March + April 2011

NSF’s director wants to tear down barriers to research collaboration.

To understand Subra Suresh’s vision for the National Science Foundation, it helps to know the intent behind a sleek new stone-and-glass structure jutting sharply toward the corner of Main and Ames streets in Cambridge, Mass. Inside are six floors of laboratories designed, as Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Susan Hockfield put it, to be “a cauldron for unexpected collaborations” and break new ground in cancer research. Named for $100 million donor David H. Koch, a billionaire industrialist and MIT alumnus who has battled prostate cancer, the center unites engineering research faculty from multiple fields with molecular geneticists and cell biologists.

Suresh, MIT’s dean of engineering from 2006 until he became NSF director last fall, revels in the intellectual combustion such ventures promise. More than linking people from separate disciplines, he encourages new styles of research and innovation that draw upon disparate fields to open fresh routes to progress. Former MIT President Charles Vest credits Suresh with being a leader in helping to create not only the cancer research center but also campuswide collaborative efforts in computational engineering and “Transportation@MIT.” The latter initiative pulls together hundreds of engineers, scientists, architects, urban planners, economists, and even behavioral scientists to improve transportation from the standpoint of sustainability, technology, business practices, and public policy.

As head of the country’s leading basic-research funder, Suresh is now in a position to promote the same kind of cross-cutting investigations on a national or even global scale. NSF is exactly the place for such collaborations, he believes; its portfolio is the most diverse of all federal granting agencies, and today’s most complex problems demand new modes of attack.

“One of the most important things I took away from MIT was how we can facilitate exciting research opportunities for the community by tearing down disciplinary barriers,” he tells Prism. “We are at a point in time in science and engineering where many different problems are so complex that multiple disciplines are converging in interesting ways that weren’t anticipated just 10 years ago.”

The NSF’s annual budget of about $7 billion funds all fields of science and engineering except clinical medicine, supplying some 20 percent of the government’s support for basic research in disciplines as different as anthropology, mechanical engineering, and environmental biology. It also funds a range of educational programs both academic and informal, including museums and television documentaries. And although NSF has long championed interdisciplinary approaches, insiders say it has met with limited success in changing the culture of a research community in which most leaders came up in the old ways of walled-off disciplines.

Vest, now president of the National Academy of Engineering, calls Suresh’s appointment “inspired,” adding: “He is well positioned by research and teaching experience to really understand what needs to be done to make NSF … more flexible and adept at supporting and empowering truly interdisciplinary research.”

Suresh’s enthusiasm for synergistic approaches comes at least partly from his own experience. In some 30 years of applying the tools of engineering to scientific problems — and vice versa — he has built what, by all accounts, is a stellar record of achievement in fields as different as fatigue-crack propagation in materials, the characteristics of thin films such as those in computer chips, and changes in the mechanical properties of living cells in disease and health. His research subjects have ranged from bridges to malaria-infected red blood cells, which, Suresh discovered, become a hundred times stiffer and more resistant to flowing through capillaries. He has published at least 210 papers in international journals, written three books and coedited five more, and holds 14 U.S. and international patents. Collaborations with microbiologists and other scientists here and overseas have led to, among other things, advances in the new interdisciplinary field of nanobiomechanics.

Both Scientist & Engineer

A longtime collaborator, Ares Rosakis, chair of engineering and applied sciences at Caltech, says Suresh “represents a superb combination of science and engineering. He can operate as a scientist, and then he can operate as an engineer. And when the project demands it, he can be both.” He’s atypical in another way, Rosakis adds: “One of the things that was quite amazing in working with Subra was that his approach was never only theoretical or only experimental. He could be both. He would always insist that we look at the problem and bring into it whatever tools we needed.”

Like himself, Suresh observes, today’s young researchers increasingly have broad-spectrum outlooks and are stymied by traditional boundaries. “We don’t want them to be falling through disciplinary cracks, either because that’s how NSF is organized or universities are organized.”

One way to soften boundaries at NSF, Suresh says, is to encourage “intellectual engagement seamlessly across the institution” among the dozen or so directorates and programs, and also vertically from the director on down. “This is one of the priorities for us internally. If a young person is working at the intersection of three or four disciplines, how do we make sure that the proposal is evaluated by the right people? How do we set up merit review processes for a truly revolutionary idea that may be considered too high risk by some communities but may have high reward? How do we foster it and select it and fund it?”

Uppermost, he says, is the nexus of energy, climate, and transportation, a priority he shares with Energy Secretary Steven Chu and John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. A major NSF effort is Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability, or SEES. Its clean-energy research projects take what Suresh calls “a broad and cross-disciplinary approach to sustainability science,” reaching across engineering and natural and social sciences. Begun in the final year of his predecessor, Arden Bement, SEES would get a hefty one-third increase, over current spending, in President Obama’s fiscal 2012 budget.

New under Suresh is Cyberinfrastructure for 21st-Century Science and Engineering, or CIF21, comprising data-enabled science and engineering, computational infrastructure, community research networks, and access and connections to cyberinfrastructure facilities. It’s aimed, he said in his budget announcement, at offering a “framework for people, instruments, and tools to address complex problems and conduct multidisciplinary research.”

Suresh is quick to rebut suggestions that his stress on innovation, and the economic benefits that result, means he’s abandoning NSF’s tradition of long-term fundamental research. He quotes Vannevar Bush, the agency’s intellectual father and an early predecessor as engineering dean at MIT: “New products and new processes do not appear full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science!”

“At the same time,” Suresh notes, “without diverting too many NSF dollars, there are opportunities to nudge fundamental research toward shorter-term benefits. Agencies like NSF and other federal agencies must find opportunities for the fruits of basic research to reach a broader cross section of industry and the population sooner than they have in the past.”

Suresh, 54, reached the pinnacle of American science from fairly modest beginnings as the son of a local government employee and a homemaker in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Something of a prodigy in high school, he joined debating teams in three languages: Sanskrit, Hindi, and Tamil, the local language. He also studied English throughout school and eventually added French and some German. Fleetingly, he thought of a career in the foreign service, but chose engineering as a path to financial success and an opportunity to go abroad. After getting a bachelor of technology degree from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras (now Chennai), one of 15 elite science and engineering schools, he pursued a master’s at Iowa State University. He chose the school because it was in America, had no application fee, and offered the best financial package. Some of the better-known schools, he recalls, charged $15 to apply.

“Unusually Savvy”

From Iowa, he went to MIT and in less than two years completed a doctorate on fracture propagation in fatigued steel. Suresh describes the research in eminently practical terms as “why things break,” be they skyscraper girders or blowout preventers. His adviser then, Robert Ritchie, was impressed with Suresh’s interest in real-world matters: “I think we’ll see Subra try to steer NSF to focus more on today’s problems and less on those of 30 years out. He’ll probably do it by trying to marry science and engineering so you get both approaches working together.”

When Ritchie left MIT for the University of California, Berkeley, he took Suresh with him for a postdoc there and at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, where the two continued working on fatigue cracks.

From California, Suresh landed an assistant professorship of engineering at Brown, making full professor six years later. Brown’s head of engineering then, L.B. “Ben” Freund, remembers Suresh as “unusually savvy” for someone so young: “He knew how to assess areas of interest to decide what was worth the time and investment in terms of getting something useful done and what wasn’t. He didn’t have much patience for people who focused on deep scientific questions without considering what impact their work might have.”

Along the way, Suresh became a U.S. citizen and married an American. His wife, Mary, is director of public health for the town of Wellesley, Mass. Their two daughters, now in college, were taken on long visits to India as children to learn about their paternal heritage.

After 10 years at Brown, Suresh went back to MIT in 1993 as a professor of materials science and engineering. A standout not just in the lab but in managing people with competing interests, Suresh was given various program directorships — coaxing MIT and Harvard to work together in a joint center and helping create a joint educational and research program among MIT and two universities in Singapore. In 2000, Suresh became head of MIT’s materials science and engineering program. Six, years later he was promoted to dean.

In four years as dean, Suresh added 50 new faculty members to the engineering school. He led a redesign of the curriculum to make it easier for students to work effectively across educational silos. He instituted interdepartmental faculty searches, giving other schools a say in who gets hired, and stepped up recruitment of women and underrepresented minorities. In his last year as dean, the school for the first time hired more women than men as faculty members.

“His management style is gentle,” Freund says. “He doesn’t do things by diktat but by gentle persuasion. It’s very effective.”

When Suresh’s appointment was announced last year, most science policy insiders didn’t recognize the name. But colleagues, especially in engineering departments, were ecstatic. They knew of his research and recognized that as dean of engineering, he ran about half of MIT. They praised his managerial abilities and his relentless determination to improve the way things are done, describing him as highly organized, driven but mild mannered, and focused on real- world problems. They predict that his clear, well-prepared speaking style will make him a persuasive advocate.

A measure of his success inside the administration is the 13 percent increase, over current spending, for NSF in President Obama’s fiscal 2012 budget – in a year when many other accounts have been frozen or cut. But Congress, which holds the power of the purse, will be a harder nut to crack – particularly the GOP-controlled House. Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, where NSF is headquartered, provided an early warning when he invited the public to weigh in with comment on wasteful research projects.

A Push for Diversity

If Suresh is anxious that Congress could curtail his ambitious expansion of research, it’s not his only concern. Speaking recently to the President’s Advisory Council on Science and Technology, he recalled that among his graduating IIT class, a large majority chose to pursue graduate study in the United States and ended up staying here. Today, that same proportion is finding career opportunities in a more prosperous India. “I worry whether in 10 or 20 years the U.S. will remain the chosen destination for people from countries that now supply a large share of our scientific and engineering workforce,” he tells Prism.

His response to the falloff in science and engineering talent arriving from abroad: a reinvigorated effort to bring American women and underrepresented minorities into science and engineering fields.

Increasing workforce diversity in science and engineering, Suresh says, leaning forward from a chair in his spacious Arlington, Va., office at NSF headquarters, is one of his prime goals. Women, he says, are entering research in greater proportions than ever but drop out before establishing long-term careers, most often because of family pressures. Suresh sympathizes, but he sees each dropout as a loss of American brainpower in the research world. He is talking with university presidents to find ways that NSF and other federal agencies can help trim the dropout rate. For minorities, he says the news is not good either from the standpoint of entry into science and engineering studies or in retention.

“By 2040, the U.S. will be a majority minority country,” Suresh says. “So how do we address that issue? Many minorities are severely underrepresented, and we need to fix that issue before it’s too late.”

He believes that America must maintain its attractiveness to foreign students at least until the quality of primary and secondary education in science and mathematics is good enough to produce a larger native-born workforce, especially including women and minorities. If other nations keep more of their young people and Americans have not taken up the slack, Suresh fears the country may lose its leadership position.

As Suresh talks, his face shows a hint of a smile that suggests the tougher the challenge, the more he likes it.

Boyce Rensberger is a freelance writer specializing in science and science policy.

An Intel cofounder observed that advances in computer chips double their performance roughly every two years. Now, researchers are struggling to prove this “law” still holds.

Standing before a room of investors and analysts last May, Bill Holt, the senior executive at Intel responsible for keeping his company at the forefront of semiconductor innovation, stated flatly, “We believe in Moore’s Law.” That he needed to say so spoke volumes about the mood of uncertainty in the semiconductor industry. For decades, makers of integrated circuits kept pace with a 1965 observation by Intel cofounder Gordon Moore that chip performance doubles approximately every one to two years. And, in fact, computer processing speed and memory capacity grew exponentially, driving dynamic technological advances across the economy.

But now, this longtime article of faith is being tested, shaking industry expectations and potentially affecting not only the many sectors of society that depend on growing computer performance but U.S. technological leadership overall. One reason is the amount of power required to achieve faster speeds, especially in a world of battery-powered portable devices. Another is that the number of transistors that can be crammed onto chips of a given size is nearing its supposed limit. “To ensure that computing systems continue to double in performance every few years, we need to make significant changes in computer software and hardware,” says Samuel H. Fuller, chief technology officer and vice president of research and development for Analog Devices Inc. in Norwood, Mass. He chaired a National Academies panel calling for extensive research to address a “crisis in computing performance.”

Nevertheless, even as the computer industry looks to resolve other bottlenecks to keep up with Moore’s Law, the immense strides that the semiconductor industry itself has made in the past offer grounds for optimism. Kelin Kuhn, one of Intel’s semiconductor gurus, points out that “key technologists in each generation of this long history have also looked forward and predicted the ‘end of scaling’” – as in scaling down to smaller sizes – “within one or two generations. However, each time the technology reached the predicted barriers, scaling did not stop. Instead, imaginative new solutions were developed to further extend Moore’s Law and the transistor-scaling road map.” But the stakes are high, development costs will be steep, and only the biggest and best-financed firms may come out winners.

Building Upward

To get a sense of what electrical engineers and computer scientists are tackling, think of an integrated circuit as a big city with thousands of streets and intersections. This “city” is relatively flat – thus the name “chip” – and it’s also very tightly packed, akin to having narrow alleys for streets. The electrical current flows around like traffic, and the transistors are like the intersections. To perform computation, the flow of current is switched on and off across the various transistors around the circuit as quickly as possible while trying not to dissipate energy along the way. Ideally, it would be like having Ferraris driving fullthrottle through the alleyways of Rome and through intersections with stoplights that are only red or green, no yellow – without accidents. Precision is the name of the game, especially when the streets are now only nanometers wide.

Among the hottest areas of research-and-development activity are non-planar transistors, III-V compound semiconductors, and carbon-based nanoelectronics.

Although transistors have traditionally occupied only a very thin layer on the surface of the chip, the idea with non-planar transistors is to take advantage of opportunities in the vertical dimension by re-creating the transistor as a more efficient three-dimensional structure (though still vanishingly small). This could allow more control over the flow of current, with less of a footprint on the surface of the chip. Meanwhile, III-V semiconductors, like gallium arsenide, are already used in special-purpose chips because they have superior electro-optical performance, but they have had trouble competing with silicon in cost and manufacturability. For the most part, non-planar transistors and III-V semiconductors are medium-term innovations to allow the current paradigm to keep scaling.

Some of this kind of work is being done in academia – for example, through the Focus Center Research Program within the Semiconductor Research Corp. (SRC), an industrywide research consortium. But much of the work is being done in the companies themselves as it makes the transition from research to development. One likely course for these medium-term innovations is as specialized enhancements to silicon-based circuitry. “If a company were to use III-V materials to enhance the transistor speed, they would only use it sparingly on certain parts of the chip, not for the entire chip,” says Tsu-Jae King Liu, a professor and associate dean for research at the University of California, Berkeley, College of Engineering. “For the rest of the chip that doesn’t have to operate at the fastest speeds, it would actually be cheaper and lower power to implement in silicon.” And it’s not as if these innovations don’t have hurdles to clear.

In the case of non-planar transistors, “it’s more the patterning,” says Jeff Welser, an IBM semiconductor specialist who directs the Nanoelectronics Research Initiative at SRC. He’s referring to the intricate circuit patterns etched on the surface of a chip in the process of lithography, which advanced to photolithography. “When you do lithography over a 3-D structure, it’s very difficult because you have to focus at different heights. Given how much we’re pushing lithography already, you get very little focal depth, so you really want to have very planar surfaces.”

For him, the “the biggest concern about these structures is the amount of parasitic capacitance and resistance” – the extra energy that has to be expended moving electrical charge around the circuit – “for all these layers of things you have to put on.” On the other hand, Welser says, the challenge with III-V semiconductors, “at least historically, has been that you don’t have a really good oxide to go on top of them to insulate the gate,” a critical component for efficient transistor operation. “Arguably, the reason silicon beat the III-Vs is silicon dioxide was such a beautiful insulator.”

Looking farther out, carbon-based nanoelectronics – using nanotubes and nanoribbons made out of graphene, a single-atomic-layer sheet of carbon – is currently the leading candidate for a more fundamental paradigm shift. According to the 2009 International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS) report, carbon-based nanoelectronics “exhibits high potential and is maturing rapidly.” At the moment, though, the technology is still largely in the hands of academic researchers. And Jeff Welser’s job is to make sure that research gets done. “The thing that’s interesting about carbon right now is it can serve two different purposes: one, you can use it to make a FET [field-effect transistor, the current standard], whether it’s a nanotube or graphene, that can potentially be a higher performance FET than what you get with silicon; it also might be useful for interconnects between silicon transistors; it’s an extremely good thermal conductor, so it might help you with getting rid of some of the heat that you’re trying to dissipate on these chips right now. The other aspect that I think makes carbon even more attractive as an area to put your money into for far-out research is it’s got very different physics, particularly in the graphene, in terms of the way electrons move in it that you could use maybe to try to make totally different types of switches, maybe a switch based on spintronics, where you’re manipulating the spin of the electron, or one based on something called pseudo-spintronics, where you’re taking advantage of a quantum property of an electron in graphene that’s unique to the graphene structure.”

Subhasish Mitra, an assistant professor in the Departments of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Stanford, notes that as recently as four years ago, researchers “could not even demonstrate anything, and there were some very fundamental challenges.” However, more recent work “has shown that you can get around all that, and that’s why today, four years later, you can actually build complex-enough designs, and there’s nothing fundamental against being able to build big designs using carbon nanotubes.” Of course, there’s still plenty of research to be done. “It’s really up in the air,” he says, about where carbon-based nanoelectronics is going. “If you’re talking about whether we can build something, yes, we can. If you’re talking about whether we’re far away from the promised benefits, we’re very far away.”

According to Mitra, one concern is “the density of carbon nanotubes. When you grow carbon nanotubes, you would like to have roughly around 250 nanotubes per micron; we would get maybe around 10 carbon nanotubes per micron on a good day.” He also notes that work still needs to be done on doping and contact materials, which are needed to make the semiconductor useful. Moreover, according to Welser and King Liu, carbon-based electronics will also probably be introduced as add-ons to silicon, given the latter’s built-in advantages. Welser says that “one of the things we realized early on was, if you were going to continue to build a FET switch, silicon can probably get you absolutely as far as any other material can get you. Certainly you might want to change to three-dimensional structures, you might want to change to III-V materials, you might even want to change to carbon nanotubes, because they might give you improved performance at that same dimension, but none of them will necessarily scale that much further than silicon, so you really are looking for improved performance without improving the scaling path.” The larger lesson, he points out, is that “too many people have lost their careers betting against silicon.” Indeed, according to Dimitri Antoniadis, an MIT professor who runs one of the Focus Centers doing research to extend the current silicon-based paradigm, the material “scales quite gracefully.” And so, notwithstanding the potential for breakthrough innovation, the industry will probably continue improving today’s approach “until it’s dead,” affirms Robert Trew, director of the electrical, communications, and cybersystems division in the National Science Foundation’s engineering directorate.

Who Will Survive?

Whether a successor approach can be ready before the current one is exhausted is what worries Samuel Fuller and others on his National Academies panel. They urge a major research investment in parallel computing, calling this the only known alternative for improving computer performance without significantly increasing costs and energy use. Parallel computing divides a program into parts that are then executed on distinct processors. The problem is to match parallel software with parallel hardware. “The next generation of discoveries will require advances at both the hardware and software levels,” the panel’s report says.

If the government isn’t prepared to make this investment, it will be up to industry to decide which course promises the best return for its R&D dollars. Moore’s original 1965 article presented a series of improving cost curves. Unfortunately, to get to the bottom of the cost curve, you have to climb to the top of the investment curve. These days, a leading-edge manufacturing facility costs upwards of $4 billion. The 2009 ITRS report noted that it was “difficult for most people in the semiconductor industry to imagine how we could continue to afford the historic trends of increase in process equipment and factory costs for another 15 years!” But if you can afford that kind of investment, economies of scale can allow you to keep up with Moore’s Law at near-constant cost per chip. According to Dean Freeman, a semiconductor industry analyst at Gartner Research, “If I am Intel or a Samsung, I can keep heading down Moore’s Law ahead of my competition, stay profitable, and thus continue to afford to move to the next technology node.” The result is industry concentration. To drive this home, one of the slides at Intel’s meeting with investors and analysts last May was titled, “Fewer Companies Deliver Moore’s Law.”

Kevin Lewis is a columnist for the Ideas section of the Boston Globe.

Whet Their Appetite
Down-to-earth illustrations — like an exploding sausage — are among techniques shown to stimulate learning and student retention.
By Margaret Loftus

Casting about for everyday examples to drive home a thermodynamics principle, University of Louisville mechanical engineering Prof. Ellen Brehob looked no further than the drinking fountain outside her classroom. Short of lugging a refrigerator to class, she figured a water cooler would best illustrate the vapor-compression refrigeration cycle. “If you leave the water running, you can feel the cool air coming out,” she explains. Maintenance people forbade her from removing the front panel, but she got her pick of campus drinking fountains in various stages of disrepair. For her students, the demonstration proved more effective than equations and lectures, Brehob says. “This gave them a better visual idea of what these parts in the schematic could actually look like.”

Far from a gimmick, Brehob’s MacGyver-like move reflects an evidence-based approach now gaining traction among engineering educators — and support from the National Science Foundation. Studies show that using familiar examples, as opposed to theoretical or abstract ones, increases the likelihood that students will retain the lesson and ultimately persist in engineering majors. The power of commonplace connections to lift learning seems so promising that NSF sponsors a program to encourage the practice. Modeled after the Cooperative Extension Service in state land-grant institutions, Engaging Students in Engineering — orENGAGE – aims to help engineering schools improve retention, particularly among underrepresented students, by applying proven strategies in several targeted courses, including physics, fluids, and introduction to engineering. “Essentially, it’s getting research on retention off the shelves and into the undergraduate experience,” says Susan Metz, the program’s principal investigator and director of special projects in engineering education at Stevens Institute of Technology. “We bridge research and practice.”

Not an Overhaul

Launched last year, ENGAGE works with teams of engineering faculty to implement three classroom strategies known to boost learning. The first involves incorporating “everyday examples” into lectures, so that students see how complex concepts apply to skateboards, appliances, or Silly Putty. The other two techniques help forge engineering knowledge and identity by improving students’ spatial visualization skills and increasing interactions with faculty. The effort, advanced through seminars and webinars by top researchers in each strategy, is meant to enhance rather than overhaul the curriculum, says Metz. “We provide resources and technical assistance to help schools jump-start the initiatives at their own institutions,” she explains, noting that the research and webinars are available to any school seeking to launch its own initiative.

So far, 10 engineering schools have signed on, with another 10 participants to be announced next year. Most are big universities, allowing ENGAGE to reach the greatest number of students. Each school fields a four-person team to spearhead the effort; a $12,000 grant provides seed money to kick off activities, most of which are sustainable at little or no cost. Louisville Prof. Brehob, for instance, won a $500 stipend to embed real-life examples into her lessons, but resourcefulness netted the drinking fountain for free.

What distinguishes ENGAGE from similar initiatives is its reliance on proven research. Consider the everyday-examples component. It does not require faculty to change the way they teach, only that they include illustrations from daily life, notes Metz. “Instead of using weaponry and pipes, use musical instruments or skateboards,” she explains. “In a way, it’s so simple, but complexity comes in getting people to use them and adapt them.”

What Turns Students Off

Michigan State University mechanical engineering Prof. Eann Patterson, who consults on the real-life-examples initiative, understands that complexity. He initially developed the strategy as part of an NSF project examining how the engineering curriculum is constructed and its effect on underrepresented minorities. His team found that most students were turned off by the examples typically used to illustrate principles. “If you open an undergrad textbook in any subfield, it is filled with hundreds of examples that all look the same,” says Patterson. “If you go into a dynamics textbook, there are lots of bouncing balls and things on springs. It’s not very imaginative.” Real components or real devices rarely get mentioned, so students without some engineering experience can be left in the dark. “People think if you make the project simple, it will be easier, but our research shows that you don’t have to do that,” concludes Patterson. “Students will work on something quite hard if it really engages their attention.” To help faculty find that “wow” factor, Patterson’s team published a series of booklets with lesson plans and solutions using real-life examples. Among them: frying up a pan of sausages in class until their casings burst, memorably illustrating Mohr’s circle for stress.

ENGAGE participants can draw from these materials or, like Brehob, dream up their own examples. Another University of Louisville mini-grant recipient, chemical engineering Prof. Gerold Willing, is using Silly Putty and rubber balls to help explain the concepts of molecular weight and material properties. “It’s not something that a lot of people pick up on easily,” he says. “This way they’ve got something to picture in their head.” At Purdue University, mechanical engineering Prof. Eric Nauman has used everything from amusement park rides to moving sidewalks in teaching his students about friction. “In reviews for the class, students were more interested in the material and said they were able to apply it better,” he says. “From my perspective, it’s a success, because if nothing else, I’m teaching them how to look at the world around them in a different way.” (ASEE’s deputy executive director, Robert Black, is an ENGAGE advisory board member, as is incoming Executive Director Norman Fortenberry. Society staff assisted in preparing early publicity materials for the project.)

So far, ENGAGE’s most measurable component involves improving student spatial visualization skills. In her work at Michigan Tech, ENGAGE consultant and mechanical engineering Prof. Sheryl Sorby, director of the department’s engineering education and innovation research group, found that visual/spatial skills are crucial to success in undergraduate engineering coursework. In one study, students who scored poorly (18 or below) on an initial spatial skills assessment test and took a one-credit course to improve their skills averaged a 3.04 GPA in their first semester of engineering. That compares with a 2.6 average for peers who skipped the course. Using Sorby’s ENGAGE materials, Virginia Tech engineering education Prof. Richard Goff invited low scorers on the spatial skills test administered during summer orientation to enroll in a 10-week booster course. Participants raised their post-course score to an average of 21.4, up from 16.3.

The research is compelling about the gender divide, too. On average, says Sorby, 10 percent of men who take the test score an 18 or less, compared with one third of women. The spatial skill that has the strongest gender difference is the ability to mentally rotate something, she says, “and that’s the one most closely linked to success in engineering.” The extra course, however, can narrow that gap. At Michigan Tech, the retention rate for women in engineering who take the extra course is 77 percent, versus 48 percent for those who do not. At the University of Texas-Austin, an optional class based on the first five modules of Sorby’s one-credit course was administered within the Women in Engineering program last fall. Despite the shorter version, scores on the spatial visualization test climbed by three points on average, with one student’s score zooming from 13 to 21.

Less quantifiable, though no less significant in retaining engineering undergraduates, is student-faculty interaction. While such strategies as learning students’ names and saying hello outside of class may seem basic, they’ve been shown to positively influence retention rates, notes Carol Muller, Stanford University’s electrical engineering department manager and founder and former CEO of the nonprofit MentorNet, a national electronic mentoring network for women in engineering and science. Muller, whose research underlies ENGAGE’s third strategy, explains that encouraging more short-term interaction between faculty and students can have some of the same effects as mentoring without the large, often impractical, investment. “Small pieces of encouragement, and conveying that students can succeed in this field even if they have to work really hard,” she says, “can really help” increase engagement and enthusiasm for engineering. Based on her own studies and other research, Muller developed guidelines to help ENGAGE participants foster such daily exchanges. “These are classes where people learn a lot, fast, and often with a lot of peers,” observes Muller. “A lot of times, your energy is focused on ‘how can I convey all this information in 45 minutes?’ without thinking about things like interaction.”

A Cookie Break

Beyond content, such informal exchanges can communicate a sense of engineering as a discipline and profession. UT-Austin ENGAGE leader Tricia Berry, for instance, is adding an occasional 15-minute cookie break in first- and second-year engineering classes for professors to talk about themselves and their work. “We hope that the students can feel more comfortable with the faculty and see them more as a real person than someone who’s just standing up there lecturing,” she says. Robert Gustafson, director of Ohio State University’s Engineering Education Innovation Center and leader of the school’s faculty-student interaction effort, asked his graduate teaching fellows to review the ENGAGE guidelines with other faculty. The exercise raised awareness of the approach’s merits while sparking conversation around teaching and learning. “A simple cue like putting some positive feedback on a paper may be obvious, but you may not think about it in the heat of grading papers,” says Gustafson. “The things we’re talking about are not rocket science, but they are good things to talk about.” Some, especially cookie breaks and sizzling sausages, also make good eating.


Margaret Loftus is a freelance writer based in Boston.

A course based on a popular TV show helps dispel misconceptions about math.
By Alice Daniel

There’s a myth about Saskatchewan, Canada, that the topography is so flat you can watch your dog streak away from you for three days straight. Of course, you’d need a telescope to see Spot run, but they don’t call this a prairie province for nothing. The legend intrigued Steve Bosch, so he decided to test it. Drawing on trigonometry and geometry, together with information on the size of the Earth, he found that it was, in fact, pure myth: “Because of the curvature of the Earth, the dog would go out of sight in less than a day even if the ground appeared perfectly flat.”

Bosch performed the test last year as part of a senior course at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, where he was completing an undergraduate mechanical engineering degree. Called Busting Myths with Analysis, the course is based, in part, on the Discovery Channel’s popular show MythBusters.

The class grew out of a desire by its designers, mechanical engineering Prof. Warren Finlay and Associate Prof. Jason Carey, to show students what problems could be solved with the math sophistication they possessed. “Our students learn a lot of material in their undergrad years,” Finlay says. “They get overwhelmed and have a hard time absorbing it all and actually realizing what they know. This course aims to pull it all together.”

Both instructors had come to realize that mechanical engineering students tend to view math as peripheral to their education, and even to resent being asked to use any but the simplest of analytical tools.

It’s not that mechanical engineers are afraid of math, the professors say; their degree requires some understanding of calculus, linear algebra, ordinary differential equations, partial differential equations, transform methods, complex variables, computer programming, and numerical analysis. More likely, according to the instructors, students just don’t have the same passion for abstract math concepts as they have for more hands-on activities. They want to understand how things work, and they want their answers to have practical meaning, Carey says. “We know they’ve got the tools, but if they don’t see how math can be used as an application in engineering, they won’t appreciate it.” In addition, math courses are usually taught in a separate building and not by engineering professors, letting students infer that math is somehow of secondary importance.

Finlay had never watched MythBusters when he turned to the Web in search of a course that taught students to synthesize information, a skill in which many of them need practice. He found a few episodes of the show on YouTube and learned that some of his students loved it. Carey, for his part, has seen myriad episodes. He even identifies with one of the hosts – Adam Savage, the “louder, goofy” one – although he likes Kari Byron’s taste in heavy-metal music. Finlay, his colleague contends, is more like Jamie Hyneman, the “smart, calm” one.

MythBusters is compelling, in part, because the hosts tap a wide array of knowledge to debunk or prove commonly held notions. Adapted for the classroom, the professors decided, it could teach students how to better synthesize all the information they have learned in both engineering and math classes and apply it to solve complex problems.

Hitting the Ceiling

One of the more popular problems in the course asks the question: Can a water heater really take off like a rocket under the right circumstances? If the weld that holds it onto the floor fails and all the water comes blasting out, will it propel itself through one or more floors of a house or an apartment? It’s a classic myth and one that was literally demonstrated on MythBusters. Students use fluid mechanics and Newton’s laws to figure out how fast the heater will move when it launches and how much force it requires to go through the ceiling.

In theory, the problem sounds simple, but it takes students a couple of hours to do all the work and to realize that yes, in the right situation, a water heater can blast through several floors. “They love it,” says Finlay. “But they still groan a little bit at the detailed calculations.” Students then change the variables and redo the analysis; for instance, will it blast through a concrete wall or a ceiling with steel beams?

In another popular assignment, students take two phone books and interlace the individual pages. They then try to split the phone books apart by pulling on them. It’s impossible to do manually because of the friction between the pages, which compress together the more the books get pulled. “MythBusters took two tanks to do it,” says Carey. “When I saw that myth on TV, I thought, ‘I have got to put that in my course.’ ” But students can’t test it using heavy machinery; they actually have to do the calculations to figure out the amount of force it takes to pull the phone books apart.

Steve Bosch was familiar with MythBusters before joining the course. He found the show hilarious and thought the class would be appealing even if students “didn’t get to blow up anything.” He wasn’t disappointed. “It was still really interesting, and it bridged the gap between the theoretical and the practical realm in engineering.”

Indeed, student evaluations of the course have been very positive, the instructors say. The students also enjoy challenging the professors. “They’ll say, ‘Did you consider this variable?’ ” says Carey. “I love that they’re thinking outside of the box.”

Tenille Camphaug, a mechanical engineer who graduated from the University of Alberta, Edmonton, last year, says that math was her least favorite subject. However, once she took the course, she found the subject more enlightening. It “definitely showed us where math is useful and made us think about things in a completely different way,” she says. “Instead of observing things, you figure out how they work.”

Although many of the class problems come directly from MythBusters, students also bring in their own favorite myths to solve; other myths come from movies or even arise serendipitously. Once, after Carey had driven home from the airport in winter, he left a can of Coke in his car overnight. The temperature went down to minus 20 degrees Celsius, and the drink exploded all over the place. “The ceiling was full of Coke,” he says. “The cleaning was absolutely awful.” But his self-described “embarrassing” mistake provided another challenge for his course, this time revolving around the thermal expansion of water.

One of Bosch’s favorite problems came straight out of Batman: Can a Formula One racecar drive on the ceiling of a tunnel to escape or catch up with the bad guys? This wasn’t something they were prepared to test in actuality, of course. But by doing the calculations, Bosch and his classmates discovered that the spoiler on the car can create enough down force to overcome gravity if the car is going fast enough, say around 112 miles per hour.

So, the Batman stunt turned out to be real after all. And by offering this and other challenges, Finlay and Carey opened students’ eyes to the fact that yes, math is highly relevant to engineering – and it can be fun. Myth busted.

Alice Daniel is a freelance writer based in Fresno, Calif.

Trimming Costs, Not Quality
By Lyle Feisel

Educational institutions, government agencies, businesses, and individuals are all experiencing financial challenges as the world economy struggles to recover from recession. ASEE is no different. We need to balance the books, and Prism is doing its part. To reduce our printing and distribution costs, we are combining the March and April issues. The quality, however, remains undiminished.

Our cover story, “The Interdisciplinarian,” profiles former MIT engineering Dean Subra Suresh, who, as director of the National Science Foundation, will have a major influence over the direction of the country’s basic research in coming years. He is intent on breaking down barriers and fostering cooperation among researchers in a variety of fields. NSF is exactly the place for such collaborations, he believes; its portfolio is the most diverse of all federal granting agencies, and today’s complex problems demand new modes of attack. Another priority: encouraging diversity in the science and engineering workforce by training – and keeping – more women and underrepresented minorities. Suresh worries that foreign-born graduate students, such as he once was, will find inviting opportunities in their home countries and not stay here, putting at risk America’s position as an innovation leader.

One test of U.S. innovation is well underway, as our feature “Moore or Less?” explains. Back in 1965, Intel cofounder Gordon Moore made an observation that became an article of faith: Computer chip performance doubles approximately every one to two years. But now, industry and university researchers wonder if this pace can be sustained. One problem is the amount of power required to achieve ever faster speeds. Another is that the number of transistors that can be crammed onto tiny chips is nearing its supposed limit. Several areas of research hold promise, but none has yet produced a silver bullet.

America’s technological needs require that we not only encourage more students to enter engineering but retain them. That’s where an NSF-backed project called ENGAGE comes in. As described in our feature “Whet Their Appetite,” it’s about adopting instructional techniques proven to boost understanding: Use everyday examples to explain engineering concepts; strive to improve students’ spatial visualization skills; and increase faculty-student interaction. Such methods help students succeed and, because of that, stay in engineering. They may sound simple, but to make an impact they must be widely practiced. So far, 10 engineering schools have signed on, with another 10 participants to be announced next year.

Lyle Feisel
Interim Executive Director and Publisher



Hello: I am referring to the article published under “Code Red Research” in the November 2010 Prism. I am very appreciative of your highlighting my research and ARMOR software.

However, the article doesn’t accurately describe development of the software, which allows for the “intelligent randomization” of security deployments. It suggests that it was all the work of Praveen Parachuri.

Praveen was my Ph.D. student, and I am extremely proud of the thesis he produced. However, it was not Praveen who built ARMOR. There was a completely different set of students who operationalized his research in ARMOR (it’s not a trivial exercise to understand how to build a real-world system from an abstract algorithm) and deployed it at LAX. Then a different set of algorithms, developed by another team in my lab, was deployed by the air marshals.

It demoralizes an entire team when the hard work of a dozen members, who put in many, many late nights, is not given credit in a prestigious magazine such as yours. I hope some correction will be offered.


Thank You,

—Milind Tambe
Professor, Computer Science and Industrial
and Systems Engineering Departments
University of Southern California

Write to
Submissions may be edited for brevity and clarity.



The New Top Gun

When a bat-winged, tailless X-47B took off in early February from Edwards Air Force Base, soared into clear skies for 29 minutes, and returned to land smack on the runway centerline, it cleared a hurdle to the next stage of aerial warfare. Built for the Navy by Northrop Grumman, the pilotless strike aircraft is intended to be the first plane to land on an aircraft carrier without an experienced flier at the controls. And unlike other drones, it won’t even need a deskbound pilot to steer it remotely. All humans do is design a flight path and send the X-47B on its way. Then a computer takes over, guiding the plane as it takes off, makes a bombing run, and returns to the carrier. Red Baron, call your office.


Playing Catch-up

In fiscal 2009, the Great Recession whacked college and university endowments. Their valuations slumped an average of 18.7 percent. So it’s welcome news that endowment values perked up in 2010, increasing on average 11.9 percent. Nevertheless, total endowment assets have not returned to prerecession levels, according to the NACUBO-Commonfund Study of Endowments, which surveys 850 schools. Moreover, on a long-term basis, values remained anemic. On average, over three years, endowments sustained a net loss of 4.2 percent; over five years, a net gain of 3 percent; and over 10 years, a net return of 3.6 percent. But schools typically spend around 4 to 5 percent of their endowments annually. Given those long-term trends, however, that may prove a stretch for many of them. – THOMAS K. GROSE

Nuclear Reactors

An Engineer’s Lament

Mitsuhiko Tanaka had a special reason for dread when an earthquake-triggered tsunami led to a power failure, explosions, and radiation leaks at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The former Hitachi Ltd. engineer claims that four decades ago he helped conceal a manufacturing flaw that warped the steel walls of a reactor pressure vessel at the plant, according to Bloomberg. Regulations would have required that the vessel be scrapped, at high cost to the firm. The reactor in question, No. Four, was shut down for maintenance on March 11, the day of the quake. “Who knows what would have happened if that reactor had been running?” says Tanaka. Trained at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Tanaka left nuclear engineering after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. A Hitachi spokesman said the company met with Tanaka in 1988 to discuss his allegations, but concluded there was no safety problem and has not revised its view since then.


Walking in Their Shoes

There are around 76 million U.S. baby boomers. The first of them turned 65 in January, and most can look forward to long life expectancies. Globally, the 65-plus population will double to 1.5 billion by 2050, and folks older than 65 will — for the first time in history — outnumber kids younger than 5. Many companies are developing technologies — nicknamed gray-tech — that cater to this aging cohort: robot nurses, sports shoes fitted with GPS to monitor the movements of Alzheimer’s patients, wireless pillboxes that keep tabs on medication use, and motion sensors that monitor mobility. Now MIT’s AgeLab, which seeks to solve problems of the aged through technology, has created AGNES, which stands for Age Gain Now Empathy System. AGNES is a helmet and suit that, once donned, simulate for the wearer the decreased dexterity, mobility, and balance of a 74-year-old. Elastic bands, knee pads, and neck braces hinder movement and bending. Yellowed goggles fog vision, while earplugs muffle sound and gloves diminish the sense of touch. For product designers, many of whom are in their 20s and 30s, AGNES offers a short, sharp shock of the reality many of us eventually will face. – TG

$1 Trillion: Estimate of annual spending worldwide by 2020 on technologies and services to meet growing demand for water. These include efforts to discover, manage, filter, disinfect, and desalinate water; improve infrastructure and distribution; mitigate flood damage; and reduce water consumption by households, industry, and agriculture. source: Agence France Presse, Feb. 27, 2011


Cruising to the Top

AUSTRALIA — One thing you can say about sun-powered vehicles: They won’t get you fined for highway speeding. The world’s fastest, at least according to Guinness World Records inspectors, is the Australian Sunswift IV. It clocked in recently at 54.7 mph, shattering a 1987 record of 49 mph set by U.S.-built Sunraycer. Designed and built in 2009 by students at the University of New South Wales, most of them mechanical or electrical engineers, the three-wheeled IVy is made mostly of carbon fiber sculpted into an aerodynamic winglike shape covered in solar panels. It’s the fourth vehicle produced by the 60-member group, launched by previous students in 1995. Project leader Daniel Friedman, who happens to be an economic history student, says the aim isn’t to hasten the arrival of solar street vehicles but to “draw attention to energy use and encourage efficient use of energy.” What’s learned in improving IVy “will have uses and applications totally unrelated to solar cars.” – CHRIS PRITCHARD


Salute to an Innovator

Eleven years ago, Edward Crawley devised a new way to educate engineering students, calling it Conceive-Design-Implement-Operate, or the CDIO Initiative. Crawley, a professor of engineering at MIT (as well as professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and of engineering systems), created the initiative using an open-architecture model so it could be adapted in many ways by many universities. And so it has. The CDIO Initiative now includes more than 50 schools in 25 countries, which collaborate and share ideas and materials. Within the next few years, more than 10,000 students will have either graduated from, or be participating in, a CDIO program. At its heart, the initiative emphasizes problem-solving exercises and hands-on projects, so students do not merely discuss theories in class but have experiences that will better suit them to the 21st-century workplace. Industry has given CDIO the thumbs up, saying it produces graduates better able to work in teams and handle problem-solving and product development. In recognition of that achievement, Crawley was named the 2011 recipient of the Bernard M. Gordon Prize by the National Academy of Engineering, which salutes innovations in engineering and technology education. Half the $500,000 prize will go to Crawley, with the other half going to MIT to help expand and refine the program. – TG


Better Than Corn?

Producing biofuels like ethanol from corn and other crops uses land that could otherwise grow food, potentially causing shortages and hiking prices. So researchers have for some time considered using seaweed as a fuel source. It grows in abundance, uses no arable land, and certainly doesn’t require watering. Moreover, seaweed needs no pretreatment before it’s turned into fuel, and it sucks up seven times more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than does wood. The stumbling block? The main sugar in seaweed is galactose, and unlike the glucose in corn, the process of fermenting it into ethanol is slow. But now researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign have bioengineered seaweed so that the conversion rate from galactose to ethanol is improved by some 250 percent. But don’t start investing in kelp farms just yet. It’s not yet clear how easy it would be to maintain and harvest seaweed in rough ocean environments – especially those areas prone to hurricanes. – TG


Man on a Mission

His Nobel Prize for physics notwithstanding, Carl Wieman faced an uphill climb when he first set out to change the way science is taught at universities. But along the way, he caught the attention of the Obama White House, which tapped him as associate director for science in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Wieman now has a bully pulpit to promote research-grounded techniques that he argues can boost student learning dramatically. No fan of traditional lectures, he recommends exercises requiring students to work through an escalating series of challenges. Instructors can facilitate this with classes built around questions and tasks, along with testing (one of the most effective ways of ensuring retention). Key to expertise in practically any field, Wieman says, are a mental organizational framework for retrieval and application of knowledge, and being able to monitor one’s own thinking and learning. We’re not born with these traits; they take thousands of hours of “deliberate practice.” But in the course of practicing, the brain actually changes, says Wieman, citing neuroscience studies. The new presidential aide stopped by ASEE headquarters for help in getting engineering faculty to join his campaign. Stay tuned.


Skin in the Game

A future where there’s greater interaction between humans and robots will require the machines to display a gentle touch. An “electronic skin” developed by Ali Javey, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, may ensure they do. The thin, flexible sheets of polymers he’s developed are sensitive enough to detect a fly’s landing. Javey coats a glass cylinder with silicon-germanium nanowires, then rolls it over the plastic sheets, creating an array of nanosized sensors equal to the number of nerve endings in human skin. Javey has said he would like to cover an entire robot body with the skin, but it also could be used to give prosthetics a lifelike sense of touch. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine have developed a spray-on human skin to treat burn victims. Currently, sheets of replacement skin are grown in a lab, a process that can take more than a month. Once the sheets are grafted onto a wound, recovery can require weeks or months. The new technique harvests stem cells from a small section of the patient’s healthy skin, mixes them in a solution, and sprays it on the wound. It’s all done within 90 minutes, and the wound heals within hours or days. So far, more than a dozen burn victims have been treated successfully with the stem-cell spray gun. – TG


Weight of the World

“The mass of a kilogram is a kilogram,” explains William Phillips, a physics professor at the University of Maryland. That’s easy enough to understand. But here’s the problem: The mother of all kilograms – the international prototype that’s been housed in a bunker in suburban Paris since the 19th century and sets the standard for all others – has shed a bit of weight. Not a lot: about 50 micrograms, roughly the mass of a speck of sand. Why? No one’s entirely sure, but the main suspect is cleaning. Of all the international base units of measurement, including the meter, the second, and the kelvin, only the kilogram is still linked to a man-made object. The meter, for instance, is now officially measured by how far light travels in a certain length of time, which is a mere 1/299,792,458 of a second. Phillips calls that “a particularly appropriate and beautiful definition.”

Many scientists would like to see a lovely, new definition for the kilogram – one not subject to the ravages of time and dustcloths. The most likely solution: linking the kilogram to Planck’s constant, a basic unit of measurement in quantum physics. “With this new definition, even if the International Bureau of Weights and Measures [where the prototype is housed] burned down, we would still know what a kilogram was,” Phillips notes. An international conference set for October is scheduled to vote on a draft proposal, but it could take the better part of a decade for the change to become official. And that’s a fairly long wait, no matter how you measure it. – TG


A Chinese Megalopolis

Give China credit for thinking big. Planners there want to link nine cities along the Pearl River Delta into one 16,000-square-mile megalopolis with a total population of 42 million. Geographically, the future city would be 26 times bigger than London, or roughly the size of Switzerland. Then again, it wouldn’t be any bigger than greater Los Angeles. The Turn the Pearl River Delta Into One project would cost around $305 billion and take six years to complete. Planners say it would result in better transportation links and improved infrastructure, including more efficient energy, water, and telecommunications networks. The area is in China’s industrial heartland, where pollution is a major problem. What’s not clear is how the creation of a new megacity would help tackle that problem. – TG


Students’ Rights

If a student invents a hot app for smart phones, does the university get a piece of the earnings? It depends. On their own, Tony Brown and three other University of Missouri undergraduates developed NearBuy, an iPhone app that tracks local apartment rentals. Since its release in March 2009, it hasgotten more than 250,000 downloads. Initially, Missouri demanded 25 percent ownership and two-thirds of the profits. Ultimately, the university backed down and has since rewritten its rules to give students exclusive rights to inventions derived from contests, extracurricular clubs, and individual initiative. Only if an invention is nurtured with faculty guidance, or uses college facilities or grant money, will the school now claim part ownership. Missouri and some other colleges, including Carnegie Mellon and Yale, think a more liberal view of student inventions will help them attract smart, entrepreneurial students. A student club at Yale has spawned 40 businesses, created 90 full-time jobs, and garnered $25 million in startup funding. – TG


Plant Security

Genetic engineers are finding novel uses for their handiwork — and inviting new controversy. Swiss seed company Syngenta has developed Enogen, corn containing a microbial gene that produces the enzyme used to break down corn starch into sugar in producing ethanol. Currently manufacturers add a liquid version of the enzyme to corn during processing. The genetically modified (GM) corn could make ethanol production more efficient and cleaner, Syngenta claims. However, American corn millers and food industry groups, usually big supporters of GM crops, are railing against the ethanol-boosting corn, saying if it gets mixed with food corn it could ruin the processing of corn starch used in a wide variety of foods, from corn chips to cereals.

Meanwhile, a British company, Oxitec, has developed a GM Aedes aegypti male mosquito to help battle dengue fever, a tropical, mosquito-borne disease that strikes 50 million to 100 million people worldwide and can be deadly. The male is sterile, so no offspring result from mating with female mosquitoes. In one recent trial in the Cayman Islands, introduction of the GM males cut the mosquito population by 80 percent. But in Malaysia, site of another trial, health and environmental groups fear the new mosquitoes could lead to mutations in the wild that create new, uncontrollable breeds.

So far, no one seems to be opposing efforts underway at Colorado State University to insert computer-designed proteins into plants to make them chemical detectors. The proteins are redesigned versions of naturally occurring receptors, and they enable modified plants to sense specific chemicals in the air, such as traces of explosives. If the plants detect a bad agent, they change color, from green to white. Beyond obvious homeland security applications, chemical-sniffing plants could be used to monitor pollutants. Currently, the lab plants require several hours to change from green to white, but researchers are confident they can shorten the time to a few minutes. –TG


According to the ASEE survey, computer science bachelor’s degrees awarded by engineering colleges reached a high of 9,156 in 2004. These degrees declined by 38 percent over the succeeding five years while all other engineering bachelor’s degrees climbed almost 8 percent. Computer science enrollment ticked 5 percent higher in 2009 after a precipitous decline of 24 percent earlier in the decade. Conversely, all other engineering college enrollment grew by almost 60,000 for undergraduates, or 17 percent, from 2005 to 2009, falling just shy
of 400,000.

View Printable PDF of Infographic Illustration

*Additional college data is emailed monthly to all ASEE members through ASEE’s CONNECTIONS e-newsletter

Data source: American Society for Engineering Education.

Treat Them With Respect
By Thomas K. Grose

How an engineering school expanded its ranks of minority graduate students.

Back in 1999, when the number of minority engineering graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison fell, alarmingly, almost to zero, the College of Engineering found just the person to turn things around. Not only had Douglass Henderson earned his Ph.D. in nuclear engineering at the school in 1987; he would prove to be “the consummate mentor at all levels,” as a colleague put it recently.

Henderson, who had joined the college faculty in 1989 after working as a research scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, readily accepted the new challenge. He hoped, in the process, to expand the number of minority engineering faculty. The upshot was the Graduate Engineering Research Scholars (GERS), developed in collaboration with the UW-Madison Graduate School and Rice University. A dozen years later, GERS boasts more than 50 students, 90 percent of them Ph.D. candidates, and has helped graduate 80, including 33 with doctorates. Eight of those students are now in faculty positions, seven are postdocs, six work at national labs, and the rest are in industry. In late January, GERS’s success drew a White House accolade when Henderson received one of 15 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. It was, Engineering Dean Paul Peercy told the college website, “fitting recognition” of Henderson’s time, energy, and dedication.

GERS relies on a peer-based support network that helps provide a welcoming atmosphere for minority graduate students. Explains Henderson: “We recruit top students and treat them with respect. We create an atmosphere where students feel valued for what they are doing and where they don’t feel isolated.”

In the program’s first year, it counted no more than a dozen minority students, most of them working toward a master’s degree. During the early days, Henderson and Kelly Burton, the program’s coordinator, handled most of the mentoring themselves because there were so few students. “He was always someone you could ask for help,” Ronke Mojoyinola Olabisi, a GERS student at the time, says of Henderson. Now a postdoc in bioengineering at Rice University, Olabisi says GERS “helped me learn the value of networking.” As their ranks grew beyond 20, “students started mentoring themselves. They watched out for one another,” Henderson says.

Key to GERS’s success, according to Henderson, has been a willingness among his colleagues to accept and address the problem of low participation of minorities. “GERS is a collaborative effort,” he says, and without support from faculty, deans, and students, “it wouldn’t work.” Wisconsin viewed GERS as a pilot program, and because it has done well, it has been expanded to six other schools and colleges across campus. Henderson chairs a governance committee that oversees all seven programs.

In 2001, Henderson was appointed as the COE’s assistant dean of diversity, and later became an associate dean. In 2004, he helped obtain National Science Foundation funding to set up a mentor-based program similar to GERS for undergraduates. The Wisconsin Alliance for Minority Participation, a consortium of 22 state colleges and universities, works to increase the number of minority students who receive bachelor’s degrees in STEM subjects. “We want to help keep them in the field,” he says.

Henderson gave up his associate dean’s post in 2005 to direct GERS and resume research. His focus areas include magnetic and inertial fusion-energy reactor systems and the transmutation of nuclear waste. He’s a co-inventor of a patented method to speed up the placement of radioactive seeds in the treatment of prostate cancer. While a professor of engineering physics, he also has advised Ph.D. candidates in medical physics. This mentor won’t quit.

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

Honoring St. Patrick

Sure and ’tis a fine legend that he was an engineer.

The patron saint of engineers is said to be St. Patrick, but the origins of the belief are obscure. According to one story, which maintains that Irish records had long been misinterpreted, St. Patrick did not drive snakes out of Ireland but rather drove stakes into its soil and thus must have been a surveyor or engineer. Another contorted explanation is that he was the mechanical engineer responsible for the “worm drive.” Proponents of such views also have claimed that the American Society of Mechanical Engineers deliberately designed its old four-leaf-clover logo to resemble a shamrock.

The connection of St. Patrick to engineering celebrations is said to have begun during excavation for a new building at the University of Missouri at Columbia. There, on March 17, 1903, a rock bearing a Gaelic inscription was unearthed, and someone in the crowd proclaimed that the writing on what came to be known as the Blarney Stone said, “St. Patrick was an engineer.” The students cut classes for the rest of the day and paraded around campus celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.

The St. Patrick movement spread among engineering schools, and in 1919, representatives from 11 of them met at Missouri and founded a national Guard of St. Patrick. Some secular schools objected to the connection with a saint, and so the organization’s name was changed to the Association of Collegiate Engineers, out of which is believed to have grown such annual campus events as Engineers Day and Engineers Week—not to be confused with National Engineers Week, which is usually celebrated around February 22, the birthday of George Washington, another surveyor-engineer.

My father-in-law, who went to Missouri’s rival School of Mines (now the Missouri University of Science and Technology) at Rolla, was active as a Guard of St. Patrick, and was made a Knight of St. Pat in 1933. The faux-Irish wording on his certificate from the association recognized, among other things, that he cut classes “j’fully on the day o’ me name,” and he was ever ready to pay homage to the patron saint, perhaps by raising a glass of green beer with his fellow engineers.

No permanent national organization appears to have continued to coordinate St. Pat activities or to preserve the movement’s history. In recent decades, the purpose of the loosely structured group generally has been to recognize senior engineering students and faculty for their leadership and to bring together the movers and shakers of the diverse engineering societies. There may be active chapters at some other engineering schools, but ironically, the groups have often remained secretive.

At my university, a typical March 17 induction activity was to paint green shamrocks on the walkway (and on any rocks or lampposts beside it) leading to our engineering school. The ceremony itself consisted of hooded and robed senior members, the Knights of St. Patrick, showing up at a classroom door and summoning new inductees, who had been tapped previously, to proceed to the front of the engineering building. There, often among confused passersby, they were instructed to hold one of their shoes over their head while reciting a pledge to adhere to the values of the little-known society that seemed to surface but once a year. Though I participated in such a ceremony, I have not seen one take place in some time.

The tradition of the Knights of St. Patrick does remain strong at Rolla, where a statue of St. Pat commands a prominent position on campus, and also at Mizzou, where the knighting ceremony, in which inductees kneel and kiss the stone, continues to be a centerpiece of that campus’s Engineers Week.

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.

It Doesn’t Feel Like Learning

Problem-solving instruction works but still presents challenges.

Engineers use knowledge to solve problems, so it makes sense to involve students in learning based on problem situations. Theoretically, problem-based learning (PBL) can make content relevant to students and enhance their understanding. Until now, however, research on the impact of PBL has been limited to student and faculty perceptions of this approach. Our study examined both the impact of PBL on students’ ability to gain conceptual understanding and their attitude toward this form of instruction.

Fifty-five undergraduate students from an introductory electrical engineering course participated in this research. Both traditional lectures and problem-based learning were implemented alternatively in an A-B-A-B research design over the 16-week course to examine differences between the two approaches. In the PBL portions, students worked in teams of three or four students to solve ill-structured problems. These hypothetical situations mirrored what students would most likely face as engineers, and involved them in making complex engineering decisions and in producing solutions to engineering problems. We assessed students’ conceptual understanding using open-ended problem scenarios in a pre- and post-test format. At the end of the course, students completed a survey to compare their perceptions of learning from traditional lecture and PBL.

Our results reveal the promise and potential challenges in PBL instruction. We found that students performed twice as well when learning from PBL compared with traditional lectures. Our research provides evidence that PBL can significantly influence students’ conceptual understanding of engineering problems and can contribute to making them lifelong learners as demanded by the 21st-century engineering profession.

However, students themselves reached the opposite conclusion: They thought they learned more when traditional lectures were used.

Engineering faculty interested in using problem-based learning or any other kinds of active learning should be aware that they may encounter student resistance and discomfort when learning from PBL, especially if students have primarily learned from traditional approaches. Hence, it is important to provide students with guidance to navigate the open-ended nature of PBL approaches. Students become more comfortable if faculty acknowledge the challenging aspects of PBL. One mechanism is for faculty to ask students who have previously undergone the PBL process to share the benefits of this approach and challenges students are likely to face. This discussion could break down student misconceptions and highlight beneficial aspects of PBL.

Another challenge is overcoming student discomfort with how they will be assessed. Even when active learning methods such as PBL are used, students’ grasp of the material is still often measured by traditional means (i.e., plug and chug quizzes). Without lectures, students may not realize what they have learned and may feel less prepared for traditional exams. Faculty interested in implementing problem-based learning could adopt other assessments – projects or exercises focused on unstructured problems – that emphasize and reward students’ critical thinking skills.

Finally, students sometimes express concerns about not enough content being covered when active learning methods are used. These concerns are largely a matter of conditioned response to the lack of what may be considered traditional treatment of a topic. In most instances, use of active learning actually has permitted extended coverage of topics and not required the exclusion of critical material. Faculty members need to think about what content to teach with problem-based approaches and what to cover with lectures. Engineering has a hierarchical knowledge structure; students require adequate basic knowledge to be successful at learning later concepts.

Our findings strongly corroborate previous research from other disciplines that PBL allows students to form a better conceptual understanding and transfer their learning to other situations. Given the complex nature of the engineering profession, which requires engineers to solve complex problems, PBL is well suited to helping students cope with the demands of the ill-structured nature of the field.

Aman Yadav is an assistant professor of educational psychology at Purdue University; Mary Lundeberg is a professor of teacher education at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls; Charles Bunting is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Oklahoma State University; Dipendra Raj Subedi is a psychometrician at the American Institutes for Research. This is adapted from “Problem-based Learning: Influence on Students’ Learning in an Electrical Engineering Course” in the April 2011 Journal of Engineering Education.

The Next Green Revolution

Solutions to global hunger are shifting away from high-tech and toward sustainable, local projects.

2011 State of the World: Innovations That Nourish the Planet
by Worldwatch Institute. W.W. Norton & Co., 2011. 237 pages.

Worldwide, more food is produced today than ever before, bolstered by years of technological advances. Yet some 925 million people still go hungry, and the plight of the undernourished may become increasingly dire in coming decades. How is such a situation possible after so many years of international efforts to eradicate hunger? This question forms an important starting point for Innovations That Nourish the Planet, a 2011 State of the World publication by the nonprofit Worldwatch Institute. Based on a two-year study of agricultural innovations in Africa, the findings in the volume suggest that past failures can help form better understandings of current challenges and contribute to more promising, sustainable solutions.

A key message in Innovations is that the world’s ecosystems share complex interconnections; thus, to achieve global agricultural success, fragile balances – natural and societal – must be maintained. Recognition of these complexities contributes to more carefully calibrated approaches than in the past. The widely hailed green revolution of the 1960s boosted food production through high-yield grains, chemical fertilizers, and mechanization. Yet it also contributed to displacement of local farmers and disparities in wealth, as benefits accrued only to those producers who could afford imported supplies. Moreover, those farming methods led to depletion of soil nutrients and water pollution. “As we spectacularly boosted overall levels of production during the second half of the 20th century, we created the conditions for a major ecological disaster in the 21st century,” asserts Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food. Though they are complementary objectives, increasing food production and eradicating hunger and malnutrition are not necessarily linked, De Schutter concludes.

By contrast, the Nourishing the Planet project upon which this volume is based champions “eco-agricultural” solutions, which emphasize sustainability and the interdependence of local ecosystems, economies, and public policy. Current population increases in Africa, for example, translate to smaller plots of land being farmed by more people, which leads to greater depletion of the soil and a continuing cycle of poverty and food insecurity. Chemicals offer immediate solutions but fail to ensure continued soil fertility while encouraging dependence on an expensive foreign products developed from fossil fuels. Seeking better alternatives, Nourishing the Planet project Director Danielle Nierenberg traveled to 25 African countries to study the successes of local projects that employ a combination of traditional and new techniques – rainwater harvesting, rooftop gardening, green cover crops, and locally produced biofuels.

The volume’s 14 chapters, authored by various scientists, researchers, activists, and journalists, examine food issues that range from climate change to biodiversity, soil fertility, and distribution problems – as well as solutions that involve local knowledge and skills, policy reform, and new approaches to research. Intended to serve as a working resource, Innovations follows each chapter discussion with a section that highlights a local success story, from East African rainwater harvesting to solar cookers in Senegal, an educational theater project in Mozambique and Malawi, and a livestock program in Rwanda. Prism readers involved in similar overseas programs may find particular value in learning the details of these groups’ frustrations, negotiations, and discoveries.

While Innovations focuses on Africa, other regions gain mention, such as Asia, where great amounts of produce go to waste as a result of poor harvest and distribution techniques. Post-harvest waste is a serious yet neglected problem across the globe, we learn. Yet, simple, cost-effective solutions could make a real difference in securing more food for the world’s hungry: training producers to stack fruit in wooden crates rather than tossing it into large gunnysacks, for example, or teaching about optimal harvest timing to maximize shelf life.

Many similar small but important initiatives are now being undertaken by governments, international aid agencies, and university groups. While Innovations That Nourish the Planet celebrates these developments, Worldwatch urges further action – and attention. “Agriculture is at the heart of international development,” states the book’s concluding essay, so “it must stay at the forefront of the world community’s radar.”

Robin Tatu is a contributing editor of Prism.

Engineer or Educator? A False Choice

Change is needed to strengthen both kinds of expertise.

When it comes to practice, engineering educators straddle a somewhat unique divide. In disciplines from medicine to accounting, on-the-job experience is part of the required route to becoming a professor. That is not the case for engineering faculty. Has an institutional emphasis on theory hindered students from learning how engineers work, thus limiting their career prospects in today’s global economy? Should professors be engineers, educators … or both?

Results from our organizations’ examination of effective instructors suggest that a mix of academic and professional expertise is optimal. The informal survey, prompted by concerns about the competitiveness of recent engineering graduates, sought to pinpoint attributes of the ideal engineering professor. It was conducted in the fall of 2009 by the International Federation of Engineering Education Societies (IFEES) and the Student Platform for Engineering Education Development (SPEED). Though the sample was small, the 88 respondents hailed from all over the world and represented engineering faculty, students, and industry. Roughly one third (28) were professors in Brazil, Canada, India, Portugal, and the United States, with students from Belgium, France, India, Macedonia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Serbia, Spain, South Africa, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United States making up all but four of the rest.

Their ideal instructor represented a blend of what it takes to be a successful engineer and an effective educator. Someone with “deep connections with enterprises and in-depth knowledge of the challenges of enterprises and society,” was how Seeram Ramakrishna, former dean of engineering at National University of Singapore, put it. More specifically, as we highlighted in a 2010 ASEE conference paper on the Engineering Professor of 2020, respondents described the ideal professor as a technical expert and engineering practitioner who also was an excellent communicator and an effective, culturally inclusive teacher and mentor with a deep commitment to global citizenship.

Unfortunately, that does not describe most engineering professors in today’s classrooms. While research and teaching are equally important to society, all engineering educators should possess, or strive to develop, a minimum set of ideal instructor qualities. Consider, for example, a prime attribute revealed by the survey: knowledge of the subject in theory and practice, an ability to convey this knowledge, and the perspective to see why it is important. The engineers of today and tomorrow must master new skills, technologies, and competencies; shouldn’t the same requirement apply to those who educate future engineers? Engineering educators should understand what it takes to practice engineering in the real world and how to be effective mentors.

Engineering educators have invested considerable time and energy in discussing “what” needs to be changed. More attention should be addressed to “how” those changes occur and “who” needs to drive them, since that will largely determine the pace, quality, and sustainability of the effort. If we seek to alter engineering education to better serve society, then change must take place among those primarily responsible for directing it: professors. For example, schools might provide engineering faculty with opportunities for significant industry experience, such as sabbaticals or postdoctoral experiences in the workplace. Professors will only rise to the challenge, however, if higher education’s incentives and rewards shift as well. As the saying goes, “If the system is not working, do not blame the worker; blame the system.”

Responsibility for change lies squarely in the hands of the engineering education leadership, including deans, university presidents, the National Science Foundation, industry, and professional societies. The ranks also include the new assistant professor or freshman student who doesn’t believe he or she can change an entrenched system. Rather than defend current structures, practices, or disciplinary fiefdoms, let’s apply our collective brainpower and engineering problem-solving skills to figuring out how to motivate all stakeholders to make necessary changes in the system — and reward those who do it successfully.

Lueny Morell is program manager in the Strategic Innovations and Research Services Office of Hewlett Packard Laboratories and past president of the International Federation of Engineering Education Societies. Jennifer DeBoer is a doctoral candidate at Vanderbilt University and past president of the Student Platform for Engineering Education Development.