at the University of California, Davis, were something of a struggle. Not because of the coursework. The Sacramento native is a talented mathematics major with strong grades. But financially, things weren’t easy. Lopez got a bit of money from a governor’s scholarship program and a bit more from the federal government because her dad is a veteran. But to make ends meet, Lopez’s parents—her dad is a retired social worker; her mother works for the state—helped her out, and she worked part time as a tutor. Last year, however, her financial woes disappeared. Lopez, 21, now receives a full-ride scholarship: her tuition, fees, book costs and room and board are fully covered. Her benefactor: the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).

The Pentagon’s new and generous scholarship program aims to bolster the number of top students who are earning degrees in so-called STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—and acquiring skills it considers key to the nation’s future security. Called the Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation (SMART) Defense Scholarship program (, the Pentagon wants to ensure there’s a pool of talented researchers available to U.S. defense labs so they can continue their critical work for decades to come. That’s why for every year they receive the scholarship, Lopez and her fellow SMART recipients have agreed to work an equal amount of time at a government defense lab upon graduation.

America’s universities are not churning out enough engineers or physical scientists to meet market demands. U.S. students fare poorly at international math competitions. Last year in an influential report called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” the National Academies of Science warned that low funding for engineering and physical sciences research and education risked jeopardizing America’s military and economic strengths. That dearth of talented, young researchers has placed the nation’s defense labs at particular risk. The DOD employs more scientists and engineers than any other government agency. But by 2010, 50 percent of the labs’ researchers will be eligible for retirement, and that number is projected to increase to 60 percent by 2012. That’s a potential brain drain that would need thousands of technically smart graduates to plug.

So, Congress approved the SMART scholarships, saying it was “concerned with the aging technical workforce” and the dwindling numbers of scientists and engineers needed “to support our national security workforce needs.” Keith Thompson manages the Pentagon’s STEM Education and Workforce Development Office, which oversees the SMART program and helped to create it. Congress and the Pentagon gave Thompson and his team “a blank sheet and asked us to design the best education and training program we could imagine. Then they gave us virtually everything we asked for.” Deborah Goshorn, another SMART scholar who earlier this year wrapped up a master’s in electrical engineering at the University of California, San Diego, says the resulting program “is a pretty sweet deal.”

Indeed it is. Here’s how it works: Students 18 and over who are U.S. citizens, working toward a degree within the STEM disciplines with a grade point average of 3.0 or more can apply for a SMART scholarship. (The program is administered in part by the American Society for Engineering Education.) A panel of experts—scientists, deans and other academics and Department of Defense representatives—reviews the applications and then identifies the best candidates. It then ranks them in order by discipline. The lists go out to the various defense and national security labs, and they rank and select the candidates they’re interested in—not unlike an NFL draft.

Olukayode Okusaga, who is finishing his Ph.D. in electrical engineering and working at an army lab, says the idea of collecting a full scholarship and a full-time salary as he works in a lab is “the best of both worlds.”The 32 scholars who were selected in 2005, the first year of the program, received the full-ride scholarships. But Congress has expanded the program, and from this year on, scholars will also be considered “term employees” of the DOD and will receive a salary or stipend, as well. Thompson says the salary was added to let students earn necessary income without interrupting their studies. “Their job is to learn. We expect them to focus on education and national defense needs. They can’t do that if they’re also working 20 hours a week at Burger King.” Certainly Olukayode Okusaga, 27, likes the idea of collecting a full scholarship and a full-time salary as he works to complete the last two years of his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “It’s the best of both worlds,” says Okusaga, who specializes in photonics and works at the Army Research Lab in Adelphi, Md. He was one of the recipients of this year’s awards.

The scholars spend summers working as interns at their labs. Each is assigned a mentor, one of the lab’s senior researchers, to help guide them through their studies and their lab work. Their lab assignments are tailored as much as possible to coincide with their current coursework. Lopez’s mentor, for instance, is Richard A. Albanese, the lead scientist in the Information Operations and Special Projects Division at the Air Force Research Laboratory located at Brooks Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas. His applied mathematics team specializes in signal processing and advanced electronic systems with special interest in antenna synthesis.

The Real Thing

Albanese and Lopez personify what the SMART program is all about. After a 40-year career as a researcher, Albanese is not too far from retirement, and Lopez’s career is just starting. Albanese says working with her and helping her select courses has been a great experience. “I am enjoying seeing her enthusiasm and progress—she’s really a good kid.” Because Lopez took some summer courses at UC Davis this year, she’ll do a short internship at the lab this autumn, where she’ll work with Albanese using advanced electromagnetic theory to design high-tech antennas that can lower the chances of radio signals being intercepted. Lopez says it’s exciting learning how to apply her studies to real applications. “How they use math to do some of the stuff they do is really amazing.”

Once the students start working in the labs, Thompson is convinced most of them will want to stay on, well beyond their payback commitments, forging long-lasting careers. “We want to give them enough occupational satisfaction that they’re going to stick around,” he says. Okusaga, who was already working at the Army Lab when he got his SMART award, says he very much enjoys it there. “It’s a great place to work,” he says, because he can do “academic-style research” without the pressures of an academic life. It’s anticipated that over the next five years about a thousand scholars will be selected. At current estimates, that’s about 10 percent of the labs’ expected employment needs. So far, the Pentagon’s marketing of the SMART scholarships has been low-key so as not to overwhelm the fledgling program.

Tradition of Serving

At UC Davis, Lopez is part of a program designed to encourage disadvantaged undergraduates to consider pursuing graduate degrees in math and the physical sciences by letting them work with professors on research projects. It was through that program she learned about the SMART scholarships and was encouraged to apply. “But I was not expecting to get it,” Lopez says, because she knew only a relative handful of students from around the country would be selected. Albanese, however, says she deserved it. Not only is she smart, capable, well-motivated and doing good work, he says, she has the strong discipline it takes to succeed in science. Lopez finds the idea of defense research appealing because her family has a history of military service. Her father is a vet, and her brother is in the Army serving as an airborne medic.

San Diego’s Goshorn already had her sights set on a Navy research career when she also became one of last year’s recipients. Her sister Rachel, who has a doctorate in engineering from UC San Diego, works at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center San Diego. In 2004, Goshorn interned there, working on a rapid prototyping system for digital signal processing, using MATLAB Simulink software and integrating it into the signal-processing hardware.

Deborah Goshorn says the SMART program “is a pretty sweet deal.” She is working in a lab while also starting the first year of her doctorate.Goshorn, 22, helped create a graphical user interface so the technology could be demonstrated to Navy officials. That led her to a Navy R&D conference in Washington, where her team presented a paper. That’s where impressed Navy brass and top researchers told her about the SMART scholarships and asked her to apply. Goshorn’s 2005 award covered the last part of her master’s program. She’s since won a 2006 SMART scholarship to fund her four-year Ph.D. program; she’s seeking a doctorate in mathematics with an emphasis on statistics used in digital signal processing. This past summer she was back at the San Diego lab working with her mentor, Brian Meadows, on ways to put Bayesian statistical theory to use in fighting terrorism. This fall, she’ll work at the lab as an employee while also starting the first year of her doctorate, and the SMART salary will go toward paying her salary there.

Goshorn at age 20 earned two undergraduate degrees at UCSD, a B.S. in computer engineering and a B.A. in applied math. Not surprising: her father is an engineer, and she’s one of four girls and two boys who are all academic high-achievers. Goshorn says being paid to continue her studies makes life easier. “I feel very blessed,” Goshorn says. “I’m so supportive of our troops. If I can direct my research to help them, that would be a ‘Wow!’ And also getting my dissertation out of it, that would be two ‘Wows!’ in a row.”

Lopez has her sights set on graduate school, too, perhaps eventually earning a Ph.D. Later this year, she’ll take her Graduate Record Examinations. If she gets into grad school, she’ll apply for another SMART scholarship. Albanese thinks her chances are good, and he hopes it happens. “I’d like to see that for her, for the profession and for this government lab. I think she’s going to be very important to our department and country.” If he’s right, the SMART program will have made a smart choice.

Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer for many national publications, including Time and U.S. News & World Report.



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