PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo Summer 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 9


Even though you know that NASA successfully landed robots Spirit and Opportunity on Mars in 2003, the thrilling new Imax movie “Roving Mars” makes you bite your nails and start to wonder if the duo completed the long journey. You watch anxiously as the scientists and engineers struggle to get the rovers ready in time for a launch date that’s based on the orbits of Earth and Mars lining up. It’s only during this short window of opportunity that they can load enough fuel into the rovers for the 300 million mile trip. Getting to the Red Planet is tricky business, and NASA engineers had to overcome a host of problems, including parachutes that kept tearing during test runs. You suffer through the tense moments in the control room as engineers wait to see if Spirit and Opportunity land safely. Once they touch down, you watch in admiration as the rovers, who by now have developed their own personalities, set out to discover if Mars ever had water on its surface. “Roving Mars,” which is a mix of actual film footage and computer animations that had to pass muster from NASA, is playing this summer at more than a dozen Imax theaters around the nation. —Jo Ann Tooley


AUSTRALIA—Doctors haven’t been happy with the accuracy of catheters used in testing patients with swallowing difficulties. And because the devices are used over and over again, there is also the possibility of infection. But after two years of research, an engineering team at Adelaide’s University of South Australia has come up with a disposable catheter that is more accurate. It can also be tossed after use, avoiding the risk of transmitting infections between patients. “Existing catheters are too expensive just to throw away,” says Hung-Yao Hsu, a mechanical engineer who headed the group developing the new equipment. “But we’ve developed a gadget that’s one-tenth the price and is much more accurate.”
The new catheters, which will be available in about three years, use solid-state sensors to measure the pressure of swallowing. Patients are sometimes uncomfortable during the procedure and will move around, increasing the risk of inhaling fluid into their airways. The new catheter also eliminates that risk. —Chris Pritchard


It’s a competition that has its genesis in something literally out of this world. In 2005, NASA launched its first annual Space Elevator Competition. The challenge: to build a robot elevator that could climb a 60-meter cable at an average speed of 1 meter per second, powered only by the light from a 10,000-watt searchlight. 

Scientists and engineers have expressed interest in developing the technology with the long-term goal of creating a space elevator—a 36,000 kilometer long carbon nanotube from the surface of the Earth to a geostationary Earth orbit that would cut the price of transporting people and payloads into space to a fraction of the current cost using conventional rockets.

No team managed to win first prize in 2005, but the group deemed “Most Likely to Succeed in 2006” is working full tilt for this year’s competition, which will be held in California this summer. Steve Jones, the leader of a 30-person group of engineering students from the University of British Columbia, says even if his team doesn’t win the $150,000 first prize, “the competition has been an excellent way for us to learn how to work effectively in teams and to learn some of the basic engineering skills that are required to function in the real world.” —Pierre Home-Douglas


SOFTWARE - KICKED OUT BY A COMPUTERTroublemakers beware: Cutting-edge biometrics technology may soon keep you out of many bars and nightclubs. JAD Communications & Security, a New York-based company, is peddling the BioBouncer security system to clubs. It uses facial recognition software to root out potential troublemakers. The system’s camera records the faces of everyone entering and compares them against a database of photos of people known to have seriously misbehaved in the past. The system can also be networked to other area bars and clubs, so staff will be alerted to people who have caused problems elsewhere. JAD cofounder Jeff Dussich says BioBouncer is really just an extra pair of eyes. The setup costs $7,000, and JAD also charges $6,000 in support fees. Civil liberties groups are critical of the service. The Electronic Frontier Foundation told Wired magazine that not only is facial recognition software often inaccurate but it could be used against innocent customers. Clearly JAD is sensitive to such charges. The homepage of the BioBouncer Web site features a large info box explaining why the technology doesn’t violate anyone’s privacy. According to Dussich, clubs in countries around the world are already expressing an interest. Club owners, it seems, like the idea of having an electronic big brother helping out with security. —Thomas K. Grose


TOKYO—Japan’s demographic time bomb is forcing the country’s male-chauvinistic science culture to start mending its ways. The only major industrial country to eschew immigration as a means of compensating for its rapidly aging and dwindling population, Japan is officially counting on its underutilized female workforce to pick up the slack in a host of fields—and science is no exception. The Third Science and Technology Basic Plan, which runs from 2006-2010, at 25 trillion yen ($208 billion) marks a modest increase over the previous 24 trillion yen, five-year program. So in order to achieve a “quantum leap in knowledge discovery and creation” at a time of fierce global competition and tight budgets, smarter deployment of human resources—including expanded opportunities for female researchers—is front and center.

The Basic Plan sets aside grants aimed at making it easier for women to return to the lab after childbirth. The goal is to have females filling a quarter of all science and engineering positions at universities and public research institutions, up from only about 11 percent now—an OECD low. (The target for females holding positions in engineering research is 15 percent.)

Institutes will compete for grants aimed at producing innovative solutions for luring women back to work after childbirth/childrearing. Science fellowships will be awarded to new parents, and a mentoring program will match women scientists with budding female engineers, physicists and chemists at Japanese high schools. “To enhance the activities of diverse and superior scientists, expanded hiring of women researchers is desirable,” according to the Council for Science and Technology Policy, Japan’s top science advisory panel. The council calls for pay and promotion scales, long stacked against women scientists, to be adjusted in order to “aggressively employ women scientists.” —Lucille P. Craft


Rinspeed zaZen

The Rinspeed zaZen, a concept sports car that features the latest in automotive high technology, debuted earlier this year at the Geneva Auto Show. Created by Swiss designer Frank M. Rinderknecht, the zaZen’s most striking feature is a transparent roof that offers the views of a convertible with the safety and protection of a hardtop. The clear plastic top is fashioned from Makrolon, a polycarbonate invented by Bayer Material Science. It also has holographic brake lights. Under the hood, the zaZen is powered by a Porsche engine that can hit a top speed of nearly 180 mph and accelerate from zero to 60 in 4.8 seconds. Should Rinspeed ever build and sell the car, it may offer it with a natural gas propulsion system—so it can be peppy but not polluting. —TG


Naked Conversations: How Blogs Are Changing the Way Businesses Talk With CustomersNaked Conversations:
How Blogs Are Changing the
Way Businesses Talk With Customers
By Robert Scoble and Shel Israel
Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Robert Scoble works for Microsoft, a.k.a. the Evil Empire. And since 2000, Microsoft has let him write a popular blog on controversial subjects in business and technology. It’s considered a naked blog: It goes out without being vetted by any company officials, which gives it currency. Scoble’s blog reaches 3.5 million readers a year. Now he and Shel Israel, an innovation expert, have written “Naked Conversations: How Blogs Are Changing the Way Businesses Talk With Customers.” They posit that the blogosphere enables companies to talk to and hear from customers, and that can help Corporate America repair its tattered image. “Most people don’t trust big companies,” the authors write, and Microsoft is usually the poster boy for anti-corporate feelings. Corporations are seen as heartless, predatory and lacking humanity. But by introducing meaningful dialogue into the equation, blogs can improve that perception of business. Perhaps. However, the popularity of Scoble’s acclaimed blog hasn’t burnished Microsoft’s rep. As the book admits, lots of people still think “Microsoft sucks.” —TG


“It’s deep in the future before we get there. But it’s like going on a camping trip and buying a car. You want to make sure you have a trailer hitch if you need it.”



Greed is good,” said the fictional stock market tycoon Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film “Wall Street.” He was, of course, referring to tough takeover tactics employed by large, rapacious corporations against smaller rivals. But what works for Wall Street also apparently works in nature, when it comes to massive fluid vortices, like hurricanes and whirlpools. New research conducted at Johns Hopkins University and Los Alamos National Laboratory indicates that the hostile takeover business model may explain how large vortices acquire the energy to sustain themselves. An earlier theory suggested a more collegial business model: the merger. It was thought that big and small vortices mutually combined their assets. But the Johns Hopkins study concluded that large vortices act more like corporate raiders. They take over smaller eddies, suck the energy from them, then toss them aside to either die or renew themselves at the expense of even smaller vortices. The phenomenon is called a “reverse energy cascade.” The two- and-a-half-year study focused on turbulent, two-dimensional flows of gas or liquid, like hurricanes and typhoons. Shiyi Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins, says learning how hurricanes and large ocean eddies form is important. “It should help us to create better computer models to make more accurate predictions about these conditions.” And as any Wall Street wheeler-dealer can tell you, predicting the future is never easy. —TG


Outgoing Harvard President Lawrence Summers was meant to be a change agent. He wanted professors to teach more undergraduate classes. He battled against grade inflation. And perhaps his biggest project was an ongoing curricular review, initiated in 2002. But instead of overseeing an overhaul of America’s most prestigious college, Summers instead became embroiled in a change he didn’t want or foresee: a changing of the guard. He resigned (he leaves office this month) after a year-long controversy over remarks he made suggesting that innate gender differences might be the reason for a dearth of women in engineering and science.

But the review process he launched seems to be continuing despite the turmoil surrounding Summers. Interestingly, it was engineering and science professors who nearly derailed the effort, even though the majority of faculty members in the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences (DEAS) were Summers supporters. The engineering professors, however, disliked a recommendation that would delay students from making their choice of concentration until the middle of their sophomore year. The fear was that by delaying that decision, students wouldn’t meet early enough with departmental advisers (with whom they now meet at the end of their freshman year), and that could result in many failing to take key prerequisite courses in the right order. But a proposed change in the plan to require students to meet with at least one adviser from a concentration they’re considering seems to have overcome DEAS objections. Summers is leaving Harvard, but his grand plan to update its core curriculum may yet come to fruition. —TG


West Virginia has a heavyweight problem: too many fat kids. So its schools are hoping a computer game will encourage some students to shape up. The game, Dance Dance Revolution (or DDR), requires players to mimic dance steps that flash up on a computer screen. At 62 percent, West Virginia has one of the worst obesity rates in the country. And it ranks first for high blood pressure and fourth for diabetes. Nearly half of its fifth graders are overweight. DDR players dance on a light- and color-coded mat, trying to keep up with the rockin’ computer. The manufacturer, Konami, a Japanese company, is contributing $75,000 to the cost of the $500,000 project. Each unit costs $750. The DDR machines are not expected to replace physical education classes but to give kids— particularly those who aren’t fans of traditional sports— another option to be active. The program targets kids ages 10 to 14 because it’s around that time in life when most of us develop lifelong exercise habits. And it’s hoped these students will learn to boogie down to trim down.—TG

Best Job in America:
Software Engineer



A recent study found that the vast majority of American parents think their kids are receiving an adequate amount of science and mathematics lessons. But Jo Ann Vasquez says they’re very, very wrong. Vasquez is lead author of a policy report, “America’s Pressing Challenge: Building a Stronger Foundation,” recently released by the National Science Board’s (NSB) Subcommittee on Science and Engineering Indicators. And she points to U.S. student performance in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests students from around the world on their math and science knowledge. “Our very best 15-year-olds are near the bottom internationally on a test of practical applications of science and mathematical skills,” Vasquez says. The subcommittee report was released simultaneously with the NSB’s biennial report, “Science and Engineering Indicators.” That study also indicated that while the United States remains a leader in discovery and innovation, the future is cloudy because American K-12 students perform poorly in math and science compared with their peers in many other countries.

Among the board report’s recommendations: stronger K-8 teacher-training programs and improved compensation for math and science teachers (to a level akin with what comparably trained science and engineering professionals earn in the private sector). Schools are losing qualified teachers because of low pay and job dissatisfaction, the report says. That forces too many schools to use sub par replacements. A quarter of science teachers and a fifth of math teachers are not fully certified to teach. Meanwhile, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says one way to better prepare high school students for college-level math and science courses is for Congress to approve President George W. Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative. The Bush plan calls for training 70,000 new teachers to teach Advanced Placement and other accelerated-learning math and science programs. Spellings says the goal is to make AP classes more widely available to students. —TG


Scholarly debate is one thing. But there’s a full-scale feud raging between the scientific journal “Nature” and the world’s oldest encyclopedia, the “Encyclopaedia Britannica.” The issue: Is the online (and free) Wikipedia encyclopedia as accurate as the Britannica? Wikipedia, of course, is based on open-source software that allows unpaid contributors from around the world to write and edit its entries. Last year, Wikipedia’s reputation sustained a high-profile black eye over a posted biography of legendary newsman John Seigenthaler that claimed—falsely, if not bizarrely—he had been a suspect in the assassinations of President John Kennedy and his presidential candidate brother Robert.

But Nature’s study last December determined that “the difference in accuracy (between the two encyclopedias) was not particularly great” and that major errors in Wikipedia, like the Seigenthaler debacle, were rare. Nature’s news team took 50 articles from each resource—on topics as diverse as the Archimedes Principle, the kinetic isotope effect and Pythagorus’ Theorem—and asked experts to vet them, without revealing their source. Now the Brittanica—clearly not happy with the claim that it is no more reliable than an upstart, free rival compiled by anonymous contributors—has struck back. Brittanica claims that “almost everything” in the Nature article was “wrong and misleading.” Britannica says it’s not infallible but is nonetheless a reliable source, given its “strong scholarship,” judgment and editorial oversight. It demanded a retraction. Nature’s response: No way. It’s “confident” the comparison was fair, it says. —TG


MAY I HELP YOU? - By Jeffrey Selingo
FEAST OR FAMINE? - By Thomas K. Grose
TOUR DE FACTORY - A behind-the-scenes look at some of the nation’s most interesting factories.
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REFRACTIONS: Appreciating Engineering - By Henry Petroski
ANNUAL CONFERENCE - Everything you need to know about the big event in Chicago.
LAST WORD: The Real Numbers - By Vivek Wadhwa


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