ASEE PRISM - September 2000
Critics' Choice

Book reviews are a fact of literary life that mass-market authors are inured to, but textbook writers have long avoided. No more. The Campus Bookstore at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, has added a popular new feature to its Web site ( that allows students to review their texts online.

The hope is that professors, when adopting books for their courses, will take into consideration students' concerns about certain texts. The idea resulted from a survey of students conducted by the bookstore--a nonprofit enterprise run by the school's engineering students--which found that 75 percent of students wanted a chance to criticize the texts they were assigned.

The survey also determined that the main irritant was not expensive books but costly books that were seldom used or that were badly done. "Our mantra is that good books aren't expensive, but poor books are," explains Christopher Tabor, the shop's general manager. Still, price can be an issue, especially for engineering and medical students. "They get hammered by book prices," Tabor admits. He recalls one engineering text that cost $300, and it's not unusual for engineering students to spend as much as $1,400 a year on books.

Tabor was fearful that students would use the site--which went online in June--to launch into tirades. But that hasn't happened. "Most of our results are remarkably mature," he notes. It's too early say if professors will use the input in guiding their choices, but Tabor thinks they will.

And now other campus bookshops have begun to borrow the idea. To assist them, the Queen's University store has set up a generic version at that can be easily downloaded. Tabor says he's sincerely flattered by the virtual imitations.

Few Patents Pending

SYDNEY, Australia.--Why aren't Australians filing more patents in the United States? This conundrum worries the country's educators, because a lot of innovative research is taking place in Australia. A recent government-commissioned report titled "Inventing Our Future" says Australia slipped from fourth from the bottom in 1980 to second from the bottom in 1999. Finland occupied the bottom spot. Other countries in the study were the United States, Great Britain, Finland, Israel, Japan, Sweden, Taiwan, and the Netherlands. Australia was responsible for just 0.5 percent of patents filed in the U.S. last year.

"Australia is below the world average in the overall number of patents as a proportion of GDP," said federal education minister David Kemp. The country "must increase its patenting activity by 70 percent to be at the world average level."

Educators complain that some researchers don't bother to patent their work because they believe the procedure too difficult. The official report rates Australia as "fair to middling" in terms of material patented "but with a general characterization of Australian-patented technology as rather old, rather slow, and driven more by the country's primary resources than by technology."

"It's a good news story and a bad news story," says Sue Sergeantson, president of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies. "We've got the potential but we really need to work on building that potential."

Australia lags behind particularly in engineering patents and has "all but dropped out of" semiconductors and electronics, she adds.

Other computer-related patents are "weak but growing." The country is also not keeping pace with the world in telecommunications and medical electronics. The best performing sectors are biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

Found in Space

What do designer jewelry, the Statue of Liberty, and a good night's sleep have in common? All, according to science writer David Baker's fascinating new book Inventions from Outer Space: Everyday Uses for NASA Technology (Scientific American, $25), derive directly from the federal government's 42-year-old investment in the exploration of outer space.

Jewelry designer Alan Kasson uses heat-resistant materials created for the Space Shuttle to solder precious metals and stones into fashionable rings and pendants. The New York City harbor's icon of the free world has been painted with a ceramic coating first invented to protect Cape Canaveral's launch pad from intense heat. And mattresses proven to relieve back pain routinely make use of materials that were first engineered to relieve the painful effects of G-forces on astronauts.

These are just a few examples of space technology that have made their way into the lives of ordinary Americans. Since 1958, the National Aeronautic and Space Administration has successfully landed men on the moon and explored eight of the nine planets in the solar system, and in the process its aggressive 'technology transfer' program has produced ideas and products that have benefited Americans in areas ranging from health and safety to energy, environment, computers, art, and manufacturing.

Many of these spinoffs--from heart imaging technology to sewage treatment to sunglasses-- are described and beautifully illustrated in this handsome new volume. Even the controversial full-body swimming suits, recently banned from the U.S. Olympic trials because of their shark-like swimming efficiency, are the product of NASA engineers, who in the 1970s were directed to reduce destructive wing friction on the nation's space vehicles.

Full Plates for Full Profs

It's become a matter of higher-ed lore that, for undergraduates, espying a full professor in a classroom is rarer than spotting an athlete in the library. There's no doubt that universities are relying more heavily than ever on part-time teachers, but does that mean that a student can graduate with a four-year, undergraduate degree without having ever been taught by a full professor?

That widespread perception was recently debunked by a Department of Education study. "Contrary to the popular notion that senior professors…at research universities do little undergraduate teaching …a majority of these faculty were involved in undergraduate teaching," the report concluded. At four-year institutions, 61 percent of full professors teach at least one credited undergraduate class; as do 64 percent of associate professors and 65 percent of tenured faculty members. Indeed, around 40 percent of senior professors say that they teach only undergraduate courses. Still, senior faculty clearly shy away from introductory classroom chores. Students who are most likely to be taught by part-time or junior-grade teachers are freshmen and sophomores.

Undergraduate engineering students have an even greater chance of being taught by a full-time faculty member. Among full-time engineering profs, 81.6 percent teach at least one undergrad class, while 56 percent teach at the undergraduate level exclusively. However, only 12.4 percent of full-time engineering faculty members teach introductory courses.

Iris Molotsky, a spokesperson at the American Association of University Professors, says she's not surprised by the results of the survey. "Even faculty at research institutions spend more time in the classroom than doing research. That's because you can't do good research if you don't teach. They have a symbiotic relationship," she says. And don't forget, Molotsky adds, that most professors join the profession because they enjoy teaching.

A Thirst-Quenching Spin

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa--Communities in rural Africa lack many things, especially clean water pumped from wells. Even where wells exist, older women and girls may lack the strength to operate stiff hand pumps. Children, however, are never in short supply. So one enterprising South African has engineered a device to harness kid-power in the provision of water. Farmer Ronnie Stuiwer turned the concept of a windmill on its side and invented a merry-go-round that pumps water.

As children spin on what is often the only piece of playground equipment in their village, water fills a 5,000-liter tank atop a six-meter tower. Twenty whirling children can create a half-ton of momentum, so the tanks are usually brimming with water. Roundabout Outdoor, the company that markets the Play Pumps, sells advertising for signs covering the tower. With advertising income defraying their costs, they can provide the entire system to governments for less than the price of a hand pump.

The Play Pump System has proved such a success in the 50 locations in South Africa where it has been installed that the World Bank has funded the provision of 40 more in both South Africa and Swaziland. That's good news for overburdened rural African women, who can now just turn on a tap. With their strength conserved, some have even been known to take a spin on the merry-go-round themselves.

Photograph courtesy of Roundabout Outdoor, LTD
Photograph courtesy of Roundabout Outdoor, LTD