Say you’ve had a brainstorm you think might lead to a totally new kind of weapon or to a networking breakthrough with national security potential. What better place to seek financing than the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, crucible of the Internet and Global Positioning System? Until recently, if you were a university-based engineer or scientist, getting DARPA support would have been difficult, if not impossible. For much of the past decade, the agency has turned to industry contractors it thought would produce results more quickly. Academics complained that the old DARPA, a risk-taking champion of pure research, was gone.
But today, DARPA is back in the market for the best and the brightest university researchers. Its director, Regina E. Dugan, a mechanical engineer and former university researcher, has been visiting campuses, reconnecting with old contacts, recruiting young people, and re-establishing ties with academe. More fundamentally, she is starting to reconfigure the agency to make it friendlier to postdocs and faculty members, while at the same time opening up avenues of research bound to excite younger scientists.
“It’s an attempt, in a sense, to go back to DARPA’s golden age—the idea that the agency can sponsor totally outside-the-box research and see what kind of interesting stuff results,” says Peter Harsha, director of government affairs for the Washington-based Computing Research Association, whose members are primarily academics.
That think-outside-the-box mentality — along with the reliance on researchers from universities, defense corporations, and the four armed services — has been a DARPA hallmark since its inception. And it has been one of the big factors in DARPA’s success, both scientists and military officers agree.
Created almost on a whim in 1958 as part of the Eisenhower administration’s frantic response to the Soviet Union’s surprise launching of Sputnik, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (as it was known at birth) was designed to oversee the nation’s then disparate missile and space efforts. But it soon was pushed aside by the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which gobbled up the space mission and has kept it ever since. Left without a portfolio — and hobbled by a slow start — ARPA turned to research on potentially cutting-edge technology that was too esoteric for other agencies to touch.
Over the next 50 years, DARPA — which added the word “Defense” to its name in the early 1960s — gained fame for coming up with an array of spectacular innovations that have revolutionized the way the military conducts wars and have led to breathtaking changes for civilian society as well. DARPA oversaw the research that led to ARPANET, the forerunner of the Internet. DARPA projects led to the Global Positioning System, which uses a constellation of satellites to help locate aircraft, ships, and vehicles and to make it easy for them to navigate.
The agency spearheaded the effort to develop stealth technology, which enables aircraft and ships to evade enemy radar. DARPA also propelled the nation into delving into serious seismography, shepherding the creation of a worldwide network of satellites and sensors eventually used to help detect hidden nuclear testing. A 1984 DARPA project eventually morphed into today’s Predator and Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles. These aircraft now number in the hundreds and have become a major weapon against insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq. More recently, DARPA coordinated a series of projects that led to the development of a revolutionary prosthetic hand that enables war fighters who lost a limb in combat to regain almost all the functions of a real hand. For decades, amputees had to settle for hooklike pincers that gave them only limited capability.
A Start-up Culture
In truth, DARPA doesn’t actually conduct the research on any of its projects. Its cadre of program managers, based at its headquarters in Arlington, Va., plucks ideas from applications sent in by university and industry researchers. DARPA then sets the parameters for the projects and finances them. In so doing, it nurtures technology that neither industry nor academia could develop without government financing. “When all is said and done, most of what they’re asking for is typically stuff for which there’s not a pot of gold at the end,” says Dean Kamen, the New Hampshire-based entrepreneur-inventor.
Crucial to the agency’s success is the DARPA culture, which traditionally has encouraged researchers to explore long-shot ideas at will without fear of being tagged as failures if they don’t come up with anything useful. Almost as often, one thing leads to another, and the project yields valuable results that no one had envisioned. Although the agency is part of the Defense Department, it’s relatively unencumbered by bureaucratic requirements, and its projects needn’t be linked directly to weapons or military needs. The agency’s lifestyle is relaxed. At work, employees can wear anything they like, including T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers.
Peter Lee, who headed the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University before a yearlong stint at DARPA, describes “a really fun environment — something like a start-up,” but one that’s intensely challenging. “The amount of intellectual pressure we’re put under all day, every day, is significant, and beyond anything in my professional experience,” Lee told the New York Times in an interview last April. He recently left the agency to join Microsoft.
Most important to some DARPA enthusiasts is that, unlike a typical government bureaucracy, the agency imposes term limits on its people. Program managers typically stay no more than three years before returning to academia or to industry — a revolving-door approach designed to ensure that the people overseeing projects will be up to date and receptive to new ideas.
Program managers who arrive from universities encounter an entirely different set of demands from those placed on an academic. “As a faculty member at a university, you’re expected to be deeply knowledgeable about a narrow set of technical areas, but as a DARPA program manager, you have to have a sufficient depth of knowledge in a very broad area — how those technologies could come together to provide a military capability,” says Donald Leo, associate dean for research and graduate studies at Virginia Tech. From 2005 to 2007, he headed chemical and biological defense research at DARPA. “It was an exciting job,” he says.
The sometimes zany-sounding projects that DARPA takes on — combined with a strong sense of secrecy intended partly to protect the military advantage that comes from surprise — have inspired a mythic reputation. Author Michael Belfiore dubbed the agency “The Department of Mad Scientists” in his book of that name published in 2009. The dust jacket describes it as “America’s greatest idea factory” — a “juxtaposition of outlandishly ambitious goals with basic, commonsense business principles and everyday problem solving.”
DARPA’s estrangement from universities began after Anthony J. Tether took over as director in 2001, under the George W. Bush administration. He moved to shift the agency’s workload away from university-based researchers — and from long-term, open-ended projects as well — toward research by defense contractors that promised quicker results. Under Tether, DARPA adopted an array of new guidelines that, while not explicitly barring university-based scientists from taking a big part in DARPA projects, made it significantly harder for them to do so.
The agency shortened the period for which it would provide financing; classified almost all research from its inception; set an annual “go, no-go” review for all projects, which made it tougher for universities to sign graduate students to four-year contracts; and barred noncitizens from some projects — a constraint for many university science departments, where typically half of the graduate students are foreign born. It also insisted on the right to review articles about such research before they were sent to scholarly journals, even when the subject matter and data were not classified. “That was antithetical to most universities,” Harsha says. Many schools prohibit their researchers from submitting articles to sponsors of research prior to publication.
As a result, opportunities for academic researchers became severely constricted, Harsha says. While DARPA’s overall budget grew, its financing of university research fell by half, after adjustment for inflation, between 2001 and 2008. Deprived of agency funding, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other universities cut back their computer science departments. “A lot of people had to go to industry,” says Anant Agarwal, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT.
“More important, the character of DARPA’s funding changed as well,” Harsha says. “It used to be that university scientists could direct their own research and determine how it plays out. But under the new model, DARPA would fund large defense firms as general contractors for such research, and university researchers would be subcontractors.”
That situation limited what university researchers could do, he says. “It meant that there was a large body of brilliant minds at universities who no longer were working on military-related technology.” Many feared that DARPA would lose its ability to launch the kind of longer-term research that had produced the Internet and stealth technology.
Dugan, the first woman to lead the agency, has begun to relax some of these strictures. She herself previously served as a DARPA program manager from 1996 to 2000, toward the end of the pre-Tether era. With degrees from Virginia Tech and Caltech, she’s no slouch in the wild ideas department. Among efforts that led to her being named program manager of the year in 1999 was the “Dog’s Nose,” a field-portable system for detecting the explosive content of land mines. Becoming director in July 2009, she renewed the agency’s focus on the kind of “blue sky” basic research that had earlier given DARPA some of its eye-popping achievements. She tapped Peter Lee to head a Transformational Convergence Technology Office to focus on social networks, synthetic biology, and machine intelligence — attractive fields for younger engineers and scientists.
Dugan also lifted the security classification from many of DARPA’s basic research projects and revoked the requirement for prepublication review of articles on unclassified research, an approach Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has urged the rest of the Defense Department to follow.
Most important, Dugan gave program managers at headquarters broader authority to set the rules for each project, relax restrictions they think aren’t needed, and clarify regulations that inadvertently create problems for researchers. And program managers now have authority to bring in non-U.S. citizens on many projects. While restrictions still apply to some projects, the overall result has been to open more doors to academics, says Kaigham Gabriel, DARPA’s deputy director.
In computer science, to name one area, the change is noticeable. “It’s clear that DARPA is back in the game and is funding a wide range of computer science projects,” Harsha says.
Dugan’s new approach to the treatment of basic research has already made a difference to university-based researchers, says Robert M. Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities. “From the standpoint of universities interested in basic research, her leadership has been gratifying and, I think, very effective,” Berdahl says. Yet DARPA’s struggle to balance the involvement of university researchers, scientists from industry, and experts from the military services isn’t over. Dugan herself says the agency wants to keep all three of its constituencies working together.
Linda P.B. Katehi, chancellor of the University of California at Davis and an electrical engineer, cautions that restoring the once close working relationship between DARPA and the universities will continue to be a work in progress. “DARPA is making some very positive changes, but it will take time,” she says.
Universities can still expect to face stiff competition. Kamen’s DEKA Research and Development Corp., for instance, has a spate of DARPA projects on its platter: a robotic arm to complement the cortex-controlled hand; small hydrofoils to help Navy SEALs swim longer distances; and gadgets that can catapult soldiers to four-story heights.
One of Lee’s efforts was to reach out to a broad range of possible candidates — “unusual circles of innovators,” as he told Defense Systems — in part by making DARPA’s proposal requests more succinct and welcoming, with fewer technical specifics.The agency already maintains an open-source channel to let large numbers of outside designers submit proposals for software. Now it’s creating a similar channel for designers of vehicles, aircraft, and spacecraft.
Current DARPA Projects
› A new helicopter threat-alert system. It tracks the shock wave from incoming small-arms fire and returns fire with pinpoint accuracy from a U.S. chopper.
New Research for a New Era
One of the agency’s boldest new forays is its effort to grasp the potential of social networking both to threaten national security and to expand DARPA’s technological capability. Gabriel calls it a rapidly emerging “opportunity area.” In a widely followed contest in 2009, DARPA publicly invited thousands of university scientists to use social networking to locate 10 red balloons that it distributed around the continental United States. The experiment was designed to help understand how information is disseminated through social networks. The winner was a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which located all 10 in just eight hours and 56 minutes.
But that’s only a small part of the agency’s interest in social networking and crowd-sourcing. Dugan and Gabriel were intrigued by “Trapster,” a system by which motorists can subscribe to speed-trap alerts on a BlackBerry or other hand-held device; and by North Korea Uncovered, in which some 35,000 Internet users identified military bases and economic infrastructure shown on a Google Earth map of the secretive nation.
With the United States engaged in two wars that present immediate battlefield needs, DARPA recognizes that “blue sky” research can’t be the sum total of its mission. Dugan and Gabriel, both of whom founded and headed technology manufacturing companies, are intent on shortening the time required to turn innovations that spring from research into usable technology or hardware. Rather than taking 10 years to develop a nearly perfect ground combat vehicle, for example, DARPA’s new manufacturing model aims to put it in the field in two years and then improve it in increments as necessary. “We’re being more responsive [and] adaptive” that way, Gabriel says.
In a change that presents opportunities for engineers, DARPA plans to spend $1 billion over five years streamlining the manufacturing process to eliminate production delays, surprises, and cost overruns. It seeks to enable other industries to emulate the semiconductor industry, where, Dugan says, the progress from design to manufacturing is seamless.
Finally, DARPA has streamlined many of its own management practices, paring the mountain of unobligated funds that the agency has accrued each of the past few years. The backlog had drawn criticism from congressional appropriations committees, which complained that too often DARPA asks for funds and later ends up not using them.
In an era of tight budgets, a federal research agency that wants to spend money faster can only be good news for university engineers and scientists.
Art Pine is a Washington-based freelance writer and former Pentagon correspondent.
Baghdad – It was late autumn, and the physics department of Nahrain University was in mourning. Black-rimmed banners announced the death of Mazen Mahrooq, the latest in a long line of academics who had been killed or who had fled the country. A Christian, he was one of dozens of people massacred during a Baghdad church service in October. Sitting sadly in the department lobby, his colleagues noted that in 1995, they had 24 senior physicists; now there were just three.
Continued violence and its toll on academics have undermined Iraqi universities’ recovery from three decades of war and sanctions. While existing institutions expand and a number of new ones are opening to accommodate a growing student population, the cumulative damage and loss of talent continue to be felt. The Ministry of Education reported more than 31,000 violent attacks against educational institutions during the 2003-2008 period. Universities in the capital were the worst hit in a wave of assassinations nationwide that killed hundreds of academics. Skilled science educators, a third of them engineers, were reported to be the most frequent targets. Even before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, more than a decade of United Nations sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein’s autocratic regime left teachers without academic journals, up-to-date equipment, or even pens and paper. In a nation where education has traditionally meant prestige, one fourth of adults are illiterate.
At Nahrain University – formerly Saddam University – post-invasion mobs wrecked nuclear physics facilities, and laser and thermodynamics laboratories are only now beginning to get back on their feet. “Outside Iraq, the world of science is running, but we are just walking – or even standing still,” says Bashar Jassim, an astrophysicist whose only telescope is adjusted manually and has no photometer.
The state of Iraqi scientific and technical education is all the sadder because of Baghdad’s rich heritage as a center of discovery and higher learning. Mustansiriyah University, built in the 13th century, is still functioning today, although its ancient stonework has required heavy restoration following car bombings. It has taught science and mathematics, as well as Islamic scholarship, for centuries. As early as the ninth century, Baghdad drew scholars like the Abbassid court astronomer Thabit ibn Qurra, whose contribution to non-Euclidean geometry is still recognized today. Many of the handwritten works of these ancient scholars are still here; the head of the national manuscripts collection can find and read aloud from the original works of Ibn Sina, an early medical scholar.
After the Ottoman Empire crumbled in World War I, British officials ruling the newly formed nation of Iraq under a League of Nations mandate began to create a modern higher education system, moving away from the predominantly scriptural Islamic studies of the 19th century. During the 1920s, the government began sending young people to study in the United States or Britain, and in 1932 the education minister ruled that admission to universities be based entirely on grades, cutting down drastically on nepotism. “They made it what it used to be,” says Zuhair Humadi, executive director of the Higher Committee for Education Development. “It was good quality; it was merit-based.”
Following the discovery of oil in Iraq in 1927, science and engineering became the backbone of the new education system. In 1951, a development council was established, to which, for a few years, all the oil revenues went. In sharp contrast with the allegedly corrupt centralization of Iraq’s oil money today, this fund went to build dams, electricity infrastructure, railways, and bridges, requiring thousands of qualified engineers and architects. “There was tremendous work and education,” says Humadi. The country was rapidly modernizing, and the influence of Western studies continued, even after the British mandate ended in 1932. Today in Iraq, members of an older technocratic generation, schooled in the West, still reminisce over sugary tea and cigarettes about warm beer, cold weather, and Ph.D. studies in electrical engineering or applied mathematics at British redbrick universities.
The University of Technology in Baghdad, one of more than 35 universities and colleges in Iraq, is testament to this commitment to science and engineering. Founded at the beginning of Saddam Hussein’s rule in 1975, well before the eight-year Iran-Iraq war seriously weakened the nation’s institutions, it boasts 14 departments – 12 engineering and two pure science – as well as 1,300 teaching staff, 8,000 undergraduates, and 550 postgraduate students. Its three research centers concentrate on fuel and energy, nanotechnology, and environmental studies.
Kahtan Al-Khazraji, university president, receives visitors graciously, presenting an institutional crest as a gift, and tells a story of destruction and rebuilding. “Since 1990 and the first Gulf War, the standards went down,” he says. The sanctions during that decade meant that no foreign scholars could come to Iraq, and far fewer of his students could travel abroad. But those were small hardships compared with what was to come in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion. “The university was completely looted and destroyed during the war. I was there when eight American tanks broke down the gates and distributed themselves around the university,” he said.
American soldiers, he went on, stood by as post-invasion looters ravaged the campus. What looters could not steal, they broke, and what they could not break, they burned down. “I stood here, at that window, and watched,” says Khazraji, gesturing helplessly toward the grounds now thronging with students. The university was left without chairs, without answer papers for examinations. In the bloody years that followed, more than 100 members of the university were killed; even today, the streets around the school are closed and the buildings surrounded by 20-foot blast walls. There were four bombs near the university the morning of this reporter’s visit.
‘I’m Very Ambitious’
But around the campus, the youthful energy is palpable. Students spoke on condition that their last names not be published because of security concerns, but they sounded upbeat. Esraa, 20, whose uncovered hair and bright clothes identified her as among the less conservative, is studying chemical engineering. “I love chemistry, and I’m very ambitious,” she said, adding that she would like to work in industry. Her friend Ramina, 21, is studying aeronautics and wants to be a pilot. Young men and women sat together in the autumn sunshine, drinking soda and doing homework. Around them, the university was reviving slowly. After the staff mended the laboratory machines for optics, nanotechnology, and nuclear studies – “with bits and pieces from the markets,” according to one professor – the university obtained funding for more reconstruction from the Baghdad provincial council. Computer labs went up, and a student union with a cafeteria was rebuilt. “Really, we worked day and night to rebuild this place,” says Khazraji. In the architecture department, Professor Khalil Ali said that they had begged for and bought thousands of books to restock the library. “Iraqi architecture graduates — we wish we could give them more, but they are ok,” he says. “They’re not bad.”
Elsewhere, the threat of violence has not deterred substantial expansion at a number of institutions. The minister of higher education and scientific research, Abd Thiab Al-Ajeeli, plans to open 15 more universities in the next three years. Change has been particularly noticeable in the northern Kurdish region, brutally treated under Saddam Hussein. Where there was only one university in 2003, now there are 11. Seven have opened in the rest of Iraq since 2003. The president of the University of Technology estimates that there are 5 percent more students in Iraq than there were in 2003. International aid has helped, including a U.S. Agency for International Development program that promotes partnerships between American and Iraqi universities. More than 1,500 Iraqi faculty and students were given access to training courses outside Iraq. Iraqi institutions have gained access to up-to-date scholarship through the Iraq Virtual Science Library, providing free, full-text access to thousands of scientific journals from major publishers. In early 2009, representatives of about 20 American universities attended the launch of Zuhair Humadi’s Iraq Education Initiative, which aims to provide scholarships for tens of thousands of students to study abroad. The State Department, meanwhile, runs a variety of programs to help young Iraqis study in the United States, and talks are ongoing to allow American university specialists to teach Iraqis via videoconference and lectures.
The big problem for engineering and science graduates is a lack of jobs, forcing many to drive taxis, perform manual labor, or look for work outside the country. “The structure of our education system is inconsistent with the structure and growth of our economy,” says Ahmed Ibraihi, vice governor of the Central Bank. “Development has been frozen since the mid-1980s, so we have a surplus in engineering and in science.” The country’s institutions are still very weak, infected with corruption and held back by months of political paralysis before the recent formation of a coalition government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The oil industry, while recovering, and contractually obliged to provide work to Iraqis, is not yet a big employer. Private industry has had difficulty producing goods that can compete with imports.
There is some reason for optimism. Overall security, though not good, has improved, and the new government may soon be in a position to launch housing and infrastructure projects. “The people want to be educated,” said Zaid, 21, a civil engineering student at the University of Technology. “And Iraq needs this! It is destroyed. It needs bridges, highways, and sewage systems.”
Iraq is trying to lure back university teaching staff with heretofore unheard-of salary hikes. They can now make $3,000 a month, more than in neighboring Syria and Jordan. Still, says Ibraihi, the country has a long way to go to recover its science and technology base. “We are lacking people motivated enough to touch the frontiers of knowledge,” he says. “In a society passing through these horrible years of wars and sanctions, these motives are eroded.”
Alice Fordham is a Middle East-based journalist.
Few would argue against the need to transform America’s aging and increasingly decrepit electric-power grid into a more robust Smart Grid, using digital technologies. But ultimately, consumers must buy in to the concept. And for that to happen, emerging technologies will have to be dead-simple to use, generate cost savings, improve efficiency, and “have a cool factor,” says Alex Huang, a professor of electrical engineering at North Carolina State University.
That’s where the Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management Systems Center comes in. Directed by Huang, the federally funded center is a seven-university international consortium with 44 industry partners headquartered at NCSU. It seeks to develop and demonstrate technologies so cool that they’ll revolutionize the power grid and hasten the day when America can use more renewable fuels to generate electricity. While advancing toward that goal from many directions, the FREEDM Center is focused particularly on three targets: a two-way digital communications backbone for the grid, lightning-fast solid-state transformers, and improved batteries – particularly for plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles. “The technology to do all of this is still not ready,” Huang admits. But, he quickly adds, “we are making great progress.”
Today’s grid is a one-way system. Power companies generate and distribute electricity from large – and in the United States, mainly coal-fired – plants to businesses and households. Because the flow of electrons through the grid needs to remain uninterrupted, the grid’s not good at accommodating power from renewable sources, like and wind and sunshine, because they’re intermittent supplies. But using digital technologies and two-way communications to better control, manage, and balance demand and generation will make it easier to bring renewables online. Ultimately, a Smart Grid will also allow users to sell electricity back to utilities from, say, home solar panels or idling electric vehicles, or EVs.
Denver-based Green Energy Corp., a FREEDM Center industry partner that develops communications software for the grid, is heavily involved in designing a two-way communications system. Based on the firm’s grid-management software, it’s an open-source, cloud-based system that lets utilities upgrade legacy networks with plug-and-play applications from outside companies. “Our technology works with any vendor’s technology,” says Roxy Podlogar, Green Energy’s vice president for product strategy. Two-way communications is also key to relying on renewable fuels, since it allows a grid to automatically and instantaneously switch power sources if one or more start to fade.
A superfast, solid-state, electronically controlled transformer will act as an “energy routing device” between the grid and consumers, the so-called last mile of an intelligent grid, says Huang, who is leading its development. Traditional copper and iron transformers “can change voltage, and that’s all.” His semiconductor-based transformer will also change frequencies, and connect to both AC and DC devices, including electric vehicles, wind turbines, and solar panels. “It’s an enabling technology for a more actively controlled grid,” Huang adds. The transformers also will be smaller and lighter than today’s, and produce less heat.
Faults, of course, can and will occur in any power system, but they needn’t be disruptive. The average U.S. household is without power for around four hours a year; in Japan, the average is a mere seven seconds a year. So the center’s researchers are working on a device, a sort of electronic circuit-breaker, that immediately isolates faults and reroutes power. “If you have a fault,” Huang says, “the goal is to lose zero customers. The expectation is perfect power.”
A Smart Grid system more dependent upon renewables will need to store massive amounts of energy, so battery technology is another area of research. However, for now, the center’s focus is mainly on batteries for EVs and plug-in hybrids because of the ongoing push from Washington and the auto industry to make electric powertrains the next big thing. If these cars sell in great numbers, as is hoped, it could affect the grid, especially if too many drivers decide to plug in at once. If, for instance, there are 100 EVs in a parking deck, “that becomes a very complex control problem,” Huang says. “Which one do you charge first, which one second, and at what rate? That’s a grid control problem.”
Center researchers are also using a technique developed at NCSU called electrospinning that weaves nanofibers into a new composite material for lithium-ion battery anodes, enabling them to store more energy and endure more abuse. And, to be sure, assaults on batteries – and the grid – could occur during fast charging. Ideally, car batteries would be charged slowly, overnight – when demand and rates are low – but obviously there will be times when drivers can’t wait that long. Asks Huang: “Can you really charge them in 20 minutes? And how much charge can be put in in 20 minutes and not cause damage?” Those are questions his researchers hope to answer.
The “cool factor” in these novel technologies needs to be demonstrated. So the 20,000-square-foot center has its own 1-megawatt microgrid, which soon will be festooned with all sorts of devices, monitors, control software, and power sources, including EV charging stations and juice from a 40-kilowatt solar array donated by Germany’s AEG Power Solutions. Also in the works are plans to link the microgrid to a model “smart building” that IBM is constructing within the center to demonstrate to commercial building owners how energy-management software can cut power usage by 10 percent. “We want customers to come in and say, ‘Oh, now I get it,’” explains L. Steven Cole, the IBM program strategy manager who’s setting up the site. It also will demonstrate software that lets users switch from in-house solar or microturbine systems to the grid and back. “It’s not a simple thing to do,” Cole adds. Rogelio Sullivan, the center’s assistant director, calls IBM a good fit: “What they’re doing parallels our work.”
Industry’s Major Role
The FREEDM Center is part of the Obama administration’s multibillion-dollar research and development effort to transition the nation into the Smart Grid, or Energy Internet. Funded with an initial five-year, $18.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the center comprises NCSU; Arizona State, Florida State, and Florida A&M universities; the Missouri University of Science and Technology;RWTH Aachen University in Germany; and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. It’s anticipated that the NSF will renew the five-year grant when it expires in 2013. The center is also funded by $10 million that comes from the universities involved and industry fees. So far, it has 44 industry partners. Besides Green Energy, they include such heavyweights as Toyota, Duke Energy, and small start-ups like MegaWatt Solar along with IT giant Cisco. Having businesses play a major role in the center was in the plan from the start. Indeed, Green Energy Chairman Daniel Gregory headed the center’s industrial advisory board and helped write the grant proposal.
Huang’s confident that the FREEDM Center will demonstrate that the technologies it’s developing will work. “A harder question is how much of that will translate to the market,” he says. That’s a big reason the center was designed to have a strong industrial component. The market challenge is also embedded in another major element of the center: education. NCSU, via the center, offers a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering with a concentration in renewable electric energy systems (REES), and graduate students can earn a certificate in REES. Moreover, next year the school will begin offering a one-year master’s degree in electric power systems engineering to professionals looking to update their skills and career prospects.
Center students are expected to be entrepreneurial and have a strong understanding of market forces. Not only are students required to take business courses to learn how to write a business plan and do market analyses, but each of the 20 research projects at the center has an industrial “champion” who works with faculty and students to help keep them commercially oriented. Venture capitalists are brought in to give researchers and students tutorials on launching start-ups. The so-called soft skills also are stressed. “Students must also have effective communications skills to work with the general public, business partners, and among themselves,” explains Leda Lunardi, a professor of electrical engineering and also the center’s education director. A useful training ground in these skills is an ambitious outreach operation aimed at middle and high schools that includes sending grad students into classrooms to do experiments and a Young Scholars program that brings students and teachers on campus for five weeks in the summer.
For now, the FREEDM Center has the prevailing political winds at its back. But, of course, that could change. The incoming Congress, for example, is heavily populated with climate-change skeptics. Could that ultimately affect funding for this type of research and sap industrial enthusiasm for Smart Grid technologies? No way, says David Bartlett, an IBM vice president who is overseeing the smart-building project. A Smart Grid offers the power industry too many advantages and cost savings, he says. “Every utility is involved in an upgrade to Smart Grid and digital technologies.” Huang agrees. Industry is “genuinely interested” in wanting a major overhaul of the grid, he says. “There is some robustness in this. I think for [industry] this is a long-term business decision.” If Huang’s right, the FREEDM Center’s future as a hotbed of research into cool technologies seems secure.
Thomas K. Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent, based in the United Kingdom.
Eight students are having an animated discussion about automated systems, but the room is almost soundless. One of them asks a question, using only hand movements and facial expressions. Then instructor Scott Bellinger responds and breaks the silence, interspersing spoken words with American Sign Language and its more rigid cousin, signed English.
Welcome to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and its problem-solving approach to overcoming the educational disadvantages faced by students who are deaf or hard of hearing (d/hh). Part of the Rochester Institute of Technology, the 1,200-student NTID is America’s only technical college for d/hh students. Before joining its teaching faculty seven years ago, Bellinger, an assistant professor of engineering who is not deaf, spent a year mastering the complicated, vision-based ASL and signed English. But he and other instructors know that more is required of them if d/hh students are to get a cutting-edge STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education.
Many of the school’s students struggle with reading comprehension, in part because of the differences between ASL and spoken or written English. An added challenge is the disparity in educational backgrounds among the students, who come from across the country. Dino Lauria, an NTID alumnus who now heads its engineering studies department, says some students grew up in “mainstream sectors,” where they may not have had enough access to appropriate services and tools needed for d/hh students. Conversely, some may come from state-sponsored schools for the deaf, where the right tools are available but where STEM education is severely hindered by a lack of funding. In addition, states vary in high school graduation requirements, resulting in students arriving at NTID with drastically different needs and skills.
Keeping it Lively
NTID students bring different gradations of deafness and competence in signed English and ASL. That’s why Bellinger and other hearing instructors use the two sign languages and also their voices, facing the class so their lips can be read. They’re also careful to calibrate the pace of their classes. They know, for instance, that students can’t follow what a teacher is saying and view a PowerPoint at the same time. In all teaching of d/hh students, “the challenge is to maintain the communication” and maintain a lively class, Lauria says. Every detail of the classroom experience should be d/hh accessible, instructors say, and teachers need to familiarize themselves with different assistive technologies, such as cochlear implants and teletypewriters. Knowledge of social norms within deaf culture, such as rules of etiquette for gaining attention, and getting into and leaving conversations, is also important.
Because of inadequate preparation in math and English, many NTID students struggle to master word problems and understand the written instructions for other math assignments. Bellinger, who spent two decades in industry as an automation and robotics engineer, has devised a solution. Called the StepWise method, it’s a step-by-step guide to solving scientific, technological, or mathematical word or story problems. If the student comes up with an answer that is wrong or doesn’t make sense, or if the units don’t match what was expected, students return to the formula-picking step and go through the process again.
The method was first tested in Bellinger’s Mechanical Devices and Systems class last year and has since been used in other NTID classes. Students compared across two classes did 16 percent better with StepWise worksheets than those without. After Bellinger and several colleagues presented a research paper on his method at the 2010 ASEE Annual Conference, other educators embraced it as suitable not only for d/hh learners but hearing students as well.
NTID recognizes a need for one-on-one mentoring of students, including continuous academic advising and support from a department chairperson; technical, math, and English faculty members; and an academic counselor.
But Bellinger finds hands-on projects outside of class to be effective as well, and has incorporated a personal hobby into his teaching. “I’ve been building and riding electric bikes since 1979,” he says. He formed NTID’s first electric bicycle club, which has participated in a contest every year since 2006, something Bellinger calls a “win-win” for both the students and himself. He and Ronald Till, chairman of NTID’s industrial and science technologies department, served as interpreters for the students. In order to keep up with all the commands, communication had to happen quickly and efficiently. Bellinger found that his signing ability improved. “It’s a fabulous experience,” he says.
In 2006, NTID’s team won first and second place in the student division of the $10,000 Around Town Vehicle Competition, which judges teams on practicality, acceleration, handling, range, good fuel efficiency, and low climate-change emissions. That same year, the team also won second and third place overall in the international Tour de Sol electric bicycle competition, held in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. NTID’s entry into Tour de Sol, which is volunteer-run and sponsored by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association, marked the first time in the contest’s 18 years that a d/hh team had competed. Contest organizers made some modifications to accommodate d/hh contestants. For example, other riders now use flags to signal d/hh competitors when a horn is sounded as a warning.
Similarly, the engineering studies faculty members participate in the FIRST robotics regional competition with a local school for the deaf. According to Lauria, “This sets several examples of faculty sharing contents, providing in-class mentorships, and volunteering [for] school-based activities simultaneously.”
Believing that early outreach is key, Bellinger works with middle and high schools to draw d/hh students into STEM fields. He sits on a panel for high school students that focuses on career plans. Through the Board of Cooperative Educational Services Program, which provides shared educational resources, Bellinger has reached out to high school students, both d/hh and hearing, to bring engineering to them as a possible career path. This role also allows him to determine what about outreach education has and has not worked in recruiting students.
The education of d/hh students may require unique skills and approaches, but in one respect it’s no different from teaching any other group of students. When an instructor obviously cares about getting his students to learn, they tend to react the way that Ethan Young, an automation technology major, did after taking a Programming Logic Controllers class taught by Bellinger: “He’s a good teacher.”
Jaimie Schock is an editorial assistant at ASEE.
Welcome to 2011 and the January issue of Prism. We start the New Year with three feature articles of interest and significance to our members.
In good news for academic researchers, the Pentagon’s cutting-edge Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is expanding its efforts to involve colleges and universities in its research activities. Crucial to the agency’s success is the DARPA culture, which traditionally has encouraged researchers to explore long-shot ideas without fear of being tagged as failures if they don’t come up with anything immediately useful. Often – as we all know – unanticipated knowledge is gained and the project yields valuable results that no one had envisioned. Such is the nature of academic research.
Shattered by war, sanctions, more war, and civil unrest, Iraq’s once prized science and engineering schools are struggling to recover. At the University of Technology in Baghdad and in other institutions, this recovery is beginning despite inadequate facilities and far fewer faculty (many have fled or been killed). Few jobs currently await graduates. Still, there is some reason for optimism among the emerging crop of engineers. International oil companies have now begun work, and are contractually obliged to provide jobs to Iraqis.
North Carolina State’s Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management FREEDM Systems Center is out to revolutionize the power grid with technologies intended to hasten the adoption of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. The Center is particularly focusing on a two-way digital communications backbone for the grid, solid-state transformers that also serve as lightning-fast energy routers, and improved batteries — particularly for plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles.
In closing, I remind you that this is your publication and your Society. The staffs of Prism and of the other departments invite and welcome your comments and your suggestions for a better magazine and a better ASEE.
Interim Executive Director and Publisher
REAL LEARNING IS TOO OFTEN ABSENT IN K-12
I was pleased to read Debbie Chachra’s Last Word, “Adding Value to Teaching,” in the November 2010 Prism. I am an industrial engineer who currently coordinates STEMM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, and Medicine – programming at an urban Catholic high school in Dayton, Ohio. I have worked with K-12 engineering education for 14 years.
I strongly believe, and want to help spread the word, that all the points made by Chachra are as relevant to K-12 education, especially at the high school level, as they are to an undergraduate engineering program. The three critical educational elements – learning communities, mentorship, and hands-on practice – are badly needed in K-12 education in all subjects and at all grade levels. I am frustrated by a lack of motivation among high school students to strive for real learning and to take responsibility for what they learn. All too often, it seems, teachers feed students information without any context, application, or use beyond the upcoming quiz or midterm exam. Unless we engage students at all levels in authentic learning projects and foster self-direction in learning, our students will fall way behind their peers in navigating global challenges that require “design, teamwork, communication, lifelong learning,” and creativity.
Educators, especially those of us in the engineering and STEM community, must strive to make lifelong education relevant and real, beginning in early childhood, and encourage active learning by all students, not just the gifted or those with special needs.
STEMM Programming Coordinator
Chaminade Julienne Catholic High School
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More than a spectacle for scuba divers, Jason deCaires Taylor’s underwater sculpture offers a rich environment for restoring coral reefs, the endangered “rain forests of the sea” that host a quarter of the Earth’s marine species. To assemble The Silent Evolution recently in the clear waters off Cancún, Mexico, cranes lowered 400 concrete figures, totaling 198 tons, onto leveled sand beds measuring 4,500 square feet. The pieces were maneuvered into place with the aid of flotation bags. Once installed, Taylor’s works are propagated with live coral, and small holes are drilled into some figures to create a habitat for other sea life. After a period of growth, the scene becomes haunting and surreal, as shown here with The Gardener of Hope in Punta Nizuc. – ALISON BUKI
Green and Cheap
A new Massachusetts company says it can concoct green petrochemicals and fuels from biomass, which is sustainable, and do it much more cheaply than using petroleum – even if oil were selling at a lowly $35 a barrel. Anellotech’s technology is based on the research of founder George Huber, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. It’s an improved version of pyrolysis, which superheats dried, ground biomass in an oxygen-free reactor. Oils derived from pyrolysis are cheap and contain the same amount of energy as gasoline, but they’re corrosive. Using a zeolite catalyst with hydrogen makes them less so, but it’s not an efficient enough process to be commercially viable. Huber’s team, however, has discovered a zeolite that, when used with a reactor designed to better control the process, is very efficient and can convert the base fuels to five of the seven chemicals most dear to the chemical industry: benzene, toluene, xylene, propylene, and ethylene. In a recent Science report, Huber’s team also says it can tailor the process to focus on any one of those five building-block chemicals. Anellotech plans an initial pilot plant to produce benzene, toluene, and xylenes (BTX), for which there is a $100 billion global market. – THOMAS K. GROSE
Given the academic demands they face, you don’t often find engineering students on first-string collegiate teams. Jeffrey Russell, head of the civil and environmental engineering department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, recalls having taught a few players over his 22 years there, “but most were second string or played on specialty teams.” Yet for four years now, Russell also has been faculty adviser to a budding superstar: Gabe Carimi, left tackle and cocaptain of the Badgers, this year’s Big Ten champions. Moreover, the 6-foot-7, 327-pound Carimi — also the Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year and winner of the Outland Trophy as the top interior lineman in the United States — is a likely first-round NFL draft pick. Carimi’s gridiron duties kept him busy nine hours a day during the season. But his studies never suffered. He’s been named Academic All-Big Ten for four straight years. “It’s like having two jobs,” Russell says. “It’s very, very demanding, physically and mentally.” The pressure on Carimi will actually ramp up this spring: He’ll have to mix Senior Bowl and NFL scouting demands with working on a senior capstone design project with a team of classmates. But with assists from Skype, E-mail, and videoconferencing, Russell’s sure Carimi will successfully tackle that challenge, too. Says Russell: “It actually makes it more real-world.”– TG
Clean clothes using a mere cup of water and just a drop of detergent? That’s the promise of a new washing-machine technology being developed by British company Xeros Ltd. It’s based on more than 30 years of research by Stephen Burkinshaw, a professor of textile chemistry at the University of Leeds’ faculty of engineering. The clothes rotate in the washer’s drum with dirt-absorbing polymer beads, which are automatically separated from the garments when the cycle’s finished. Xeros claims the system uses 90 percent less water than conventional machines, and because there’s no rinsing or spinning required, it uses 98 percent less energy than water-based washers. More energy is saved once the clothes are cleaned – they’re barely wet, thus require much less time in a dryer. The beads are good for around 100 loads – about six months’ worth of washing – before they need replacing. Xeros hopes to launch commercial versions later this year. This could give “dry cleaning” a whole new meaning. – TG
Not a Mirage?
As optimists delight in saying: “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” Ergo, when nature subjects one part of the globe to 3.5 million square miles of sand and unrelenting sunlight, make solar panels. Or so goes the theory behind the Sahara Solar Breeder Project, which has the staggering goal of building enough solar plants in Africa’s Sahara Desert to provide half the world’s electricity needs by 2050. The key to the joint project between Japanese and Algerian universities is to process the Saharan silica into the high-quality silicon needed to manufacture photovoltaic panels – which in itself would be a first, since so far the technology to do so doesn’t exist. The notion is that excess energy from the first plants would be used to build more and more plants. All that Saharan sun is attracting attention. Last year, a group called the Desertec Foundation said it wants to build solar plants there to provide 15 percent of Europe’s electricity needs by 2050, but it doesn’t plan to manufacture its own panels. Oddly, the Breeder Project would use superconductors – which operate at a temperature of around 464 degrees Fahrenheit and have to be cooled with liquid nitrogen – to transmit the electricity to where it’s needed. Project leader Hideomi Koinuma of the University of Tokyo shrugs off the seemingly insurmountable hurdles, telling New Scientist that the electricity it will produce will be “cost competitive.” –TG
Only around 6,000 British students graduated with mathematics degrees in 2009. Accordingly, math tutors are as scarce as sunny summers in Britain, which is why they can charge around $32 an hour. Meanwhile, India graduates 690,000 math and science majors a year. So start-up BrightSpark Education has begun offering U.K. students online math tutors based in Punjab for the bargain price of around $19 an hour. And no, it’s not ripping off the tutors; they’re paid around $11 an hour – a nice salary in a country where the minimum hourly wage is $4. Unlike in the United States, where using online Indian math tutors has become increasingly popular over the past five years, it’s still a novel concept in the United Kingdom. The company markets the service not only to parents but also to schools. So far, three state schools have signed on. North London’s Ashmount Primary School is using BrightSpark to help tutor both gifted and struggling 10- and 11-year-olds. Teachers unions are not impressed, fearing that with government budget cuts looming, BrightSpark represents a trend to replace teachers. Not at all, says founder Tom Hooper. He tells the New York Times: “This is supplementary and in no way replacing teachers.” Ashmount Headteacher (principal) Pana McGee agrees, telling the Guardian that the online tutors work in the same capacity as teaching assistants. But the service is much cheaper . –TG
QUOTED: “If we could replace the bottom 5 to 10 percent of teachers with an average teacher — not a superstar — we could dramatically improve student achievement. The U.S. could move from below average in international comparisons to near the top.” – Eric Hanushek, economist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University – Source: Wall Street Journal Opinion page, Oct. 19, 2010
Students at for-profit universities are three times more likely to default on their government loans than their peers at nonprofit schools. And the graduation rate at four-year for-profits is less than half that of both state and private nonprofits. Moreover, for-profit schools get as much as 90 percent of their income from federal financial-aid programs. But despite that less-than-stellar record, the top executives of the companies that run these schools are very well remunerated indeed. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Robert Silberman, CEO of the Strayer Education chain of schools, pocketed $41.9 million last year — or more than 24 times the $1.75 million paycheck earned by Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, the top-paid Ivy League school head. Moreover, the news service Bloomberg reports that executives at 15 publicly traded for-profits topped up their bank accounts to the tune of $2 billion over the past seven years by selling company stock. Peter Sperling, vice chairman of Apollo Group’s University of Phoenix, was the champion stock-seller: He’s cashed in shares totaling $574.3 million. But it looks like the gravy train is slowing. The Chronicle also reports that enrollment increases are ebbing at many profit-making schools – and that’s a trend set to continue as new federal regulations force the schools to tone down aggressive marketing and recruiting ploys. – TG
Automotive engineers working for Detroit’s Big Three carmakers haven’t had much to cheer about in recent years – the Great Recession and near-collapse of the domestic auto industry decimated their ranks. But it appears that a change in their fortunes is under way. General Motors and Chrysler each plan to hire an additional 1,000 engineers and technicians. GM will add them over the next two years to work on developing improved electric motors as well as battery and power-control technologies. It’s placing a big bet on electric vehicles and hybrids — the first of which, the Volt, went on limited sale last month. GM expects to sell 10,000 Volts by the end of the year, and 45,000 in 2012. Chrysler is bringing its additional engineers on board by April – 60 percent will be put on the payroll, the rest will be contract hires – and is recruiting at 35 colleges. Chrysler was bought by Italy’s Fiat after emerging from bankruptcy in June 2009, and the engineers will work on new-model small and midsize cars it’s developing with Fiat. Both companies were bailed out by the Obama administration but are now rebounding. That bounce is creating more engineering jobs among suppliers, as well. Around 80 percent of automotive suppliers told a trade-group survey that they also will be hiring more engineers within the next six months. Vroooom! – TG
SHE’s Got It
For young women in developing countries who don’t have access to sanitary pads, their monthly period can get in the way of education. In Rwanda, 18 percent of girls miss an average of 35 days of school a year because they don’t have access to pads or can’t afford the brand-name ones. Elizabeth Scharpf, founder of Sustainable Health Enterprises, thinks she’s found a solution after consulting with textile engineering professors, among others: a cheap and environmentally friendly pad made from banana tree-trunk fibers. SHE, with $60,000 in funding from Echoing Green, a venture fund that backs sustainable projects, hopes to start manufacturing the pads early this year in Rwanda. It also wants to set up women-run franchises to sell them. Experts suggested a whole host of materials that are inexpensive, widely available, and highly absorbent, but field tests run by Scharpf proved that banana fibers worked best. The banana-fiber pad won the 2010 Curry Stone Design Prize, but Scharpf’s no designer. She’s a healthcare industry entrepreneur and consultant with degrees from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School. But like an engineer, she’s a problem-solver. – TG
Turning Technologies is a software company that’s really clicked. Based in Youngstown, Ohio, it’s a leading manufacturer of the hand-held remotes, or “clickers,” that are becoming as common as laptops in college classrooms. Professors use them to take attendance and, more important, to give quizzes; the immediate feedback lets teachers know if their students are grasping lessons. Turning, launched in 2002, now sells clickers to more than half of all U.S. colleges, and its higher-education sales have jumped 95 percent since 2006. Use of clickers was championed in 1998 by Harvard physics Prof. Eric Mazur. They’re not, of course, universally loved. In a 2008 Chronicle of Higher Education commentary, Michael Bugeja, an Iowa State University journalism professor, said schools using them were falling for marketing ploys and that the devices imperiled academic integrity. But studies at several universities, including Ohio State and the University of Colorado, Boulder, show they increased student learning. A 2008 Ohio State study found they not only improved student scores in physics classes, but helped female students reach par with their male counterparts. To be sure, some students find them intrusive, but Jasmine Morris, an industrial engineering senior at Northwestern, told the New York Times she’s not one of them: “It makes you pay attention. It reinforces what you’re supposed to be doing as a student.” Click “A” if you think that’s the right answer. –TG
Look This Sway
The 1,667-foot-tall Taipei 101 skyscraper in Taiwan may have lost its title as the world’s tallest building this year to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. But, hey, it still has the globe’s biggest tuned mass damper, which essentially is a large pendulum that counters building sway caused by earthquakes or strong winds. Many skyscrapers use a form of these dampers. The 101’s hangs from the 92nd to the 88th floor of the tower’s 101 stories, is built from 41 steel plates, and is supported by eight steel cables. Designed by Thornton Tomasetti Engineers and Evergreen Consulting Engineering, it weighs a whopping 730 tons. If you’re going to build a very tall building in an area notorious for typhoons and seismic activity, you gotta know how to swing big-time. – TG
Tired of Waste
Old tires are an environmental headache. According to a 2007 EPA report, 7.5 million tons of rubber a year end up as waste, most of it from vehicle tires. And only around 35 percent of tires are recycled. Now civil engineers at Purdue University have come up with a process that mixes shredded tires with sand to create a useful, cheaper fill for road construction. Prof. Rodrigo Salgado and Monica Prezzi, an associate professor, began research into this use of shredded tire chips in the late 1990s. From 2008 through 2010, the process was used on nine different Indiana Department of Transportation projects. So far, 1.1 million tires have been put to use, resulting in a material cost savings of $1.2 million. The mixture can be designed to be lightweight, making it useful for constructing fills that support road and bridge abutments built over soft, weak soil deposits. The mix also can be used as backfill behind retaining walls and to strengthen slopes prone to landslides. It’s more easily compacted than other materials, and so uses less energy. That’s a money-saver, too. –TG
The National Science Foundation reports that two thirds of all research doctorates awarded by U.S. academic institutions were in science and engineering in 2009. This represents a 29.1 percent increase since 1999. Non-science and engineering doctorates rose by 6.1 percent during this period. The NSF and ASEE databases both registered over 40 percent growth in engineering doctorates since 1999.
*Additional college data is emailed monthly to all ASEE members through ASEE’s CONNECTIONS e-newsletter
Data source: American Society for Engineering Education.
A professor leaves a stellar U.S. career to train biomedical engineers in Vietnam.
HO CHI MINH CITY — Vo Van Toi’s biomedical engineering laboratory seems almost surreal against its surroundings. Outside, cattle roam leafy fields and vendors peddle sugar cane from wooden huts. Inside are a near-infrared spectroscopy machine, which measures oxygen content in blood, and a CT scanner. The contrast pretty much sums up Vietnam’s current state of development: It’s a relatively poor nation, with per-capita GDP of $3,000, trying to follow its larger Asian neighbors’ leap into an era of skyscrapers and international commerce, propelled by new technology.
To make the transition, Vietnam needs to train more engineers and scientists. If it doesn’t, warns a 2009 government report, its growth will recede in the coming years. “There’s a lack of competent engineers who are capable of fixing problems,” Vo says. Intel learned this lesson two years ago. When the company was building a $1 billion chip factory outside Ho Chi Minh City, it gave a screening exam on basic technology topics to 2,000 graduating students. Only 90 passed. While the country does have a high literacy rate of 90 percent, a focus on rote memorization and theory has created a shortage of skilled workers, argues Thomas J. Vallely, director of the Vietnam Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
So Vietnam is reaching out to diaspora Vietnamese, seeking to persuade academics to return to their former homeland and train students in advanced skills. In Vo, who left Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, the country grabbed a star. With a doctorate from Switzerland, he worked as a postdoctoral fellow at a combined Harvard-MIT biomedical engineering center before joining Tufts University two decades ago. A specialist in ophthalmology equipment, he created Tufts’s biomedical engineering program and helped launch its biomedical engineering department in 2003.
Vietnam uses both a patriotic tug and good wages – up to 10 times more than faculty members earn at some of its universities – to lure back well-trained scientists. But in truth, Vo, who took early retirement from Tufts to come here, may not have been that hard to persuade. “It has always been my dream,” he says, “to help my country.” While still at Tufts, he was tapped for the board of the Vietnam Education Foundation, a U.S. agency set up to help Vietnam improve higher education in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine. Taking a leave from Tufts, he became the agency’s executive director, setting up, among other initiatives, an academic job fair to attract Vietnamese students abroad. For five years, he has also organized conferences that attract scholars here from all over North America, Europe, and Asia.
Vo accepted a professorship at the International University at the Vietnam National University, where he founded the biomedical engineering department that now oversees about 60 students. He anticipates a big demand for his graduates. “This is a good time,” Vo says. “Medical device consumption here is huge, while the local supply is almost nonexistent.” The government funded his lab’s spectroscopy machine; a hospital donated the CT scanner.
Vietnam’s drive to be a player in the global economy is evident in ways other than winning back its skilled nationals. The International University, for example, offers instruction only in English, and sends many students for two years of training in the United States, Britain, and Australia. Vietnam is also appealing to foreign governments. One school based on the German curriculum, the Vietnamese-German University in Ho Chi Minh City, opened its doors two years ago to 32 students. It’s set to finish building its campus by 2016, enrolling 12,000 students.
But Vo and his students are working to ensure that their lab’s technology doesn’t forsake Vietnamese outside the rising cities. They’re developing small telemedicine devices, so doctors in large cities can monitor patients in remote areas.
Geoffrey Cain is a freelance writer based in Asia.
Technology leaps forward, but old-fashioned technical difficulties persist.
Long before the advent of PowerPoint presentations, speakers were notoriously anxious about their 35-mm slides working properly. The anxiety was fed by incidents of jammed projectors, blown-out bulbs, and improperly loaded carousels with slides upside-down, sideways, backward, or hopelessly out of order.
To obviate such disasters, speakers traveled with their own preloaded and tested carousels, and some also carried duplicate sets of illustrations both on overhead transparencies and in printouts. This redundant approach was carried over to early PowerPoint presentations, for it was often the case then that computers and projectors did not communicate easily.
Such behavior was encouraged by horror stories. One of my colleagues often told of giving a talk when the power went out. He was proud of his reaction: He passed his slides individually around the room so that seminar attendees could hold them up to the window and view them. Better small than nothing.
I had a similar experience recently that called for a different approach. I was giving the keynote speech at the annual meeting of the North Carolina Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Everything started out normally, and my PowerPoint slides worked perfectly for about the first 10 minutes of the talk, which was on success and failure in design and relied heavily on the images of bridges projected on the screen.
Soon, however, there was an ominous hum. The room lights went out, and the projector and microphone went dead. There was little choice but for me to raise my voice and continue in the dark, describing the slides that should have been there for all to see. Some thoughtful person opened the side doors to the ballroom, which let in some natural light from the windows across the hall. This illuminated the lectern and at least gave the audience something to look at.
After another 10 minutes or so, the projector went on as suddenly as it had gone off. I quickly ran through the slides that I had been describing in words only and, having caught up, continued with my talk — until the projector failed again and then, after another five minutes, came on again.
As we learned later, city workers had inadvertently cut some buried power lines outside the hotel. The resumption of power to the projector was thanks to the quick-thinking organizer of the meeting, who pulled his truck up on the sidewalk and ran a series of three extension cords — scavenged from around the ballroom — between his truck’s DC-to-AC inverter and the projector. The second outage occurred when someone tripped over the cords, separating them.
I eventually did get through my PowerPoint presentation, and it appeared to be well-received, no doubt as much because of the quick thinking and fast response of the engineer-organizer as my dogged determination to complete the talk.
Afterward, there were plenty of good-natured jokes and jovial compliments. Power had been restored to the hotel via its emergency generators, and people went their separate ways to committee meetings, dinner, and other commitments. My wife and I went up to our room to drop off my computer, which as insurance I had carried with me in addition to the memory stick containing my presentation.
Unfortunately, the hotel did not have as much redundancy in its power system. Its emergency generators were not capable of both keeping the lights on and running the elevators reliably. We found ourselves having to descend under our own power a dozen flights of redundant but obviously necessary and certainly welcome fire-stairs to get to dinner on time.
Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest book is The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems.
A special centennial issue explores rigor in research, diversity promotion, and integration of disciplines.
To mark 100 years of the Journal of Engineering Education, a special January issue reflects on the emergence of engineering education as a research-based discipline and explores what the future holds. The six papers presented are intended to encourage thinking that reaches beyond preparing students for the profession. They address key challenges in the field, examine ways that engineering education might be advanced through research, and explore recent and exciting developments in engineering education research. We hope they will inspire innovation and stimulate needed change.
The papers underscore the point that education research and practice are mutually dependent. Efficient and effective advances in practice require the same quality of research design and intellectual rigor that underpin technological advances. We look forward to a time when, as in industry, new practices arise from an intentional research-and-development cycle.
A recurrent theme is the need to promote and sustain diversity in engineering practice, education, and education research. The connotation used here implies tolerance of and respect for difference and, even more, a desire to embrace and celebrate variety. Diverse, even oppositional voices can be found in these papers as researchers and thinkers both in the field and outside are invited to “converse.” We note that while our engineering education research community is drawn from different disciplines and traditions, it is still very Western centric. As we move forward, we need to address how we can embrace a broader community of researchers, teachers, students, and engineers, and what we can do to bring in different cultural traditions and ways of thinking and being.
A less overt theme, but one that inherently pervades any discussion of the past or the future of engineering education, is a trend toward interdisciplinarity and integration, and even toward establishment of novel disciplinary formulations. New subdisciplines such as materials science, bioengineering, and environmental engineering, to name three, challenge the boundaries of historically distinct practice communities.
We hope that this special issue will appeal to a diverse range of readers from many countries, including academics, administrators, and researchers across all disciplines related to engineering education. All the papers included make clear that for either instructional practices or engineering education research to advance, engineering educators will need to change some of their perspectives and behavior. Change, however, does not come easily or automatically. We anticipate that the new insights offered by the authors will inspire action and innovation based on research and scholarship utilizing diverse perspectives and coming from multiple voices.
In turn, we hope the arguments raised here will enable and empower engineering faculty and administrators to tackle major challenges in their particular historical, socio-political, and cultural context. We further hope this leads to more active, interdisciplinary, and international collaborations between engineering educators and engineering education researchers and scholars in advancing engineering, however we define it, and engineering education, wherever and however we practice it.
Caroline Baillie is Winthrop Professor and chair of engineering education at the University of Western Australia; Edmond Ko is director of the Center for Engineering Education Innovation at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology; Wendy Newstetter is director of learning sciences research in the Coulter biomedical engineering department at the Georgia Institute of Technology; David Radcliffe is Kamyar Haghighi Head of Engineering Education at Purdue University. This article is adapted from the Guest Editors’ Foreword in the January 2011 Journal of Engineering Education.
An author heralds a Renaissance-like intellectual transformation.
The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World
by Ben Wildavsky, Princeton University Press 2010, 240 pages
As the world goes global, or “flat,” in the parlance of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, so, too does higher education, with greater numbers of students and researchers seeking opportunities abroad and universities working to establish overseas campuses and partnerships. Worldwide, 3 million students pursue an education outside their home countries, a 57 percent increase from the past decade. The United States still draws the lion’s share of foreign students – 22 percent overall and a whopping 64 percent of all foreign engineering graduate students. But as other countries start to challenge this dominance, racing to develop their own world-class facilities, faculties, and recruitment campaigns, many Americans have reacted with concern. From the National Academies to the White House, any number of warnings have been issued about threats to U.S. competitiveness, particularly in the fields of science and engineering.
Ben Wildavsky, a former education editor for U.S. News & World Report, takes an opposing view, arguing instead that increased global connections benefit everyone. And as people worldwide gain greater access to knowledge, skills, and technology, he writes, “the far-reaching intellectual ferment . . . could have a transformational effect similar to that of the 12th-century Renaissance of learning.” In this book, which is largely devoted to mapping the territory of this emerging global arena, the author argues that the United States should embrace a “free trade in minds,” not protectionist policies. Global education, says Wildavsky, should be recognized as a challenge, not a threat.
The topics explored in The Great Brain Race will be familiar to Prism readers involved with international education and informative for those who want to learn more. Wildavsky details, for example, steps taken by universities such as Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and Australia’s New South Wales in establishing branch campuses in the Middle East and Asia. Several early collaborations have fallen apart, he admits, unable to move past disagreements about degree granting, academic freedom, and funding. Even before the 2008 financial crisis, promising new satellite campuses were forced to close when student demand proved insufficient. Yet Wildavsky believes that “the rise of the new global campus is likely to create a range of other permutations and combinations, some more radical than anything being contemplated today.”
One area of growth may be found through for-profit schools. These institutions suffered a recent drubbing in the United States for alleged questionable practices and standards. But Wildavsky identifies the important contributions made by a number of them – including Laureate Education, Apollo Global, and Kaplan Inc. – to higher education overseas. Many countries struggle to sustain a handful of national public universities, he writes. That means that only a few privileged students are able to attend, often members of the elite classes. In Indonesia, 344,000 applicants vied for 80,000 slots at state universities in 2004. Those who can afford to do so go abroad to study; but for many others, for-profit schools fill a pressing need. Thus, for-profits, which typically offer career- and skills-oriented curricula, have come to represent a huge proportion of student enrollment – 80 percent in South Korea, 77 percent in Japan, and 75 percent in India and Brazil.
Perhaps not unexpectedly, given his U.S. News background, Wildavsky factors in new global rankings of universities – another indication, he says, of the growing interest in the comparative effectiveness of postsecondary institutions across the globe. A full chapter is devoted to the origins of the original U.S. Newscollege ranking system and the several international ranking systems it has spawned, notably that of Shanghai’s Institute of Higher Education at the Jiao Tong University.
Some readers may be disappointed that the discussions contained within The Great Brain Race are not pursued in greater depth. Yet what this slim volume does provide is a highly readable introduction to and advocacy for global education. “By continuing to recruit and welcome the best students in the world, by sending more students overseas, by fostering cross-national research collaboration, and by cooperating in an effort to better measure the effectiveness of universities,” Wildavsky declares, “the United States not only will sustain its own academic excellence but also will continue to expand the sum total of global knowledge.”
Robin Tatu is senior editor of Prism.
The time is right for more universities to offer degree programs through satellite campuses.
In recent years, a number of engineering schools in the United States have established joint four-year engineering programs with one or more other academic institutions. These ventures are called various names, such as collaborative, joint, or cooperative programs. All involve a “parent” institution, which typically has an established engineering program in several engineering disciplines, and one or more “satellite” institutions, which typically have had few or no engineering programs and are located in an area where there are few, if any, other local opportunities for students to study engineering.
The unique feature of this relatively new type of cooperative engineering program is that the parent and satellite institutions work together to offer one or more full, four-year engineering degrees on the campus of the satellite institution. This usually involves courses taught by a combination of faculty from the parent and satellite institutions as well as some courses offered at the satellite campus via distance instruction from the parent institution.
In a recent survey of such programs, we found that their number has increased in recent years by approximately one a year. The oldest is less than 20 years old. All tend to offer the more common engineering degrees (civil, electrical, and mechanical), and most are or expect to be accredited through the parent institution. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the students in such programs live within 100 miles of the satellite campus.
We expected the majority of those enrolled in such programs to be part-time, nontraditional students who were place bound because of job or family constraints. Instead, we discovered that the majority of those in the programs were full-time, traditional students who evidently elected to stay at home in order avoid the cost of room and board at a resident campus.
This result suggests that the demand for such programs is larger than expected. For some institutions, this could be a mixed blessing: They may attract students who were previously not planning on an engineering major because of their location. However, some students who were planning to attend the parent institution might now elect to remain at home and participate through the satellite institution.
The largest barrier to the establishment of such collaborative programs appears to be the administrative burdens associated with setting them up. Issues such as the amount and distribution of tuition funds, billing, faculty participation from both the parent and satellite institutions, the use of distance education, scholarships, and financial aid can all present problems. In cases where the parent and satellite institutions are part of the same university system, these problems may be resolved fairly easily, but they become more difficult when totally unrelated universities are involved. Still, a number of collaborative programs in our survey involved two unrelated universities, which suggests that such barriers can be satisfactorily overcome.
If the development of additional programs of this sort is believed to be beneficial to engineering education in general, then government agencies or foundations may wish to create grants to cover some of the administrative costs associated with the establishment of such programs. This should provide some incentive for institutions considering the development of a cooperative engineering program but fearing the costs involved.
As a final note, in the process of conducting the survey we discovered that three engineering programs that began as a collaborative venture had since become complete stand-alone programs at the satellite institutions. We did not discover any collaborative programs that had failed. Thus, it appears that the time is right for such programs.
Robert I. Egbert is a professor in the Cooperative Engineering Program run jointly by Missouri University of Science and Technology and Missouri State University. Copies of the survey paper, titled “Characteristics, Similarities, and Differences Among Four-Year Cooperative Engineering Programs in the United States,” may be obtained from the author at REgbert@missouristate.edu.