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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo SEPTEMBER  2005 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 1
briefings
PRISM - BRIEFINGS

FEAT - LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL

In late April, an engineer in Switzerland sounded three warning blasts on a horn, and with that, dynamite cleared the remaining 12 feet of granite to link Europe’s North and South via the world’s longest overland tunnel. The Loetschberg tunnel burrows for 21 miles under the Swiss Alps, and when it opens to trains in 2007, it will shave about an hour off the trip for travelers heading from Germany to Milan. It will also help get the heavy truck traffic off the Alpine roads and onto rail. The Loetschberg is just the latest in a string of engineering feats, including the Channel Tunnel from England to France and a bridge spanning Sweden and Denmark that makes it possible to drive from the Artic Circle to the Mediterranean shore. The Loetschberg Tunnel will run parallel to an even-more ambitious engineering project, the 36-mile Gotthard Tunnel, not scheduled for completion for a decade or so. Both tunnels are deep, but the Gotthard has more mountain above it than any other in the world—a 7,500-foot-high mast of rock. Engineers have had to stop the drilling repeatedly because of fault lines and the heat and dust caused by the weight of the heavy mountain pressing down on the drilling equipment. —Lynne Shallcross


DARPA - DUSTUP IN THE DESERT

What if you held a race that nobody won because it was too difficult? Well, if you’re DARPA—the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, the Pentagon office that funds cutting-edge research—you schedule another one. And make it even tougher. DARPA’s March 2004 Grand Challenge saw 15 autonomous robotic vehicles vying to finish a grueling 142-mile race in California’s punishing Mojave Desert. None finished. The best machine, Sandstorm—a Hummer-based botmobile built by a Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) team led by engineering professor Red Whittaker—only made it just beyond 7 miles. It reached speeds of 20 mph before hitting a fence. DARPA deemed the race a success because it helped advance autonomous vehicle technology. This year, Grand Challenge II, set for October 8, will feature a more difficult course, replete with natural and human-made obstacles. And DARPA is doubling the prize money to $2 million. CMU is returning, this time with two vehicles, including an improved Sandstorm. —Thomas K. Grose



QUOTED  
"They [MIT] required college board tests for admissions, and I had some trouble in math. They had a remedial course, which was offered over the summer, and I went to take that and took the boards again. As I recall, their minimum acceptable level for admission was 500 and I ended up with 497, so I did not go to MIT."

—Microchip inventor Jack Kilby, who died in June at age 82.



EDUCATION - RE-ENGINEERING ENGINEERING

Colleges need to reshape engineering education if they want to draw more students, according to a report from the National Academy of Engineering. The report notes that engineers need broader interdisciplinary training for this increasingly complex profession and that both colleges and industry should do a better job of touting the advantages of an engineering education. The report suggests, among other recommendations, that:

  • Colleges and industry should consider graduates with bachelor’s degrees as “engineers in training” and should view a master’s as the engineering professional degree.
  • Colleges should offer advanced technical training to practicing engineers.
  • An engineering education should include courses in the humanities as well as analytical, communication, and foreign-language training.
  • Four-year engineering programs should better integrate their curricula with teaching offered by two-year colleges.
  • More engineering faculty members should have industry experience.
  • Engineering departments should give prospective students clearer information about their programs and student outcomes. —LS


SURVEILLANCE - IT’S A PLANE. NO, A WASP

Unmanned reconnaissance courtesy AeroVironmentaircraft—drones—are becoming increasingly popular with the military. They’re relatively inexpensive and effective, and they don’t put pilots at risk flying over enemy territory. The current model in use in Iraq, the Scan Eagle, has a wingspan of 10 feet. That’s not big by aircraft standards, but the Pentagon wants to go even smaller. Much smaller. It’s funding research on a “micro air vehicle,” dubbed the Wasp, that’s only 13 inches across and weighs 1.75 ounces—and that includes two video cameras. Designed and built by AeroVironment, a California manufacturer of unmanned aircraft, the Wasp is powered by a 4.25-ounce lithium-ion battery. Though it’s launched by hand, it pilots itself using the Global Positioning System. The Navy recently tested the Wasp during exercises in the Pacific Ocean. What’s the buzz on the Wasp’s future? For now, the military isn’t saying. —TG


MICROCHIPS - RUNNING FOR THE RUGRATS

A British engineering student, Gillian Swain, has devised a special sneaker insole that can restrict kids’ TV viewing and encourage them to be active. The more steps the wearer takes, the more TV time he or she earns. Hidden within the “Square Eyes” insole are a pressure sensor and a microprocessor. The sensor records how many steps are taken daily. The chip calculates the data and sends the info to a base station hooked to the television. Ideally, says Swain, a recent graduate of Brunel University’s School of Engineering and Design, teens should take at least 12,000 steps a day and watch no more than two hours of television. So for every 100 steps they take, the insole lets them earn one minute of TV time. If they reach 12,000 steps, they’ll earn their full allotment of two hours in front of the tube. The base station controls the television and shuts it off once all earned time is spent. With obesity rates on the rise, Swain hopes the gadget will help families more fully appreciate the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle. Fat chance. —TG


INTERNATIONAL - OUTPOST IN CHINA

Just as American tech companies gravitated to Bangalore, India, to make use of the region’s well-educated, technically proficient, and relatively inexpensive workforce, Japanese companies are now establishing themselves in Dalian, China, which is becoming a hub for software development. Among them: Hitachi, Matsushita, NEC, and Sony. Meanwhile, there are plans for a new $62-million IT park, and the Dalian University of Technology and Mitsubishi Chemical recently decided to collaborate on research and development over the next three years. Dalian is home to about 26,000 experienced software engineers, and its universities add another 3,800 software engineering graduates to the workforce each year. They earn, on average, $300 a month, though wages are rising. Dalian was occupied by Japan from 1905 to 1945, so there are histroric—albeit somewhat painful—links between them. But given that the Japanese are now armed with huge sums of development cash and jobs, this time the invaders are welcome. —TG


SOLAR POWER - REACHING FOR THE SKY

As home to three of the 15 tallest buildings in the world, Chicago’s skyline is already a shrine for skyscraper enthusiasts. But developer Christopher T. Carley of Fordham Co. wants to add one more to that list—one that would bypass plans for New York’s Freedom Tower to become the nation’s tallest.

Dubbed the Fordham Spire, the 115-story twisting building overlooking Lake Michigan was designed by Spanish-born star architect and engineer-by-training Santiago Calatrava. The condominium and hotel building would measure 1,458 feet at its rooftop, with its spire reaching to about 2,000 feet. With their antennas, the Sears Tower reaches 1,729 feet and the proposed Freedom Tower would reach 1,776 feet.

But reaching the sky in Chicago doesn’t come cheap: units in the $500-million building are expected to sell for about $800 per square foot. —LS


NAVIGATION - BUGS TO THE RESCUE

Sensor-laden antenna mimics cockroach behavior, sending obstacle warnings to wheeled robot's electronic brain. - Courtesy UC- Berkeley Filthy, ubiquitous, and basically indestructible, cockroaches are one of the planet’s more loathsome critters. But Johns Hopkins University robotics experts have learned to love them. Or at least appreciate what we can learn from them. Owen Y. Loh, a Johns Hopkins engineering undergraduate, has built a sensor-packed antenna that guides a wheeled robot in much the same way a cockroach is guided by its antennae—by touch. Tactile navigation may help robots work in dark or smoky environments that can stymie artificial vision or sonar systems. Cockroaches, of course, have no problem scuttling around obstacles and zipping around floors in unlit rooms. Loh was set to the task by Noah J. Cowan, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, who built a cruder version of the antenna as a post-doc at the University of California-Berkeley. Loh spent several months studying cockroach biology to devise an improved version. That’s called getting the bugs out. —TG


OVERSEAS - STAYING OVER DOWN UNDER

AUSTRALIA—“Much technological development in the United States results from the entrepreneurial endeavors of Asian Ph.D.s,” says Ian Young, vice chancellor of Swinburne University of Technology. Australia could ease its skills shortage by allowing immigrant students with technology degrees to stay on after graduation, he says. Fewer Australians are studying engineering, but the field continues to appeal to large numbers of foreign students. Australia has agreed to modest increases of skilled immigrants over the next year, but Young, a high-profile civil engineer, wants authorities to open the door to more immigrants. He points to the country’s highly successful marketing of its universities overseas. Education now ranks third behind tourism and transportation of export-driven service industries. Twenty years ago there were only 15,000 foreign students. Now Australia’s 39 universities have about 175,000. Most are from Asia, with China and India fueling dramatic growth. Foreigners typically account for 10 percent of students at smaller universities but up to one fifth at top schools. Many in academia agree with Young, but there’s a strong anti-immigration sentiment among the country’s voters. —CHRIS PRITCHARD


MECHANICAL - RUBE GOLDBERG RULES

Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Rube Goldberg was famous for his drawings of “inventions,” featuring highly complicated contraptions designed to do the simplest of tasks. Wacky they were, but Goldberg’s cartoon machines—which always made use of everyday products and gadgets—had a certain logic to them (indeed, Goldberg was an engineer). The National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest has for 18 years annually invited teams of engineering students to design and build complex machines that perform basic chores. This year’s challenge: a machine with at least 20 steps that can replace a flashlight’s two batteries, then turn it on. The winner: a team from Purdue University. The machine’s 125 kinetic parts included a mini roller coaster constructed with copper wire and a boxing glove. Truly a flash of inspiration.—TG




BUILDINGS - LONDON LIGHTENS UP

Solar-powered bus shelter in London - Courtesy Carmanah Technologies CorpSolar-powered bus shelters in London? Sounds like a daunting prospect in a place not exactly known as a favorite destination of sun worshippers, but Carmanah Technologies Corp. has managed to make it work. In 2004, 300 solar-powered lighting systems were installed in bus shelters throughout the city to help make passengers more visible to bus drivers and allow passengers to read timetables at any hour. The company, based in Victoria, British Columbia, was started in 1994 by David Green, a Ph.D. in engineering. The lighting system that Carmanah designed uses solar panels that recharge batteries every day and turn on every night. The lights are actually LEDs—light-emitting diodes—with 100,000-hour lifespans. In 2003 a Canadian Coast Guard buoy with a Carmanah light broke free of its mooring near Newfoundland and drifted across the Atlantic Ocean, ending up on a beach in Scotland’s Shetland Islands. After a voyage of 3,600 miles and more than a year missing at sea, the Carmanah light was still flashing. The company uses existing technology for solar panels and high-intensity LEDs, but it has also developed patents to improve their use. It created software that enables the lights to go into a self-preservation mode, which allows them to function through periods of poor solar-charging weather. During long stretches of bad weather, the lights get dimmer to save the battery; as conditions improve, their intensity increases. —TG



BY THE NUMBERS  
Bachelor’s degrees in engineering
earned by African Americans LAST YEAR: 3,700

Statistics compiled by Michael Gibbons for the American Society for Engineering Education. Learn more at: www.asee.org/colleges

 

 

 

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