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American Society for Engineering EducationSUMMER 2007Volume 16 | Number 9 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
Cream of the Crop - BY MARGARET LOFTUS
Hero by Nature - BY ALICE DANIEL
Wringing Gold From the Old - BY THOMAS K. GROSE

REFRACTIONS: Speaking Up for Engineers - BY HENRY PETROSKI
ANNUAL CONFERENCE: Everything you need to know about the big event in Hawaii
LAST WORD: Think Globally, Act Locally - BY REP. BART GORDON

PHOTO ESSAY: Green Giants - Sustainable design allows big buildings to leave a small footprint on the environment. - BY CORINNA WU


FLOWERS - A Bigger, Better Bloom

When it comes to genetically engineering plants, most of the effort has focused on food crops—such as soybeans and corn—and not on popular garden plants, like roses and tulips. Agriculture is a big business, so it can afford the massive technology and regulatory costs involved in developing genetically modified (GM) products. That has not been the case for the much smaller gardening industry. But a new American-German alliance aims to commercialize transgenic ornamental plants. Stuttgart-based Ornamental Bioscience is the result of a union between Germany’s Selecta Klemm, an international provider of starter plants, and California’s Mendel Biotechnology, a leading isolator of plant gene traits. Rather than adding new traits from other species to ornamentals, it is working to switch on dormant genes in plants to make them resistant to frost, common diseases and drought. Genetic engineering of garden plants isn’t entirely new: An Australian company markets bluish-purple carnations that have a petunia gene, and NovaFlora of Pennsylvania mixes rose genes to create new varieties of the flower. Of course, opponents of “Frankenfoods” continue to campaign against them. Whether they’ll want to uproot GM geraniums, too, remains to be seen. —Thomas K. Grose


ROBOTICS - Muscles Get a Leg UpROBOTICS - Muscles Get a Leg Up

Certain spinal cord injuries and neurological disorders disrupt the electrical impulses the brain sends to muscles, making the signals weak and uncoordinated. Patients therefore have trouble controlling their muscles and learning how to walk again. Robotic rehabilitative devices can be strapped to patients’ limbs to force their muscles to move correctly. But a new robotic ankle exoskeleton developed at the University of Michigan puts the patient’s own nervous system in control. It picks up the brain’s signals via electrodes attached to the legs and sends them back to the device itself. An onboard computer translates the signals and manipulates the device’s pneumatic artificial muscles. “Essentially, the artificial muscle contracts with the person’s muscle,” explains Daniel Ferris, an associate professor in movement science with an appointment in biomedical engineering. “This could benefit stroke patients or patients with incomplete injuries of the spinal cord.” The Michigan researchers tested the device on healthy people and are planning further tests on patients with impaired mobility. The study volunteers required about half an hour to learn how to walk with the exoskeleton. “For patients who can walk slowly, a brace like this may help them walk faster and more effectively,” Ferris says. —TG


LASERS - Floating on Air

Using a bit of air and some well-placed grooves, a team of University of California, Berkeley, engineers have created a new super-thin, high-performance mirror that could speed development of semiconductor lasers. “There is a wide range of products based upon laser optics that could benefit from this thinner mirror,” says graduate student Michael Huang, including light-emitting diodes, photovoltaic devices, sensors, computer chips and telecommunications equipment. Current high-grade mirrors known as Bragg reflectors (DBRs) can reflect 99.9 percent of light. But at 5 micrometers wide, they’re relatively thick and heavy. The Berkeley mirror reflects just as well but is 20 times thinner, can handle a wider spectrum of light frequencies and is cheaper and easier to make. DBRs require as many as 80 alternating layers of the semiconductors aluminum gallium arsenide and gallium arsenide. Berkeley’s mirror needs just two: a layer of aluminum gallium arsenide etched with grooves less than a wavelength of light apart and a layer of air. Light hitting the surface is directed over the grooves, and when its waves hit the semiconductor-air interface, they reflect back. “When you reduce the thickness of a mirror, you are significantly reducing the mass of the device, which also translates into lower power consumption,” says Connie J. Chang-Hasnain, the professor of electrical engineering and computer science who headed the research. Eventually, it may be possible to print the mirror on other materials. That could lead to organic plastic displays that could be rolled up just like, well, just like the copy of Prism you’re holding. —TG


CIVIL - Sensing Danger  

The United States has nearly 600,000 bridges, and more than 25 percent of them require major overhauls. Indeed, nearly 14 percent are structurally deficient. Most of the suspect structures are in the Northeast. Case in point: In 2005, New York’s Dunn Memorial Bridge, which spans the Hudson River, nearly collapsed after a support pier tilted and cracked. That’s when Glenn Washer got involved. The University of Missouri-Columbia civil and environmental engineer won a $109,500 National Academy of Sciences grant to develop a high-tech sensor system that will alert officials when a bridge is in danger of tumbling down. The system will consist of about 20 sensors connected to a computer processor and attached to the bridges’ support piers. Washer fears that the actual number of high-risk bridges may exceed 14 percent because inspections only occur every few years, and problems can crop up in the interim periods. “This device will be there every day” providing continuous data, Washer says. It should detect any cracks and tilts that could jeopardize a bridge’s stability, helping to make catastrophic failures a thing of the past. —TG

“Our broken visa policies for highly educated foreign professionals are not only counterproductive, they are anticompetitive and detrimental to America's long-term economic competitiveness." - —Robert Hoffman, an Oracle Corp. vice president,complaining about the U.S. cap on H-1B visas, which are issued to foreign engineers and scientists.


MUSIC - iGrandparents?MUSIC - iGrandparents?  

Yes, Sony’s Walkman and Apple’s iPod were revolutionary devices. But when it comes to personal mobile entertainment, they were already, ahem, old hat. Beating them to the punch: the Zenith Radio Hat, which debuted in 1952. The British product consisted of a bowler fitted with earphones so wearers could listen to the radio while on the move. The Radio Hat is one of several lost or long-forgotten communication and entertainment technologies unearthed by interactive media design students at Scotland’s University of Dundee. The devices are showcased online at the Museum of Lost Interactions (Web site: Student Shaun McWhinnie calls them “amazing artifacts” that provide “thought-provoking reflections on the ubiquitous technologies of our present society and show how such devices would have looked in the pre-digital world.” The technologies on display date back to 1900, when the Richophone, a multiplayer game, linked contestants and audiences via a network of special phone booths set up in hotels and cafes. And who knew music downloading dates back to 1925? That’s when Britain’s wealthier music lovers could buy Acoustograph machines, which were hooked up to telegraph lines. Users could request songs using Morse code. The tune was then sent back to (and played by) the machines via the telegraph wires. Sadly, the students have yet to find and rebuild that gem of early 1970s entertainment technology, the eight-track tape player. Probably because no one will admit to having owned one. —TG


EXAMS - Minorities Behind in APs  

Greater numbers of high school students are earning scores of 3 or more in at least one Advanced Placement (AP) exam, according to a recent report by the College Board, which administers the college preparatory program. The rigorous AP exams use a five-point grade scale, and a 3 indicates a student is “qualified” to receive college credit or advanced placement. Of the nation’s 2.7 million public high school graduates of 2006, nearly 15 percent got scores of 3 or higher. That’s an improvement from 2000, when only 10 percent of AP students scored 3 or higher. Independent studies continue to show that AP students tend to get better grades in college and have better graduation rates, the Board says. Although a growing number of U.S. high schools are offering AP courses, the study noted that the trend is bypassing some minority students. African-Americans make up 13.7 percent of the student population but only 6.9 percent of AP exam takers; Native Americans comprise 1 percent of the population but only 0.6 percent of the students who take the exams. On the other hand, the percentage of test takers who are Hispanic correlates well with their representation in the student population: 14 percent. Minority-student scores also tend to be low, the Board says, indicating a lack of teacher and student preparation. Florida was singled out as a state that has had great success at increasing Hispanic involvement and improving performance. It gives teachers extra training for AP classes and rewards them and their schools for increasing the number of students earning qualified scores. It also uses other tests to help identify students likely to do well in AP classes. —TG

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LEVEES - Widespread Weaknesses  

The failure of New Orleans’ levees during Hurricane Katrina nearly two years ago shouldn’t be thought of as an isolated, rare event. Recently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, responding to Freedom of Information Act requests filed by several news organizations, revealed that 122 levees across the country are in danger of a similar fate. Nearby communities, the Corps says, have been notified that the levees have received “unacceptable maintenance inspection ratings.” Each year, the Corps inspects 2,000 levees, covering 13,000 miles. They include levees built and maintained by the Corps; levees built by the Corps but turned over to local authorities; and levees built and maintained locally. California has the most at-risk levees with 37, followed by the state of Washington with 19. Massachusetts has five, Michigan, four and Washington, D.C., three. The Federal Emergency Management Agency says people living near risky levees should not only have flood insurance but an evacuation plan, a family emergency plan and a disaster supply kit at the ready. —TG


LOW_TECH _ A Win for Clean WaterAbul Hussam, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Virginia’s George Mason University.  

Tens of millions of people in the developing world are at risk of arsenic poisoning from contaminated drinking water. Arsenic can cause cancers, kidney and liver failure and death. In Bangladesh, the problem is endemic. But for five years now, Abul Hussam and his brothers have been installing SONO household water filters in many Bangladeshi villages—nearly 100 so far. The SONO filtration system was invented by Hussam, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Virginia’s George Mason University. It’s a cheap and relatively simple device that removes arsenic from drinking water by filtering it through locally available river sand, a composite iron matrix, wood charcoal and wet brick chips. Now Hussam has been awarded the $1 million 2007 Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability Gold Award from the National Academy of Engineering for his efforts. Hussam, who is Bangladeshi, has a B.S. and M.S. in chemistry from the University of Dhaka and a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh. He also has established an environmental research laboratory in his hometown of Kushtia. Says Hussam: “It is truly gratifying to see results of our scientific knowledge at work in the field for the betterment of human conditions.” —TG


GENDER GAP - Diversity Down Under  

AUSTRALIA—Women are desperately wanted. That’s the message from Australian universities, where only 1 in 10 engineering students is female. The country’s main professional organization, Engineers Australia, has declared 2007 the Year of Women in Engineering, with a menu of events aimed at making engineering attractive to women. The country faces a severe skills shortage, made even worse by an exodus of educated engineers to other occupations. Only 15 percent of qualified female engineers over 40 are still in the profession. Recruitment of women is vital, says Engineers Australia President Rolfe Hartley. “We want to raise the profile of the profession among high school students and inspire a new generation of women to become engineers,” he says. Melbourne-based Rebecca Gravina, a well-known engineering educator, is charged with planning seminars for high school girls. The programs will emphasize project engineering on mines in Australia’s outback, an area with the worst skills shortage. Only time will tell whether the campaign will succeed, but Engineers Australia officials say sitting back and watching the gender gap grow is not an option. —Chris Pritchard


CLEAN ENERGY - The Power of Pond Scum

As the world looks for ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ease its dependence on petroleum, biofuels—like biodiesel—are increasing in popularity. Biodiesel is clean and carbon-neutral. But most of it currently comes from corn and soybean oils, which are, of course, commodity foods. Corn is also becoming popular as a source for plastics. The worry is that eventually it will become impossible to grow enough of those crops to meet all potential needs. That’s why researchers are taking a serious look at other sources for biodiesel, like canola, castor seeds, pine nuts and used cooking oil. Now, Utah State University’s Biofuels Program is experimenting with algae as a potential cost-competitive biodiesel source. Algae—pond scum, in the vernacular—can produce 10,000 gallons of oil per acre, says Lance Seefeldt, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry and cofounder of the program. The researchers are also looking at methods to use carbon-neutral sources to produce other fuels, including methane, hydrogen and ethanol. Pond scum powering cars? Perhaps the Oozemobile will replace your father’s Oldsmobile. —TG






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American Society for Engineering Education