Rwanda rises from horror to train engineers for a knowledge-based economy.
KIGALI, Rwanda — Travel back in time with civil engineering Prof. Digne Rwabuhungu and you’ll get a sense of how far this tiny central African nation has come. The year was 1995. Rwanda, destitute from civil war and shattered from a campaign of genocide that left up to 800,000 dead, including Rwabuhungu’s brother, counted fewer than 20 engineers available for rebuilding.
Heeding a call to return home from a university post in neighboring Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwabuhungu joined five other lecturers in reassembling an engineering department at the National University of Rwanda (NUR).
With just one Ph.D. among them, they began by training about 150 students to earn diplomas as engineering technicians, not yet aspiring to offer bachelor’s degrees. Electricity was on for only a few hours a day. “We started from zero,” Rwabuhungu recalls. “We had no paper, no computers.” And no cash. For more than six months, the faculty’s only pay was a meager ration of rice, oil, and sugar.
If you had told Rwabahungu then that by 2011 NUR would be conferring engineering bachelor’s degrees on nearly 500 students and master’s degrees on 44 more, and that they would be learning on 400 computers in perhaps the most sophisticated information-and-communications-technology facility on the continent, “I would have said you were crazy,” says Rwabahungu. “It was undreamable.”
Yet the National University, in the city of Huye, is not even the biggest growth story in engineering education in Rwanda. Here in the capital, the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) has sprung up from the ground to become nearly NUR’s equal as a trainer of engineers, with its own modern facilities.
And the expansion continues: Carnegie Mellon University plans to open the first degree-granting campus in Africa by any U.S. university. Next year, CMU’s Kigali campus will begin preparing about 40 Africans for master’s degrees in information technology, with plans to add electrical and computer engineering the following year.
“There is a revolution in engineering in Rwanda since the ’94 genocide,” says Leopold Mbereyaho, KIST’s dean of engineering. Adds Felix Akorli, a Ghanaian information and computer technology professor who has taught for a nearly a decade at NUR: “What our local institutions have done, from zero in ’94 to today, is simply amazing. We’ve been moving heaven and earth to make things work.”
“MOST CHALLENGING TASK”
Behind this transformation is Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, who in 1994 led a rebel army from its base in Uganda to defeat Rwanda’s Hutu-led government forces and the Interahamwe militias responsible for much of the ethnic slaughter. In power for the past 17 years, he is intent on turning this landlocked and once desperate nation of subsistence farmers into the Singapore of Africa, with a knowledge-based economy powered by information technology. “The creation of a critical mass of scientists and engineers and specialists required to lead the diffusion of science and technology is the single most challenging task facing contemporary Africa,” he told an audience three years ago at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
It was Kagame’s government that insisted in August 1997 on a new institute of technology. “We had two months to recruit staff and students,” recalls Silas Lwakabamba, a lanky mechanical engineer who became KIST’s first rector. Lectures were to begin November 1. “Results — that’s what President Kagame likes,” says Lwakabamba, Formerly engineering dean at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, he is now the rector of NUR.
Today, KIST has a campus of neatly trimmed hedges and four large buildings. Young Rwandans clear rubble in the massive shadow of the just opened KIST 4 building, a multipurpose laboratory facility with state-of-the-art chemistry, computer, and mechanical engineering labs. They labor to remove some of the last remnants of their campus’s sad history. In 1994, this was Camp Kigali, the military epicenter of the genocide against minority Tutsis. The site was given to the institute in part for its swords-into-plowshares symbolism. “They wanted to change this history from something nasty to something beautiful,” says Lwakabamba.
The KIST campus was built on faith and goodwill. “I never had a budget for any of those buildings. If I had 10 million Rwandan francs (about $30,000), I would build a foundation and then go knock on people’s doors,” says Lwakabamba, rapping his knuckles on his wooden desk. International donors opened their doors — and their coffers. KIST drew expertise and funding from Germany and the United Nations Development Program. Japanese aid and an African Development Bank loan paid for the $8 million KIST 4 Building. At NUR, Sweden has funded the information and computer technology master’s program for the past eight years; the Netherlands has pledged $600,000 to upgrade the civil engineering department. “The number of donors supporting engineering is growing day after day,” says Umaru Wali, who heads civil engineering at NUR.
The faculty of engineering — known as applied sciences at NUR — is in a swoon over its new ICT Building, made possible by a $4 million gift from the Korea International Cooperation Agency. “This is a big jump for engineering in Rwanda,” says Dawoud Dawoud, NUR’s engineering dean. The computing labs alone boost the ratio of PCs to 1:4, up from 1:17 a couple of years ago. Adds Dawoud: “No other university in Africa — east, west, north, or south — has a lab facility like this.”
Equally overwhelmed is fourth-year computer science major Ivan Ingabire. Sitting in the newly opened Microprocessors and Embedded Systems Lab, he unpacks a glistening, Korean-made test kit and tries it out. Three quarters of the way through an Embedded Systems course, he had not touched a microprocessor before today, relying on lectures and notes alone. “But you can’t do a program on a simple PC and run it unless you have the microprocessor to see how it runs,” he says. In the past, Ingabire also studied networking without any access to hardware. As he recalls it, “We saw routers and switches in pictures.” Upstairs from where he sits, the Networking Lab is stocked with a wall full of new routers and switches. “I didn’t expect it to have all this,” Ingabire marvels. “We are happy indeed.”
Kagame attended the inauguration of the ICT Building, telling students: “It is up to you to take advantage of this modern technology to make a huge difference in the lives of our citizens.” Responding to a student’s request on the president’s Twitter account, Kagame said he was working with the rector to ensure that the building’s labs would be open 24 hours a day.
BROKEN MACHINES, LOW PAY
The international infusion of money has not relieved the institutions’ money woes. Rwandan universities must provide a free education to all full-time students using an annual budget allocation equivalent to $2,500 per student, no matter what their major. New equipment can be installed, but “in Rwanda, it’s hard to maintain things,” says Gaurav Bajpai of KIST’s computer engineering department. Some experiments can’t be performed because of broken machines that are too expensive to fix. At NUR, about a quarter of the older computers are out of service at any one time. An antenna atop the NUR water tower, which should be broadcasting the Internet across the campus, goes unused.
One solution Bajpai favors is to schedule time for classes to use MIT’s iLabs. From their PCs in Kigali, students can set up experiments, enter test vectors, and check the measured results against theoretical predictions, interacting in real time with remotely controlled microelectronics in Cambridge, Mass.
More worrisome than equipment maintenance is a dearth of lecturers. “The biggest challenge in Rwanda is academic staff,” says Rwabuhungu. “All other challenges we can face.” A national skills audit in 2009 found a shortfall of 650 lecturers in science and engineering, almost half the total required. And among those in place, only a quarter had Ph.D.’s. The student/faculty ratio at NUR far exceeds Dawoud’s goal of 20:1 or lower. Faculty salaries are set by the government. “Remuneration of lecturers is not as good as we would like it to be,” Kagame told an audience last April. “We have far more needs than resources. This is the reality.”
NUR is working to upgrade its engineering faculty even if it means shortages in the near term. Ten staff members are currently overseas studying for graduate degrees, while continuing to draw their NUR salaries. For example, civil engineering tutor Fulgence Ntihemuka is hoping to be promoted to a lectureship after completing his M.Sc. in structural engineering at Oklahoma Christian University.
Holding onto faculty is a challenge now that Rwanda’s economy is booming. Annual growth is up 7 to 8 percent since 2003. Cranes hover over the skyline of Kigali and road construction stretches to every corner of the country, making it particularly difficult for universities to keep civil-engineering staff. “By the time you give one person critical training, he leaves,” says Wali. “It’s a problem.” Newly graduated civil engineers are even walking into management positions. The department tries to help them overcome their lack of on-the-job experience with short, hands-on courses. But Rwanda’s industrial sector is so underdeveloped that Mbereyaho says KIST mechanical engineering students struggle just to find internships. Even in information technology, the dean says, job searching will become tougher. “The market is not growing as fast as the number of graduates,” he explains.
AN UNDERGRADUATE START-UP
KIST’s response is to encourage entrepreneurship. “We’re trying to talk to our graduates, telling them that they need to have enough skills to be job creators rather than job seekers, to create their own companies,” Mbereyaho says. Five KIST students could not even wait until graduation before taking off in business – following an American jump start. They were among 25 Rwandans studying mobile software development and business planning during an intensive, six-week Accelerating Information Technology Innovation workshop led by visiting MIT students. The workshop ended with an entrepreneurship competition, where the five students’ entry caught the eye of a Kenyan angel investor who was among the judges. The upshot is HeHe Ltd., a Web mobile applications firm that is already running a government website and mobile crowd-sourcing initiative eliciting citizen feedback on national programs.
“When you have a great idea, and you know the moment is right to do it, you just can’t wait,” says chief executive – and undergraduate — Clarisse Iribagiza, speaking from HeHe Ltd.’s rented offices in an upmarket district of Kigali. “In Africa, the moment is now.”
At NUR, Felix Akorli believes that academia and industry must be closely linked in a country like Rwanda, where the private sector is hungry for technological expertise and engineering departments are starved of funding. He regularly invites local industry leaders to lecture his students and give them real-world assignments. In one early example, a cellular network executive asked ICT graduate students in 2004 to come up with proposals for implementing a fixed wireless data service. The company, MTN, acted on the students’ researched recommendations and implemented a WiMAX network in Kigali in 2006, more than a year before the first citywide WiMAX deployments in the United States. In thanks, MTN gave the department the equivalent of about $4,500. “Industry should depend on universities,” says Akorli. “There are lots of things we can do to help them look into the future.”
Another initiative addresses the reality that in Rwanda, illiteracy is widespread and computers are not. Akorli and his team won a $20,000 IBM grant to help develop the Spoken Web. Using an ordinary mobile phone, a local farmer could access the Spoken Web, vocalizing a question in his local language, the way an American farmer might type a question in Google. “You can ask for the market price of peanuts in Kinyarwanda and get the answer spoken back,” Akorli says.
In many ways, the engineering schools in Rwanda create a bridge from a nearly preindustrial life to the technological 21st century for the nation. Bienvenu Ntampaka had never even met an engineer before he enrolled in KIST, where his living and academic expenses are provided by the American charity Generation Rwanda. His father was a miner who dug by hand — until he was killed during the genocide, when Ntampaka was 7 years old. His mother supports herself by braiding hair. As a boy, he loved building, making dog houses out of wood and mud. Twenty years ago, he might have been confined to a career erecting small structures. But today, “civil engineering is my passion,” the 23-year-old says. As he studies for third-year exams on the concrete steps of KIST 4, he can ponder a future building skyscrapers.
Education collapsed with the economy.
Illustrious engineering alumni of the University of Zimbabwe are living proof of its once high standards. Sifiso Dabengwa is chief executive of the largest cellular network in Africa. Hardwell Chibvongodze is an inventor with SanDisk, manufacturer of computer memory systems. Even Zimbabwe’s deputy prime minister, Arthur Mutambara, went from the university to secure an Oxford Ph.D. in robotics and a lectureship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. University of Cape Town civil engineering Prof. Pilate Moyo proudly recalls his UZ undergraduate education: “It was better than South Africa.”
Recent graduates, however, find that the reputation of their alma mater has sunk so low that they struggle to gain a modicum of respect. No longer can they count on virtually automatic registration by the Engineering Council of South Africa. “We’re reluctant to accept the degrees on face value,” says Johan Pienaar, the council’s manager of registration.
That the university continues to graduate engineers at all is a tribute to the perseverance of faculty and students who endured Zimbabwe’s economic collapse. In 2008, hyperinflation reached the second-highest level in world history, with prices doubling daily. Donors who had strongly supported UZ engineering in the past were scared away by the autocratic rule of Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, who as chancellor of the university controls its administration. The university could not even maintain its water supply, much less engineering laboratories. Closed for months, it reopened only after UNICEF drilled new wells. Staff members left in droves, unable to live on their salaries, and the vacancy rate for engineering faculty topped 80 percent.
“There was just a total breakdown,” says Cuthbert Musingwini, who chaired UZ’s Department of Mining Engineering and now lectures at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Today, the Zimbabwean economy is starting to revive, in parallel with modest political improvements. Students sacrificed summer vacations to make up for lost time, returning to their classrooms a couple of weeks into a three-month holiday. Engineering staffing is slowly improving. Former UZ electrical engineering head Edward Chikuni says things “are looking up” at his former employer, and anticipates that one day he will return. Still, he notes that in the first-year classes he now teaches at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa, well over 10 percent of the students are Zimbabweans.
Daniel Chihombori, who handles external relations for UZ, decried perceptions of the “death” of engineering programs, writing in an email that “the programs have, as a matter of fact, been running consistently over the years.” But the UZ administration refused to authorize a visit by Prism and did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.
Moyo, meanwhile, says it “would be a given to go back” to UZ if the infrastructure fully recovered. But, he laments, “I don’t see that happening in my generation.” – DB
Don Boroughs is a freelance writer based in South Africa.
You won’t see celebrity chefs whipping up lunch in Ohio State University’s High Pressure Food Processing Lab. Yet Jamie Oliver and other healthy-eating evangelists would feel right at home in this state-of-the-art test kitchen, with its commercial-grade equipment, specialized fryers, and high-tech prep area. They’d also savor the facility’s mission: engineering recipes for ridding food of bacteria that sicken more than 1 in 6 Americans each year, 3,000 of them fatally.
Ohio State’s research lab, run by the Departments of Food Science and Technology and of Food, Agricultural, and Biological Engineering, is part of an emerging, multidisciplinary field aimed at curbing food contamination — and engineers have a prominent seat at the table. Call it the Food Safety Network, or as lab director V. M. Balasubramaniam, associate professor of food science and biological engineering, prefers, “food safety engineering.” Years before terrorism concerns and highly publicized outbreaks involving tainted spinach, eggs, and peanut butter spurred Congress to pass the Food Safety Modernization Act last December, engineering educators across the country were working with microbiologists, chemists, food scientists, and other faculty on innovative technologies to protect and follow foods. Their method: apply engineering principles to address microbiological and chemical food-safety challenges and develop unconventional solutions to imminent problems. In essence, says Carmen Moraru, associate professor of food science and technology at Cornell University, this new specialty “denotes a quantitative approach to food safety.”
COOKING UP PROTECTION
Humans have sought trustworthy methods of preparing and preserving food since hunter-gatherer days. The most common, time-honored means of keeping food safe is what food engineers call “thermal processing”—a.k.a. cooking. Other methods of disinfecting and preserving food, such as drying, smoking, pickling, and flavoring with microbe-killing spices or salt, also have ancient pedigrees. The 19th and 20th centuries brought two more-advanced thermal methods: canning and freezing. The former, invented to feed an army during the first years of the Napoleonic wars, produces some of “the safest food you can have,” says biology Prof. Robert Brackett, director of the Institute for Food Safety and Health at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT).
These traditional techniques all alter the appearance, taste, and texture of food, however. Most also reduce such nutrients as vitamins. Over the past decade, the unappetizing effects of heat, cold, and canning have become less acceptable in the marketplace. Consumers began demanding “minimally processed foods [that] can retain more nutrients for health and wellness,” along with sensory qualities much closer to the fresh state, notes Balasubramaniam. So industry began investigating different approaches.
The new federal food-safety act, which took effect in January, has added urgency to industry’s quest for innovation. The law requires food processors to use “science-based preventive controls” to hinder contamination and to track both domestic and imported foods from farm to table so that tainted products can quickly be pinpointed and recalled.
One well-developed nontraditional, nonthermal method familiar to many consumers is irradiation, also known as cold pasteurization.The technique, which won FDA approval in 1990, uses ionizing radiation — specifically gamma or beta rays produced by X-ray or electron beam — at levels high enough to fatally rupture the chemical bonds in the DNA of salmonella, Listeria, or other microbes but low enough to avoid rendering the food radioactive or alter its sensory and nutritional qualities. Although experts consider irradiation perfectly safe, it has suffered from bad publicity. FDA regulations require labeling when used. Ozone, used to kill bacteria, viruses, and other microbes on food-processing surfaces, is also recognized as safe by the FDA. Because it inactivates microorganisms as effectively as chlorine without any residual chemicals, it now is being applied directly, in both gaseous and aqueous forms, to a variety of fruits, vegetables, eggs, fish, poultry, and meat.
An innovation for destroying bacteria, pulsed electric-field processing, has proved effective against molds, yeasts, and bacteria and is suitable for liquids. Food is placed between two electrodes, then subjected to high-voltage pulses that cause microbes’ cell membranes to rupture.
Perhaps the most advanced new method is high-pressure processing (HPP). This minimalist technique kills many bacteria and some viruses by subjecting food to pressures similar to those required to make industrial diamonds, explains Balasubramaniam. Unlike thermal treatment, pressure acts equally at all points of a product and thus eliminates the denaturation, browning, and film formation associated with cooking and canning. And because HPP does not cause changes in texture or taste, it is appropriate for foods easily ruined by heat, such as guacamole, raw oysters, salsa, smoothies, and a host of ready-to-eat meals.
The lab where Ohio State’s Balasubramaniam and fellow food-safety engineers are working with industry to perfect HPP resembles a mix of high-tech NASA design shop, commercial food plant, and Julia Child’s kitchen. Hoisting food samples as large as 5 liters into a pressure vessel, researchers study the effect of applying anywhere from zero to more than 100,000 pounds per square inch of pressure on both microbes and foods. A specially programmed computer allows them to control pressure, temperature, and other parameters, while specialized devices provide such information as the reaction of bacterial spores and microbes to various pressure and heat conditions. A nearby kitchen also stocks familiar tools for preparing foods to study, with other university facilities providing professional-grade devices that can peel, chop, freeze, fry, extrude, homogenize, and package foods.
WRAPPING UP SAFETY
In addition to microbe-killing innovations, food-safety engineers are investigating new methods for detecting contamination and designing packaging that does more than just keep food fresh. A number of techniques found in molecular biology and electrical engineering have been adapted to produce assays and biosensors that can rapidly identify pathogens. After seven Chicago-area residents died from poison-laced Tylenol in 1982, demand soared for tamper-resistant packaging. Similarly, notes IIT’s Brackett, the new federal food-safety act will compel food producers to evaluate “the risk of the product being tampered with. They’ll have to come up with new processes to guard against that.”
“Active” or “smart” packaging offers detailed tracking and flagging of foods. Various types of materials, for example, can either absorb potentially detrimental materials, such as excess moisture, or release helpful ones like antioxidants or antimicrobials. Packages containing sensors can warn companies and consumers of contamination or recalls. The three-decade-old bar code may soon be superseded by radio frequency identification (RFID) tagging, which is coming into increasing use in the food industry. RFID tags (also called transponders) contain a microchip and tiny antenna, allowing them to “talk” to electronic readers. When attached to packages, they can record and convey information about each food item contained and the route each shipment has followed. The devices work both with processed foods in cans and boxes, and with fresh fruits and vegetables as long as the tags can be securely attached to bags, ties, or boxes. Unlike bar-code scanners, RFID readers do not require “line of sight” contact to receive information.
In Carmen Moraru’s lab at Cornell, food-safety engineers are exploring advanced technologies that use short pulses of intense light to kill microbes. Researchers say this method shows potential as a swift, relatively inexpensive way to clean food-preparation surfaces and equipment. Moraru’s team also is investigating membrane-separation techniques aimed at removing bacteria and spores from raw milk. The result, they hope, will be dairy products with fresher taste and better nutrition because it will take less heat to make them safe.
AN ADVANCING FIELD
As the need to safeguard food expands, so does the range of expertise demanded of engineering educators in this exciting new specialty. A food-safety engineer must be “quite knowledgeable in engineering fundamentals and at the same time needs to answer or address how [foods] are safe microbiologically,” notes Ohio State’s Balasubramaniam. Like him, many pioneers have food, chemical, or mechanical engineering backgrounds, “but through experience now we are forming this subset called food-safety engineering.” IIT’s Brackett notes that “electrical engineers developing electronic processes, logic processes, have become much more engaged.”
Preparing students for careers in food-safety engineering may require academic adjustments. Food science and food engineering typically have resided in schools of agriculture, not engineering. Moreover, most offer subfields in food engineering, food chemistry, or food technology rather than a full menu of courses. Some universities, such as IIT, offer graduate degrees or programs with “food safety engineering” in the title. However, at this point, it’s “more of an area of research within the broader area of food science, very interdisciplinary by nature,” says Cornell’s Moraru.
The small field may expand as more engineering students recognize its potential to protect life. Ohio State’s Balasubramaniam believes one way to grow the field might be to identify interested science and engineering graduates and build up any missing expertise. “Bring in your highly qualified engineering graduate and have that person take courses in food microbiology,” he suggests. “Or you can also bring in someone who is strong in microbiology and then have them take more engineering classes and then conduct research.”
Will food-safety engineering join bioengineering as an interdisciplinary field in its own right? “I know to never say never,” says Cornell’s Moraru, who sees it remaining a specialized subfield of food engineering, with links to biological and agricultural engineering. On the other hand, she notes, increasing public and industry interest in food safety ultimately “may be the common denominator” that creates a signature dish from today’s disparate academic ingredients. Bon appétit!
Beryl Lieff Benderly is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
Little intimidates Lynn Conway, professor emerita of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. At 73, the former motocross racer still enjoys white-water canoeing with her husband, Charlie. Yet for decades she hid a very personal detail from colleagues. If they found out, she feared, “my career would have been over—absolutely over.” Only after retiring did Conway reveal her transgender past—a physical transition from male to female completed a lifetime ago in 1968.
When engineering educators talk about promoting diversity, chances are transgender individuals like Conway don’t figure prominently in their policies. Nor do too many think immediately of gays and lesbians when discussing underrepresented minorities. Yet diversity has multiple dimensions, as schools and industry are finding out. Successful campaigns to end the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and legalize same-sex marriage in six states and the District of Columbia have ushered in a new era of awareness. In turn, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) engineers are emerging from the shadows to confront the stigmas historically attached to their identities. Due in large part to their own efforts, they are gaining wider acceptance academically, socially, and professionally.
Conway’s longtime secrecy was born of necessity, she believes. Hired as a man by IBM in the mid-’60s, she contributed to important advances in computer performance until she informed the company about her intended transition. Transgender identity was little understood at the time, even by many experts, and she says IBM quietly fired her. Knocked off the corporate ladder and struggling financially, she started over from scratch with her new name and stunning female persona as a programmer for small firms. In time, her career in engineering resumed its upward trajectory, and she went on to successes in industry, as a Pentagon researcher, and in academe.
In 1989, Conway was elected to the National Academy of Engineering and in 2009 was recognized by IEEE as a computer pioneer. Yet her early work at the dawn of the computer revolution might have stayed hidden were it not for Clemson University computer engineer and historian Mark Smotherman, who turned to colleagues for help in researching IBM breakthroughs of the 1960s. Conway’s responses to his inquiries led her to reveal her long-ago transition — and enter a new role of transgender advocacy. (IBM declined to comment about Conway.)
For electrical engineer Tim Wilson, keeping his identity as a gay man secret was not his own choice. Hired by a Tennessee university, he says he was told by his department head not to reveal any aspects of his personal life, a restriction not imposed on heterosexual colleagues. Similar treatment has been recounted by other gays and lesbians seeking careers in a profession still seen as relatively conservative and heavily white and male.
In a rare scholarly examination of lesbians, gays, and bisexuals in engineering, University of California-San Diego doctoral students Erin Cech and Tom Waidzunas studied the experiences of 17 students at a large public research university. For many, engineering school is “a hostile place,” they found, one where “both pervasive prejudicial cultural norms and perceptions of competence particular to the engineering profession can limit these students’ opportunities to succeed, relative to their heterosexual peers.” One respondent described losing an internship after coming out to others in the office, though that wasn’t the stated reason for letting him go. A gay man related: “[Classmates are] fine with you being gay, but they don’t want you to talk about having a boyfriend. … And the fact that they talk about their girlfriends in the lab I find kind of hypocritical.” One student who felt forced to remain closeted experienced “agony, the stress of constantly trying to portray a certain image of myself and hiding who I really am.”
Perceptions of engineering as a technical, “masculine” field put pressure on gay men to prove their competence, while lesbian women were at times perceived as suited to the profession by virtue of appearing “more guy-ish.’’ Students in the study ranked biological and chemical engineering departments as the most tolerant, electrical and computer engineering and computer science as showing average tolerance, and mechanical, aerospace, civil, and structural fields as the least tolerant. “There is power in the presumption of straightness,” Waidzunas and Cech write, “power of having the ‘right’ sexual orientation, power to make others ‘invisible’ and power to dictate what rights other people have.”
One sign of growing acceptance is the support the 2008 study received from the engineering college, including its associate dean. The students felt, however, that having visible and “out” faculty members and industry professionals to look up to as role models would greatly help them.
Tim Wilson would be one such model. Now a department chair at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, where he found a better atmosphere than at his previous post in Tennessee, he personally brokered a policy change that allowed same-sex couples to receive full partner benefits. While many universities and colleges now provide similar benefits, some public universities are prevented from doing so by state laws, and in certain states employers can still fire people based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Christine Stanley, vice president and associate provost for diversity at Texas A&M University, home to one of the nation’s biggest engineering colleges, says her school would offer same-sex partner benefits were it not for Texas’s insurance code, which expressly forbids them. Despite this limitation, Texas A&M has an LGBT Resource Center, an active LGBT professional network, many programs and activities in support of LGBT issues, and an LGBT endowment for scholarships through the Texas A&M Foundation.
A Tapestry of Identities
Stereotypes and misconceptions haunt LGBT individuals, something Donna Riley, an associate professor of engineering at Smith College, sought to clear up in a 2008 article. She explained that put simply, gender identity is about who a person is and sexual orientation concerns the people to whom a person is attracted. Sexual orientations with which people identify include lesbian or gay (homosexual), bisexual, and heterosexual, although some people do not identify with any of these terms. “Transgender” includes anyone who experiences or expresses a gender different from that associated with his or her body; people may identify with either gender, neither, or both. Transsexuality involves changing from the gender of one’s birth to the opposite, both medically and in appearance.
Two groups are working on trying to improve the acceptance and working conditions of LGBT individuals in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. The National Organization for Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP), led by Caltech researcher and lab manager Rochelle Diamond, seeks to provide “education, advocacy, professional development, networking, and peer support” for students, faculty, researchers, and others. One of NOGLSTP’s main initiatives is the Out to Innovate national summit, first held in 2010 at the University of Southern California. The second meeting is set for Ohio State University, Oct. 13 and 14, 2012. It’s slated to feature workshops on leadership and mentoring, a career fair, poster sessions, networking, speakers, and an achievement awards dinner. Past awards went to both Riley and Conway.
The Ohio meeting may include Out in STEM (oSTEM), a smaller organization directed toward LGBT and “allied” straight students with the aim of educating and fostering leadership, according to its president, Eric Patridge, a postdoctoral chemist at Yale. The group has made a concerted effort to reach out to transgender students, and is seeking transgender members for its national board.
Student membership in NOGLSTP, a $5 annual fee, gives them instant access to MentorNet, an all-online not-for-profit service that pairs engineering professors and industry professionals with students who have similar interests. “Many students don’t want to come out to their adviser,” says Diamond, so MentorNet lets them share life and professional experiences with an LGBT professor.
At the 2011 ASEE Annual Conference in Vancouver, NOGLSTP participated in the Diversity Booth, sponsored by DuPont and arranged with help from the ASEE Diversity Committee. The booth aims to communicate awareness about the “value and importance of diversity in engineering and to encourage dialogue,” says committee member-at-large Sarah Rajala, dean of engineering at Mississippi State University and a recent president of ASEE.
Since its first meeting at the 2010 Annual Conference, the Diversity Committee has updated ASEE’s diversity definition and statement to include sexual orientation and gender expression. While no specific initiatives directed toward LGBT students and faculty are currently underway, “I can promise it will become an issue taken up by the Diversity Committee in the future,” says Committee Chair Bevlee Watford, associate dean for academic affairs at Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering.
Besides DuPont, other engineering-focused companies have played an important role in equal treatment. “Industry has led the way with domestic partner benefits,” says Diamond. The Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based advocacy group, maintains a Corporate Equality Index, which gauges nondiscrimination policies, diversity training, inclusive benefits, and advertising messages. Companies that gained HRC’s 100 percent rating include Agilent Technologies, Air Products & Chemicals, Apple, Boeing, BP America, Chevron, Chrysler Group, Cisco Systems, Dell, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Ford, General Motors, Google, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Motorola, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Shell, Texas Instruments, Toyota, Volkswagen, Xerox, and Yahoo!.
When it comes down to it, “accommodating diversity means accommodating new ideas,” says Lynn Conway. IBM, where her career got temporarily derailed in the ’60s, has clearly heard the message. It not only has a 100 percent HRC rating but also now reaches out for potential hires among LGBT students.
Jaimie N. Schock is ASEE’s editorial assistant.
In many poor, rural areas of the world, scourges like malaria, HIV/AIDS, and malnutrition are endemic. Blood tests for anemia are a quick way to diagnose them, but it can take days to get results back from hospitals many miles away. Last year, a multidisciplinary team of Rice University undergraduates devised a clever solution: It’s a centrifuge fashioned from a common salad spinner. In 10 minutes, it separates blood cells from plasma, whereupon a gauge measures the ratio of red cells to total volume and reveals whether the patient has anemia. The device costs about $30 and requires no electricity.
The challenge to develop a cheap, nonelectric device to diagnose anemia was one of several projects given to teams in Appropriate Designs for Global Health, an introductory, project-based design course offered as part of a minor in global health technologies in Rice’s Beyond Traditional Borders (BTB) program.
The Rice program is one of a growing number of “humanitarian engineering” initiatives — some new, others long established — at engineering schools across the country that require students to work in multidisciplinary teams and design, build, and test low-cost, high-tech solutions to public health problems in developing nations. While Rice students focus on health and medical technologies, other programs — including those at the University of Massachusetts, Duke University, Arizona State University, and the Colorado School of Mines — grapple with a host of environmental problems, including a lack of clean water and air pollution, that clearly have a strong public health connection.
“It’s a wonderful educational experience for our students, but it also gets appropriate technologies to people who need them,” says Lauren Vestewig, executive director of Rice 360º: Institute for Global Health Technologies, which runs the BTB program. “It’s a win-win situation.”
Public health problems abound in the world’s poorest regions. Forty percent of humans don’t have access to clean water, 50 percent have no means to treat wastewater, and 20 percent live without electricity. And because half the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day, solutions need to be inexpensive, scalable, and sustainable. They also have to be culturally appropriate for the end-users. What these countries don’t need are technologies that are “Western hand-me-downs,” notes the website for Stanford University’s graduate course Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability (EDEA).
The courses and programs were largely created to meet student demand. “Students are the primary drivers,” says Thomas Colledge, an assistant professor of engineering design at Pennsylvania State University and codirector of the school’s Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program. Steven Skerlos, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, and the faculty adviser to its BLUElab program, agrees. “It’s coming from the students; it’s definitely push, not pull.”
Many of the courses tend to be open to all students, not just engineering majors. Around 10 percent of Rice’s students have taken one of the BTB courses, and the introductory course accepts students of all grade levels. Besides the anemia test, Rice students have developed the Doseright, an inexpensive plastic clip that’s clamped onto an oral syringe and stops the syringe’s plunger once the correct dose of medicine has been delivered, and a Lab-in-a-Backpack stuffed with diagnostic devices and a rechargeable power source. Overall, Rice student-designed technologies have benefited roughly 45,000 people in 21 countries.
Central to Penn State’s 300-student, 10-college HESE program, begun 13 years ago, are two linked courses: the two-credit Projects in Community Service Engineering design course and a one-credit seminar, Design for the Developing Community. The design course requires student teams to design and build a low-cost, high-tech solution to a problem common to the developing world. While only 80 students are enrolled in the design course at any one time, the other 220 students work on parts of projects in another of the technical writing or design courses.
One highly successful HESE project is a telemedicine system called Mashavu, which uses cellphone technology bundled into kiosks to send the medical histories of individuals in rural villages to physicians in cities that are often hundreds of miles away. The kiosks operate on gas, wind, solar, or microhydro power sources and contain low-cost biosensors.
Stanford’s EDEA course is for graduate students only. One of its high-profile inventions is an incubator for premature babies — who are at risk for hypothermia — that’s essentially a tiny sleeping bag. The key technology is a packet filled with a wax substance. It’s placed in boiling water to melt the wax, which then radiates a steady temperature for four hours. The preemie is slipped inside the sleeping pouch, and the reusable packet of wax is placed in a pocket on the back of the sleeping bag, where it keeps the baby safely warm. It costs only $25 — a staggering savings compared with the $25,000 it costs for a Western-style incubator. General Electric recently ordered 10,000 of them to distribute around India and Nepal.
Typically, courses at the undergraduate level give students plenty of technical guidance before or as they work on projects. For instance, the first third of the Rice course provides a foundation in the engineering design process and rapid prototyping methods. But the nonengineering aspects of a project can be just as important. During the one-credit seminar course at Penn State, engineering students work with peers from other disciplines. A women’s studies major might, for example, explain that a treadle pump would be considered provocative in some cultures because it causes a woman’s hips to sway. “That interplay is essential among the multidisciplinary teams,” Colledge says.
Unlike most other programs, Michigan’s BLUElab is extracurricular — though students who minor in multidisciplinary design can get course credit for their BLUElab project work. But Skerlos disputes the notion that there’s any sort of division between classroom and extracurricular learning. Projects, regardless of whether they’re part of a class or sponsored by an outside organization, are where students learn to design, build, and test, he argues, and where they also learn how to listen to and work with colleagues, stakeholders, and customers from other disciplines and cultures. And when students have to design, build, and test a product, they’ll also learn if any of their core competencies are inadequate. “You can have high scores on tests, but if you don’t know how to use what you’ve learned, what good is it?” Skerlos asks.
That’s a point that Steve Garguilo, 23, wouldn’t dispute. He’s a 2009 Penn State graduate in information sciences and technology who worked on several HESE projects, including Mashavu. The experience was an eye-opener. It wasn’t until 2008 that Garguilo had ever set foot outside the United States. Yet he now works as an emerging markets analyst for Johnson & Johnson, helping to develop appropriate products — a job that so far has taken him to five continents. Hands-on projects in college helped teach him how to be a “cocreator” on a team and to deal with the glitches that inevitably occur outside the lab. “You can never anticipate what’s going to happen,” Garguilo says. “Once you are in the field you have to roll with the punches.”
Colledge, his former professor, says the goal of HESE and programs like it is nothing less than “to transform engineering . . . I see no reason why students won’t be able to major in humanitarian engineering in the future.” Humanity would certainly benefit.
Past Prism articles related to this topic include “The Barefoot Engineer” (November, 2009); “New Challenges, Same Education?” (April, 2009); “A Human Touch” (October, 2005); and “A World Class Act” (September, 2004).
Thomas K. Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent, based in London.
Thérèse Kankindi, a wrinkled, rail-thin widow of 70, was comforting her 5-month-old granddaughter when we met in late spring 1994 at a crowded refugee camp redolent of wood-fire smoke and wet earth. The baby, Carita, suffered indigestion from her new diet of corn porridge, having been abruptly yanked off breast milk when soldiers shot her mother to death in the unfolding Rwanda genocide targeting minority Tutsis. Kankindi, seeing two daughters killed and the church where her family had sought protection become a charnel house, picked up Carita and fled on foot with two sons toward neighboring Burundi, pursued like quarry by soldiers and machete-wielding thugs. One of her sons was hacked to death en route.
One could easily imagine Kankindi being immobilized by grief and shock. Instead, an enduring memory of my reporting assignment in Rwanda and Burundi at the time is of her cheerfulness. Life, she told me, “is sweet.” Other surviving Rwandans proved similarly resilient. Digne Rwabuhungu, whose brother was killed in the genocide, returned in 1995 to join five other lecturers in rebuilding an engineering department at the National University of Rwanda (NUR). They started from “zero,” with no paper and no computers, he told our correspondent Don Boroughs, and were paid in food rations.
Sixteen years later, this land of a thousand hills is harnessing the tools to leap from its mostly agrarian past into the 21st-century knowledge economy. As Boroughs reports in our cover story, NUR may have the most advanced computer lab of any school in Africa. A second school, the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, is growing, and Carnegie Mellon University plans to open, also in Kigali, the first U.S. degree-granting campus on the continent. Entrepreneurial undergrads have launched a high-tech start-up.
Rwanda’s achievement owes much to the vision of rebel leader turned President Paul Kagame, who has led the country for 17 years. He shrewdly steered the remorse of Western powers, which mostly stood by as Rwanda descended into hell, toward worthwhile nation-building.
Kagame’s notable success obscures the autocratic tendencies he shares with other “big men” who have dominated so much of Africa’s post-colonial landscape. Boroughs’s sidebar on Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe shows how such a system can also reverse the fortunes of a promising, relatively advanced country. Once prized engineering degrees offered by the University of Zimbabwe are no longer accepted at face value by the Engineering Council of South Africa. Collapse of the nation’s economy rendered salaries worthless and caused many faculty members to leave. An expatriate professor told Boroughs he doesn’t anticipate the university making a full recovery “in my generation.” Yet Mugabe survives. Like Thérèse Kankindi, he’s resilient.
We hope you enjoy this issue of Prism. Your comments are welcome.
Rx for Radioactivity?
They’re bright, cheerful, and the epitome of yellow. But can sunflowers help Japan recover from last March’s meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, the world’s worst nuclear accident in 25 years? Japanese researchers think so. They note that sunflowers and canola blossoms were used to cleanse contaminated soil in Ukraine after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster. To avoid releasing radioactive cesium into the air, researchers want to use a hyperthermophilic aerobic bacteria to decompose rather than burn the sunflowers. The effort has been pushed by the Buddhist Joenji temple some 30 miles from Fukushima, which estimates that at least 8 million sunflowers now blooming in the region originated from seeds it distributed. The plants have their work cut out for them: Radioactive hot spots have been located well beyond the evacuation zone, and excessive radiation levels have been detected in vegetables, seafood, tea, and rice, all mainstays of the Japanese diet. –THOMAS K. GROSE
When Meredith Perry, 22, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania last spring, she didn’t need to job hunt. She already was CEO of uBeam, a company she co-founded based on her invention: a device to wirelessly recharge gadgets from laptops to cellphones. The uBeam system is actually two devices — a transmitter that plugs into an electrical outlet and emits ultrasonic waves, and a piezoelectric transducer that plugs into a PC and converts those waves to electricity to recharge batteries. Perry has filed a provisional patent and now hopes to raise cash to hire a couple of engineers and a business partner. She’s off to a good start. Earlier this year, uBeam won the university’s $5,000 PennVention award. That got the attention of Wall Street Journal technology columnist Walt Mossberg, who invited Perry and cofounder Nora Dweck to his annual All Things Digital conference. Though not an engineer, Perry does have a science background; her degree’s in paleobiology, and she’s been a NASA student ambassador. Still, how did she learn about ultrasound and piezoelectric transducers? Easy: Wikipedia. – TG
Zombies, for Real
When a virus attacks a healthy cell, it essentially zombifies it, using the host to create copies of itself in a process that results in double-stranded RNA not found in human and animal cells. Human cells have proteins that latch onto those rogue strands to stop them, but often the viruses figure out how to block that process. Human cells also have a protein that can sometimes induce cell suicide, for instance when it becomes precancerous. Todd Rider, a senior scientist at the Chemical, Biological, and Nanoscale Technologies Group at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, has developed an antiviral drug that mimics and links the two proteins. It targets the dangerous RNA strands and before the virus can outsmart it, activates the cell’s suicide mechanism. The treatment is broad based and has proved effective in tests on lab-cultivated human and animal cells, and in mice, against 15 different viruses, including those that cause the common cold, H1N1 influenza, polio, and dengue fever. Says Rider: “In theory, it should work against all viruses.” He expects to begin trials soon in larger animals en route to human clinical trials. Given that so many human ailments—perhaps including some cancers—are viral infections, a therapy that halts all would be a wonder drug. Accordingly, when news of Rider’s potentially life-altering invention hit the blogosphere, it went . . . viral. – TG
Eye on the Bottom Line
Every Solar Decathlon – this year’s was the fifth – seems to raise the bar for elegance and ingenuity in student-designed solar homes. But the engineering, architecture, and art majors on the 19 teams competing near the Washington Mall in September had to work within new constraints. In addition to size limits, real-world livability, curb appeal, and functional efficiency (sun-powered clothes dryers have to dry a load of soggy towels in two hours), sponsors at the U.S. Department of Energy set standards for affordability. In the past, students with great fundraising chops produced high-end entries out of reach of most homeowners. This year, they lost points if their houses cost more than $250,000. In another new twist, the home-entertainment trial required teams to host a dinner party for neighbors, with marks awarded for meal quality and ambience – i.e., can the beer kegs. – MARY LORD
Semakau Landfill in Singapore is perhaps unique in the world. Based offshore on two linked islands, it’s also a thriving ecosystem that’s home to many species of wildlife, some endangered, and has tourists signing up four months in advance to visit. Tiny Singapore created Semakau in 1999. Bargefuls of wet ash from incinerated trash – nearly 10 million tons so far – are dumped into pits and covered with soil where plants now grow, the New York Times reports. The system reduces the city-state’s volume of rubbish by 90 percent while the incinerators generate 2 percent of its power. That may sound idyllic, but environmentalist critics, including Greenpeace, call it a junk idea because it relies on burning trash, which is a major source of air pollution. Moreover, some experts warn that the waste will eventually leak from the protective polyethylene geomembrane that lines the island, though that may take decades to happen. Nevertheless, officials from other Asian countries, including Japan, Samoa, and New Zealand, have flocked to Semakau for inspiration. – TG
Forget that tired old bromide “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” For graduate students in STEM disciplines, a new study finds that teaching boosts their research skills. The study, conducted by David Feldon, an assistant professor of education at the University of Virginia, found that grad students who mixed teaching with research during an academic year improved their research skills more than peers who spent the entire year in a lab. The study of 140 master’s and doctoral students at three universities had participants write a research proposal in the early fall, which they were then asked to revise and resubmit in the spring. Students and their advisers were also interviewed, with students given several scientific reasoning tests during the year. The key finding: Those who taught had statistically significant improvements in their ability to generate testable hypotheses and design experiments. Why? Feldon reckons that having to help struggling undergraduates think through problems hones grad students’ deductive skills. Spending more time explaining their own approaches to forming hypotheses, he adds, may also sharpen those skills. – TG
See How She Runs
You know a technological breakthrough has captured the zeitgeist when it becomes a YouTube hit. Such is the fate of MABEL, arguably the world’s fastest bipedal robot with knees. Built in 2008 by a team led by Jessy Grizzle, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan, MABEL — and her algorithms — have been tweaked ever since to avoid danger.In July, she clocked 6.8 mph on her first real jog. MABEL’s weight is distributed like a person’s: heavy torso with light, flexible feet. Possible applications include exoskeletons that could help paraplegics walk and powered prosthetic limbs that act more like their biological counterparts. There’s also the possibility of building robotic soldiers or rescuers that can better navigate the human environment. In Britain, MABEL’s a media star. At least she can run from the paparazzi. – TG
FACTOID – 252: The number of specific federal programs in science, technology, engineering, and math education at all levels, spread across 13 government agencies, according to a White House inventory. Despite congressional concern about overlap and waste, the inventory found each program to be different. The annual cost — $3.5 billion — is less than 0.001 percent of total federal spending. Sources: Office of Science and Technology Policy press release; Office of Management and Budget
Spread the Word
The potential for digital technology to transform public health is limitless. Consider HealthMap. The interactive website gathers information at the very local level to track contagious diseases well before they develop into global pandemics. The five-year-old project, based at Children’s Hospital in Boston, recently was relaunched to focus on “participatory epidemiology,” or the gathering of data from social media like Twitter and Facebook so that it’s even more up to the minute. HealthMap also partnered with the producers of the film Contagion (pictured), a thriller about a super-deadly global pandemic, on a public-awareness campaign about disease transmission and tracking. Meanwhile, a team led by John Rogers, a materials scientist and engineer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has developed an “electronic tattoo,” a stick-on device that can monitor vital signs including heart rate, brain waves, and muscle activity. The rubbery substrate of the temporary tattoo is only 50 microns thick, less than a human hair, and can bend, wrinkle, and stretch like real skin. Says Rogers: “It’s a technology that blurs the distinction between electronics and biology.” Finally, H. Tom Soh, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is developing a disposable chip that could quickly diagnose infectious particles at the point of care. Currently, tests to determine if a patient has a seasonal flu or the potentially more dangerous swine flu must be sent to a lab, and it can sometimes take days to get results. The Magnetic Integrated Microfluidic Electrochemical Detector (MIMED) can detect microbes within four hours. – TG
The winds that whip around urban buildings are rarely harvested by wind turbines and converted into electricity. One reason: aesthetics. Skylines skewered by wind turbine towers could be quite unsightly. Moreover, most turbines aren’t efficient enough to merit installation. But Enatek, an Italian start-up based in Tuscany, has designed a building-integrated turbine that solves both problems. The Venturebine features three blades that rotate horizontally, somewhat like the turning blades on an old-fashioned manual lawn mower. The units — which weigh just 440 pounds each and are roughly 10 feet in length — can be placed end to end along a roofline, so they blend in more readily with their surroundings. Enatek engineers got help from the Universities of Florence and Prato. – TG
One hazard common to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the use of bombs, particularly roadside booby traps and land mines. Over the past decade, nearly 190,000 American soldiers have suffered traumatic brain injury from exposure to blasts, whose shock waves can cause damaging stresses and strains to tissue. What’s particularly insidious about these types of brain injuries, especially if they are relatively moderate, is that both physical and cognitive symptoms may not appear for weeks or months. That makes diagnosis and treatment difficult. A team led by David Borkholder, an associate professor of electrical and microengineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology, has designed and tested a device that immediately can measure and display the impact of a blast — a function that could help field medics make quicker diagnoses and treatment. The device is small, too—about the size of a PC memory stick, thus easily carried. – TG
Computerized tomography (CT) uses a series of two-dimensional X-rays snapped as they rotate around an object to produce a 3-D view of its interior structure. Accordingly, CT technology has been a boon to disease detection. Now Steve Marschner, an associate professor of computer science at Cornell University, is developing a new use for powerful CT scans: using them on fabrics to create more realistic computer-generated images of superhero capes. Virtual garments already look quite authentic — until the camera zooms in. That’s because the way they reflect light is determined by their internal structures, and the software aces who write the algorithms used for CGI animation can only guess what those structures look like. Instead of modeling, Marschner’s team uses a CT scan of small swatches of material to feed the actual inner workings of fabrics into their computers. The result is a virtual garment that looks so realistic it’s ready for its close-up — as long as it’s not moving. The team’s working on speeding up the process so that it also can handle billowing capes. – TG
It’s not quite a plan to go to infinity and beyond — but it’s close. The Pentagon’s weird-science agency, DARPA, is winding up a yearlong 100-year Starship Study, which asked academics, students, industries, and researchers to consider how mankind should undertake interstellar space travel. In November, it will award $500,000 to a nongovernmental organization as seed money to commence the financing and drafting of a blueprint for travel to the stars, a research effort that itself will most likely take the better part of a century. Human spaceflight to even the closest star would almost certainly cost many trillions of dollars and take centuries to complete. The study will need to go beyond the massive technical challenges and also encompass sociology, ethics, biology, psychology, and economics. Wasteful government spending on science fiction? Not at all, DARPA responds. The century-long effort will cut across so many disciplines and require so much new science that it practically guarantees development of breakthrough technologies, which the agency calls “ancillary results. . . that will benefit mankind.” To be sure, it was DARPA that funded the research into computer protocols that led to the Internet, and NASA’s space programs have spun off myriad life-enhancing technologies ranging from water purification systems to breast-cancer detection. And, of course, it may also result in Earthlings venturing to the stars. – TG
Electrical/computer engineering was once the largest discipline across all degree levels. That has changed drastically for bachelor’s degree programs, where mechanical engineering students now outnumber their ECE counterparts by a ratio of 1.2 to 1. ECE was the larger discipline as recently as 2005. ECE is still about twice as large as ME at the graduate level. Although both disciplines have seen virtually the same growth in absolute numbers of graduate students since 2005, the rate of ME growth is more than double that for ECE.
All totals are for full time plus part time.
A veteran professor gets engineering students fired up about public policy.
Can America ease its dependence on imported oil with a “drill, baby, drill” energy policy? Can carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) cut greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to permit heavy reliance on coal? These questions demand science and engineering know-how, clearly. But complete answers will also tap into economics and the behavioral sciences. And that will require researchers who are comfortable working in areas where the quantitative and the qualitative meet and merge.
Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) came to that realization back in the mid-1970s. That’s when it started an undergraduate program that allowed engineering students to earn a dual major in public policy. By 1977, that program became the full-fledged Department of Engineering and Public Policy (EPP), and M. Granger Morgan was named its first head, with a remit to add a doctoral program. Thirty-three years, 700 undergraduate degrees, and 200 Ph.D.’s later, Morgan, 70, is still there, and the department continues to grow. This fall, it will have more than 100 full-time Ph.D. students. “That’s an absolutely astounding figure,” raves Robert Morgan (no relation), a professor emeritus who created another pioneering public-policy department, at Washington University in St. Louis. “It is just amazing what he’s accomplished.”
EPP focuses on four technology-driven policy areas: energy and the environment; information and communication technology; risk analysis; and managing technological innovation and research-and-development policy. “He’s kept things close to engineering, and has kept a strong technical presence in the department,” explains Robert Morgan, who gave a guest lecture there earlier this year.
CMU’s was the first of a handful of engineering-public policy programs in the United States, and it remains the leader of the pack. That’s because CMU has a history of being both a vocational as well as a top research university. It traditionally took a hands-on, interdisciplinary approach to teaching and research that focused on real-world problems, where the physical and social sciences overlap. As such, although EPP resides in CMU’s College of Engineering, its full-time faculty have joint appointments in both engineering and the social sciences. That would “be a disaster” for young faculty at most schools, Granger Morgan says, but at CMU, joint appointments aren’t a roadblock to promotions and tenure.
EPP appeals to graduate students who are committed to solving public policy problems. Their research ranges from online privacy to the environmental impact of nanotechnology, to life-cycle analyses of transportation fuels. Forty percent of its Ph.D.’s become academics, while the other 60 percent have careers at think tanks and consulting firms, in government, and in industry (including Westinghouse, AT&T, and IBM).
Morgan’s own career has crisscrossed disciplines, too. He earned his doctorate from the University of California, San Diego, in applied physics, but before that, he spent a year doing graduate work in modern Latin American history at the University of California, Berkeley. And after he landed at CMU in 1974, he morphed from physics to electrical engineering. Morgan’s research areas include the integration of renewable energy sources to power systems, regulatory hurdles to CCS, and climate-change decision making.
Last June, Morgan was awarded ASEE’s Chester F. Carlson Award for innovation in engineering education. The citation noted, in part, how EPP under his tenure has produced engineers “who are competent and comfortable working at the boundary of engineering and society on real-world, complex problems… in an interdisciplinary way.”
Is Morgan disillusioned by the current political environment, one in which political figures freely dismiss the science of climate change and question evolution? Not really. “These things come and go,” he says philosophically. “If you are a politician trying to get elected, it’s easy to ignore the science.” He’s confident that, ultimately, the physical realities of global warming will force decision makers to accept scientific advice. “You’ve got to have patience.”
Thomas K. Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent, based in London.
How the Rolla campus became Missouri S&T.
In 1821, an act of Congress fulfilled a wish of the nation’s first president by creating The George Washington University. In 1853, private citizens concerned over the lack of institutions of higher learning in the Midwest spearheaded the founding of The Washington University. In 1861, the University of Washington was established as the West Coast’s first public university. A century later, these similarly named schools were liable to be confused with one another. This led, in 1976, to one of them being renamed Washington University in St. Louis.
Other institutions have faced similar situations. It was also in Missouri that the first university west of the Mississippi had been established, in Columbia in 1839. The Morrill Act of 1862 led to the founding in 1870 of the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy, a land-grant offshoot of the state’s university and the first technical institute in the western part of the country.
The independent campus at Rolla came to be known familiarly in the progressively shortened forms of Missouri School of Mines, Missouri Mines, and even just Mines or Rolla. Those latter variations on a name were very distinctive and effective for the state and the region, and the school thrived under them for almost a century. My father-in-law, whose family owned coal mines in southern Illinois, graduated in 1933 from Rolla, as he proudly called his alma mater.
However, in 1963, with the creation of the Missouri state university system, which incorporated the formerly private University of Kansas City and the newly formed St. Louis campus, its four components were uniformly named University of Missouri, separated by a mere hyphen preceding the location of the campus. Thus Mines became the University of Missouri-Rolla. Whereas old-timers continued to refer to the school as Rolla, formally it had lost its distinctive name and had to share a primary brand name with the larger and more visible Columbia campus, known nationally as Mizzou, thanks in no small part to its competitive sports teams.
After decades of living with its diminished brand, and with growing awareness of changing demographics in its region and the perception that there was a diminishing student interest in engineering and science, Rolla was concerned about its future. In order to gain greater visibility and to cast a wider net for students, the institution set out to rename and thus rebrand itself as a leader with which to be reckoned in the fields of engineering and science education and research.
This was no easy task, for the obvious choice of Missouri Institute of Technology would naturally have led to the abbreviation MIT, which was already taken. After much consultation, deliberation, and persuasion, and spearheaded by Rolla’s Chancellor John F. Carney III, the distinctive new name of Missouri University of Science and Technology was settled upon, and everyone on campus was cautioned against using such shortened forms as Missouri University or the awkward MUST. Rather, they were advised to use only Missouri S&T or just S&T. Among the goals was to make S&T as much associated with Missouri S&T as A&M is with Texas A&M.
There was naturally opposition from some faculty, alumni, and current students, but this softened as a very disciplined and thoughtful campaign soon made Missouri S&T as distinctive internationally as Rolla had been regionally. Close attention to details helped. The university’s logo, for example, cleverly incorporated the pickax carried by the school’s mascot, Joe Miner, into the stylized ampersand between the S and T, thus connecting a fresh look with a rich tradition. Changing the name of an institution is never easy, but Missouri S&T has provided a model for how to do it successfully.
Henry Petroski, the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University, gave the commencement address at and received an honorary degree from Missouri S&T last May. His new book, An Engineer’s Alphabet: Gleanings from the Softer Side of a Profession, will be published this fall by Cambridge University Press.
Something has to give as companies bite into NASA’s mission.
Ask anyone under 40 what image best represents space travel, and that image is likely to be the NASA space shuttle. The July landing of the Atlantis marked the end of that symbolic legacy, and perhaps the end of open collaboration in space science, thanks to a coincident shift in U.S. space policy. After 50 years of NASA-operated missions, the Obama administration changed space policy, and NASA vehicles won’t be sending humans into space for the foreseeable future. Citing cost savings, President Obama wants NASA’s astronauts to be ferried to the international space station at first by Russia and then by private-sector spacecraft, which have yet to be proved as safe transport for human crews. To solidify his stance, the president also axed the Constellation program, NASA’s standing successor to the shuttle program. While it may not guarantee long-term efficiency and cost reduction, the shift from NASA to the private sector may irrevocably alter NASA’s fundamental role in space science and open up the possibility of corporate dominance in space.
The prospect of a private corporation owning the rocket and operating the mission presents a radical change in mission command and control. NASA may devolve from a self-made exploration agency into a customer that relies on the private sector, undoubtedly incurring intellectual losses along the way. Adding insult to injury, the policy shift also threatens to reduce NASA into a docile “money broker” between the president’s mandated policy and the private sector’s drive for profit in supplying the required technology. In a bizarre turn of events, an experienced space agency might find itself brokering contracts to a relatively inexperienced pool of corporations. This is not science fiction, as emerging corporations have already won multibillion- dollar contracts to transport NASA cargo and crews to the space station.
NASA has regularly fostered collaboration and open cooperation, words that rarely describe the operations of a profit-driven corporation. As private space activity progresses, the corporations’ engineers are not likely to share lessons learned because these may be viewed as trade secrets. The flow of vital design information may be impeded. In turn, separate NASA-funded corporations might repeat others’ mistakes, resulting in inefficiency or, worse, possible disaster.
Supporters of the policy shift often point to corporate claims of lower costs. To be fair, NASA has historically been in a difficult spot, with high aspirations dictated by politicians and insufficient funds allocated from the federal budget. As a former administrator has pointed out, Americans spend more per year on pizza than on NASA. Although companies say their spacecraft will end up costing less, this claim has not been proved. And while NASA lapses have contributed to sobering tragedies, is it logical to expect that the risks of space travel will diminish with a cheaper private option? Strict federal restrictions will surely emerge following the first private disaster, driving up costs and reducing the promised savings.
My worst fear of privatized space operations is what it means for advancing science. At least since the end of the Cold War, space has fostered international cooperation. The ultimate example of that cooperation is the international space station, which has hosted experiments across a wide range of physical and biological disciplines and provided a unique test bed for new technologies. But the ISS is due to cease operating after 2020, and no decision has been reached on a successor research platform. While corporations already have a space presence – through satellites, for instance – Obama’s policy change invites them to establish a larger presence. Initial profits of this fledgling industry will come almost exclusively from government contracts, fed by taxpayers’ dollars that might otherwise have supported NASA’s scientific endeavors. However, it is possible that federal investment in private space agencies today will give them a life of their own tomorrow, where corporations grow and come to dominate space exploration. Only history will tell whether Obama has opened a Pandora’s box, where the privatization of today’s space missions yields control of tomorrow’s space colonies and outposts.
Mark Raleigh is a doctoral candidate in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington and a NASA Earth and Space Science Fellow.
It could be eased by more emphasis on concepts.
The harmful effects of academic anxiety on student performance have long been recognized. However, the consequences of math anxiety on engineering students are not widely studied. To what extent do engineering students suffer from math anxiety? How does it affect their performance? Our study addresses those questions by examining student learning in the mathematically demanding topic of electromagnetics.
Our subject-specific math anxiety survey revealed that 16 percent of undergraduate electrical engineering students suffered from high math anxiety. The high-anxiety students had been significantly less successful in pre-engineering math and physics courses, and they perceived their math abilities to be notably lower than students with low or medium math anxiety.
We found a significant decline in performance scores with increasing math anxiety. The relationship was especially strong in workout problems that measured procedural fluency in electromagnetics—which require students to employ knowledge, methods, and rules within the relevant representation forms.
The decline was less evident in test scores that measured students’ conceptual understanding. In fact, the students with high math anxiety performed better in the concept test than did students with medium math anxiety. These findings indicate that the decline in procedural performance in electromagnetics was distinctly related to math anxiety. The variations in conceptual performance, however, were not clearly related to anxiety.
The study has important implications for mathematics-heavy engineering disciplines. Instruction could take a broader view of what type of knowledge is valued and assessed in engineering courses. In curriculum design, there could be more emphasis on conceptual knowledge, which triggers less anxiety among low-achieving students.
Electromagnetics workout problems put heavy demands on working-memory capacity, since they require procedural fluency and problem-solving skills. Because our results show a significant decline in exam scores with increased math anxiety, it is possible that math anxiety disturbs the capacity of the working memory, causing lower procedural performance in electromagnetics. One explanation for the performance decline among high-math-anxiety students is that their lesser math abilities have led them to avoid mathematics-related tasks and consequently have made them less competent in mathematics. Our survey, as well as some prior studies, suggests that there could be a temporary reduction in the available working-memory capacity of high-math-anxiety individuals when their anxiety is aroused. This reduction eventually causes these students difficulties when they perform mathematical tasks. The competence beliefs, such as confidence and persistence in math, together with worry, use up a share of the limited resources of the working memory. Hence, the high-math-anxiety individuals have fewer resources to tap for procedural processing.
Another possible implication of why math anxiety affects procedural but not conceptual performance is that for certain students, the conceptual better matches their learning style. In particular, students who tend to experience anxiety when doing mathematics perform better on exams that assess their conceptual understanding than those that measure their procedural fluency.
Overall, students considered electromagnetics useful and worthwhile for their studies. The high-math-anxiety students especially saw electromagnetics as relevant for their studies. However, of concern for instruction is that high-math-anxiety individuals not only felt less confident about their math abilities but judged themselves as being less persistent in mathematical problem-solving.
Increasing the variety of assessment instruments can be a way of reducing math anxiety and supporting students’ individual learning styles. Faculty members should consider math abilities as volatile, not stable, capabilities and seek ways of encouraging low-achieving students to practice and persist.
Johanna Leppävirta is a research scientist in the University of Aalto’s school of electrical engineering, department of radio science and engineering in Helsinki.
Faculty recount experiences – some of them life-changing – in foreign lands.
What is Global Engineering Education For? The Making of International Educators.
Edited by Gary Lee Downey and Kacey Beddoes. Morgan & Claypool Publishers 2011. 486 pps.
When Lester Gerhardt of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute speaks of his early involvement in global engineering education, he recalls becoming aware of an obligation to help the less fortunate. Others, recounting their experiences, note that working overseas can help push students out of their comfort zone, promoting greater creativity and flexibility. Still others use the question to challenge themselves and their students, probing the ethics of working with communities abroad. “How can we engineer systems that will not disrupt local cultures?” asks Anu Ramaswami of the University of Colorado, Denver. “Who decides what is appropriate?”
As coeditor of What Is Global Engineering Education For? The Making of International Educators, which grew out of a workshop funded by the National Science Foundation, Gary Downey believes these kinds of insights can be edifying. In recent years, the call to scale up U.S. global involvement and competitiveness has increased as America’s technology lead has been threatened by China, India, and other nations. Yet for engineering educators, Downey is convinced, a first step lies in determining “what is at stake… and for whom.” As part of the project, he asked 16 university educators to relate their personal and professional experiences in this complex realm of engineering education. Their “personal geographies” are offered as a way to “map the present” and inform future efforts. The volume also contains a historical overview of international engineering education from the 1940s to the present and an epilogue that explores implications for future pedagogy. This solid and engaging work should be of considerable interest to Prism readers.
The separately authored chapters can almost be read as brief biographies, and several contain fascinating stories of first contact with foreign cultures. Alan Parkinson of Brigham Young University relates how he found himself, as a 19-year-old Mormon missionary, in Kobe, Japan, feeling “almost as if I had been transported to another planet.” Michael Nugent, currently director of the National Security Education Program within the Department of Defense, was “bitten by the bug” after a trip to Germany in the eighth grade. And for Rick Vaz, the project “that would change my career and life” unfolded only after he was tenured at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Having agreed to advise a senior study on the flow rates in Venetian canals, Vaz boarded a plane to Italy, carrying circuit boards, tubes, sensors, “and other suspicious artifacts,” wondering “just what I had gotten myself into.” Clearly, many of these encounters continue to resonate. As a fledgling mechanical engineering student, Parkinson had to abandon Japanese language study, “because I felt engineering was about all I could handle.” Yet, as dean of BYU’s college of engineering, he was the first to identify the underutilized wealth of having so many former missionary students who possess both language skills and overseas living experience.
Because the volume allows its authors to expound at length upon both personal and professional experiences, the result is a set of highly thoughtful essays that analyze the various challenges faced, solutions and compromises reached, and insights gained. Juan Lucena of the Colorado School of Mines describes, for example, how conversations with a Mexican activist helped him realize “that in community development, a community, not the engineers, should decide what engineering is for.” Several essays detail the frustrations of dealing with intransigent departments and creative possibilities for developing international engineering courses or programs.
A strong message that emerges from Global Engineering Education is the need to expand the focus of engineering education beyond technical competence. Some of the most useful skills students develop in an overseas environment include the so-called soft ones of diplomacy, cross-cultural understanding, and analysis. Yet, this achievement is often dismissed as nonessential to an engineering education. The authors of this volume envision a different reality. Through their narratives, they demonstrate various ways to better integrate the international into the core engineering curricula.
Robin Tatu is a contributing editor of Prism.
How government can help create an “ecosystem” of support.
A tenet of modern economics is the belief that innovation is the engine driving rapid economic growth. Innovation takes a variety of forms, from the introduction of new or significantly improved goods or services to organizational and marketing breakthroughs. Over the past century, the innovation economy seeded the rise of the automobile and airline industries, the digital revolution, and the onset of the information age. In every case, the advances underpinning these revolutionary technologies arose from discoveries rooted in fundamental research. Consequently, within a healthy economy, strategic investments in fundamental research are essential for innovations.
But those investments alone won’t ensure that the resulting innovations actually reach the marketplace and strengthen the economy. Hence the importance of what have come to be known as “innovation ecosystems” and – even in a period of fiscal constraint – a government role in nurturing and stabilizing them.
Moving innovations from discovery through to commercialization involves numerous actors, often including academic researchers, small businesses, the investor community, and commercial industry. At one end of the spectrum – academe – there is a heavy concentration of government investment in fundamental research. At the other, in the commercial marketplace, there is a much higher level of industry investment in direct product development. In between lies the so-called Valley of Death, where many potential innovations die for lack of resources needed to develop them to a stage where industry or investors can recognize and exploit their commercial potential.
Crossing that valley requires a complex interplay of relationships along the innovation spectrum. Common approaches include developing formal vehicles for collaboration, such as nondisclosure agreements and memoranda of understanding, or creating opportunities for actors to circulate among different entities through visiting-scientist or postdoctoral programs, sabbaticals, or consultant arrangements. Additional vehicles for promoting interaction – topical conferences, cross-disciplinary institutes, or centers of excellence – create the intangibles of the innovation ecosystem, improving the odds a venture will succeed.
Beyond the intangibles, one-time investments by the government can make the overall operation more efficient and thus help lower the threshold cost to industry of launching new ventures. These investments may include physical infrastructure, such as rapid prototyping facilities, or bundled start-up and intellectual property legal services that are accessible to most players in the ecosystem. Lowering the threshold cost results in more ventures successfully crossing the valley and entering the marketplace.
Government eventually benefits from these added one-time investments in two ways: They increase the likelihood that successful ventures will emerge, thereby making efficient use of the original government investment in fundamental research; and successful ventures generate increased tax revenues, allowing the public sector to recoup its investment.
Examples of successful innovation ecosystems include the Semiconductor Research Corp.’s investments, which have enabled industry’s continued advancement along the semiconductor road map well beyond its predicted sunset. SRC acts to stimulate and advance collaboration between university researchers – usually supported by government grants – and high-tech industries. Another is the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Centers
Program,which funds potentially transformative technology systems while nurturing the associated innovation ecosystem. The ERC for Structured Particulate Systems, for instance, is developing a continuous manufacturing prototype test-bed facility that could revolutionize the pharmaceutical industry’s tablet fabrication process.
Given today’s economic downturn, federal, state, and local government entities must find new ways to grow their economies by creating jobs. The higher growth rate for high-tech industries, in particular, offers a strong incentive for governments to develop and nurture innovation ecosystems that leverage fundamental technology research within academe and industry.
Deborah Jackson leads the Microelectronics, Sensors, and Information Technologies Cluster within the Engineering Research Centers program at the National Science Foundation. This article is excerpted from “What Is an Innovation Ecosystem?” www.erc-assoc.org/ecosystems/.