February 2011

Overseas and at home, innovations abound in science, technology, engineering and math instruction. An expanded cover story explores ideas and approaches in Finland; South Africa, Japan, Israel; France; Brazil, China, Canada, and Singapore. In the United States, the state of Massachusetts and the University of Colorado stress the “E” in STEM.

From planes to PCs to Kevlar, the sun never sets on the products of American ingenuity. But the original engine of U.S. innovation – STEM education – is no longer world class. A half century after the start of the space race, the nation that put a man on the moon faces a gathering storm of faltering schools and squeezed budgets that undermine its competitiveness. Once a world leader in the proportion of its citizenry with college degrees, the United States has fallen to ninth place. Foreign firms now earn a majority of U.S. patents. In 2009, 55 percent of U.S. engineering doctorates went to foreign nationals.

The latest comparison of student achievement by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showed this country had slipped to below average in education performance. Finland again led the world in math, science, and literacy, with scant difference in the performance of urban, rural, affluent, or low-income students. Their peers in South Korea, Shanghai, and Singapore are up there, too. What U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls a “brutal truth” about the global achievement gap gained significance with last month’s release of the nation’s science “report card” showing only a third of American students were proficient and fewer than 2 percent were advanced.

Dubbing this “our generation’s Sputnik moment,” President Obama has called for investment in K-12 STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, hosted science fair winners at the White House and State of the Union address, and even appeared on Mythbusters. The marketplace of ideas is a global one, however. Many of the countries out-educating America today studied our industrial and school systems and replicated the best. Now, by borrowing fresh ideas from abroad, U.S. policymakers and engineering educators can help strengthen the domestic K-12 pipeline and not only prepare more students for STEM majors and careers but improve learning in all subjects.

The following sampler highlights innovations from the worldwide STEM education bazaar. Some harness technology. Others, including those in Colorado and Massachusetts, leverage state content standards and hands-on learning. Japan went back to the future, reviving the venerable abacus. Could slide rules make a comeback, too?

Enjoy the trip. – Mary Lord


Mention Finland, and most Americans think of Sibelius symphonies or today’s popular Angry Birds mobile-phone game. The country enjoys another claim to fame, however: world-class K-12 education. Only a handful of nations come close to matching Finland in math, science, and literacy, and none boasts such uniformly high achievement rates across regions and income levels. If American students could match their Finnish peers, McKinsey & Co. estimates, the U.S. economy would be 9 to 16 percent larger and generate as much as $2.3 trillion more annually. How could a nation of 5.5 million people and 2 million saunas produce 15-year-olds on par with Asia’s whiz kids?

Finnish scholars and results from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s latest Program for International Student Assessment offer some clues — and lessons. Administered every three years in dozens of countries, PISA seeks to gauge how well students can apply what they’ve learned in science, math, and reading. Finland and other high-performing nations share several traits, including trust in educators, highly selective teacher-training programs, and strong national standards that local schools create curricula and assessments to meet.

Finns credit teacher quality for their STEM success. “In Finnish culture, there is a long tradition of valuing the education of teachers,” and respect for educators has “deep roots in our society,” says Pekka Lintu, Finland’s ambassador to the United States. Only top students qualify for teacher preparation programs; with 10 applicants for every spot, only the best of the best get in. A high proportion of elementary teachers have STEM degrees; roughly 20 percent in math and a similar percentage in science. Thus, even very young children receive quality instruction that prepares them for chemistry and physics in fifth and sixth grades.

Surprisingly, money is not a big factor in Finland’s STEM achievement. The country spends less on education per student than most other developed economies, and beginning teachers, who all hold master’s degrees, earn the same as flight attendants, notes Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility and Cooperation.

Another surprise: Finnish teachers log far fewer hours in the classroom than their global counterparts — about 6,000 hours a year versus 8,000 in America, PISA reports. Finnish science teacher Mikko Korhonen discovered the heavier instructional workload during a Fulbright exchange at a Maryland high school last fall. More arresting, though, was that “assessments and testing here is totally different.” Finland has zero standardized tests. Instead, teachers create their own quizzes and other checks on progress.

Perhaps Finland’s biggest lesson lies in the learn-by-doing approach its teachers favor. “I try not to give them answers right away,” explains Helsinki middle school math and science teacher Kaisa Sahlberg. “I like them to think and try and even make mistakes and then try again.” In one lesson, for instance, Sahlberg mixes a compound of table salt, sand, and iron powder and asks student teams to return each element in three beakers, using supplies available in the lab. Her only instructions: Start with small amounts when unsure what might happen. Students must learn to use magnets properly, extract dissolved salt by boiling water, filter the sand, and finally burn the paper without setting off fire alarms. One girl, a Boston transplant, says she hates the idea of returning to her American school, where students never did anything in the lab and had more homework. “I don’t know what the truth is,” reflects Sahlberg, “but we really seem to stress our kids so little compared to other countries, and still our kids learn!” – by Mary Lord


Ask any South African high school mathematics teacher what keeps students from doing homework, and a likely answer is: “MXit.” Roughly half of all teens from poor townships average an hour a day using this wildly popular instant-messaging service for mobile phones (think Facebook via cell). For some, however, chatting on MXit has improved their understanding of math.

Computer programmer Laurie Butgereit recognized the chat service’s potential as a math tutoring platform when she began logging on during her lunch break to help her MXit-addicted son with his homework. Before long, nearly a hundred of his classmates were bombarding Butgereit with questions. “I couldn’t cope,” says the American-born Java expert. So she asked her employer, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, to help her create a nationwide service that would link volunteer tutors on PCs with confused math students on cellphones. Dr. Maths on MXit launched on Feb. 1, 2007, with just 14 students from a single school. The organizers kept quiet about the service, fearful of overwhelming their first few tutors, all engineering students from the University of Pretoria. But Dr. Maths users spread the word, and by midmonth, 429 high school students were IM-ing questions. Today, with zero advertising, the service reaches 19,000 teens across South Africa and offers advice on physics, chemistry, biology, accounting, and information technology. Its 100 tutors are still mostly engineering students.

Demand can outstrip the tutors’ ability to keep up. Butgereit figures that a tutor can reasonably juggle 30 inquiring students an hour. At times, they face 80, and with half of all South African high school seniors failing math, the need remains desperate. The economics of the text-only system are astoundingly cheap, however. A single, unmanned desktop PC connects far-flung tutors on the Internet with their texting teens. For students, who pay cellular operators approximately 30 U.S. cents per megabyte for data, the text-only messages use so little bandwidth that an extended exchange over quadrilateral equations costs a fraction of a penny. Moreover, mobile phones often provide the students’ only online interaction; in 2009, just 5 percent of South African households had PCs with Internet access.

Explaining parabolas to callers looking at a 2-inch screen and typing on 12 keys does create challenges. Tutors ask callers to use the exponential sign “^” so that five cubed becomes 5^3. One tutor even creates little graphs out of dashes and plus signs that he copies and pastes into his explanations. “We make our own rules and work around the limitations,” says University of Pretoria informatics student and tutor Naeem Ismail. “We’ve found a solution to every problem.”

Tutors are instructed to let the students think for themselves, rather than giving away answers. Consider this exchange about factorizing trinomials:

Student: nw wat bout x^2-5x-6
Dr. Maths: so you need to find two numbers that multiplied give you -6 and added give you -5. that means one of the numbers must be negative and the other positive
Student: +6 -1 ?
Dr. Maths: does +6 -1 give you -5?
Student: o i c! -6 +1
Dr. Maths: very good
Student: thanx! u helpd me stax!

Because of privacy concerns, Dr. Maths has no access to information that would identify students who use the service. This has made quantifying the service’s benefits impossible. Butgereit is convinced, however, that its viral growth proves its effectiveness. “The evidence that it works is that they tell their friends about it,” she says. And sometimes pupils text their own evaluations of Dr. Maths. As one satisfied student jotted at 9:19 one night: “u guys r gonna b a hit!”–by Don Boroughs


Forget graphing calculators. The hottest tool for learning math in this high-tech powerhouse is a relic from Japan’s preindustrial past: the venerable abacus. At a time when ubiquitous digital devices are blamed for making people “dumber,” the world’s original calculating device, known as the soroban, is more essential than ever, advocates contend. “When you do all your figuring on a computer or calculator, the process of calculation becomes a ‘black box,’” says Hiroshi Nakayama, director of the League of Japan Abacus Associations. “But with the soroban, number crunching takes place right before your eyes.”

Or, more precisely, behind them. The true measure of a soroban student is not merely being able to flip through arithmetic problems quickly and efficiently but acquiring a secondary skill known as anzan — moving those beads mentally, without the assist of a physical tool. “Anzan enables you to visualize the beads in your head,” says Hanaka Iwai, a soroban instructor in suburban Tokyo. “So even if you don’t have a soroban handy, you can literally carry the device in your brain.”

Parents are flocking to enroll their kids in extracurricular programs like the one Iwai and her sister, Haruka, run out of a tiny storefront.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the pleasantly ramshackle classroom full of long, low-slung desks bursts with second and third graders brandishing grownup-size sorobans; these can handle numbers up to 23 digits long. A spell seemed to befall the children as Hanaka clicked her stopwatch. And then they were off! Flying thumbs and index fingers mimicked the act of manipulating beads as pupils mentally raced through addition lists of three-digit numbers, completing 10 problems in three minutes flat. Children are considered soroban-ready as soon as they can count to 10, though the sisters say the tool is so intuitive that a 4-year-old can get the hang of it within six months. The benefits of becoming a walking calculator were evident to second grader Mi Tsugiura. “I like it,” he said. “I can help my mom figure out her change at the store.”

While empirical evidence remains thin, many parents and even some school officials believe that the mental gymnastics of soroban training prime children for any kind of learning — in any subject. The once underperforming Amagasaki school district in western Japan has become a pioneer in the back-to-the-abacus movement. Since 2009, all 43 of its elementary schools have offered an hour each week of soroban instruction and start the day with 10 minutes of soroban drills. Test scores are up, and backers say the regimen boosts confidence, improves memory, strengthens insight, and develops both the brain’s creative side and analytic side.

Hanaka Iwai says abacus training is a powerful tool for concentration. “I’ll be working on one problem, and the next thing I know, I’ve finished five,” she says. “Soroban really hones your ability to focus. It’s a skill which can be applied to any field. You just don’t get distracted easily.”

Japan’s abacus association has commissioned a study, due out in 2012, on the feasibility of reintroducing soroban and anzan into the mainstream curriculum. Educators urge caution, however. “While computing is the basis of math, it’s only one aspect of the subject,” warns study panel member Tsukane Ogawa, of Yokkaichi University, in a pamphlet about the project. “In a highly evolved science and technology era, it’s not enough — as it was 400 years ago — to be able to calculate quickly and accurately. Students must acquire many math concepts, so boosting computing skills in an efficient manner is important. Whether this is best done via soroban or conventional teaching is what we’re trying to find out.” Meanwhile, a popular iPhone app ensures the abacus won’t fall from fashion anytime soon. — By Lucille Craft


Kindergartens where youngsters can play online games? High schools that require students to build websites or 3-D computerized models of such complex objects as aircraft? These are among the approaches some Israeli schools are testing in a unique, government-approved program to boost children’s understanding of — and passion for — computer science. By emphasizing theory with hands-on activities, its creators hope to move schools beyond today’s tech equivalent of shop class and perhaps replace computer-science offerings in place since 1995.

“When you study physics, you don’t just learn how to repair a TV set; you study the basics of physics,” explains Judith Gal-Ezer, vice president for academic affairs and professor of computer science at the Open University of Israel, who is one of the curriculum’s designers. Students, she contends, should “not just learn a programming language or applications, but become acquainted with the entire way of thinking of computer science.”

The pilot program covers two kinds of student. There’s a 270-hour course for those with a general or limited interest in computers, and a 450-hour version for those who may want to pursue computer studies after graduation. Both devote at least 180 hours to the theoretical basis of computer studies, including key concepts for solving algorithmic problems and how to apply them to a programming language. Students learn modularity, or how to solve big problems by breaking them into small ones. Later, they get to tackle more advanced problems, such as searching and sorting. “These are the basic concepts of computer science, and they are being stressed at all levels,” says David Ginat of Tel Aviv University’s Science Education Department, who wrote the textbooks for the basic courses.

Theoretical material is combined with hands-on experiences. Teachers introduce relevant parts of a programming language, then have students apply it in the computer lab — a concept the curriculum’s developers call the “zipper approach” since it has “a little bit of this followed by a little bit of that and so on until finally forming a unified whole,” says Ginat. Students learn to distinguish between errors of logic and those caused by incorrect use of an algorithm while programming, as well as the pros, cons, and limitations of debugging by testing. Even teachers and students in the general-interest group have a variety of optional courses, from highly theoretical material such as computational models to programming — though the latter, too, is only a means to get a computer to carry out an algorithm, notes Gal-Ezer.

The computer-graphics course, which incorporates the basics of computational geometry and linear algebra, exemplifies this concept. Students learn about three-dimensional graphics and their use in such fields as architecture, games, and topographical mapmaking. They study the algorithms for drawing, smoothing and clipping lines, and removing hidden lines discarded after designing. Ultimately, students can place a ball anywhere on a screen and program a robot to roll it through a maze. The advanced curriculum includes some 90 hours of more complex software design.

Teachers remain key to successful implementation, of course. At a minimum, they should have a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a governmental teacher’s license, says Gal-Ezer, who’s now helping design a distance-learning program to train these pioneering educators. — by Joshua Brilliant


In 1995, Georges Charpak, a French Nobel Prize-winning nuclear physicist and engineer, became alarmed at the state of science teaching in France’s primary schools: It was almost nonexistent. So with the assistance of the country’s Academy of Sciences, Charpak helped design a science teaching regimen modeled on a successful program in Chicago developed by his friend and fellow Nobel laureate Leon Lederman.

The result was La main à la pâte, now used in more than 3,000 pilot classrooms scattered around France, each supported by one of 20 regional centers. A phrase meaning “helping hand” or collaborative effort, La main à la pâte stresses a hands-on, inquiry-based approach to teaching youngsters scientific concepts and procedures. Students are encouraged to use arguments and reasoning, and to pool their ideas and observations. They all must put their theories to the test as well as keep a notebook documenting the entire process in their own words. The earlier children are exposed to science, the program’s designers reasoned, the more likely they are to develop a lifelong interest in the subject. “It makes use of their natural curiosity,” explains La main à la pâte director David Jasmin.

Another important element of the program is the ongoing involvement of scientists and engineers, who assist in the designing of projects and materials, and in teacher-training efforts. Professional development of primary school teachers is critical because most lack science backgrounds. “Many are not at ease with science,” Jasmin says. So beyond having access to ready-to-use materials, teachers can post questions and quickly receive answers from scientists or engineers on La main à la pâte’s website. The project also has a cadre of 1,500 science and engineering undergraduates who work with teachers in the classroom.

The program features two types of projects. Some are grounded in basic science, such as having students build an electric circuit or play games with magnets to learn about magnetism. The others are seven-to-eight-week-long themed projects dealing with important issues that have strong science, engineering, and math elements, such as global warming, healthcare, biodiversity, and eco-housing.

La main à la pâte’s pilot classrooms serve as working models of how the program’s inquiry-based teaching methods can be implemented by all teachers. And the program makes all of its materials available free from its website to teachers nationwide. That approach has paid off. The website now has an impressive 200,000 visitors a month, and the Ministry of National Education says the number of primary school teachers using inquiry-based methods for science instruction has jumped from around 30 to 40 percent in 2007 to 57 percent today. The project also has a thriving international component: It has formed idea-sharing partnerships with education groups in more than 40 countries. Seventy-five percent of its $1.37 million annual budget comes from French government agencies, 12 percent from the European Union, and the rest from various private sources.

Charpak died last September at age 86. But he lived to see his “helping hand” grab hold of success. — by Thomas K. Grose


Engineering has long played the Rodney Dangerfield of K-12 education: It gets no respect. Despite a flurry of urgent reports stressing the importance of each STEM discipline, curricula in most states concentrate on science and math. Not so in Massachusetts. A decade ago, the Bay State created a separate strand in its science standards for technology/engineering, putting the subjects on par with traditional sciences. That has translated into classroom instruction, since engineering counts for 25 percent of the grade on science assessments administered to all fifth and eighth graders, and “made it possible for engineering to become part of the routine,” says Jake Foster, director of science and technology/engineering (STE) at the Massachusetts Department of Education. Notably, Massachusetts students outscored their peers in all other states — and many countries — on recent international math and science comparisons.

Boston’s Haley Elementary School offers a glimpse of how engineering can inspire even very young, at-risk children and transform K-12 education. In this innovative pilot program, STEM serves as “a framework for engagement” rather than a content-driven specialty class, says principal Ross Wilson. “It’s the umbrella” under which students develop an understanding of their communities and world along with creativity, problem-solving skills, and a sense of active stewardship. Instead of learning about biology and environmental science from textbooks, for instance, students tend a schoolyard garden, build solar ovens, and create models of green buildings. Outside partners such as the Audubon Society help teach earth science. Fourth- and fifth-grade students study the ecology of Boston Harbor in the fall, spend winter in a boatyard designing and building a boat they will sail in the summer, then cap the experience probing Boston’s African-American maritime history. “The boat-builder is an expert in physics,” notes Wilson. “All the math and science is in the room.”

Though few schools, even in Boston, have embraced and embedded STEM as dramatically as the Haley pilot school, “engineering is certainly becoming a bigger part of the curriculum,” says Massachusetts STE director Foster. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the Museum of Science, Boston, developed the Engineering Is Elementary curriculum, now in use in all 50 states. While engineering is cropping up in more K-12 classrooms nationwide, other states have yet to elevate it to the level of a core discipline as has Massachusetts. But this may soon change. A new federal law authorizes the National Science Foundation to explore the value of K-12 engineering, and Congress has also been considering the Engineering Education for Innovation Act, which includes grants and other incentives to make engineering part of every student’s three Rs. — by Mary Lord


Having engineering professors develop curricula to teach the discipline’s fundamentals to K-12 students? That notion was “considered edgy and bizarre,” recounts Jacquelyn F. Sullivan, associate dean for inclusive excellence at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s College of Engineering, of her pioneering efforts in the 1990s to do just that. Even a decade later in 2002, when Sullivan attended a National Science Foundation conference on K-12 engineering education, she was one of only four university academics there who were creating lessons for school kids. So Sullivan and the others — who hailed from Duke, Tufts, and Oklahoma State universities — decided to pool their resources into a one-stop, free online shop of lesson plans for K-12 teachers.

Several years and an initial NSF grant later, TeachEngineering.org took flight. It’s now a nationally recognized digital library brimming with hundreds of engineering lessons for primary and secondary students, all linked to state and national standards. The site’s ethos is: Keep it simple, keep it cheap, and keep it hands-on. It recognizes that most U.S. math and science teachers have no training in their subjects, while seeking to ensure that schools in low-income areas can afford the lessons. The average cost of materials for a class of 25 is $8, usually for stuff easily found in grocery or hardware stores. TeachEngineering now boasts well over 900 lessons and activities. Each lesson’s hands-on element stresses the links to engineering science or design. For instance, a fourth-grade lesson teaches students how engineering and architecture interact by having them build a model parking garage. The offerings include units of varying length, from short activities to full courses.

Based on advice solicited from 80 teachers, the lessons all use the same template, which includes a background briefing for the teachers and an assessment tool so they can gauge if students “get it.”

TeachEngineering eventually opened itself to contributors; so far, academics from 19 universities have submitted lessons. Each lesson gets vetted by one teacher and one engineer — the site relies on 59 volunteer reviewers — plus one internal editor. There’s currently a queue of around 300 lessons awaiting approval, and many won’t make the cut. “We’re pretty picky,” Sullivan admits.

The website has experienced a growth spurt lately. Between December 2009 and November 2010, it averaged 560,000 unique visitors, a 34 percent increase from the previous 12-month period. Last October, it had 85,000 visitors, a 55 percent jump from October 2009. “It’s gone wild,” Sullivan says. Why? Possibly because in 2009, the lessons were cross-aligned with state content standards, so a teacher in, say, Idaho can easily find lessons from other states that fit Idaho’s science standards. That big upgrade was handled by Oregon State University information-systems students. The site also has been boosted by links from such education websites as netTrekker.

TeachEngineering operates on a shoestring. It has gotten several NSF grants totaling around $2.4 million, enough cash to give it a “backbone” of financing. But mostly, Sullivan and colleagues manage the site “as a labor of love.” And love’s labor is never lost. — by Thomas K. Grose


Brazil is not known as an educational powerhouse. Its federally controlled K-12 system is laden with waste and high teacher-pension costs, the Economist reports. Meanwhile, many schools lack adequate equipment or even such basics as running water. Students typically attend school for only half the day until they drop out — the average age is 13 — or finally graduate in their mid-20s. But a pathbreaking initiative by a U.S. scientist, backed by the Ministry of Education, is tackling these systemic problems. Its unusual catalyst for educational and social change? Hands-on labs, a rare commodity even in affluent nations.

“Science can be a driving agent of transformation; not only economic transformation like we know here in the United States and Europe, but also social transformation,” declares Duke University neurobiology Prof. Miguel Nicolelis, who spearheaded the initiative. A native Brazilian, he directs the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience of Natal (ELS-IINN), a research organization that has joined with government-funded groups, the local university, and some private partners to expand the initiative.

Launched in 2003, a research institute and school known as the “Campus of the Brain” began with students age 10 and older in some of the worst-performing schools and districts in Natal, a coastal city in northeastern Brazil. The idea was to establish facilities where students could work with real scientists on authentic, hands-on projects outside of school — and where researchers could study science teaching and learning. This “extra” education would allow participants a full day of learning, half in public school and half with two science teachers in classes of 25 students each, up through university entrance. Some 21 middle school students currently assist the institute’s scientists much as undergrads would at a university lab. Four worked on a scientific magnetic resonance machine to find in-ground oil pockets.

The concept quickly caught on. Today, the program has expanded to include first graders, and another school has been built in the neighboring state of Bahia to the south, pushing total enrollment to 1,400. Beyond merely teaching science, the institutes, run by ELS-INN scientists, include women’s health clinics where real-life applications of the scientific method help students see their lab work’s importance and instill a sense of community. Construction soon will begin on a full-time school that will automatically enroll every child of women treated in the clinic from womb through higher education.

Students aren’t the only ones benefiting from the institute’s fresh approach. Teachers from across Brazil are being trained by seasoned instructors in hands-on science education. Some go on to become educators in the program; others return home with improved teaching skills and a better understanding of science.

Confident of the institute’s approach, Brazilian officials have integrated it into the government’s huge investment in education. The budget for educational programs has quadrupled in recent years to $26.2 billion – a full 4.2 percent of GDP and the biggest jump in education spending of any nation, reports UNESCO. Private partners contribute at least one real for every federal one.

For Nicolelis, student happiness is the main measure of success. Before they joined Campus of the Brain, he notes, these kids were considered “hopeless.” Now, they have life goals, with the right tools to achieve them. The students, who are performing nearly as well on national standardized tests and in class as peers in some of Brazil’s best schools, also care more about their communities. Those results have prompted plans to expand the Natal pilot program to 15 other locations nationwide, reaching 1 million students in the next four years. “It’s the largest education revolution in the world right now,” Nicolelis says. Hyperbole? Maybe not: Mexico and South Africa have expressed interest in replicating the program. — by Jaimie Schock


If there is a magic formula for mathematical prowess, China has it nailed. Chinese students routinely outperform their American peers on international math and science comparisons, and Shanghai’s 15-year-olds recently bested world leaders Singapore and Finland by a stunning margin on the latest Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development assessment. For the United States, it was a “wake-up call,” as Education Secretary Arne Duncan put it.

Now the Yew Chung International School of Beijing, a dual-language immersion program serving students from preschool through fifth grade, is taking China’s traditional math-teaching approaches a step further by joining them with Western techniques.

Every subject is covered in Mandarin and English by Chinese and Western teachers working together in one homeroom. For the most part, the curriculum for geography, science, and other subjects is the same in both languages. That’s not true for math.

Consider the fifth-grade class taught by Joanne Mackey, who hails from England, and Chinese native Julie Lei. To help students learn how to do long division, find the least common multiple, or calculate the greatest common factor, Mackey uses a step-by-step method found in British classrooms. The system is designed to ensure students can “explain why every step works so they have systematic problem-solving skills that enable them to think outside of the box,” she says.

By contrast, Lei teaches sophisticated “shortcuts” for finding the answers to the same math problems — tricks she says most Chinese children can readily handle by the end of middle school. Lei also requires rote memorization, a common trait in education across all subjects in China. At the start of each math class, for example, students recite multiplication tables in Chinese, which Lei contends gives children “a strong mathematics foundation that makes it easier for them to advance more quickly in the subject.”

This blend of teaching strategies may have been unintentional. However, results so far suggest it has powerful potential: that emphasizing creativity and problem-solving together with memorization and speed can accelerate learning even among already strong math students.

The school’s Asian students, many of whom arrive with solid math skills, quickly advance to coursework that is two-to-three grade levels higher, the school says. The Western curriculum also enhances critical thinking skills, an oft-cited weakness of Chinese programs. U.S. pupils at the school, who typically lag their Asian peers in math, also progress rapidly; many return home to discover they are well ahead of their American classmates, school administrators say. Both groups undoubtedly benefit from another hallmark of Asian education systems: discipline and constant test preparation. Chinese school days also tend to be longer than in America, and students watch less TV.

Mackey and Lei see nothing magic in what they do. Their success lies in striking the right balance between Eastern and Western techniques. “I do value some of the rote learning that we have banished from the U.K. and from the West as well,” says Mackey. While hands-on activities have merit, at some point “actually you do need to go home and learn your multiplication tables. It is not fun, but I do think it is quite valuable.” — by Lara Farrar


A high school science camp experience convinced Isabel Deslauriers that science not only was fun but could provide a career some day. Later, studying electrical engineering at Montreal’s McGill University, she wanted to help other teens find their science calling, too. So she joined Let’s Talk Science, a volunteer science-outreach program that connects undergraduates and professionals with K-12 students in “hands-on, minds-on” science activities. Working with local high school teachers, Deslauriers created an eight-week program in which kids built a robot car with sensors that could be programmed to follow a predetermined course. “It involved aspects of mechanical, electrical, and computing engineering,” she recalls. “At the beginning, the kids were almost scared about touching pieces of the car. At the end, they were so into it.”

LTS, a national nonprofit dedicated to improving science literacy by bringing the subject to life, has inspired scores of Canadian youngsters to take similar plunges. Its flagship outreach program boasts more than 2,200 volunteers from 32 universities and colleges, as well as faculty researchers and professionals from science, engineering, and technology companies. These experts visit classrooms and community groups to provide activities and experiments, update teaching material, act as mentors, and supervise science projects. “It runs the full gamut,” says LTS president Bonnie Schmidt, who founded the organization when earning her doctorate at the University of Western Ontario, London in 1993. “You think of the kind of hands-on experience that you want kids to have, and they do it. Plus, it’s tailormade for each class — not pre-canned.” An undergraduate iodine-clock reaction experiment, for example, was modified by LTS volunteers from Dalhousie University in Halifax to make it more engaging and accessible for ninth graders. Along with chemical reactions and catalysts, the teen-friendly science lesson — which was featured on the Journal of Chemical Education’s September 2010 cover — included real-world applications that affect everything from the making of plastics to how our bodies work.

One reason for the success of the program, contends Schmidt, is the training each volunteer receives. “We want to help people with the expertise and the content [so they] understand how to bring science and engineering to life for whatever age learner they deal with,” she says. LTS developed a three-hour multimedia workshop called Science With Impact, which teaches each new volunteer about learning theories and best practices in education.

In addition to its volunteer outreach program, LTS offers an array of educational resources for youngsters ages 3 to 6 called “Wings of Discovery.” Currently used in 1,500 early childhood education centers across Canada, it includes a host of projects like Trip to My Community, which uses a toy top to teach such concepts as force, energy, and friction. LTS’s latest venture, an interactive teen website called CurioCity launched in 2010, focuses on topics that matter to teens, such as health, the environment, entertainment, and sports. “Kids see subjects like math, physics, and engineering as important to society, but they don’t see it as relevant to their lives,” Schmidt explains. “CurioCity is one of our efforts to help change that.” Next challenge: persuading teens to clean their rooms. — by Pierre Home-Douglas


Walk the gleaming halls of the School of Science and Technology (SST) in Singapore and a glance reveals it’s no typical secondary school. Its 400 students all carry laptops. Classes are small and often multidisciplinary, with lots of engaging, collaborative projects. Singapore’s rigorous education system has long produced academically strong students. Since the 1990s, however, the country has sought to diversify the educational experience and staked its economic future on becoming a scientific and technological powerhouse. The SST, which opened in January 2010, is what that vision looks like in practice.

“For a while, there was concern that perhaps the kids were very textbook smart but not so in tune with world issues,” says SST vice principal Chew Wai Lee. “So what we strive to do here is introduce the academic concepts set in an authentic context.”

Like Singapore’s three other Specialized Independent (private) Schools, the SST focuses on applied learning of all subjects, not just science and math. Students enter in year 7 (around age 12) for an accelerated four-year program that prepares them for junior college or one of Singapore’s polytechnic schools. After two years of foundational studies, students choose from five applied subjects: biotechnology; design studies; environmental science and technology; fundamentals of electronics; and media studies. Teachers often assign “performance tasks” where students are asked to link what they’ve learned in the classroom to something practical. For a class focusing on art, media, design and technology, for example, students visited a nursing home and were asked to design or improve upon things used by the elderly residents on a daily basis.

Because the SST only has younger students at present, “their performance tasks are very, very simple,” Chew says. “But I foresee that when they’re in year 9 and 10, they will be able to do more scenario-based problem-solving on a larger scale.” The SST also is committed to turning its students into global citizens. Last year, all the students went on a week-long, school-sponsored trip to meet peers in China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Their teachers accompanied them and taught demonstration lessons in English to the overseas students. This January, the SST hosted a student-teacher exchange from China.

The school, which partners with Nanyang Technological University and industries to provide internships and other special programs, currently occupies a temporary space. Plans call for moving next year to a newly constructed, 7.4-acre campus, complete with state-of-the-art science labs, design studios, eco-garden and other facilities. “Teenagers want to know why they’re learning,” Chew says. “So it’s basically engaging not just their heads but their hearts and their hands.” Feet, too—the new site includes a soccer field. —By Corinna Wu

Lessons From the Global Schoolhouse
By Lyle Feisel

The February Prism is a departure from our usual fare. The front of the issue is devoted to K-12 STEM education around the world. With the United States in need of well-trained engineers and scientists to develop the innovations of tomorrow, the quality of our K-12 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education takes on growing importance. Currently, we’re in the middle of the international pack – not a good position in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

Prism writers scouted the globe to find out what the United States might learn from other countries and came up with nine intriguing examples. Among them: In Finland, the stress is on teacher quality. All teachers have master’s degrees as well as subject majors, and only the top 10 percent of high school graduates can apply for these five-year programs. Finland spends less on education than most developed economies, yet its students excel on international assessments.

Brazil, moving rapidly from developing to developed status economically, now seems intent on having an education system to match its ambitions. With the help of a Duke University neurobiologist, it’s making a start. Its catalyst for educational change is hands-on science labs, initiated in a poor and underserved part of the country. An ocean away, South Africa uses texting to link volunteer tutors on PCs with confused math students on mobile phones.

Included in the package are two noteworthy U.S. programs: Teachengineering.org, a series of online K-12 lessons and activities developed at the University of Colorado, and technology/engineering learning standards that form a major component of the core science curriculum in Massachusetts schools.

As a temporary cost-saving measure, our next edition of Prism will be a combined March and April issue.

Lyle Feisel
Interim Executive Director and Publisher


The Danger in Sequestering CO2

Henry Petroski’s column, “Normalizing Deviance” (Prism, December 2010) caught my attention. His thesis is that we regularly ignore engineering evidence that should have warned of a coming fault event. Such glossing over of risks happens not only in engineering. The recent worldwide recession, now declared “over” but still persisting in its effect on a majority of the population, is a case in point. The financial collapse was largely caused by unregulated financial institutions, which issued thousands of mortgages to ineligible people, then packaged them as “good investments” to other institutions. At the same time, the issuing institutions insured these questionable mortgages against payment default – anticipating a big return when (not if) the mortgages failed. And the government’s regulators failed to heed the warning signs.

I recently read an article in the Journal of Policy Engagement (Vol 2, No 6, December 2010, p. 15-19), “Carbon capture and storage: Technology, status and costs” by Rene Mangal, P.Eng, that caused me to consider whether the same failing can be found in efforts to protect the environment.

Mangal reported on efforts to capture potential “greenhouse gas” from combustion products from industry, especially CO2, and sequester this gas under ground. “The hope is that the buried CO2 will never surface again. Potential geologic storage sites include deep saline formations, depleted gas and oil reserves, enhanced oil recovery sites and un-mineable coal seams. Deep ocean storage would involve direct injection of liquid CO2 into the sea bed … as a kind of CO2 lake.” In this way, one of the greenhouse gases would be reduced.

The further hope is that this cold high-pressure liquid CO2 would not be evaporated by the higher temperatures in the depths of the earth, that a CO2-lake in the ocean depths would not disturb the as-yet unknown life forms, and that any oil or gas site deposit would not fracture the rocks.

In the process, it seems to have gone unnoticed that by sequestering the CO2, the carbon is returned to fossil status, but oxygen (O2) is also removed from the atmosphere and deposited under ground. Over decades and centuries, this process would slowly deplete the limited life-sustaining oxygen content of the atmosphere.

To me, this is a case of “Normalizing Deviance,” and the result is likely to be that humanity either commits collective suicide by global warming, or alternatively commits collective suicide by oxygen depletion in the atmosphere. Can we find a better, more appropriate solution?

—W. Ernst Eder
Professor Emeritus, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Royal Military College of Canada

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Ocean Engineering

Doomed Again

It has rested for almost 100 years in the eerie darkness at the bottom of the ocean. But according to an adjunct civil engineering professor at Halifax’s Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, the Titanic won’t be around for anyone to celebrate its bicentennial. Henrietta Mann says that a new bacterium, fittingly called Halomonas titanicae, is consuming the ship’s hull at an alarming rate. She predicts the ocean liner may completely disintegrate within 20 years. According to Mann, the decaying process has sharply increased since submersibles have started diving the wreck, spreading the bacteria with their propellers and speeding up its growth with the vessels’ underwater lights. Still, she says, it’s all part of a natural process. “Nature makes it, and nature takes it back. This will be the end result of the Titanic – rust on the ocean floor.” Mann adds that studying the bacteria may yield practical benefits, enabling scientists to create coatings that could prevent similar disintegration in subsea structures such as offshore oil and gas pipelines. –PIERRE HOME-DOUGLAS


Targeting NSF

The new Republican majority in the House is vowing deep cuts in federal spending — and they want your help. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., launched the YouCut Citizen Review website to let voters pinpoint wasteful spending. The site’s first target: the National Science Foundation. In a webcast, Smith declared he supports basic research but contends NSF has funded some “questionable projects.” He singled out two: $750,000 to develop a computer model to analyze soccer players on the field, and $1.2 million to model the sound of breaking objects for video games.

The blogosphere’s scientific community reacted with alarm. New Scientist called the idea “especially chilling.” Charles Day, a Physics Today blogger, noted that Smith attended Liberty University, an evangelical school that teaches creationism. USA Today’s Dan Verango quotes a science historian calling the attacks “just anti-intellectualism, a blast at eggheads, basically.” It also was widely observed that the research Smith derided was hardly wasteful. The soccer study will help improve how remote teams of scientists collaborate. The sound modeling was done by acoustics experts working to improve combat simulators for U.S. troops. Day, however, says all scientific research should be able to withstand scrutiny. So he’s hopeful that if folks troll NSF’s grant approvals “they could be surprised, relieved, and intrigued,” causing the stunt to backfire on the GOP. – THOMAS K. GROSE


Squeeze on Colleges

Most public universities faced cuts in state funding last year, so it’s unsurprising that net tuition revenue jumped an average of 11 percent at nearly every state college. A survey by Moody’s, the bond-rating agency, also found that 81 percent of public schools expect to raise tuition this year by an average of 4.4 percent. The smaller anticipated increase in tuition isn’t a result of better prospects for improved state aid. Quite the contrary. Public schools are reluctant to hike tuition too much because of pressure from politicians and students. Meanwhile, universities may face even bigger cuts in public funding as states deal with ongoing revenue shortfalls and stimulus funds run out. Last year, 46 states cut programs and raised taxes to deal with a combined $130 billion budget gap; so far, 40 states are projecting gaps totaling $113 billion. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities predicts that next fiscal year could be the worst ever. Total state revenue slumped 30.8 percent last year, to $1.1 trillion. That blow was softened by the $814 billion stimulus bill that pumped $165 billion into state coffers, and much of that went to higher education and health care. Congress is unlikely to bail states out again. –TG


Self-Made Robots

The technology behind 3-D printing, or rapid prototyping, has been developing, well, rapidly. It’s also quickly branching out far beyond its initial use of making prototypes of industrial components. Guided by 3-D CAD software, the machines typically use ink-jet technology to manufacture objects from the bottom up, thin layer by thin layer. At Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute, researchers are now using 3-D printers to create “genetic robots” that automatically design and manufacture themselves. So-called genetic algorithms consider the job that needs to be done, then design a number of different robots and select and build the one best suited for that task. Meanwhile, 3-D printer manufacturer Stratasys recently teamed up with Kor EcoLogic to use two of its machines to create the entire outer body — including windshields — of the Urbee, an electric/gasoline hybrid car. There are no plans yet, however, to mass produce the two-passenger, three-wheel vehicle. Finally, researchers at Cornell University are developing a 3-D food printer. The device’s “inks” are raw food ingredients. For now, that’s limited to ingredients that can be squirted from a syringe — cookie batters or melted chocolate, for instance. But researchers envision a machine that one day could dish out an entire gourmet dinner. An acquired taste, for sure. – TG


Fresh Breezes

Wind turbines may have become much more efficient over the years, but most still are shaped like windmills. Now WinFlex, an Israeli company, has grabbed a GE Ecomagination Challenge prize for its design of a turbine that’s inflatable – like a bicycle tire, which it resembles. The air-filled wheel is made from a light, flexible composite material, as are the clothlike spokes connecting it to the hub. WinFlex says the design will cut installation costs by half, and that it’s more efficient and requires less maintenance than traditional turbines. Meanwhile, Francis Moon, a professor of mechanical engineering at Cornell University, working with a team of undergraduate students, developed a wind-power device that is turbine free. It’s called Vibro-Wind and uses 25 foam pads that oscillate when the wind blows. Those vibrations are turned into electricity by piezoelectric transducers. Unlike turbines, they’re fairly quiet, making them better suited for urban use. Moreover, unlike turbines, they pose no risk to birds, bats, and bees. They’re also much less expensive to make and require less space than turbines. Looks like renewable energy is feeling the winds of change. – TG

The percentage of Americans in a survey who are willing to see cuts in education as a way to reduce government spending. They were more willing to cut infrastructure (34 percent); science and medical research (26 percent); and aid to the unemployed and poor (21 percent). Eleven percent had no opinion. *


Try, Try Again

The United States and Mexico share a 1,900-mile-long border, and efforts to use technology — grids of sensors and virtual fences — to seal it off from illegal immigrants and smugglers have proved costly and largely ineffective. Can a new system called Helios, devised by a British company, finally provide a workable solution? Researchers at the University of Arizona, working with Tucson geophysical engineering firm Zonge, are trying to find out. Made by Fotech Solutions, a maker of optical fiber monitoring devices, Helios is a mix of fiber-optic cables, lasers, and detectors. If anything moves over the buried cables, it creates distortions in the laser pulses traveling through them. Those signals can be deciphered to indicate if the movement comes from humans, animals, or vehicles. The same technology has long been used to monitor things like bridges and dams for cracks and strains. “It’s a matter of scale,” Scott Urquhart, Zonge’s president, says of this version of the technology. Each section of cable would stretch for around 30 miles, so conceivably it could be laid in 64 end-to-end sections to monitor the entire border.

The Arizona researchers say it’s too early to tally costs, though they think it would be a cheaper remedy than others that have been tried. Oh, and the cable can’t be disabled by cutting through it. A severed cable will still issue an alert. – TG


Less Is More

In the aftermath of the property-market crash and subsequent Great Recession, Atlanta is suffering a major real-estate-in-the-red crisis. One of America’s most overbuilt cities, Atlanta now has 24 million square feet of empty office space. So what would happen if big chunks of those buildings were torn down and the space used to create parks? According to researchers at Georgia Tech’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, it would create $20 billion worth of economic development, 175,000 temporary jobs, and 100,000 permanent ones. In a project called Red Fields to Green Fields, the researchers are now studying whether similar results would befall five other metro areas across the United States.

The idea comes from fund manager Michael G. Messner, who financed the study. To pay for the acquisitions, a land bank federally funded with $200 billion would issue loans to developers. Adjacent land would be bought and banked for future sustainable development to help retire the loans. Studies show that land values near parkland typically increase and nearby businesses thrive. Meanwhile, shaky banks finally could take billions of dollars worth of toxic loans off their books. Writes Messner in a Washington Post op-ed piece: “Philanthropic entrepreneurs could use leverage to remake America, just as some of our bad developers used easy bank financing to help create the excesses.” Sounds like a walk in the park. – TG


Through the Haze

To fight forest fires, responders must be able to locate the source. And firefighters mostly rely on infrared cameras, which measure the intensity of heat radiation, to help pinpoint and target the flames. But if a fire is particularly smoky, the resulting dust particles make detection of infrared rays almost impossible. To the rescue come researchers at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute. They’ve developed a radiometer that can scan forest fires no matter how thick the smoke is. Its sensors work at low-range microwave frequencies of 8 and 40 GHz that are less affected by particles in the air. From a height of around 330 feet, a prototype – attached to the underbelly of an unmanned airship – was able to locate fires as small as 16.5 feet by 16.5 feet in very low visibility conditions. It can also help detect fires burning underground. That’s a big help, because after a forest fire is extinguished there are still dangerous pockets of fire smoldering beneath the earth. TG


Last Resort

Above the water line, it looks like a floating Slinky toy. But the concept hotel nicknamed the Ark is actually more clam shaped, its bottom half submerged below water. Designed by the Russian architectural firm Remstudio, the Ark is intended both to endure floods and to be environmentally friendly. The lower half would house its self-contained life-support systems. The arch shape would allow for the positioning of solar panels to more effectively capture the sun’s rays. It’s wrapped in a transparent polymer called Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene, or ETFE, which is not only energy-efficient, durable, self-cleaning, and recyclable, but lighter than glass. ETFE also was used in the recently opened, 495-foot-tall Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center in Kazakhstan designed by British architect Norman Foster. – TG


Arid Rain?

In Abu Dhabi’s eastern desert, where summer showers are very rare, a Swiss technology company claims it caused it to rain 52 times last summer during an $11 million government-funded experiment. Metro Systems International attributes the downpours to Weathertec, its “innovative rainfall-enhancement technology.” The device uses “ionizers” that release trillions of negatively charged particles into the atmosphere. As they rise with the hot air, they attract dust, and when moisture in the air clings to the clumps of dust, rain clouds form. MSI says it works when atmospheric humidity reaches 30 percent or more. Peter Wilderer, a sustainability expert at the Technical University of Munich, witnessed Weathertec in action and tells Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper that he’s convinced it works. Are desert rainbows on the horizon? – TG


Big Price, Little Result

Soon after BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and began spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico last April, a Dutch engineering firm recommended building 40 miles of sand berms — at a cost of $360 million — to stop the oil from reaching shore. Thad W. Allen, the retired Coast Guard admiral who oversaw the spill response, balked; a panel of experts told him it wouldn’t work. But Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal backed the plan and lobbied the federal government hard for construction of the berms. So late last May, Allen relented and OK’d them. But the presidential commission investigating the spill calls the effort “underwhelmingly effective” and “overwhelmingly expensive.” As of October, two months after the wellhead was capped, only 10 miles of a planned 40 miles of berms had been built – at a cost of $200 million. They had captured only 1,000 gallons of oil, a “minuscule” amount of the 4 million gallons released, the report says. The cost of the berms was paid by BP, which also doubted their efficacy, calling them at the time a “hurricane relief project.” Jindal has accused the commission of “partisan revisionist history.” Meanwhile, the commission’s final report says the catastrophic explosion and leak were avoidable and resulted from “a failure of management” by BP and its subcontractors Halliburton and Transocean. According to the Financial Times, the finding strongly raises the likelihood of criminal charges. –TG


Color Me Spoiled

A staggering 27 percent of all food sold for consumption in the United States ends up in dumps. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that food scraps constitute 12 percent of municipal landfills, making food the single largest component of the country’s waste stream. A lot of perfectly edible food is tossed out by consumers who think it may have “gone bad.” To help reduce that kind of waste, researchers at Scotland’s Strathclyde University are developing a plastic wrap that would change colors and warn consumers when the food inside is no longer fit to eat. “At the moment, we throw out too much food, which is environmentally and economically damaging,” says Andrew Mills, the professor of chemistry leading the project. The research has gotten $504,000 in funding from Scottish Enterprise, a government board. Some food-industry packaging has freshness indicators inserted inside labels, but that’s a costly technology. Mills seeks to develop an inexpensive wrap. It would have obvious health benefits, too. An estimated 76 million Americans contract food poisoning every year, and 5,000 of them die. So a smart wrap could help save lives. – TG

Lose the Lectures
By Thomas K. Grose

A physics professor relies on Q&A, class discussions.

As a young physics professor at Harvard in the 1980s, Eric Mazur was certain his lecture-hall classes were a huge success. And why wouldn’t they be? His students got top grades, and his teaching evaluations were stellar. But in the early ’90s, Mazur gave some of his students a series of tests that clearly showed they didn’t understand the underlying concepts of what he was teaching them — even the most basic. “My illusion of being a good teacher became unraveled,” Mazur admits.

His students were merely memorizing facts and regurgitating them and reproducing mathematical solutions that were not new. To Mazur, that’s not learning; for him, education is assimilating information and being able to use that knowledge to solve new problems. Stuff learned by rote is quickly forgotten; but understanding is something students never lose, he believes.

So Mazur – a world-renowned researcher of ultrafast optics, particularly short-pulse lasers – began investigating another topic that’s since become a second, major research area for him: science education. And he ultimately developed a novel, interactive teaching method for lecture-hall classes – Peer Instruction – that over the past decade has come into wide use around the world in a variety of disciplines.

Essentially, Mazur dispenses with lectures. Instead, he teaches by asking questions – after all, isn’t science an inquiry-based discipline? Ahead of classes, students are assigned to read a certain text or watch a video, but in the classroom itself, it’s Q&A time. And integral to the method is students teaching students, hence the title, Peer Instruction. Mazur asks a question about a concept, and gives students a minute or two to reflect, then another two to three minutes to discuss the question in groups of five or six and come up with a consensus answer.

Mazur stumbled upon the method when he had trouble getting a group of students to understand a simple (to him) principle, Newton’s Third Law. In frustration, he told them to discuss it among themselves. They did. And they came up with the right answer.

Recent research by his Mazur Group indicates that the method does help students grasp concepts that once eluded them. There’s also evidence it helps close the gender gap in grades, and improves the retention of freshman and junior students in science majors. It works, Mazur says, because those students who have deduced the correct answer have only just mastered that knowledge, so are more attuned to why their peers are still in the dark and hence can more intuitively guide them to enlightenment. The method’s been documented in his book, Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual, and in an award-winning DVD he coproduced,Interactive Teaching.

Mazur also pioneered the now popular use of wireless remotes, or “clickers,” in the classroom to help gauge student understanding of material. He stresses, however, that “it’s the pedagogy that matters, not the technology.” His earliest attempts at interactive teaching used flashcards in lieu of clickers.

The Netherlands-born Mazur, 56, who is also dean of applied physics, continues to look for better ways to teach science. Lecture demonstrations are perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of physics classes, but passive viewing of demonstrations doesn’t enhance student understanding, studies show. So his group is looking for ways to make demonstrations more effective, while keeping the fun intact.

He’s also critical of researchers who find teaching a chore. Mazur finds it “shocking” that academia is so unsystematic in its approach to instruction. “I am a professor. I am supposed to be a teacher.”

Thomas K. Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent, based in the United Kingdom.

Engineering Trumps Science

Design details and urgent problem-solving, not study, save the day.

The day after 33 Chilean miners were brought safely to the surface after being trapped underground for 70 days, a newspaper story carried the headline: “Chile’s Rescue Formula: ‘75% Science, 25% Miracle.’ ” But the headline misquoted the topographer who had directed the drilling that located the miners. What she actually had said was even quoted in the body of the article: “It was 75 percent engineering and 25 percent miracle.” Did the headline writer see science where engineering was clearly said and meant? Did the headline writer really believe that science and engineering are equivalent?

Engineering is not a synonym for science; it is more than science. Had science alone been relied upon to rescue the miners, they might still be there. Science is about studying what is; engineering is about doing something about things as we find them. Engineers may exploit scientific knowledge in seeking solutions to problems, but engineering is about going beyond science into the realm of design.

It was the prior design of a novel drill bit that enabled a rescue shaft to be driven through 2,000 feet of solid rock in less than half the time originally estimated by Chilean officials. The bit had been engineered by a small Pennsylvania company called Center Rock. What distinguished it from conventional drill bits was that it incorporated hammers that crushed the pieces of loose rock that were produced by the drilling.

But engineering is more than just employing clever pieces of machinery. It is also about devising schemes and systems that enable the machines to be used wisely and efficiently in the context of the problem at hand. In Chile, the damaged mine was located in a desert area where the volcanic rock contained no water. Had water been present, the liquid would have absorbed the hammers’ energy, thereby slowing down progress on crushing the stone.

But the crushed rock still had to be removed from the shaft. This might normally have been done by introducing drilling mud, which would have carried the loosened material up to the surface for disposal. In the Chilean mine rescue, the crushed rock pieces were allowed to drop through the small bore hole that had been drilled first to locate the miners and then used as a pilot hole to guide the Center Rock drill bit. Collectively, all of these engineering design decisions — not science — enabled the rescue shaft to be advanced at record speed.

Even before the shaft was completed, rescuers knew they had to solve another engineering problem: how to bring the miners safely up to the surface. International teams, whose players ranged from Chilean naval engineers to NASA aerospace engineers, contributed to the design of a rescue capsule that would move smoothly down and up the shaft without binding. And they did so, again with the speed of urgent engineering problem-solving rather than the more casual pace of scientific studying.

The Chilean mine rescue was a triumphant engineering achievement. It was in stark contrast to the comedy of errors that accompanied efforts earlier in the year to stanch the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Those efforts, which were subject to the often politically motivated oversight, review, and veto by scientists ranging from regulatory environmentalists to a Nobel-laureate physicist, did not let the engineers freely do their creative thing. Had they been allowed to do so, the oil that gushed from the failed blowout preventer might have been stopped sooner than it was. But then, would the newspaper headlines have credited engineering or science with the accomplishment?

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. He is the author of, among other books, The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems.



Conference Plenary will recognize JEE’s centennial and the Jamieson-Lohmann report.

Honoring Two Achievements


Celebrations are enjoyable and uplifting. They allow us to recognize accomplishments and renew our enthusiasm for charging ahead. I hope that in reading this letter, you will experience both the joy in seeing what we have achieved in one area of ASEE and a desire to contribute to future milestones.

Two recent ASEE milestones worthy of our celebrating together deal with the fundamental nature of education — helping others acquire new knowledge and skills. And both achievements have involved casts of thousands. I am speaking of the 100th anniversary of the Journal of Engineering Education and the release of the report Creating a Culture for Scholarly and Systematic Innovation in Engineering Education by Leah H. Jamieson and Jack R. Lohmann. Both reflect the values and responsibility of a society with “education” as part of its name.

JEE’s centennial means that as an organization we have been responsible for 100 years of professional communications on subjects that have shaped the way we educate, what we teach, how our curricula are designed, and what experiences supplement that curricula. JEE allows each generation of educators to communicate with the next generation in a seamless fashion, and to push the boundaries in various ways. Building upon previous ideas and being influenced by the times in which they live, each academic generation has left its fingerprints on the engineering education experience of today.

The journal’s archives remind us that the space race a half century ago launched more than rockets. It focused the nation’s attention on science and engineering and shifted our curriculum to include more of each with a greater emphasis on theory. The pendulum swung back a few decades later as we began to recognize that in addition to theoretical depth, there was a need to connect theory with application and to make room for hands-on design experiences. Now, colleges of engineering find themselves tackling topics related to access to and persistence in engineering education, accountability, interdisciplinary education, globalization, and innovation. These subjects, too, will influence engineering and engineering technology education in the future.

Our second hallmark is the release of the Jamieson-Lohmann report. Shaped by conversations among hundreds of members and survey input from the nation’s engineering academic leaders, the report addresses the various realms of engineering education research. We could not have predicted its contents when discussions began at the 2006 Annual Conference. I witnessed how this dialogue triggered thinking among our members when I was invited to speak at the 2006 Middle Atlantic Section Fall Meeting. I took the opportunity to pose questions to the audience — most of whom were self-described engineering education practitioners. We were discussing how engineering education research topics are identified. Several participants indicated that they felt removed from the process. Others, however, acknowledged that they were in a position to guide what type of research should be conducted. By the end of the meeting, audience members identified several actions they could pursue, such as using engineering education research findings when considering their own practices, discussing findings and methods with colleagues, coauthoring and reviewing papers, and learning about methodologies in related fields. By engaging in this manner, they recognized that they would be better equipped to bring the teaching and learning challenges they experienced to the forefront and contribute to research agenda questions. We saw these ideas surface in the Phase I report by Jamieson and Lohmann, which elaborates on the various roles of researcher and practitioner.

We will recognize both of these milestones at the 2011 Annual Conference Main Plenary session. Educators, researchers, and practitioners will highlight the cycle in which research shapes practice and practice influences research. Jeffrey Froyd (Texas A&M), Jack Lohmann (Georgia Tech) and Karl Smith (Purdue) helped me bring to life a plenary session which celebrates our achievements and will further illustrate our collec-tive commitment to education. For anyone who has ever planned a celebration, you know that it can be both exhilarating and daunting. We have thought about what we will provide, how the audience will engage, and what they will take away from the event. As with most celebrations these days, we will capture it on video, but we will also provide a short synopsis and a resource list — all in an effort to enable the audience to continue their work to influence the education of today and tomorrow.


Renata S. Engel is president of ASEE.


At the ninth annual ASEE Global Colloquium, which took place Oct. 18 to 21, 2010, in Singapore, engineering educators from around the world got an up-close look at one of Asia’s most innovative countries and made a formal commitment to improving engineering education. The meeting, one of five that comprised the weeklong World Engineering Education Forum (WEEF), coincided with the first full conference of the Global Engineering Deans Council (GEDC), the annual summit of the International Federation of Engineering Education Societies (IFEES), the Global Student Forum (GSF), and the biennial conference of the International Association for Continuing Engineering Education (IACEE). More than 600 participants from 40 countries as distant as South America and the Middle East attended the forum, underscoring Singapore’s status as an academic and economic “hub.” Asia was particularly well represented, with at least 110 attendees from Singapore and 150 from China, India, and South Korea taking part in the week’s events.

“Asian nations are very serious in their desire to be at the ‘head of the line’ with regard to innovation in engineering education,” noted Satish Udpa, dean of engineering at Michigan State University and cochair of the 2010 colloquium. He pointed to the Singapore University of Technology and Design as an example of the “groundbreaking initiatives” the country has launched, calling “the vision and the ‘educational architecture’ ” envisaged by its founders “a revolutionary step forward.”

The forum officially opened at the impressive, newly built Marina Bay Sands resort with a Main Plenary that featured Yaacob Ibrahim, Singapore’s minister for the environment and water resources, and Richard Miller, president of Olin College in Needham, Mass. Both spoke of the need for engineering educators to prepare students for an increasingly complex and rapidly developing world.

The Poster Presentation, a popular event of the ASEE Global Colloquium, drew many participants and offered a chance for them to network, interact, and discuss ideas. (All papers presented are available on the ASEE website.) The Socioeconomic Plenary, another trademark of the colloquium, was an informative session on the evolution of Singapore from a bustling port to today’s pluralistic modern city-state. “I would have wanted every student who went to Singapore to attend that session,” commented ASEE President Renata Engel. “The speaker was extraordinary.”

The WEEF had a celebratory moment in the inaugural IFEES Award Banquet, when Richard Felder was recognized as the first recipient of the IFEES Global Award for Excellence in Engineering Education. The Hoechst Celanese Professor Emeritus of Chemical Engineering at North Carolina State University is the innovator behind the National Effective Teaching Institute and an influential figure in faculty training in Indian engineering schools through the Indo-U.S. Collaboration on Engineering Education. In his acceptance speech, Felder sought to dispel “academic myths,” asking the audience to challenge assumptions behind typical practices in engineering education.

The week concluded with the signing of a formal declaration outlining steps to be undertaken to improve engineering education and help solve the engineering grand challenges of today. Attendees were called upon to recognize the worldwide need to innovate and renovate engineering education at all levels. Steps include developing sustainable education programs with robust domestic faculties and greater interdisciplinary breadth, focusing on global challenges, and fostering the socially inclusive attitudes and cross-cultural understanding required to unleash the creative power of diverse thinking. Jennifer DeBoer, past president of SPEED, the Student Platform for Engineering Education Development, led the initiative, partnering with WEEF organizations to draft the Singapore Declaration during the months leading up to the forum.

“Science and engineering are universal, and there is no benefit in thinking that engineering colleagues in the United States are in competition with colleagues and colleges abroad,” Paul Peercy, dean of engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and cochair of the 2010 GEDC Conference, reflected. “The next generation of students is getting an outstanding education in science and engineering that is not geographically bound. The laws of physics are universal, need to be respected, and are independent of geography. Laws of economics also need to be respected. And it is critical that engineering fits into the local culture and provides value to society. The fundamental principle is that engineering improves the quality of people’s lives and meets the needs of our society and world.”

While the colocating of five events presented organizational and logistical challenges, many participants enjoyed the WEEF and valued the benefits of attending. Leaders of the five organizations already are starting to plan for similar joint events this year and in 2012.

—By Stephanie Eng 

It Takes an Engineer
By Andy Lau

Experience in practice matters more than a Ph.D. in teaching undergraduates.

If you want to prepare undergraduates to practice engineering, then most engineering faculty should have significant experience as practicing engineers. As obvious as this sounds, it is seldom the case.

During the past century, and particularly after World War II, undergraduate engineering education changed from a practical, applied, and experiential discipline to a mathematical, scientific, and theoretical one. The faculty, too, went from being professionals and practitioners to academics with Ph.D.’s but little or no experience as practicing professionals. Just look at the Prism classifieds for what universities are seeking in their faculty hires: research funding and a Ph.D.

I confess that like old-school faculty, I have only a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. I do, however, have substantial experience as an engineer and have been a professional engineer (P.E.) for 26 years. I worked in engineering for five years between my B.S. and M.S. and have served as an engineering consultant for 25 years, including 10 years in a green building consulting partnership. I’ve been at Penn State for 26 years, having started in engineering technology when experience was valued more than a doctorate.

In fairness to my colleagues, many of them are good teachers, and some worked as engineers prior to grad school. Some also do research for industry. I don’t deny that this is engineering too, but the work one does as a Ph.D. engineer is different from the engineering done by the majority of engineers without advanced degrees.

Undergraduates benefit from engineering faculty members who are good teachers and who have a first-hand knowledge and understanding of what matters in the workplace. Many learners need context that makes sense and is representative of what they will be doing as engineers. In its 2010 study, “Enabling Engineering Student Success,” the Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education reported on a survey of students who had some co-op or internship experiences during their education. It found that “40 percent of seniors didn’t see school experiences as contributing to their knowledge of engineering practice.”

A further benefit of having experienced practitioners as instructors is that we may attract or retain a lot of students who would make great engineers but are turned off by an emphasis on theory and science.

Not long ago ago, Richard Felder, the Hoechst Celanese Professor Emeritus of Chemical Engineering at North Carolina State University and a well-known scholar of engineering education, spoke at Penn State about how we can really improve undergraduate engineering education. Felder, too, calls for a more professionally diverse faculty. Yes, we need researchers to teach graduate students and do cutting-edge research. That is one thing we do well, and it is the predominant model for engineering faculty.

But Felder went on to say we also need other types of faculty. One cohort would be those with significant experience as practicing engineers, maybe as signified by a P.E. license and an exemplary portfolio of accomplishments. We also need faculty whose interest, skills, and scholarship are in teaching and learning.

There is no educational reason to require a Ph.D. of all faculty; it may even detract from the relevance of the education that universities seek to provide. If we want to demonstrate that we really do care about the quality of undergraduate engineering, we need to change the type of faculty we hire and nurture.

Andy Lau is an associate professor of engineering at Penn State, where he is also coordinator of first-year seminars for the College of Engineering and the first-year engineering design program.