Summer 2011

Hot Courses
What wows the Facebook generation?
By Thomas K. Grose

It’s not exactly thermodynamics, but clearly some engineering faculty know how to transfer their energy and wisdom into cool classes that are really and truly . . . hot. You know the ones — courses that are oversubscribed by eager students and sustain their popularity from year to year through word of mouth.

For example, there is Stanford University’s freshman-oriented Things About Stuff. A seminar taught by Tom Lee, a professor of electrical engineering, it helps students understand important scientific principles by covering the history of disruptive technologies and their inventors. Lee limits the class to just 16, and this academic year he had 200 applications. “Winnowing it down was a painful process,” Lee admits, “but it would be difficult to replicate it in a larger setting.” The class is now on hiatus while Lee takes a two-year sabbatical to work for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. But it’s a cinch that it will have freshmen lining up when it resumes in 2013.

What makes courses like Lee’s Things About Stuff so popular? For one thing, they spring from imaginative themes, at times cutting across engineering, the sciences, and humanities. The University of Michigan’s Creative Process class, for instance, is one of many around the country that marry engineering with the arts. But that’s just part of the answer, as ASEE discovered in asking engineering deans across the country to recommend their “hottest,” most innovative and exciting, courses. Many – including a handful described here – are hands-on and project based. Some are timely. Others tap into a passion among today’s students to render the world and their local environment cleaner, safer, more efficient, and equitable. In sum, they may be academe’s ace in the hole for engaging a new generation of skilled and broadly educated engineers.

Getting students to work on teams designing and building things is almost a guaranteed hit. In Lee’s class, one team used signal-processing technology to build a radiation detector from soup cans, while another created a music video for a song team members composed and played. Dartmouth College’s Computer-Aided Mechanical Engineering Design course requires teams to build adult-size “twist cars” and race them. In MIT’s Toy Product Design class, engineering students create and make unique playthings. In PolyHouse, a project management course launched by Roya Javadpour, professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering at California Polytechnic State University, students design and then undertake the renovation of a house belonging to a low-income family with one disabled member.

Smartphone app courses, like Olin College of Engineering’s Mobile Application Development, in which students create apps for Android smartphones, are popping up from coast to coast. “There is a lot of research saying that they [hands-on projects] are an effective teaching method,” says Mark Chang, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, who teaches the Olin course. But, he adds, “it’s not just a good pedagogical tool;” it’s a form of teaching that young engineers truly appreciate. “Our kids like getting their hands dirty.”

That’s a sentiment also expressed by Pete Hylton, an associate professor of mechanical engineering technology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) who teaches a two-week, intensive summer course called The Motorsports Experience. Project-led courses “are the ones students learn the most from,” he explains. “They capture the interests of students and what they want to be.” Adds Lee: “Once they see how the knowledge [they acquire in theory classes] can be applied, they find it more interesting.” Lee uses the analogy of teaching people to play the violin: “You need to put one in their hands. You can’t lecture them how to play it.”

Learning From Failure

“Book smarts” can take students only so far and won’t give them the skills obtained from working on open-ended projects that have no one right answer, says Gregory Bruckner, the mechanical engineering professor who teaches the Design of Electromechanical Systems graduate course at North Carolina State University. Solomon Diamond, an assistant professor of engineering who teaches the Dartmouth course, agrees. “If you are going to be a mechanical engineer, you’ve got to cut metal.” Potential disaster looms over every project – and that’s a great learning experience. One goal of Michigan’s Creative Process class is to help students realize that failure goes hand in hand with creativity.

At the end of the PolyHouse course, students are required to perform a project audit to determine what worked and what didn’t. “Engineers can learn a lot from mistakes,” says Jose Macedo, head of CalPoly’s industrial and manufacturing engineering department. As Diamond says: “Projects focus the mind on consequences.” Moreover, a well-constructed project unleashes a tsunami of student energy. Diamond’s students put in “crazy” hours. “It’s so competitive, but it is self-motivated,” he says. Student Emily Porter, who took Diamond’s class last year, agrees, saying that she fully enjoyed all the hard work: “Definitely, it’s always more fun when you get to build something. And I really like working in teams.”

The hands-on elements also give students “real world” experiences that translate to marketable skills. For instance, because the PolyHouse students actually undertake a major overhaul of someone’s home, they have to deal with things like limited time, budgets, and poor weather, yet get it done properly and on deadline. That’s very different from learning project management by “overseeing” a fictitious project, Macedo says. “In this case, everything is for real.” Once Chang’s students make their smartphone apps available to consumers, within 90 minutes they are getting feedback from people around the world. “The end goal,” Chang says, “is to put something before the public that can stand on its own.” And students learn that even superb technology doesn’t matter if it’s applied to a bad idea. Ming Chow, the Tufts University lecturer who teaches Introduction to Game Development – a computer science course within the College of Engineering – works hard to give it “a real-world feel.” For instance, it’s a no-textbook course, but it combines nearly all the facets of computer science theory.

Barry Kudrowitz, the mechanical engineer who created the MIT toy class six years ago (and is now planning a version for the University of Minnesota, where he was recently hired as an assistant professor), brings in volunteers from industry to help teach the class and give it an industrial component. Bruckner believes that’s an important element: “I take pride in students telling me they’re learning something practical. It’s industry-relevant, so it is relevant to them.” Of course, sometimes the experts learn a few things, too. Local contractors advise the PolyHouse students, and often they say they’re trying to do too much in too short a time frame. “But the students always pull it off,” Macedo says. “It is incredible.”

Sometimes “hands on” means enlisting students as instructors. In a University of Tennessee nuclear engineering class, graduating seniors research and deliver oral presentations on up-to-the-minute topics, honing communication skills they’ll need in the workplace. This past year, they explored the nuclear near-meltdown in Japan, radiation therapy techniques, nonproliferation, nuclear waste recycling, and small modular reactors, a “hot” issue at the U.S. Department of Energy. Department head Harold L. “Lee” Dobbs approves the topics beforehand and helps students fine-tune their presentations. “The diversity and breadth of topics” that 40 students can present “is more than any one professor can cover in the traditional one-instructor format,” says Dobbs. Invariably, he learns something new.

Tennessee’s course is the kind that gets students to think critically about engineers’ obligation to help protect society. So is a course at Purdue entitled Engineering Disasters. Eric Nauman, associate professor of mechanical engineering, teasingly bills it as a class for those “interested in saving the world, ruling the world,” or who “just want to keep up on current events.” The course is focused on catastrophic design failures — from the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse to the recent financial system meltdown — and how they might be predicted and avoided.

The Fun Factor

While many of today’s undergraduates are eager to tackle society’s important problems, Dartmouth’s Diamond keeps in mind that “students are also young people who want to have fun.” No one says learning has to be the pedagogical equivalent of a dental appointment. Kudrowitz’s toy class — understandably — places the frivolity factor front and center. “The play nature is important,” says Kudrowitz, who “treats every class like a show.” Students wear lab coats turned into costumes, and each class begins and ends with music. “It is about toys,” he points out.

Hylton says “it’s obvious” that students in his motorsports class — who get to visit racetracks and meet pit crews — “have a blast, and it’s obvious they learn a lot.” He shies away from using the “f” word because a lot of parents don’t think class time and fun go together. “But,” he adds, “I would argue that a class can be fun, as long as it’s rigorous.” That is Chang’s take as well. “I have high expectations of my students,” he says, acknowledging that creating an app appeals to the smartphone generation. “You can extract more from people if they are having fun; it makes for a much more invigorating experience.” Fun doesn’t mean an easy romp, however. As much as Diamond’s students enjoy making twist cars, they’re typically seniors who have taken at least a dozen tough courses to qualify for his. But the fun is infectious. During the first twist-car race three years ago, Diamond overheard one young woman say, “I am so taking this class.” And eventually, she did.

It’s also clear that students like a good challenge. As Stanford’s Lee says, “there are a lot of empty-calorie classes,” but students appreciate having to struggle a bit. “If there is hard work toward a larger goal, they will have good feelings about it. Students have a good idea of value.” Returning to his violin analogy, Lee says that if you want to make music, you realize that you also have to spend time playing boring scales. At CalPoly, the actual PolyHouse construction occurs over two consecutive weekends, and students typically work nearly around the clock with very little sleep. Yet, not only is the course always oversubscribed, every year there are a few student volunteers joining in to help who are not actually taking the class. Now, that’s strong word of mouth. In the class blog from last year, one student noted that after the last weekend she “was exhausted, but there was one thing that made it all worth it.” And that was the thank-you note they got from the family, overjoyed with the new, improved kitchen. “Overall, I loved this experience,” the student added.

Sound and Motion

Many hot classes have a cross-disciplinary element. Hylton’s Motorsports Experience mixes his engineering students with business students majoring in motor-sports management at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina. Chow’s game development course is open to both computer-science majors and nonmajors. Some majors grumble about having nonmajors in the class, he says, but he figures it helps them learn how to deal and communicate with colleagues who are not computer scientists. And that’s truly a real-world experience, since it’s unlikely any of them will ever work just with other programmers once they graduate.

Perhaps the class with the greatest multidisciplinary mix is Michigan’s Creative Process, which is co-taught by engineering, art and design, architecture, dance, and music professors, with a goal of teaching students that “creativity is not a character trait or an event, but a process.” Students not only keep a journal — which can include digital elements, including video — but work on four mini-projects and one large final project that can encompass sound, motion, images, and objects. “This course is labeled by many students as ‘life-changing,’” says David Munson Jr., Michigan’s engineering dean.

Creative Process is also one of several courses that’s not aimed solely at engineering students. Macedo says that students from every one of CalPoly’s colleges have enrolled in the PolyHouse course — including a journalism major. At Stanford, undergraduates don’t declare a major in their freshman year. But only a third of the students who take Lee’s Stuff class are heavily leaning toward science or engineering. In the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s Introduction to Society’s Engineering Grand Challenges course — which helps students understand the benefits of engineering to society — nonengineering students make up anywhere from 20 percent to 30 percent of each year’s class. Susan Hagness, the professor of electrical and computer engineering who created the course, says it’s good that nonengineering students are learning the humanitarian aspects of engineering. In a world that increasingly relies on technology, she says, engineering-oriented tech courses should be part of all liberal arts curricula.

The National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges for the 21st Century have inspired students to think big. Wisconsin’s class looks at topical issues that range from healthcare, to helping the developing world, to alternative energy and the environment. And that is a big draw for engineering students, too. “It resonates with students who want to make a difference in the world,” Hagness says, and a growing percentage of budding engineers fall into that category. Michigan State University takes the Challenges idea a step further: It has created living-learning communities around NAE-cited themes as part of its Cornerstone Engineering Residential Experience program.

They’re Game

Service learning that benefits the greater community has been gaining traction in recent years. Additionally, classes that hit on generational obsessions, like games, also strike a chord with students. Chow admits it’s no surprise that students flock to his game-development course, given the subject matter. “Games are so part of the culture of students now. Everyone plays games.” And most students have smartphones, too. “These students have embraced this technology,” Olin’s Chang says. “That makes it highly motivating.”

Students also gravitate to courses that help them flesh out and apply what they’ve previously learned. Certainly all Stanford freshmen graduated from high school with stellar results. Nevertheless, Lee says, many do not truly understand the answers they’ve learned to parrot to pass tests. “Students are hungry for knowledge,” he says, and that’s a big reason for the popularity of his Stuff class — it sates that need. NCSU’s Bruckner says “something has to give” because of pressures on undergraduate schools to keep mechanical engineering programs to 128 hours while also staying abreast of new technologies. Accordingly, many graduate students don’t fully understand how a motor works, he says, and they see his course as a knowledge fix. Denise Fitzgerald, 39, who works at Lincoln Lab, a federally funded national security R&D center at MIT, can attest to that. She took Bruckner’s course as a distance student nearly 18 years after receiving her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, largely because a new job required her to design customized motors, something she had never studied. “It helped me fill in a lot of gaps that were not explained to me as a mechanical engineering student.”

Eric Nauman, the Purdue associate professor of mechanical engineering who teaches Engineering Disasters, thinks he’s helping his students learn new ways of thinking. The course requires them to develop formulas using nonlinear math to help them see how most disasters could have been predicted, and to apply those skills by making a few predictions of their own. They reasoned, for instance, that too many U.S. chemical refineries are “just one bad repair away from something really nasty. They’re certainly looking at the world in a different way.” It’s also an exercise that helps them “connect what they’re learning in different classes,” including thermodynamics and mechanics.

A crucial factor in many hot courses is excellent teaching. They are typically taught by top instructors who are driven to get their students as fired up about a subject as they are. And students relate to that. “I am a gadgets freak,” Chang admits, “so it [smartphone apps] is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart.” Says Dartmouth’s Diamond: “One of my primary objectives is to communicate to students the degree of passion for engineering and design that I have.” Both his twist-car course and Kudrowitz’s toys class rely on previous students returning to mentor current students. “What keeps people coming back is, it’s got to be well-taught,” Kudrowitz explains. And Tufts’ Chow doesn’t hesitate to say: “I bring a lot of high energy to the class.” Foster Lockwood, a Tufts sophomore who took Chow’s game development class as a freshman and wound up inventing an iPhone game app called Facility that’s gotten more than 150,000 downloads, is now designing an iPad game with Chow. “This wouldn’t be possible without Ming,” Lockwood says. “He showed us how to think like a designer.”

It’s also no surprise that Stanford’s Lee gets high marks on student assessments. Wrote one student: “Amazing. Absolutely amazing. I learned so much and had so much fun making things, asking questions, and visiting Prof. Lee at office hours. He knows everything about everything, and is an awesome human being.” Now, that’s hot.

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

Come Slither
Snake robots advance toward their ultimate quarry: search and rescue missions.
By Don Boroughs

Inside the Biorobotics Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, a wall of remembrance displays 15 failed, broken, burned out, and obsolete mechanical snakes. On the floor, a snake robot named Uncle Sam demonstrates the current state of the art. Prodded by the forward tilt of a joystick, Uncle Sam slithers ahead at a few miles per hour. Shift the stick to the right, and the robot’s 16 segments begin to sidewind like an elliptical, flexible corkscrew.

Upon reaching a 4-inch-diameter pipe protruding from the wall, the snake robot pauses, raises its flashlight head 8 inches off the ground, and begins to wriggle through. On the other side of the wall, discovering an 8-inch gap between the pipe exit and a table, it anchors its tail inside the pipe and stretches its body across the chasm. The table is too small for its 38-inch length, but Uncle Sam curls the rest of its body onto the platform while investigating a pole rising toward the ceiling. The robot then wraps itself around the pole, and, after a couple of false starts, begins to roll its entire body to the top of the 3-foot pillar.

Such maneuvers are certainly impressive. But like the 15 broken snakes in the display, Uncle Sam represents just another rung on the ‘bots’ evolutionary ladder, says lab director Howie Choset, an associate professor of robotics. From Tokyo to Philadelphia, a coterie of engineering professors is devoted to the continual improvement of snake robots, sometimes called “snakebots.” This determined group of researchers has seen success come slowly when dealing with the challenges of a form-changing device with no wheels to propel it and an infinite range of possible movements. But at the top of the pole, they see the prize: lifesaving missions in environments too confining and complex for ordinary robots, and too difficult or dangerous for humans to explore.

Last year marked an impressive milestone in the 30-year history of snake robots. A 1-centimeter-diameter snakebot invented in Choset’s lab and commercialized by Cardiorobotics Inc., a company he co-founded in 2005, made its first surgical explorations of a living heart, entering the patient’s body through a small incision. The heart patient was able to leave the hospital the next day, instead of enduring a weeks-long recovery from open-chest surgery.

Technically, snake robots are hyper-redundant devices because they move with so many internal degrees of freedom. To navigate to any point within reach, an arm — robotic or human — needs enough joints to provide six degrees of freedom. The human arm has a shoulder joint that can angle up and down (pitch), move left and right (yaw), and tilt side to side (roll) for three degrees of freedom. The elbow can pitch to add a fourth degree of freedom, and the wrist has the same three movements as the shoulder, to make a total of seven. With one more degree of freedom than the required six, the human arm is redundant. That extra degree of freedom is what allows a person to reach for a door handle with the elbow in a range of positions.

Uncle Sam’s joints alternate with pitch or yaw for a total of 16 degrees of freedom, making it hyper-redundant. A hyper-redundant robot that can move by changing its shape is a snake robot. Other hyper-redundant robots resemble an elephant’s trunk more than they do a snake; their base is anchored in place or moved about independently of the multijointed arm.

The history of snakebots began one day in 1971, when Shigeo Hirose, then a young mechanical engineer at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, walked into a unique Tokyo restaurant that served snakes and handed over about $15 in yen. Instead of walking out with an order of snake and vegetables, however, he left with a box of several wriggling snakes. Back at his laboratory, he used cameras, electrodes, and force sensors to analyze their movements. Among other observations, Hirose determined that snakes do not slither in a sine wave, as biologists had long assumed, but in a variation of a sinusoid curve he named the “serpenoid curve.” With three months of intense effort, he built the world’s first snake robot that could propel itself, powered only by the servomotors within every segment continually changing the angles of the joints.

Since then, Hirose, now the 63-year-old director of the institute’s Hirose-Fukushima Robotics Lab, has built more than 20 snake-robot prototypes. They range from a swimming snakebot to a hydraulic hyper-redundant robot so powerful that Nissan uses a variation of it on an assembly line to help lift heavy parts into the undercarriage of automobiles. Carnegie Mellon’s Choset says that the Japanese pioneer “has been hitting home runs each year for nearly 40 years.” And Hirose is not slowing down. “One or two years from now, I will show you much more interesting robots,” he promises.

More Like Real Snakes

In the United States, snake robot research was centered at the California Institute of Technology starting in the late 1980s and has since spread eastward. Choset’s Biorobotics Lab, part of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, is the most active today. Several graduate students work with Choset in snakebot research. At the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, mechanical engineer Mark Yim and his students have developed modular robots that can be assembled — indeed can reassemble themselves — into snake shapes.

Today, Yim is working with Georgia Tech mechanical engineer/mathematician/biologist David Hu to make his snake robots function more like real snakes. Yim explains that early snakebot builders put passive wheels on their robots to allow them to slither. Freely turning wheels have the advantage of high sideways friction and low forward friction, but they require a smooth floor and prevent other snake gaits, such as sidewinding. “The problem is: Snakes don’t have wheels, so how do they move?” asks Yim. Hu’s research shows that the belly scales of a snake create extra resistance in the transverse direction — “weird, anisotropic friction,” in Yim’s words. One Penn mechanical-engineering graduate student is developing a mechanical snakeskin analogue that mimics this property. “I expect to have a major breakthrough soon,” says Yim.

Of course, a snake robot is not limited to the movements of its biological brethren. Both Hirose and Yim have taught snake robots to bite their own tails, so to speak, in order to roll in a loop. The result looks like a tank tread that has gone AWOL, moving about without its chassis. Yim reports that by maintaining the center of gravity in front of the point where the loop makes contact with the ground, the snakebot represents the fastest, most efficient mode of locomotion. “In effect the robot is continuously falling,” he explains.

The versatility, flexibility, and small diameter of snake robots make them ideally suited to inspection of pipes and ducts. Some of Choset’s snakebots can climb a vertical pipe from the outside or from within. His students and robots have made two trial runs working inside pipes and turbines at power plants. HiBot, a spinoff of the Hirose-Fukushima Robotics Lab, has begun selling a snake robot for the inspection of ductwork.

“Help Is on the Way”

But the holy grail for snake robot engineers is search and rescue. Snakebots are physically capable of moving through, around, or over almost any obstacle that a natural or man-made disaster might present, such as collapsed buildings with confined spaces that human rescuers cannot reach. “Snakes are fantastic at going through a cluttered environment,” says Yim. Entirely sealed in a skin, a snake robot also can be made waterproof and dustproof. Uncle Sam is so durable that it has launched itself off a 10-foot drop onto a solid floor and slithered away. And since a snakebot is made up of many identical modules, “if one joint breaks, the whole thing keeps going,” says Choset. “We’ve had as much as half of a robot broken, and it still keeps going.”

Choset’s vision is that in the aftermath of future earthquakes, teams of snakebots will be “going everywhere, finding people and saying, ‘Help is on the way.’” Already the latest iteration of his snake robot has not only the usual light and camera on its head but also ports for microphones and speakers to allow communication with victims. “Search and rescue is Howie’s one true passion in robotics,” says Carnegie Mellon graduate student David Rollinson. “In his lifetime, he wants to have a snake crawl through a rubble pile and rescue someone.”

Clearly, snake robots capable of searching through rubble in an area contaminated with radiation would have been useful in helping Japan cope in March and April with the earthquake and tsunami, which left more than 25,000 dead and destroyed tens of thousands of homes. But Shigeo Hirose says the Japanese government never anticipated that a nuclear accident would be part of such a disaster, “so little attention was paid” to developing snakebots that could respond. Relatively little research funding has been available. Now, Hirose says in an email, “of course it will be changed completely and I hope funding for search and rescue will grow soon.”

Funding is not a problem for another snakebot market: medical devices. Carnegie Mellon spin-off Cardiorobotics has raised more than $11 million in venture funding and is about to enter trials for FDA approval of its hyper-redundant robotic catheter. With 102 joints, five of which can be controlled at the same time, the device significantly improves upon the maneuverability of existing laparoscopes and endoscopes. A typical rigid laparoscope needs to travel though the body in a straight line, while a flexible endoscope lacks precise control. “It’s like pushing a wet spaghetti noodle,” says Choset. The Cardiorobotics device, driven by a joystick, can enter a small incision in the abdomen and wend its way to map all sides of the heart or even perform surgical repairs.

The future of snake robots depends more on mathematics than money, however. To move independently through an unstructured space such as a rubble pile, a snake robot must map and choose among an infinite number of routes. Then it must negotiate the chosen route by using a gait selected from an infinite number of possible postures. “It takes tons of mathematics,” says Choset, who has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering but has just published an article in an applied mathematics journal. Among the fields of study essential to programming snake robots, he lists differential geometry, topology, Lagrangian mechanics, probability, and statistics, particularly filtering and estimation.

Matthew Tesch, a Carnegie Mellon robotics graduate student, is using complicated mathematical formulas to answer the simplest of questions for snake robots: What is up and down? When a robot has 16 modules, each of which may be moving in a different direction at any given moment, that question is anything but simple. “It seems so first-grade-ish, but I had to go back to the beginning,” says Tesch. The systems-engineering graduate says that the effort is worth it because a snake robot will always seem little more than a slithering bundle of unrealized potential “until we can just put it in a rubble pile, press a button, and have the robot search for survivors on its own.” For now, the hope that snake robots will leap the gap between their current promise and ultimate utility rests almost entirely upon a group of committed academic engineers and their energetic students, who see nothing to fear in nature’s sinuous creatures.

Don Boroughs is a freelance writer based in South Africa.

Leaps and Bounds
Engineers empower disabled athletes with high-tech assists.

Swifter, higher, stronger. Engineers have taken that Olympic motto to heart, empowering disabled athletes with a host of high-tech assists. For Van Phillips, it started after a 1976 water-skiing accident left him an amputee. Dissatisfaction with that era’s wood-and-foam-rubber artificial legs spurred him toward biomedical engineering at Northwestern University and the University of Utah’s Center for Biomedical Design. After close study of nature’s swiftest runner, the cheetah, he invented the shock-absorbing, carbon-fiber Flex-Foot®, a variant of which adds spring to the stride of the runner shown here. MIT researchers in the emerging field of biomechatronics – a science combining biomechanics with biological movement controls – are developing prostheses that mimic tendons and ligaments. Aided by such technology, Paralympic athletes in these pages can be recognized as much for their prowess as for the disabilities they’ve conquered. “NoLIMBitations,” is the blog title chosen by Sam Kavanagh, a competitive cyclist, civil engineer, and amputee. A Phillips adage is equally apt: “Anything you can think of, you can create.”Rocketing to Renewal

Rocketing to Renewal

Learning to water ski helped Josh Stein, who lost both legs in Iraq, adjust to life as an amputee. Engineering put him on the waves. Sit-skis have come a long way since the first ungainly wooden models appeared in Belgium half a century ago. Californian quadriplegic water-skier Royce Andes created the popular Kan Ski in the 1980s, incorporating elements of the stand-up slalom ski with a “cage” for a seated skier. A decade later, mechanical and structural engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center volunteered to improve on the design for amputees and paraplegics at an Alabama summer camp. The resulting modified framework included an adjustable seat on a four-track mount with special shock absorber to eliminate side sway. The camp’s aquatics director credited the seat with increasing his jumping distance, helping him win a world water-skiing championship.

On a Roll

When Japan’s Wakado Tsuchida won her fifth straight Boston Marathon in April 2011, setting a course record for women’s push-rim wheelchair racing, three decades of progress in design and in strong, lightweight materials helped give her an edge. Winning times have fallen sharply since Bob Hall, the marathon’s first official wheelchair competitor, entered in 1975 with a 50-pound fold-up chair. Hall went on to craft aerodynamic racing chairs with angled wheels — for maximum user power and stability — and titanium frames weighing less than 13 pounds. Everything from precision hubs to the size of propulsion wheels and the contact surface on push-rings and gloves can affect performance. Rory Cooper, a Paralympic bronze medalist and University of Pittsburgh electrical engineer, knows this well. Paraplegic from a 1980 vehicle-cycle crash, Cooper heads Pitt’s Rehabilitation Science and Technology department while also helping Paralympic hopefuls and coaches. Both efforts mean better wheelchairs for veterans and others in America’s disabled population.

Golden Moment

Breaking her back snowboarding at 17 didn’t slow lifelong athlete Alana Nichols for long. She clinched one silver and two gold medals at the 2010 Winter Paralympic Games in Canada using a state-of-the-art sit-ski. The equipment, available with one or two skis attached, cushions the rider with a suspension system similar to a motorcycle’s. The Scarver racing model Nichols uses was designed by French technician Pierre Tessier and includes center-of-gravity and sitting-angle adjustment plus a choice of three shock absorbers. Sit-ski improvements also are emerging from engineering schools. A California Polytechnic State University engineering team recently completed a project for members of the U.S. Adaptive Ski Team to reduce the weight of their equipment, increase rider comfort, and enhance durability. The University of Wisconsin, Madison has developed fully adjustable cross-country sit-skis; riders use only ski poles to take on the slower, endurance-based sport. Nichols, who has a master’s degree in kinesiology, the science of human body movement, hopes to introduce others with spinal cord injuries to the world of adaptive sports.



Educators’ Broad Reach

Our Society benefits from hearing multiple perspectives.

By Renata S. Engel

A year ago, addressing ASEE members for the first time at the 2010 Annual Conference in Louisville, I noted, “What we will learn is dependent on what we are open to learn.” This belief has been reinforced by my experience as Society president. I was reminded, for instance, of the many perspectives – from industry, government, pre-college teachers, and higher education – represented in engineering and engineering technology education. I came to appreciate their value in speaking with members of the Corporate Member Council. They contacted me to discuss their role in increasing access to engineering, particularly with regard to those currently underrepresented. Commenting from my own higher-education perspective, I focused on the critical role of K-12 education in preparing students for college-level engineering. At some point during our conversation, I realized that the corporate members were talking about the entire pathway into the engineering workforce, including undergraduate and graduate education. They were as concerned about the departures that took students off that path as they were about encouraging them to consider engineering in the first place.

It is important to recognize that, even though our individual responsibilities may focus on one section, we are not released from our obligation to the entire path. Our profession most benefits when every section is accessible, prepares students for success, and considers both their prior experience and next-stage expectations.

ASEE’s primary activities are directed toward learning from and with each other about the most effective educational practices used to enhance engineering education. In addition to our emphasis on higher education, we have contributed to other parts of the pathway. This past year we reached an agreement with the National Science Teachers Association that allows representatives of ASEE and NSTA to attend each others’ meetings. At the other end, recognizing the value of industry experiences, ASEE has secured funding to manage a corporate post-doctoral program.

Speaking to members last year, I said, “What we choose to contribute is what we believe has value and importance,” and added: “The manner we serve is dependent on where we feel we have the most to offer.” The array of venues, conferences, and workshops that ASEE supports testifies to the many ways members have chosen to contribute. Our members have also made a notable contribution to the Creating the Culture of Scholarly and Systematic Innovation in Engineering Education project. Their input, through surveys, discussions, and feedback, will help direct future research and the implementation of improvements in classroom instruction.

I am proud of our role in serving society and in making society’s leaders aware of issues relevant to engineering education. My first glimpse of ASEE’s outreach to U.S. senators, representatives, and congressional staff came when I moderated a panel that the National Action Council on Minority Engineering (NACME) hosted on Capitol Hill to discuss its Community College Transfer Study. The next occasion was ASEE’s Public Policy Colloquium, when I joined the engineering deans’ meetings with congressmen from their respective states to discuss engineering research, education, and workforce. Subsequently, ASEE participated in Congressional Visits Day, spearheaded by IEEE. On this occasion, President-elect Don Giddens and I met with congressmen and senators whose committee assignments directly related to the engineering workforce or STEM education. A few weeks later, Past President J. P. Mohsen joined a similar event sponsored by the Society of Women Engineers.

Joining other constituents in the marbled Capitol Hill corridors, I walked away from each meeting with a deeper appreciation of the public-servant role that our congressmen and senators play and of the opportunity we have to assist them. As educators, we have a great deal to offer. How? We become knowledgeable on the policy issues that relate to what we do; we provide data and information in accessible formats; and we meet with them to discuss the implications and share examples of the impact of federal support and policy decisions. This kind of service can be viewed as another important dimension of our educational role.

I close my year as president with deep appreciation for how much I have learned from the members, the Board, and the staff. I am impressed with the contributions that we have made to advance engineering and engineering technology education and I am humbled by the service I have witnessed — not only by our organization but by those with whom we partner.

Renata Engel, president of ASEE, is associate dean of engineering at Penn State University.


Walter W. Buchanan

ASEE members elected Walter W. Buchanan to serve as ASEE president-elect for 2011-2012. Buchanan is J. R. Thompson Endowed Chair Professor and head of the Department of Engineering Technology and Industrial Distribution at Texas A&M University. He will assume the position of ASEE president-elect at the 2011 Annual Conference and become president the following year.

Full election results for all ASEE offices are as follows:

Walter W. Buchanan (862 votes)
J. R. Thompson Endowed Chair Professor
Head, Department of Engineering Technology and Industrial Distribution
Texas A&M University

David Woodall (321 votes)
Department of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering and Technology
Oregon Institute of Technology

Vice President, External Relations
Sandra Yost (723 votes)
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
University of Detroit Mercy

Alan Jacobs (445 votes)
U.S. Academic Relations

Vice President, Finance
Ray M. Haynes (1,089 votes)
STEM Integration
Da Vinci Charter High Schools

Chair, Professional Interest Council II 
Catherine K. Skokan
 (551 votes)
Associate Professor
Division of Engineering
Colorado School of Mines

Ken Brannan (548 votes)
Professor and Head
Civil and Environmental Engineering Department
The Citadel

Chair, Professional Interest Council III 
Joseph J. Rencis
 (598 votes)
Mechanical Engineering Department
University of Arkansas-Fayetteville

Roberta Harvey (499 votes)
Provost Fellow
Office of Academic Affairs
Rowan University

Chair-Elect, Zone II 
Barbara Bernal
 (240 votes)
Software Engineering Department
Southern Polytechnic State University

Robert Ward (199 votes)
Civil Engineering Department
Ohio Northern University

Chair-Elect, Zone IV
Nebojsa Jaksic (92 votes)
Department of Engineering
Colorado State University, Pueblo

Abraham Teng (80 votes)
Associate Professor
Pre-Engineering and Computer Science Departments
Utah Valley University

Constitutional Amendment
Accept (999 votes)
Reject (59 votes)


Eight ASEE Members Elected

WASHINGTON – Eight active members of ASEE have been elected to the National Academy of Engineering, one of the most prestigious professional distinctions awarded to engineers. They were among 68 new academy members and nine foreign associates whose election was announced February 8 by NAE President Charles M. Vest.

Academy membership honors engineers who have made outstanding contributions to “engineering research, practice, or education, including, where appropriate, significant contributions to engineering literature,” and to the “pioneering of new and developing fields of technology, making major advancements in traditional fields of engineering, or developing/implementing innovative approaches to engineering education,” the NAE announcement said. The February election brings the academy’s total membership to 2,290 and the number of foreign associates to 202.

The ASEE members newly elected for their accomplishments to the NAE are:

Nadine N. Aubry, Raymond J. Lane Distinguished Professor and head of the mechanical engineering department, Carnegie Mellon University, for contributions to low-dimensional models of turbulence and microfluidic devices, and for leadership in engineering education.

John R. Birge, Jerry W. and Carol Lee Levin Professor of Operations Management, Booth School of Business, University of Chicago, for contributions to the theory of optimization under uncertainty.

Michael J. Cima, Sumitomo Electric Industries Professor of Engineering, department of materials science and engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for innovations in rapid prototyping, high-temperature superconductors, and biomedical device technology.

Stuart L. Cooper, University Scholar Professor and chair, department of chemical and biomolecular engineering, Ohio State University, Columbus, for contributions to polymer chemistry, biomedical polyurethanes, blood compatibility, and academic administration.

Chris T. Hendrickson, Duquesne Light Company Professor of Engineering and co-director, Green Design Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, for leadership and contributions in transportation and green design engineering.

Mark J. Kushner, George I. Haddad Collegiate Professor and director, Michigan Institute for Plasma Science and Engineering, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, for contributions to low-temperature plasmas for semiconductors, optics, and thin-film manufacturing.

Ares J. Rosakis, Theodore von Kármán Professor of Aeronautics and professor of mechanical engineering, and chair, division of engineering and applied science, California Institute of Technology, for discovery of intersonic rupture, contributions to understanding dynamic failure, and methods to determine stresses in thin-film structures.

Alexander J. Smits, Eugene Higgins Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and chair, mechanical and aerospace engineering, Princeton University, for contributions to the measurement and understanding of turbulent flows, fluids engineering, and education.


Executive director sees potential to double membership.

Family legend has it that at age 3, Norman L. Fortenberry declared he was “going to be an ‘in-the-ear.’” Certainly from high school onward, through 11 years and three degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, nothing grabbed his interest more than engineering. Attracted to mechanical engineering as the most flexible discipline, he specialized in applied mechanics.

Fortenberry interned at several major companies and two prominent research institutions. But if an industry or research career beckoned, it was quickly overtaken by a new enthusiasm – education – that would ultimately bring him to ASEE as executive director. Since 1988, when he developed lesson plans as a research instructor in a NASA-funded pre-engineering program, he has taught, mentored, funded, and worked to stimulate students and faculty involved in engineering and science. He has also become a sought-after expert on engineering education, serving on numerous advisory and journal editorial boards. His guiding principle is captured in a 2008 quote from former MIT President Charles Vest, who now heads the National Academy of Engineering: “In the long run, making universities and engineering schools exciting, creative, adventurous, rigorous, demanding, and empowering milieus is more important than specifying curricular details.”

Born in Japan as the son of a career U.S. soldier, Fortenberry says his own education benefited from the expectations of progress and character common among military families, as well as from a uniform curriculum at Defense Department-run schools and an MIT mentor, Samson S. Lee, the “resident philosopher king” of their shared laboratory. He found excitement in a system dynamics course taught by David Wormley, now dean of engineering at Penn State (and ASEE president, 2006-2007). “It allowed you to look at mechanical, fluid, and electrical systems using the same equations – and you could model things.”

Now 50, Fortenberry joined ASEE as a young assistant professor looking for ways to teach better at the college of engineering jointly managed by Florida A&M University and Florida State University. But he soon segued into guiding educators himself as a program director and manager within the National Science Foundation’s Education and Human Resources directorate.

In 1995, he left to lead the National GEM Consortium, which provides mentorship and corporate financial support to underrepresented minorities pursuing graduate degrees in engineering and science. Returning to NSF two years later, he served as a key spokesman on undergraduate education while managing a variety of programs involving science, technology, engineering, and math and increasing participation of minorities, women, and people with disabilities in the STEM fields.

Fortenberry went on to launch the first operational center at the National Academy of Engineering. The Center for the Advancement of Scholarship on Engineering Education aims to bring NAE’s influence to bear on improving the field through research and innovation. Within two years, it was generating $2.5 million a year in grant income, and was collaborating with some 60 campus-based programs and research centers.

Since his arrival at ASEE headquarters May 1, typically starting his workday at 6 a.m., he has made service to members – individual, institutional, and organizational – and spending control his top priorities. He estimates ASEE’s potential membership at double the current 12,000, and wants to demonstrate “the value they receive for the dues they pay.” He notes that faculty are under stress nowadays, called upon to excel in both research and teaching. “These are our folks. We need to find ways to support them across everything they do.”


Your Passport to Engineering Education June 26 – 29, 2011 Vancouver, BC, Canada

Please note: ASEE Registration will not be open on Saturday, June 25, 2011.

View the 2011 Conference at a Glance


View the 2011 Exhibitors
View the 2011 Exhibit Hall Floor Plan


Join us in San Antonio, Texas for the 119th Annual Conference & Exposition!

Your Passport to Engineering Education

June 10 – 13, 2012
San Antonio, Texas

For the most current information please visit:


The ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition hosts more than 400 technical sessions, with peer-reviewed papers spanning all disciplines of engineering education. Attendees include deans, faculty and researchers, students, and retirees. Distinguished lectures run throughout the conference, starting with the main plenary. In addition to various award receptions and banquets, ASEE hosts a complimentary “Meet the Board Forum,” providing the opportunity for all registrants to meet with members of the ASEE Board of Directors and discuss current issues in engineering and technology. The spouse/guest tours help make the conference an event for the entire family. Other highlights include the “Greet the Stars” orientation for new ASEE members and first-time conference attendees, the ASEE Picnic, the “Focus on Exhibits” Happy Hour, and Brunch. The 2012 conference will be in San Antonio. We look forward to welcoming you there.


In order to strengthen the quality of conference proceedings, the ASEE Board of Directors has voted on a policy of “publish to present” at the ASEE annual conference. This policy, which requires all conference papers and presentations to be peer reviewed, seeks to ensure that intellectual activity by faculty and staff receives appropriate professional recognition.

In addition to Publish to Present sessions, beginning with the 2011 ASEE annual conference and continuing, divisions may submit Panel sessions. To submit a Panel session, divisions are asked to provide white papers (extended abstracts) in no more than four pages consisting of two pages of session description and two pages of bios. The PIC chairs will review the Panel sessions submitted and determine their viability to the conference. (Please check the appropriate field/column for submitting a Panel session through the new ASEE paper submission system.)

The process for the submission of ASEE annual conference papers is as follows: Once authors have submitted abstracts of their papers, these will be reviewed and evaluated as acceptable or not. Authors of accepted abstracts will be invited to submit a full-paper draft to be reviewed by at least three engineering educators. A draft paper may be accepted as submitted, accepted with minor changes or major changes, or rejected. If a paper requiring major changes is re-submitted, the author will be asked to provide an explanation to the division program chair as to how the paper revision has addressed the reviewers’ concerns. The division chair may then decide to accept or reject the paper.

Authors of accepted papers may also choose to present through a poster session, rather than the lecture format of the technical sessions. The ASEE poster sessions will now showcase authors of accepted papers who have selected this format, or whose papers have been assigned as a poster because of lack of space in the technical sessions. Exceptions to the Publish-to-Present requirement include invited speakers and panels. Divisions may also designate one of their technical sessions as a “panel” of speakers submitting poster presentations.

The presentation of research and program findings within a conference setting provides a valuable means of exchanging information and ideas. While the majority of papers presented at the ASEE annual conference already undergo review at the abstract, draft, and final paper stage, the Board feels confident that a rigorous process of review will safeguard the quality of all paper presentations and ensure the prestigious reputation of this important conference.


The Call for Papers format has changed. Please view the following Web address for Call for Papers for the 2012 Annual Conference and Exposition: The complete Call for Papers listing will be in the September issue of Prism.


Aerospace Division
Architectural Engineering Division
Biological and Agricultural Engineering Division
Biomedical Engineering Division
Chemical Engineering Division
Civil Engineering Division
College Industry Partnership
Computers in Education Division
Construction Engineering Division
Continuing Professional Development Division
Cooperative and Experiential Education Division
Corporate Member Council
Design in Engineering Education Division
Educational Research and Methods Division
Electrical and Computer Engineering Division
Energy Conversion and Conservation Division
Engineering and Public Policy Division
Engineering Design Graphics Division
Engineering Economy Division
Engineering Ethics Division
Engineering Libraries Division
Engineering Management Division
Engineering Research Council
Engineering Technology Division
Entrepreneurship and Engineering Innovation Division
Environmental Engineering Division
Experimentation and Laboratory Oriented Studies Division
First-Year Programs Division
Graduate Studies Division
Industrial Engineering Division
Information Systems Division
Instrumentation Division
International Division
K-12 and Pre-College Engineering Division
Liberal Education Division
Manufacturing Engineering Division
Materials Division
Mathematics Division
Mechanical Engineering Division
Mechanics Division
Minorities in Engineering Division
Multidisciplinary Engineering Division
New Engineering Educators Division
NSF Grantees Poster Session
Nuclear and Radiological Engineering Division
Ocean, Marine, and Coastal Engineering Division
Physics and Engineering Physics Division
Software Engineering Constituent Committee
Student Constituent Committee
Systems Engineering Constituent Committee
Technological Literacy Constituent Committee
Two-Year College Division
Women in Engineering Division


The following are the tentative deadline dates for the 2012 Annual Conference:

SEPT. 5 – OCT. 7, 2011
Abstract Submission Process Open

SEPT. 5 – OCT. 14, 2011
Session Requests, Division Social Functions Requests, Workshop Proposals, and Distinguished Lecture Nominations Due

SEPT. 5 – OCT. 21, 2011
Assign Abstract Reviewers

SEPT. 5 – NOV. 11, 2011 
Abstract Review Process Open

November 2011
PIC Chair Meeting

NOV. 11, 2011
Abstract Reassignment (to another Division) Deadline

DEC. 2, 2011
Session Approvals Sent to Program Chairs

DEC. 2, 2011
Abstract Accept-or-Reject Decisions Deadline

DEC. 5, 2011 – JAN. 6, 2012
Draft Paper Submission Process Open

JAN. 2, 2012
Workshops, Business and Social Events Location, Title, Description, and Ticketed Information Due

JAN. 9 – FEB. 17, 2012
Draft Paper Review Process Open

JAN. 2012
Registration and Housing Open for All Attendees

FEB. 24, 2012
Draft Paper Decision Deadline

FEB. 24 – MARCH 9, 2012
Final Paper Submission Process Open

MARCH 9, 2012
Deadline for Final Division Social Event Details, Final Workshop Details, and Final Distinguished Lecture Details. Includes: AV Special Requests and Food and Beverage Menu Selections for All Sessions.

MARCH 9 -16, 2012
Paper “Accepted Pending Changes” Final Upload Phase Open

MARCH 23, 2012
Paper “Accepted Pending Changes” Decision Deadline

MARCH 30, 2012 
Author Registration Deadline, Proceedings Fees and Copyright Transfer Due, and Best Paper Nominations Due

APRIL 8, 2012
Final Technical Session Program Details Deadline: Session, Moderator, and Speaker Information Final. No Session Changes Accepted after This Date for Any Activities. All Accepted Papers Must Be Assigned to Sessions by This Date. Session Cancellation Deadline: All Sessions Not Canceled After These Dates Are Final.

JULY 2012
2013 Call for Papers Posted on Web.

For the most current information please visit:

Imaginative Teaching
By Lyle Feisel

Summertime. And the livin’ is easy. Well, maybe not. Life goes on for faculty and students, and for the Prism staff, although the pace may change a bit. We hope you will enjoy this edition as part of your summer activity.

For our cover story, we set out to learn what gets students excited about engineering. To do this, we asked deans to forward information about their most popular and innovative courses. Many responded, and the varied entries show the abundant creativity among our engineering faculties. For instance, Tom Lee, professor of electrical engineering at Stanford, offers Things About Stuff, a course that teaches important scientific and engineering principles through the history of disruptive technologies and their inventors. Faculty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison engage undergraduates by introducing them to society’s Engineering Grand Challenges. As Pete Hylton of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis explains, a common feature of these courses is that they “capture the interests of students and what they want to be.” Our story gives just a sampling, but the courses not mentioned provide ideas for a number of future articles. Stay tuned.

In 1971, mechanical engineer Shigeo Hirose walked into a Tokyo restaurant and left with a box of wriggling snakes, hoping to develop robots with the same movements. Four decades later, the effort to replicate real snakes in robot form continues. But researchers are getting closer, as our second feature explains. Snakebots can now be used in surgical explorations of the human heart, as well as the inside of pipes and turbines. But the holy grail is search and rescue, where snakebots are sent into earthquake-damaged buildings to locate trapped victims and let them know that help is on the way.

As is Prism’s summer custom, our final feature explores the various technological advances that enable athletes with disabilities to become world-class competitors.

Before this issue goes to press, I will have ended my brief career as interim executive director of ASEE and publisher of Prism. It has been an honor and (usually) a pleasure for me to serve in this capacity. I believe we have moved the Society forward during these six months, and I want to recognize the hardworking and dedicated staff and volunteers who made it happen. And finally, I want to express my very best wishes to Norman Fortenberry, our new executive director, who is profiled in the ASEE Today section. He will, I am confident, help lead ASEE forward to even greater heights.

Lyle Feisel
Interim Executive Director and Publisher

Time Travel + Traveling Ants + Mellow Yellow


Mega Data, the Movie

Cells of a leaf appear like huge green boulders on an overhead screen at the California Academy of Sciences’ Morrison Planetarium. They’re part of Life: A Cosmic Journey, a multimedia movie intended to show how computers are transforming scientific research. The film draws on a wealth of data to create the effect of looking through a microscope or a telescope. Images range from individual cells of a redwood leaf to the entire forest. They’re created using three separate parallel computing systems, according to the New York Times. Such “macroscopes” connecting scientific instruments to powerful computers enable scientists to find data patterns they might otherwise miss and to pose and answer new questions. Software lets them share findings with colleagues.


Time Will Tell

Forward into the past? Vanderbilt University physicist Tom Weiler and graduate student Chui Man Ho say that if experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland succeed in finding the elusive Higgs boson, they also could prove that some matter – alas, not humans – can travel through time. Physicists theorize that the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle, is what gives particles like protons, neurons, and electrons their mass. If the world’s most powerful atom smasher produces the Higgs boson, physicists say it simultaneously should produce a second particle, the Higgs singlet. Weiler‘s and Ho’s argument rests on another theory, that the universe is composed not of just four dimensions, but 10 to 11, and that the singlet is one of the few bits of matter that can travel among them, including back and forth in time. If the collider produces singlets with signs of decay, that will be evidence the particles jumped back in time to appear ahead of the collisions that produced them. “Our theory is a long shot, but it doesn’t violate any laws of physics or experimental constraints,” Weiler says. There’s no proof that Higgs singlets exist, let alone can time-travel. –THOMAS K. GROSE


A Curious Yellow

Chrome yellow was a 19th-century breakthrough in pigment manufacturing that gave the resulting paint a bright, shiny intensity. Vincent van Gogh used it to great effect on such masterpieces as View of Arles with Irises, and Bank of the River Seine (photo), which featured sunny-looking yellow irises. Over time, some of the yellow paints van Gogh used faded and browned, but not all of them. Now researchers think they have discovered why: a heretofore unobserved chemical reaction triggered, ironically, by light. A four-country team of investigators led by Koen Janssens of Antwerp University, Belgium, used synchrotron X-rays at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility at Grenoble, France, to scan samples of paints similar to those van Gogh used. The researchers found that the paints that faded had been mixed with a lighter shade of yellow paint that contained barium sulfate. The mixture of sulfate and chromate made the paint highly sensitive to light, ultimately darkening it. For now, Janssens’s team recommends that the van Goghs – and other works containing chrome yellow – be kept out of strong or UV light. But they are also planning experiments to see if something can be done to coax the pigments back to their original luminous state. – TG


The Eyes Have It

Touch-screen computers? So passé. Sweden’s Tobii Technology and Chinese computer maker Lenovo recently demonstrated a PC that can be partly controlled with no hands – just eye movements. Open folders, switch between windows, zoom in – all with a mere glance. Eye-tracking isn’t a new technology. But previous systems require cumbersome headgear or special glasses, and are slow and expensive. Tobii’s version shoots low-level infrared light into a user’s eyes, and sensors and software pinpoint where a gaze is directed. A commercial product is still two years away, though Tobii hopes soon to make a clip-on device available for around $200.

Manipulating a computer with your eyes is one thing, but Brown University researchers have developed an implant — dubbed BrainGate — that allows a disabled person to control a PC cursor with the intended movement of her hand. In a recent paper, researchers detailed experiments with a paralyzed female stroke victim, who, for more than 1,000 days, has been able to manipulate a cursor with her thoughts. The device picks up those otherwise-lost neural impulses and turns them into action via a minuscule sensor that’s implanted in the part of the brain that controls movement. It transmits those signals to a plug attached to the scalp, which relays them to a computer programmed to translate them, raising hope for those who suffer spinal cord injuries. –TG


Hot and Cold Mysteries

Back in 2004, NASA launched a spacecraft designed to orbit Mercury. In March, Messenger finally got close to the solar system’s smallest planet, and has been sending back snapshots ever since. “We are really seeing Mercury now with new eyes,” Sean Solomon, the principal investigator, told a press conference. “As a result, a global perspective of the planet is unfolding and will continue to unfold.” During the mission, due to last at least a year, Messenger’s camera will take around 75,000 pictures, and its seven instruments will monitor Mercury’s very thin atmosphere, or exosphere. One hope is to determine if craters at the planet’s poles contain frozen water. Messenger’s elliptical orbit will take the probe within 160 miles of the surface, but at other times it will be 9,300 miles away. Despite its small size, Mercury is a place of great extremes: The side closest to the sun can reach temperatures of 800 degrees Fahrenheit, while the opposite side can plunge to minus 300 degrees. – TG


The Blimp Will Guide You

AUSTRALIA – Ever rush to a meeting in a strange building only to get lost in a corridor maze? Bryan Huang, a fourth-year aerospace avionics student at the Queensland University of Technology, thinks he has the solution. He’s developed a remotely controlled miniature blimp that can lead visitors through the halls to their destination. The 3-foot-wide, doughnut-shaped device, which looks like an inner tube made of aluminum foil, is moved upward and forward by three small propellers rigged inside the doughnut hole. A pressure sensor, accelerometer, and compass detect height, speed, and direction. Numerous infrared sensors spot walls and other obstacles. A building receptionist types instructions into a computer, and the blimp flies off at walking speed, 5 feet in the air, directed to the appropriate room by the computer, and the building’s sensor network. Phil Valencia, a communications technology specialist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, describes the system as “pervasive computing.” He supervised Huang, 20, during a vacation scholarship. For his part, Huang hopes to interest industry. So one day soon, you may hear, “Welcome to headquarters. Follow the doughnut.”–CHRIS PRITCHARD


Books Still Matter

Computer games are so much a part of the fabric of life these days they’ve become classroom tools. But heavy game-playing may have an unwelcome educational impact. New research from Oxford University found that teenagers who are frequent computer-game players are less likely to get a college education. The study by sociologist Mark Taylor followed a group of 17,000 people born in 1970. Computer games were much less popular when this cohort reached its teen years than they are today. Regular game-playing reduced a boy’s chances of gaining a degree from 24 percent to 19 percent, and a girl’s from 20 percent to 14 percent. But the study showed a bright side.Britain’s universities educate a smaller proportion of the population than America’s, and many young people enter the workplace without a degree. When they do, heavy teenage video playing doesn’t dent their career prospects, Taylor determined. Frequent gamers were no less likely to be in professional-level or managerial jobs at age 33 than non-gamers. Still, his study also found that avid teen readers were more likely to not only attend college but to excel in the workforce. “There is something special about reading for pleasure,” he told a recent conference. –TG


Faux Foliage

A gallon of water, placed in direct sunlight with a leaf floating in it, could cleanly and effectively produce enough electricity every day to power a house in a developing country. The catch? Well, the leaf is not from a tree but from a lab. It’s an “artificial leaf” that mimics photosynthesis, the process plants use to convert sunshine to energy. Developed by MIT energy and chemistry professor Daniel Nocera, it is a piece of silicon about the size of a playing card, coated in inexpensive, everyday chemicals. Activated by sunshine, the chemicals serve as catalysts to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is then used in a fuel cell to create electricity. Nocera isn’t the first researcher to come up with a way to fake photosynthesis, but previous efforts were costly and unstable. His leaf remains robust for 45 hours, and it is 10 times as efficient in converting sunlight to energy as nature’s own. Nocera has a contract with Indian multinational Tata to use the leaf technology to build, in about 18 months’ time, a refrigerator-size power plant. His leaf may not be green in color, but it’s powerfully green in concept. – TG


Earthquake Aftershocks

Just-in-time inventories and ordering components in bulk from sole suppliers were central to lean systems-engineering principles that American companies learned from Japanese manufacturers in the 1980s. But the 9-magnitude earthquake and massive tsunami that devastated northern Japan on March 11 have provided a new lesson: Globe-spanning supply chains are at the mercy of Mother Nature. Shortages caused by manufacturing disruptions in Japan rippled across the computer, aerospace, and automotive industries. Domestic production for Japanese automakers Toyota, Nissan, and Honda was particularly hard hit, but lack of supplies also had a domino effect on their overseas operations. Detroit’s automakers weren’t immune to the aftershock of supply shortages, either. Beyond that, the disaster put yet another question mark over the delivery of Boeing’s 737 Dreamliner, a next-generation aircraft that’s already three years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. Thirty-five percent of the plane’s parts come from Japan. Luckily for Boeing, most of the manufacturers it relies on are based in southern Japan. For now, Chicago-based Boeing is saying the 737 remains on target for a first delivery in the third quarter. Ironically, the first recipient is set to be All Nippon Airways. – TG


It’s Cost, Not Talent

America’s high-tech industry regularly claims that there’s such a shortage of domestic talent it has to hire top engineers and technical workers from overseas, primarily Asia. Baloney, says Norman Matloff, a University of California, Davis, computer scientist. In a recent speech at Georgetown University, Matloff said data prove that immigrants are no more innovative or productive than American researchers. He noted that IT industry “salaries are flat,” which wouldn’t be the case if jobs were going begging. Matloff says the industry wants to fill jobs with young Asians to keep costs down. The result is that many highly talented Americans are displaced because they’re older and demand higher salaries. Accordingly, a lot of smart American students are avoiding science and tech careers, creating an “internal brain drain.” Research shows that immigrants do have high publication rates in peer-reviewed journals, but Matloff — who also publishes a website and e-newsletter devoted to this subject — says that being good at churning out papers isn’t the same as being innovative. – TG

FACTOID: Mean scores on the Graduate Management Admission Test 2009-10 by undergraduate major: Engineering: 590, Social Science: 565, Science: 564, Humanities: 544, Business/Commerce: 524


Group Dynamics

Forget Noah’s ark. Few engineers can top the feisty fire ant for extraordinary life-raft construction. When in danger of drowning, colonies link together in living, crawling clumps and float to safety. Georgia Institute of Technology researchers studied this rafting behavior closely for the first time, gluing ants to a glass slide to test their strength and encasing an entire raft in liquid nitrogen to scrutinize its formation. They discovered that the hairy surface of the ant’s rough exoskeleton traps air, making it difficult for water to penetrate; by locking legs and jaws, a colony becomes one big, buoyant bubble. The findings could lead to more advanced waterproof materials or the development of collaborative robots that might one day explore sewer lines or clean up oil spills. –ALISON BUKI AND JOSEPH HORNIG

Climate Engineering

How Cool Is That?

Summer temperatures in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar can soar to a super-sweltering 122 degrees Fahrenheit. Can you imagine playing soccer in that kind of heat? Neither can FIFPro, the union representing professional soccer players. It wants the 2022 World Cup in Qatar moved from summertime to winter. Qatar officials say there’s no need to change the schedule. They have plans to make use of all that sunlight by cooling the stadiums with solar-powered air conditioning. And now mechanical and industrial engineers at Qatar University say they’ve invented a further way to beat the heat: an artificial robotic cloud. It’s actually a large, flat hovercraft made from lightweight carbon materials and filled with lighter-than-air helium. As it floats overhead, it’s directed via remote-controlled solar-powered motors. The “cloud” can be angled to follow the sun’s trajectory, thus keeping stadiums and practice fields under constant, protective shade. Associate Professor Saud Ghani tells CNN it could potentially drop the temperatures on the pitch by 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Cost? A cool $500,000 each. No sweat in oil-rich Qatar. – TG

The Scientist as Mad Artist
By Mary Lord

An engineering educator merges dissent and avant-garde design.

Zip-lining to work. Downward-facing pilot seats. Feral robotic dogs that play dead if they sniff toxic waste near playgrounds. Agitprop performance art? Perhaps, but it’s also engineering as taught by Natalie Jeremijenko, an activist, artist, engineer, and associate professor at New York University. Making no distinction between science and art, and applying the same engineering design process to ecosystems as to transportation and industry, she develops unconventional, even playful projects for museums and military applications alike.

Every endeavor, whether illuminating the impact of excreted antidepressants on Hudson River fish – her exhibit at New York’s Whitney – or having students strap on prototype wings and thrust their arms out a car window to get a feel for aerodynamics, involves rigorous engineering. Jeremijenko considers it “the humanities for the 21st century.”

Her signature course, How Stuff Is Made, attracts a robust mix of computer science, engineering and business majors. It asks students to analyze and visually document online the path of a product from raw materials to market, working with manufacturers and peers, wikistyle, to transform the process’s social or environmental impact. Students have traced American flags to remote Chinese factories, sending friends to snap photos, and suggested water-buffalo ice cream to Ben & Jerry’s. “It’s a small, concrete problem where they can make a difference,” says Jeremijenko. “They understand the complexities of manufacturing and how hard it is to innovate.” Developed a decade ago when she taught engineering at Yale, the course still has former students updating their projects.

The second eldest of 10 children, Jeremijenko grew up in Brisbane, Australia to possess a “rural, solve-the-problem, make-it-work” ingenuity and a taste for adventure. Once, working as a jackaroo mending fences in the Northern Territory’s remote tropical river delta, she lost her horse to a crocodile. “Imagine the force needed to pull a horse underwater by the nose!” she marvels – never mind that she now had to wade into the croc-infested river to fetch drinking water.

Her flair for framing art and science around society’s problems, which led Fast Company to name her one of 2011’s Most Influential Women in Technology, continues an academic journey of twists and turns. After earning bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry and physics, she veered from science for a master’s in the history and philosophy of science. Giving birth to a daughter while deep into Nabokov and Joyce, she named her Mr. Jamba-djang Vladimir Ulysses Hope. A year later, she broke off slicing rat brains and pursuing a graduate degree in neuroscience to organize a Brisbane rock festival. The public art seed firmly planted, she journeyed to Stanford for doctoral studies in mechanical engineering but ultimately earned a Ph.D. in computer science and electrical engineering at the University of Queensland.

Ever since, Jeremijenko has harnessed the engineering design experience to engage students and the public in a radical rethinking of social and environmental challenges – “the problems we can touch.” Her frisky approach draws on serious scholarship, including papers in respected journals, stints as a research scientist at Xerox PARC, and a 2010 TED talk. While teaching in three departments, she directs NYU’s Environmental Health Clinic and lectures from California to Qatar.

Her participatory projects make complex ideas easier to grasp. In one course, students trick out robotic toy dogs with chemical sensors to detect trace amounts of industrial waste. They learn engineering’s social relevance when their barking packs pinpoint pollution near parks or homes.

Not every student is a convert. “All over the place” was one online comment about her 2005-2007 class at the University of California, San Diego. Undeterred, Jeremijenko is scanning new horizons. Fascinated with light sport aircraft, she developed a multifaceted design project that includes runways of bogs, not asphalt, and ergonomic seats that face downward to enhance the sense of flight. She installed a Wetlanding Zipline in downtown San Jose, Calif., to demonstrate the concept — which she sees easing Manhattan commutes. How to categorize such a package of science, art, sustainability and excitement? How about “engineering”?

Mary Lord is associate editor of Prism.

Visiting an Engineering Icon

75 years later, Hoover Dam still inspires awe.

As I wrote here last October, Hoover Dam turned 75 years old that month. In conjunction with the anniversary, the History and Heritage Committee of the American Society of Civil Engineers sponsored a symposium on the project’s planning, design, and construction. It was held in Las Vegas, which is just 35 miles from the dam and is a beneficiary of the water impounded and the electricity generated at the site.

There was a special tour of Hoover Dam on the day before the symposium began, and busloads of civil engineers journeyed from the fabled Las Vegas Strip to the Visitor’s Center at the dam. It had been years since my wife and I were last there, and remarkable changes had been made to the iconic complex in the interim.

The talk of the town was the new bypass bridge, carrying traffic on a much-improved highway that eliminated the need for vehicles to navigate the narrow switchback roads that led down to the dam’s crest, over which just two lanes of traffic crept between Nevada and Arizona. Whether by coincidence or by design, the new bridge opened to traffic on the day of the engineers’ visit.

The bypass bridge is a soaring concrete-arch structure, which came into view as we drove down the old road toward the canyon. The bridge is in itself a magnificent engineering achievement, carrying as it does four lanes of traffic almost 900 feet above the riverbed on a 1,060-foot concrete arch, the longest-spanning one in the Western hemisphere. Engineers and laypersons alike craned their necks from buses and automobiles carrying them on their pilgrimage to this virtually hallowed site of engineering, infrastructure, and art.

Hoover Dam is a massive concrete structure, but it is also a graceful one. The dam proper, which exploits a combination of arch and gravity principles, has an apparent monolithic face that curves in two orthogonal directions. But it is the details of the generator buildings and appurtenances that show the true attention to detail that went into the overall design. The concrete work surrounding the outlets for the water that has spent its energy in the turbine generators shows thoughtful texturing and sculpting that resulted from the creative use of the wooden formwork employed during construction. The impressions left in the concrete are complemented with grooves and other accents that make what might otherwise have been an unrelieved hard surface into an aesthetic statement.

I do not know whether the crowds I saw swarming over the approach road, the visitor center, and the dam crest came to view these artistic details or simply to marvel at the sheer immensity and sense of power of the complex — and the labor that created it — which now includes the bypass bridge. But I doubt that they were all engineers, or spouses or relatives or acquaintances of engineers. I feel sure that some of them were simply drawn to this outstanding achievement that ASCE has designated not only as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark but also one of just 10 “Monuments of the Millennium.”

Engineers have been known to complain that their accomplishments are not appreciated by the general public. Visiting Hoover Dam easily dispels that impression. All one has to do is observe the anticipation on visitors’ faces and eavesdrop upon their conversations as they queue up to descend into the depths of the dam and stand in awe within the cavernous generator bays that are dwarfed by the concrete monolith towering above. This dam is an icon of engineering not because engineers say it is, but because people from all walks of life do.

Henry Petroski, the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University, chairs ASCE’s History and Heritage Committee. His latest book is The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems.

This Time, Let’s Make Progress
By Bevlee Watford

ASEE has a new chance to promote diversity.

While my husband and I were building a home, we used to visit the construction site on weekends to monitor progress. One Saturday, the contractors showed us the serving window I had requested between the kitchen and dining room. When I told them it would not do, they looked puzzled. They were both nearly 6 feet tall, so a window 51/2 feet from the floor seemed perfectly fine to them. But at 5-feet-2, I was looking at a wall, not a window.

I relay this vignette to raise, gently and oh-so-carefully, the topic of diversity and its benefits. My vertical deficiency gave me a perspective that taller people could not see or have. I have also been in situations where my being an African-American woman gave me a different perspective of an issue, leading to a contribution that enhanced the solution achieved. What we stand to lose by not paying attention to diversity was highlighted 10 years ago by Bill Wulf, then president of the National Academy of Engineering: “As a consequence of a lack of diversity, we pay an opportunity cost, a cost in designs not thought of, in solutions not produced.”

Even now, the actions we take to achieve diversity can make folks uncomfortable. This does not mean we should not take action, however, but instead act thoughtfully and carefully. That is what ASEE has done.

Past President Sarah Rajala created the ASEE Diversity Task Force, charged with developing a Diversity Strategic Plan enabling ASEE to be a leader in increasing engineering workforce diversity. The Task Force worked diligently to draft an action plan to present to the ASEE Board of Directors in January 2010. The final document listed 38 action items to support diversity efforts within both ASEE and the engineering education community.

Let me digress just a bit here. In 2002, the ASEE Task Force on Women and Minorities, in a comprehensive report, recommended various strategies to increase the numbers and percentages of women and minorities pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering, science, and mathematics. The report provided guidance that would put ASEE at the forefront of those seeking to increase diversity. It was greeted with great excitement and expectation for the future. And nothing happened. None of the strategies was implemented, and the report itself faded from memory.

Heeding that earlier time, the 2010 Diversity Strategic Plan contained two primary recommendations: Create the ASEE Diversity Committee as a standing organization charged with the oversight of this strategic plan; and create the ASEE Diversity Center, a website hosted by ASEE Headquarters. The hope was that with these steps, the plan would become a living document capable of effecting real change and progress.

The ASEE Diversity Committee, which I chair, includes Ray Haynes, Verna Fitzsimmons, Laura Bottomley, Ardie Walser, Beth Holloway, Diane Matt, Brian Self, Louis Martin Vega, Sarah Rajala, Peggy Dolet, and Ralph Flori. We held our first meeting at the 2010 Annual Conference. Accomplishments in the year since include approving a new ASEE statement on diversity; increasing the visibility of the DuPont and Keillor awards, which recognize efforts supporting diversity; continuation of the Diversity Booth (sponsored by DuPont), which strengthens both existing and new partnerships with organizations focused on diversity in engineering; developing a presentation for new officer training at the 2011 conference, and producing a website ( with resources to support diversity efforts.

As members of the engineering education community, it is our obligation to acknowledge that specific groups have been historically discouraged and turned away from pursuing what we know is a fabulous profession. It is our obligation to nurture and support the next generation of engineers. It is our obligation to change the way that engineering is portrayed and conveyed so that more children want to, and believe that they can, earn an engineering degree. It is our obligation to nurture a professional community that includes individuals from diverse backgrounds collectively working to create the technology for future generations.

As an engineer, I have often seen that the more challenging the problem, the more innovative and creative the solution. I expect nothing less now.

Bevlee Watford is the interim department head of engineering education and director of the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity at Virginia Tech. She chairs the ASEE Diversity Committee.