December 2011

Uncharted Waters
Tomorrow’s complex warships will broaden the reach of marine engineering.
By Art Pine

Not long ago, designing and building warships was a fairly straightforward affair. Hulls were made of steel. Sections of the ship were assembled as modules and welded into place, usually with electrical wiring and equipment already installed. And naval architects and marine engineers were equipped to handle whatever came up.

These days, however, naval shipbuilding technology is leaving that model in its wake. Computerization and advances in equipment and materials are spawning complex, highly integrated systems that require the expertise of engineers in a wide variety of disciplines, not just the traditional shipbuilding-related fields. As a result, some of the leading engineering schools are working on ways to broaden collaboration — by familiarizing naval architecture and marine engineering students with the principles of nanotechnology, materials, and electrical engineering, and by teaching shipbuilding basics to specialists in chemistry, electronics, and other disciplines.

“With every project you can think of, you need to have people with advanced knowledge in these specialty fields so you can take best advantage of the emerging technology,” says Manhar Dhanak, director of the Institute for Ocean and Systems Engineering, known as SeaTech, at Florida Atlantic University.

Still in its infancy, the effort has already prompted shifts in hiring, research, and curriculum development. Under the umbrella of the Naval Engineering Education Center (NEEC), a 15-institution consortium based at the University of Michigan, several affiliated schools have brought in faculty members from other disciplines to help enrich their own engineering programs, particularly at the graduate level. Maritime research programs are increasingly reaching outside traditional marine-related fields. Curricula and hands-on research programs encourage students from all disciplines to collaborate. Meanwhile, universities that train specialists in such fields as nanotechnology, hydrodynamics, materials science, and computer science are instituting courses in ship structure, hull design, and propulsion systems.

‘Unprecedented Capabilities’

For decades, naval architecture and marine engineering have been the classic fields for those seeking to go into ship design. A third category, naval engineering, is a broader field that represents several disciplines and sciences. But these fields, as traditionally taught and practiced, are no longer deemed sufficient for today’s shipbuilding challenges. “Most of the really hard and interesting problems [in shipbuilding-related engineering] are at the boundaries,” says Steven Ceccio, the University of Michigan professor who heads the NEEC. “All the easy problems got solved a long time ago.”

The cross-fertilization will only grow in coming years as a result of an explosion of technology in shipbuilding, argues Michael Triantafyllou, a professor of marine technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who described the trend at a meeting of the National Academies’ Committee on Naval Engineering in the 21st Century last year. “The future of naval engineering . . . will be shaped by novel and emerging technologies that will not only provide unprecedented capabilities but also require radical rethinking of naval ship and vehicle design. To fully reap the benefits, the ground must be prepared now.”

Tomorrow’s naval vessel, Triantafyllou said, will be built with hulls, framing, and structural supports made of composite materials or new high-strength steels, and protected by space-age chemical coatings designed to inhibit deposits and reduce drag, both outside the hull and in pipes that carry liquid below decks. Ships’ propulsion plants and machinery will run on hybrid or all-electric powertrains that use alternative fuels and fuel cells to help increase efficiency and save fuel. The development of all-electric ships will spawn new ways to increase automation, reduce staffing levels, and enhance reliability, even in extremely cold climates. New sensor arrays and robots will help maneuver and propel warships more efficiently, paving the way for remote inspection and even remote repair of structural materials and equipment when needed. Vessels also will use smart, autonomous air, surface, and underwater vehicles to increase their operational capability.

Warships now being built offer a glimpse of this technological future. “Today ship design is very much systems engineering,” says Kelly Cooper, a program officer at the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the funding agency within the Department of Defense that is helping to drive the advances.

Witness the huge DDG-1000, a guided-missile destroyer being built to supplement the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyers introduced in 1991. “This is a quantum leap from anything you’ve ever seen on a surface combatant ship,” Cynthia Brown, president of the now defunct American Shipbuilding Association, said when the DDG-1000 went into production in 2006. Besides advanced weapons and fire-control apparatus, the DDG-1000 carries a new integrated power-generation system that will deliver about 10 times as much onboard electrical capacity as its predecessor, enough to power laser or electromagnetic guns, and an autonomous fire-suppression system. The ship also features a new, extra-stealthy, tumblehome hull and other design features that help reduce its magnetic, infrared, and acoustic signatures and make its image on an enemy radar screen no larger than that of a fishing boat. Together, all these changes give the vessel a significant improvement in overall defense capability.

The DDG-1000 exemplifies the Navy’s almost insatiable, yet ever changing, demand for high-technology innovations. Designers are called on to improve warships’ weaponry, radar and sonar equipment, loading of fuel and ammunition, and capacity to cope with fires and battle damage at sea. And they must enable warships to operate jointly with one another and with aircraft and helicopters. Dozens of new systems are in research and development, from high-power laser weapons and radar and wake homing devices to new materials for hulls, structures and propulsion systems, and topside equipment that can withstand terrorists’ rocket and mortar attacks. The Navy also wants improved networking that can enable ships to link up with sensors and networks at other locations, and protection for computers and communications equipment. The goal is to keep the Navy technologically ahead of all potential adversaries so that it can protect global trade routes, meet the challenge posed by China’s emergence as a regional and eventually a global power, and expand operations into the Arctic, where the melting ice cap is opening new shipping lanes and mineral extraction opportunities.

Meeting these demands is expensive. The DDG-1000’s technological advances — many of which had to be designed from scratch — ballooned the overall cost of the vessel to an eye-popping $4.1 billion a copy. That’s almost three times the price tag of the DDG-51s, and far more than the mere $750 million per ship that defense officials had estimated when the project was approved. Rather than divert a major share of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget, Congress ended up approving construction of only a handful of DDG-1000s. “It’s the ship that’s threatening to shrink the fleet,” Robert Work, then an analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said at the time. Work is now under secretary of the Navy.

Pressure to cut costs

Navy officials now recognize that gold-plated, high-performance weapons systems are on a collision course with Washington’s growing concern over debt and deficits. Pentagon budgeters are allowing $17 billion a year for shipbuilding – some $3 billion less than the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Navy will need to fulfill its plan for 275 new ships of all kinds over the next 30 years. And that sum is expected to shrink as congressional deficit reduction begins to take hold.

Indeed, saving money has itself become an important area of research. One goal is to extend ships’ life span, thereby reducing the cost of the Navy’s ship-acquisition program over the long term. “We’re looking at the total costs of ownership — not just at how much it costs to build the vessel but also what it takes to maintain it and keep it functional,” says Tony Dean, project director at the American Society of Naval Engineers. Large warships, such as aircraft carriers and auxiliary vessels, typically remain in service for 50 years, but are overhauled and upgraded every few years. Prevention of corrosion could net considerable savings over time. Across all military services, corrosion costs $22 billion a year, and Congress has pressed the Pentagon for more anti-corrosion research.

Given the array of disciplines required to develop the modern warship, it’s not surprising that the Navy has been a major force in pressing — and guiding — universities to expand the integration of traditional maritime engineering disciplines and the specialty areas. The Michigan-led NEEC receives substantial funding and technical support from the Naval Sea Systems Command and one of its components, the Naval Surface Warfare Center, which has divisions in west Bethesda, Md., and Dahlgren, Va. It is also funded by ONR, which sponsors research projects that bring engineers and scientists from multiple disciplines together.

During the past several years, universities have begun hiring new professors and researchers from outside traditional maritime-related engineering fields, ranging from computer sciences and electronic engineering to chemistry and biology, and from materials science to ultrasmart sensors. Florida Atlantic’s Manhar Dhanak, for instance, has hired four professors from “nontraditional” fields, or about a third of his department’s total faculty roll. “If you want to do anything about corrosion—a big problem in designing ships and offshore platforms of any kind—you need to know chemistry in some detail,” Dhanak says. “To accomplish that sort of thing, we have a mix. That way we make sure that various disciplines come together.”

Collaborative centers such as NEEC, MIT’s Center for Ocean Engineering, and SeaTech are cropping up all over. Their aim: foster collaboration among engineers and scientists from traditional maritime fields and new specialties such as nanotechnology – as well as government and industry personnel. Research teams typically include Ph.D. and master’s-degree candidates in the traditional maritime fields along with doctorate holders in the new specialty fields, such as nanotechnology.

Such collaborations draw support from the National Academies’ Committee on Naval Engineering in the 21st Century. In a 184-page report in September, the panel called on the Navy to bolster its oversight and evaluation of research projects and urged the Office of Naval Research to make “a special effort to encourage multidisciplinary graduate programs.” It warned that while funding for research in the traditional maritime engineering fields was likely to remain intact, new specialty areas could be “vulnerable” amid large-scale budget cutting by Congress. Hastened by computerization of ship design and construction, the education of maritime engineers is catching up to warship construction systems that started becoming more sophisticated 25 years ago. The Office of Naval Research, concerned that the supply of engineers and scientists eligible for U.S. security clearances won’t meet demand, has spawned a plethora of programs to underwrite the development of new curricula. The Navy also provides internships, tuition aid, and stipends.

As with research, the trend in curricula is toward an interdisciplinary approach, but it’s still at an exploratory stage. The question facing educators is how to integrate what students need to learn in traditional maritime fields of naval architecture, naval engineering, and marine engineering with instruction in specialties, such as hull coatings, electric propulsion, or nanotechnology, that are becoming increasingly important in shipbuilding and design. One way is to continue concentrating on the traditional fields while requiring students majoring in these areas to take courses in the specialties. Another is to offer courses in shipbuilding-related subjects — buoyancy and stability, hull structure, and naval propulsion, for example — to students majoring in the sciences. A third option is to design a new master’s or Ph.D. degree that embraces elements of both. More and more, courses at all levels involve work on specific projects, giving students hands-on experience — along with practice in working as part of a team — before they go out into the field.

David J. Singer, a University of Michigan professor who is active in the NEEC’s efforts, says academics differ widely over which is the best course to follow: to turn students into engineers first and then expose them to courses in specialty areas, or to recruit experts in the new technology and push them to take a minor in naval engineering. What seems to work best, he says, is to train students as engineers and then provide them with the technological background they’ll need in appropriate subjects. “The issue is, how do you introduce those concepts?” Singer says. “The graduate school approach is easier. They’re already engineers by then, so they can do a deeper dive.”

With recruiting in mind, some schools also have begun offering introductory courses that seek to acquaint undergraduates with the opportunities in maritime-related fields. The Naval Surface Warfare Center and several other Navy research facilities take on graduate students and high school interns to work on projects relating to warships of all kinds. And the Defense Department sponsors tuition aid and academic stipends for students who are earning maritime-related degrees. Like other military services, the Navy has robust initiatives aimed at strengthening K-12 STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. ONR’s Kelly Cooper argues that both the Navy and academia must move to interest young people in naval engineering while they’re still in grade school: “We’re trying to interest young adults who eventually will become part of the technical workforce in fields that don’t even exist today.”

Not everyone is a fan of the multidisciplinary cross-fertilization trends in maritime engineering research and curricula. To some faculty members, the specialized add-ons may not be needed and could weaken established and necessary courses of study.

Richard Mercier, director of the Offshore Technology Research Center at Texas A&M University, says the pressure to engage in multidisciplinary research may be going too far. “The question is, what does that [cross-fertilization] mean?” he asks. “Do we need to train everybody more broadly, or do we just have to have everybody know what their limits are and whom to contact when they need help? Do faculty members know enough to be able to provide students with the breadth they need? Those are good questions.” Mercier worries that providing students with more breadth may come at the expense of depth. “Breadth is something that you need at the managerial level,” he says. “I’ve seen situations time and again where multibillion-dollar projects are managed successfully by people who came out with bachelor’s degrees.” For design and research, however, what matters is depth.

But that argument may already have been resolved in favor of the multidisciplinary approach. In fact, many faculty members are convinced it will expand significantly over the next several years. “It’s not necessarily going to be all that gradual. It could grow quite dramatically,” SeaTech’s Dhanak says. Anchors aweigh.

Art Pine is a Washington-based freelance writer and former Pentagon correspondent.

Designed to Win
From solar homes to eco-cars, contests spark student engagement.
By Thomas K. Grose

In the annals of flight, August’s brief hover of a human-powered helicopter named Gamera hardly rivals the X-1’s shattering of the sound barrier. Still, it marked a milestone for 50 University of Maryland engineering students who had spent three years designing, building, and ultimately flying the four-rotor chopper. Their ungainly, 103-foot, 100-pound creation of balsa wood, Mylar, and carbon fiber stayed aloft for a record 11.4 seconds, thanks to the furious pedaling and cranking of pilot Judy Wexler, a doctoral student in evolutionary biology. The feat captured headlines and imaginations even though it failed to meet the American Helicopter Society’s $250,000 Sikorsky Prize requirement of a full minute in the air.

Design competitions like the Sikorsky challenge are propelling scores of engineering students across the finish line these days, and not only in the aerospace field. Over the past 20 years, such contests — most of them sponsored by professional societies or federal agencies — have grown from an elite handful to become the hottest hands-on activities on campus. Hundreds of Maryland students, for instance, now regularly participate in 16 design competitions. Among them: building a race car for Formula SAE, installing an energy-efficient “green” house for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, and sketching a spacecraft for NASA’s RASC-AL competition.

Nor is Maryland unique. Engineering schools across the country have embraced student design contests as a way to provide workplace and teamwork-building experiences no classroom can deliver and motivate students to persist in a wide variety of disciplines. “Competitions are part of a movement within engineering education to go for more problem-based learning,” explains Christopher Lee, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Olin College who advised one of the winning teams in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ Human Powered Vehicle Competition (HPVC). Engineering educators can choose among a host of contests, from the large-scale, long-term Formula SAE and the American Society of Civil Engineers’ National Concrete Canoe Competition to the smaller, shorter HPVC and Sailbot, a robotic sailboat race. Consulting firm McKinsey estimates that more than 60 contests offering nearly $250 million in prizes debuted between 2000 and 2007.


“It’s really easy to get (administrative) support for competitions,” says Purdue University mechanical engineering technology professor Bill Hutzel, who advised this year’s Solar Decathlon team. Indeed, the school plans to build a special multidisciplinary lab to support design contests. Darryll Pines, engineering dean at Maryland, is willing to green-light almost any competition. “They give kids a true real-world experience, and they’re fun,” he says.

Design contests often yield results far beyond the classroom, one reason the Obama administration encourages U.S. agencies to sponsor them. Case in point: DARPA’s Grand Challenge, won by Carnegie Mellon University in 2007, to build a robotic car that could autonomously navigate difficult terrain. “The Grand Challenge really accelerated development of technologies that otherwise wouldn’t have happened,” says Pines, who was at DARPA at the time and helped devise the event. Innovations that emerged are now used to navigate the Google autonomous car. Companies find that student design competitions can generate practical applications for technologies being developed in academic labs. “It’s a very good strategy for technology transfer,” says John Gilbert, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, and longtime adviser to successful Concrete Canoe teams.

Professional engineering societies embrace contests as a means to draw the best students into the industries they serve, and also prepare them. “It’s pretty much a training exercise,” says Bob Sechler, director of educational relations for the Society of Automotive Engineers. Formula SAE, the biggest of his group’s nine events, has two U.S.-based races that attract teams from 200 universities.

Colleges benefit too, especially if they regularly turn out winning or high-placing teams. “Everyone wants bragging rights,” Pines admits. The prestige of competing in marquee events “helps tremendously with recruitment,” adds Alan Nye, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and adviser for many years to its successful Formula SAE teams.


Of course, the main beneficiaries are students. “It is the best way to put to work all the things you learn in class, the theory,” maintains John Scanlon, a fifth-year mechanical engineering student at RIT who leads its Formula SAE team. Brandon Bush, who expects to earn his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering at Maryland early next year, was comanager of the Gamera team. He notes that most students who gravitate to engineering like to build things, but the early years of college are dominated by math and science, not design. “Competitions for me were a way to bridge that gap,” he explains. David Munson, engineering dean at the University of Michigan, says contests offer a way to get even first-year engineering students designing. “A lot of engineering courses are essentially a big IQ test,” Munson says. “We still need theory courses; I value math theory and analysis. But design is really, really important.”

Design projects, for example, compel students to learn how to work as members of multidisciplinary teams, which is as real life as engineering gets. For some of the bigger contests, teams can run from 100 to 200 students and often pull in members from myriad disciplines, including business, psychology, agriculture, and marketing. The larger challenges force teams to run like small businesses, dealing with suppliers, subcontractors, and deadlines, and to conduct serious fundraising. Purdue’s Solar Decathlon team needed $150,000 to build its solar house, and the University of Michigan has built 10 solar cars over the past two decades for the World Solar Challenge, each costing between $1.5 million and $2 million. All of SAE’s competitions are about project management, says education director Sechler, because “you can’t succeed if you don’t successfully manage the product.” Such nontechnical, so-called soft or professional skills are important to employers. Maryland doctoral student Bush says that when he interviewed for his job as a combustion engineer at General Electric, most of the questions were about his Gamera experience. “They cared more about those soft skills than my research.”


Competitions often expose students to the latest equipment and processes that industry will expect new hires to use. For example, most aerospace and automotive companies use model-based design, appropriate for systems and large projects rarely found in a college lab, notes electrical engineer Tom Gaudette, director of education at MathWorks, which sponsors 11 student competitions.

While their teams play to win, engineering educators count on missteps along the way that will compel students to rethink their approach to a problem — and discover that even also-rans gain academically. “Many times you learn more when you fail than when you succeed,” says RIT’s Nye. “That’s when real engineering takes place, and it can be very exciting.” His most recent SAE team was racing in Australia, for example, when a joint in the rear axle broke. The students managed to replace the part in 15 minutes — a job that normally took three to four hours.

“I was committed to the notion that this should be a student-led project — for better or worse,” says Douglas Smith, department chair of architectural and engineering computer-aided design at Austin Community College in Texas. As faculty adviser for a winning entry in Barkitecture, a citywide doghouse design contest, “I was willing to allow the students to struggle, or for the project to fail, because I thought that the students would learn something even in failure.”

The downside for undergraduates is that their grades can suffer if they spend too much time on their projects. “Some get almost addicted to it,” says Nye, “and you often don’t find out until it’s too late.” For grad students, a competition can force them to push research onto a back burner, which can annoy their professor-supervisors. “Your boss has no real interest in seeing the project through,” says Maryland’s Bush, who placed his own career on hold to pursue the helicopter challenge. “I could have graduated earlier,” he says, “but it was worth it. I didn’t just want to sit in my cubicle.” Some schools are figuring out ways to give students credit for their projects. At Maryland, senior aerospace engineering members of the RASC-AL team can use their work in their capstone design class. Maryland also plans to give students credit for projects that last a year or more. Alabama’s Gilbert has designed a three-credit materials course for Concrete Canoe team members. And Michigan students earning a minor in multidisciplinary design can earn credit toward it from competition work. Schools like Purdue also have paid students a stipend for their efforts.

Educators are convinced that students who participate in competitions are learning skills that they couldn’t gain from lectures and textbooks, although there’s little data to back that up. “I know it’s good, but I can’t point you to any research. But (with competitions) we know we are doing important things,” says Munson, the Michigan dean. Advisers cited in a 2005 Journal of Engineering Education article “were unanimous that the contests are good learning experiences and that students learn more, but they learn different things than in their normal classes.” Author Phillip C. Wankat of Purdue University couldn’t supply a definitive answer on whether competitions lead to increased learning, however.

Still, many engineering schools are so convinced of the value of competitions that they’re creating their own. “I don’t know how much of a trend it is, but it’s a factor in retaining students,” says Paul Peercy, engineering dean at the University of Wisconsin, which now boasts six internal competitions, including three launched within the past five years. Maryland in recent years started a hovercraft competition for freshmen, and saw its retention rate jump from 74 percent to 90 percent. That seems compelling evidence that many engineering students are designed to compete.

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

Why Birds Don’t Collide
… and other marvels from the marriage of applied mathematics and engineering
By Don Boroughs

Eva Kanso has questions about the physical world. The University of Southern California mechanical engineering professor wants to know why fish are shaped the way they are, why they flap their tails in a particular motion, and how to design a better robotic fish. But Kanso is also an applied mathematician, so she doesn’t need to get wet. “Applied mathematics is the tool I use to answer whatever questions I have,” Kanso says. With a speed and precision no experimentalist can match, she adjusts her mathematical models to change the weight of a fish, the shape of its fins, and the frequency of its undulations. Instantly she can observe the vortices in the fish’s wake displayed on her computer monitor. “Mathematically,” she brags, “you can play God.”

If mathematics is the language of engineering, then the engineers who use applied mathematics are master linguists. Applied mathematicians develop new mathematical models or adapt existing models to address engineering problems. A 100-fold increase in computing power over the past decade has multiplied the power of applied math at the same time that engineers are tackling more complex, interdisciplinary problems that resist solutions by trial-and-error experimentation alone. “Engineering without mathematics and applied mathematics is like sailing without a compass,” says Mathieu Desbrun, professor of computing and mathematical sciences in Caltech’s Division of Engineering and Applied Science. “You can do it, but it’s very hard.”

Not that applied mathematics obviates the need for experimentation. The most traditional form of collaboration between an experimentalist engineer and an applied mathematician sees the mathematical model suggesting new directions for experiments while the results of lab work in turn help refine the model. “You iterate back and forth between experiment and theory until you get a coherent story; that’s when you’ve made progress,” says John Bush, an applied mathematician who directs the Fluids Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A disproportionate number of academics with applied mathematics expertise — including Kanso, Desbrun, and Bush — began their education outside the United States. Guillermo Sapiro, a Uruguayan who studied in Israel, notes that the undergraduate electrical engineering curriculum at the Technion in Haifa required him to take a semester of Fourier analysis and a semester of complex theory before launching into signals and systems. His students at the University of Minnesota, by contrast, have all three of those subjects crammed into a one-semester signals and systems course. Hossein Haj-Hariri, chair of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Virginia, laments that most American grad students today are too far behind in mathematics to launch into a computational field such as hydroacoustics: “By the time they learn the math and are ready to produce something, four years have passed and it’s time to graduate.”

Still, American universities are well populated with engineers from near and far who undertake innovative research using applied mathematics, either through their own expertise or in collaboration with mathematicians. Some of the hottest fields in engineering, from image processing to data mining and from bio-inspired design to complex systems, are the very same fields where applied mathematics plays a key role in advancing research. When applied mathematics and engineering join forces, one plus one equals a sum much greater than two.

Sending Cars to School

Complex network systems such as the Internet or the smart grid depend on close coordination between engineers and applied mathematicians. But the networks that inspired Reza Olfati-Saber were the schools of fish he followed while snorkeling off the shores of Hawaii. The electrical engineer and control theorist developed a series of algorithms for schooling and flocking that in five years have been cited more than 2,000 times and confirmed by numerous biological studies.

Today, half a world away in New Hampshire, Olfati-Saber watches a miniature school of robots in a basement at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering. He is convinced that the same mathematical rules that coordinate the movements of fish and flocks can save lives and eliminate traffic jams by coordinating vehicles’ movements. His model explains that thousands of birds manage to move together without ever colliding because each bird is monitoring its distance from just five or six birds around it. Likewise, he envisions a traffic system of vehicles that negotiate position with their nearest neighbors — without driver intervention. To reach that goal, Olfati-Saber first hopes to raise $10 million to test his intelligent-transportation system with several unmanned cars on mocked-up roads.

When Olfati-Saber compares his work with earlier, trial-and-error research on flocking, he sees proof of applied mathematics’ superiority. In 1986, simulation software for flocking was developed using three intuitive rules. The program has been used to animate video games and films, and even won a technical Oscar, but no engineering system or mathematical model was ever derived from its ad hoc rules. “No matter how many times you do simulations on computers, they were unable to come up with a set of rules that guarantee no collisions,” says Olfati-Saber. His birds, fish, and cars operate according to algorithms based on tools from graph theory, control theory, applied mechanics, and nonlinear dynamics. And under normal circumstances, they never crash. The engineer laughed when he finally learned how Hollywood animators avoid on-screen collisions: They simply take the wayward bird, bat, or fish and delete it.

Many challenges in the rapidly growing field of image processing involve helping consumers and corporations visually filter billions of images now on the Internet. Sapiro’s challenge is to save lives. The Minnesota professor works on a National Institutes of Health team seeking an AIDS vaccine. A key step in that quest is to understand the shape of a spike, made up of just three molecules, that HIV uses to attach itself to cells. The NIH has one of the best medical electron microscope facilities in the world, but to avoid melting and deforming the frozen virus samples, technicians aim miserly beams of electrons at the specimens.

The resulting images are “blobs,” Sapiro says, “like a picture taken in a dark room with no flash.” Yet with algorithms using Fourier analysis and matrix analysis, Sapiro and his students have coaxed detailed, even beautiful images from the raw files. The mathematical alchemy depends on computations that compare details in multiple images. To form a three-dimensional model, the electron microscope captures 60 to 70 images from different angles, and where noise blots out detail in one image, the algorithm finds detail in another. Unlike commercial software that might retouch scratches on an old photograph by averaging tones around the scratch, Sapiro’s algorithms fill in only actual details. “I should not be inventing information,” he says. “In medical imaging, that’s dangerous.”

There can be no doubt that the NIH values this work. The institute has lured two of Sapiro’s electrical-engineering protégés — Ph.D. student Alberto Bartesaghi and Oleg Kuybeda, a post-doc — from Minnesota to its Bethesda, Md., laboratories. And Sapiro takes pleasure in applying mathematics to a problem that is “exciting, real, and extremely tough at the same time.” The challenge is its own reward.

A Ray of Flight

Both engineering and applied mathematics are converging on the living world as a final frontier. “Biology is the last field to really become quantified in a serious sense,” notes James Crowley, executive director of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. Within universities, one sign of the revolution is the fact that Harvard and Georgia Tech have both opened institutes dedicated to biologically inspired engineering in recent years.

One of the most ambitious projects in the field spans the engineering schools of Princeton, UCLA, and the University of Virginia in a $6.5 million effort to unlock the secrets of stingray and manta ray propulsion for the U.S. Navy. Principal investigator Hilary Bart-Smith, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at U.Va., says that the manta ray is both efficient and maneuverable. “It could be an excellent species to use as the model for the next generation of autonomous underwater vehicles,” she argues, “and it’s pretty darn cool, too.”

But rays are also complicated, swimming by a combination of wing-flapping and undulating ripples. “We want to understand the interaction of fluids and this structure of muscle, cartilage, and neurons; the thing that ties all these together is mathematics,” says Haj-Hariri, one of the project’s applied mathematicians.

Bart-Smith points out the advantages of mathematical modeling by noting that one of her graduate students has spent months testing a one-wing structure in a single flapping motion, varying the frequency alone. In contrast, Haj-Hariri’s model allows him to adjust the shape, kinematics, and frequency simultaneously, measuring the results in near real time. “You can’t ignore the experiments, but once you verify that mathematically you are capturing what’s happening in reality, then you can really crunch numbers,” says Bart-Smith. “The power of applied math is that it gives you the opportunity to explore all of the design space, rather than just parts of the design space.”

The models are also leading the team beyond manta rays and toward a grand theory that will help explain the locomotion of all fish and swimming mammals. Haj-Hariri hints that the team’s research points to a mathematical connection among the natural frequencies of the biomechanical design of each creature and the frequencies of both their flapping and their brain neurons. It seems that nature herself is an engineer with an inordinate fondness for applied mathematics.

Don Boroughs is a freelance writer based in South Africa.

Heavy Metal
Bronze bells and songwriting software inspire a merger of engineering and music.
By Alice Daniel

When “The Victors” peals from the 55-bell carillon high inside the University of Michigan’s Burton Tower, it’s likely many students below can hum the famous fight song as they stroll. One group, though, also understands the engineering and skilled labor behind the resonant tones, having sculpted and poured metal to make carillon bells, used a computer program to pre-tune the bells, and worked with lathing equipment to finesse the shape and achieve a particular sound. All these techniques were incorporated into the freshman course Shaping the Sound of Bronze. Team-taught by professors from engineering, music, art and design, and cross-listed in several departments, it is one of a number of ways teachers have found to present engineering concepts through the arts.

Fashioning metal into music allows students to experience “a real die-hard design problem where effectively they have to work together in teams and get their hands dirty,” says Gregory Wakefield, an associate professor in electrical engineering and computer science and one of the instructors who introduced the course in the fall of 2010. But Shaping the Sound offers more than hands-on harmony.

An expert in signal processing and the physics of sound, Wakefield is always looking for ways to hook engineering students into a deeper understanding of Fourier mathematics. “Being a musician myself, I gravitate toward examples from the audio world,” he says. The course gives engineering students “a gut-level understanding of how this stuff works, so when they have to sit down and work the math problems, they have a better sense of why it matters.”

Wakefield created a modeling program to help students understand how changing the shape of the bell would affect the sound. “Fourier allows us to mathematically represent the sound in a way that we tend to hear it – the punch line being that we could then work with the students to create synthesized versions of their bells,” he says. Students could change the sound of their synthesized bells on the computer, in effect pre-tune them, and then go and physically remove the predicted amount of metal from the bell. “We are able to teach the students how objects make sounds, how resonance works, how if you push a shape in different ways, it’s going to sound differently,” says Wakefield. “It makes a lot of sense to them because they can relate it to what they are hearing. Fourier is a little abstract.”

In the process of putting this unique course together, Wakefield not only introduced his students to Fourier, but he and his university colleagues essentially modeled for their students one vital goal for the class: learning to create and design in multidisciplinary teams that include artists, musicians, and engineers. In fact, the idea for the course came from music professor and university carillonneur Steven Ball, who wanted his own students to gain a much deeper understanding of the carillon. “It really requires all the students to cross-pollinate with the other two disciplines and remain sensitive to what the other two disciplines have to say about it,” he says.

For engineering students, “there are wonderful things that artists and musicians can bring to the table in understanding how to design,” adds Wakefield. In this course, students relied upon the expertise and well-trained ear of Ball to make sure the bells sounded great, and the strategies of art and design professor Lou Marinaro to make sure the bronze was poured correctly. They thus learned an important lesson in addressing customers’ needs. “Ultimately the user will develop an affinity toward your product if it has been designed to meet their aesthetic tastes,” Wakefield says.


Helping engineers grasp intuitively what they will later learn mathematically is also the thinking behind a Rowan University course entitled Signals and Systems in Music. “A musical note is the same thing as an electrical signal when you’re studying engineering,” says Linda Head, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Glassboro, N.J., school. “We wanted to show students there was a continuity between things that look very different. There’s an enormous amount of engineering buried in the kind of work and analysis that musicians do and vice versa. They’ll get the math later, but they have a gut-level appreciation for what these signals sound like and look like and how you can manipulate them.”

Head is the principal investigator on a National Science Foundation-funded project, shared by Rowan University and Kansas State University, in which Signals and Systems in Music serves as a model course emphasizing synergies between music and engineering. In the Rowan course, which falls under general education so anyone can take it, students learn some basic music theory and then learn how to use GarageBand to compose a song using loops, MIDI instruments, and recorded tracks for their final project. “At the end of the semester we have a big jam session,” says Head, who oversees the course taught by two adjunct instructors.

Like the carillon bell-making course, Signals and Systems sets the stage for looking at Fourier series. For instance, students use engineering tools like oscilloscopes to analyze sinusoid waves and multimeters to measure the voltage or amplitude of a signal. “They can recognize a particular sound is correlated with a particular wave form on an oscilloscope,” says Head. “A sine wave makes a very smooth sound; a square wave has a lot of high-frequency components.”

Samantha Pfeiffer, an electrical and computer engineering major, says she never expected to take a music class in college because it’s not her forte. But with Signals and Systems, she says, “I got a music credit, and I got exposed to some engineering.”


With students now accustomed to listening to favorite tunes on hand-held devices, that’s a logical starting point for a course that combines music and engineering. In Building a Mobile Phone Ensemble, they design and develop their own new mobile phone “instruments” by writing software. They then compose new electronic musical works that they perform in ensembles at the end of the semester.

The University of Michigan course immerses students in problems that are not numbers-centric, says Georg Essl, an assistant professor in electrical engineering and computer science as well as music. “The way they think about their creative process changes. It’s more of an expressive versus problem-solving creativity. It’s really enlightening.”

Student Anton Pugh participated in several performances last year, including one where students programmed iPod Touches to light up with different graphics when they were spun on a table. “The aesthetic component was interesting to me. He (Essl) encouraged us to go as far as we could with it,” says Pugh, who is now working on a master’s in electrical engineering with a concentration in signal processing. “It was definitely a different way of thinking for me because we not only had to make them functional but make them look good.”

Essl says students have to engage with the musicality in order to make the technology interesting and vice versa, a task that isn’t always easy. “It’s about tearing down those boundaries between art and engineering,” he says.

As the Michigan fight song chimes, “Hail!”

Alice Daniel is a freelance writer and instructor in journalism at California State University, Fresno.

Our Financial Challenge
By Don P. Giddens

I have long felt that membership in ASEE is a fantastic bargain.

At a fraction of the dues of other professional societies, members get discounted access to current research-based findings on engineering education strategies in the Journal of Engineering Education; a free subscription to our core publication, ASEE Prism; and discounted registration for our heavily attended annual conference and other meetings. In addition, ASEE membership puts you in touch with your peers, providing valuable networking and learning opportunities.

However, as ASEE continues to evolve, offering more services and expanding its reach and influence, we are challenged financially by our inability to increase dues. According to our bylaws, the maximum annual amount to be charged to any individual is $70 – a ceiling set in 1992. To put this in perspective, what cost $1 in 1992 now costs $1.60! ASEE has held the individual dues amount steady at $69 since 1998, an extended period of increasingly good value for members as services expanded.

As our constitution is currently written, in order to raise this cap we must get approval of a majority of the membership, a process that is time-consuming and much more restrictive than the rules and processes of our peer organizations. To gain flexibility, we will be coming to the membership soon to consider an amendment to our constitution that would eliminate the cap but keep the power to raise the dues with the Board of Directors. Please give this careful consideration. This change will give ASEE the ability to react and respond more quickly, when circumstances dictate, to financial concerns and membership-driven needs for new benefits.

This is not a vote to raise dues to a particular level. However, given the length of time that dues have remained at the current level, the board will examine the structure and consider if a change is appropriate. An increase in dues would still require approval of two-thirds of the board, and we would not make any change lightly. Engineering educators feel stresses from multiple sources – from the fiscal crisis in Washington and the states that looms over the funding of educational institutions, to technological advances forcing curricula to change and skills to be updated, to dealing with the evolving characteristics of incoming students – all while many of you have gone without raises for years.

As engineering education changes, ASEE is working hard to be an essential resource for its members. It is poised to take on new roles, seek out new spheres of influence, and expand the ways it helps you meet your professional obligations. I hope that you’ll take the time to carefully consider this issue and give your elected leadership the ability to respond as needed to keep ASEE thriving and relevant.

In addition to this amendment, you will be asked to vote on three others, dealing with the qualifications for the vice president of external relations, Professional Interest Council chair terms of office, and language changes. You will receive materials providing more details.

Don P. Giddens
President of ASEE

Damn the Torpedoes
By Mark Matthews

When Adm. David Farragut ordered his Union fleet to ignore “torpedoes” and proceed full speed ahead during the Civil War Battle of Mobile Bay, he actually was referring to naval mines. Cheap, virtually maintenance free, and lethally effective even now, mines represent one of what historian Norman Friedman calls “game changers” of naval warfare. The demand by today’s Navy for comparable technological breakthroughs is bringing a sea change to marine engineering and naval architecture. From teaching to research, as Art Pine’s cover story describes, these fields are becoming more interdisciplinary. The design and construction of the highly complex system that is the 21st-century warship require marine engineers who know about nanotechnology, materials, and electrical engineering, and chemists and electrical engineers who know shipbuilding basics. And in the lab,“most of the really hard and interesting problems are at the boundaries,” says Steven Ceccio, head of the University of Michigan-led Naval Engineering Education Center. “All the easy problems got solved a long time ago.”

A drive for technological game changers of all kinds is one reason government agencies are increasingly eager to sponsor student competitions. DARPA’s Grand Challenge, won by Carnegie Mellon University in 2007, sought a robotic car that could autonomously navigate difficult terrain. As Tom Grose reports in our feature “Designed to Win,” innovations derived from that contest later found their way into Google’s autonomous car. Students are responding with a “damn the torpedoes” verve that would do Admiral Farragut proud, whether pedaling furiously to lift a human-propelled helicopter off the ground or fundraising to secure materials for a Solar Decathlon entry. In the process, they’re learning the secrets of smooth-running teams and bridging the gap between the math and science of early engineering courses and design. Though research has yet to document the educational value of competitions, professional societies and some engineering schools don’t need persuading. They’re sponsoring their own contests.

We hope you enjoy these and other features in this month’s Prism. As always, we welcome your comments.

Mark Matthews


Space Science

Mission Continued

Some $5 billion over budget and counting, the next-generation space telescope has won a $530 million lease on life from congressional appropriators. Targeted to launch in 2018, Hubble’s successor will, NASA says, use innovative new optics, detectors, and thermal control systems to study every phase in the history of the universe, from the afterglow of the big bang to the evolution of our solar system. Its overruns would not have startled James Webb, for whom the new telescope is named. Coping with rocketing space-program costs as NASA administrator from 1961 to 1968, he once told President John F. Kennedy: “We have got a real job to do to make this thing come out without a scandal.”


The Toll From Trolls

The America Invents Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Obama earlier this year, was largely hailed for being the first big overhaul of U.S. patent law in 200 years. It drops the old “first to invent” requirement for “first to file,” and gives the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office the power to determine if an invention merits a patent, removing the burden of proof from filers. But many critics remain unimpressed with the act because it failed to deal with “patent trolls,” companies that buy as many software patents as possible for the sole purpose of suing over possible violations. A Boston University School of Law study determined that legal battles against trolls cost companies around $500 billion between 1990 and 2010. Software patents are tricky things, because software coding typically builds upon established mathematical formulas and practices, and new ideas are often small and incremental. Moreover, too many cover “inventions” that are vague and hardly unique. Software patents, the Boston study authors note, often have “fuzzy boundaries.” Critics argue that too much money is spent on either buying vaguely worded software patents or defending them in court. And that’s money that would be better used to finance truly new innovations. James Bessen, one of the study’s authors, says one helpful fix would be raising the price of renewing a patent from $1,000 to tens of thousands of dollars – an amount that would make it too costly for trolls to warehouse patents they have no intention of using. – THOMAS K. GROSE


Flying Saucer

When a magician makes someone levitate on stage, we all know it is a trick. But when researchers at Tel Aviv University’s Superconducting Group released a video of a levitating disc, it wowed an audience of millions on YouTube precisely because it clearly wasn’t a trick. Physicist Boaz Almog calls the technology quantum levitation. His team uses a pancake-size wafer of sapphire that’s coated in yttrium barium copper oxide and frozen with liquid nitrogen, making it a superconductor. Placed over a circular magnetic track, it hovers above the track and zooms around it, sans engine. It floats because superconductors and magnets repel each other. But because the oxide layer is very thin, some of the magnetic field penetrates it via microscopic weak spots called flux tubes, which agitates them. And that propels the disc. Now the trick will be to find a practical application for a technology that certainly is very cool. – TG


Sneak Peek

Researchers at Georgia Tech have developed software they say can turn your iPhone into a spiPhone. Essentially, they’ve figured out how to use an iPhone’s accelerometer – the gizmo that detects how the phone is tilted – to pick up the vibrations of someone typing on a computer keyboard, track the keystrokes, and decipher complete sentences with up to 80 percent accuracy. So, how would a hacker use this technology to steal passwords or send fake E-mail from your account? Well, the tracking software could be built into some innocent-sounding app that would corrupt your phone with the spyware. If you then left your phone right next to your keyboard as you typed, the malware would kick in. Patrick Traynor, a computer scientist who codeveloped the app, says if you’re worried that your phone is spying on you, keep it more than 3 inches from your computer, or stash it in a pocket or a purse. He also admits that the likelihood of a spiPhone attack “right now is pretty low.” Not only are there a lot of “ifs” in the theft scenario, it requires the bad guys to master some very tough procedures. Still, Traynor adds ominously, “could people do it if they really wanted to? We think yes.” –TG


Verdant High-Rise

This is no pie-in-the-sky urban farm design. Italian architect Stefano Boeri’s Bosco Verticale, or Vertical Forest, is actually being built, and will soon add a splash of green to the Milan skyline.

The design features two residential towers with staggered balconies that allow an array of trees and shrubbery to grow outside each abode. Advantages of such a setup, beyond adding verdant beauty to a city, include shading inhabitants in the summer while permitting more sunlight in the winter, protection from noise pollution, and air purification.

Called “the most exciting new tower in the world” by the Financial Times, Bosco Verticale will eventually grow the equivalent of over 100,000 square feet of woodland. The FT adds that the buildings are to be the first in a series of eco-friendly renovations planned for the city. Boeri has dubbed the project BioMilano, and his vision features more green housing, the restoration of abandoned farms on the city’s outskirts, urban gardens, and Metrobosco, a ring of trees to encircle Milan. – Alison Buki


If You Can Make It There . . .

The race is on. Seven proposals involving 17 institutions from three continents are vying to open a new engineering and applied science graduate school in New York. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gambit: The city would provide around $300 million worth of land, plus $100 million in subsidies, to the winning proposal. The competition’s goal is the nearly instant creation of a top-tier school to help transform the Big Apple into Silicon Valley East, spin off new companies and industries, and create a lot of high-paying, high-tech jobs. Most of the submissions came from partnerships or consortia proposing to invest $800 million to $2.5 billion. Stanford University partnered with City College of New York in the $2.5 billion proposal. Cornell University joined with Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. One proposal came from six schools: New York University, the Universities of Toronto and Warwick, the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, City University of New York, and Carnegie Mellon. Stanford and Cornell have positioned themselves as the leading contenders, but Bloomberg insists there are no front-runners. Hizzoner also has said the city might opt to pick two winners. And it’s possible that New York’s attraction is so great that some also-ran schools may decide to go ahead on their own. Indeed, Columbia University’s proposal is ostensibly a reworking of a planned campus expansion already underway. Biggest surprise? A bid from Amity University, a private school little known outside India. A committee named to evaluate the proposals includes National Academy of Engineering President Charles Vest. City officials say the winner will be announced before year’s end. – TG


Tiny Sorority Taps Big Blue

Given the dearth of women in top jobs in corporate America, the appointment of Virginia “Ginnie” Rometty to lead IBM made headlines. Rometty, 54, has managed her rise to the top of Big Blue without much external exposure, forging her career largely in technical, strategy, and sales jobs. She joined the firm in 1981 as a systems analyst after earning a degree in computer science and electrical engineering from Northwestern University. She climbed the ranks as IBM jettisoned its hardware business to focus on software and services, the New York Times notes. Rometty actively lobbied for IBM’s $3.5 billion purchase of PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting in 2002, and then won plaudits for successfully overseeing its integration.

While she is IBM’s first female CEO, the Times notes that the 100-year-old company has a long history of hiring and advancing women executives. Rometty joins a tiny group of female high-tech leaders that includes Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard and Ursula Burns at Xerox. – TG


Cute Protection

Of the more than 500 people killed this year in Thailand’s worst floods in a half century, 27 died from electric shocks when downed power lines or submerged appliances electrified surging waters. After two young brothers were fatally shocked while wading, Dusit Sukawat felt he had to act. He’s a professor of engineering at the leading King Mongkut Institute of Technology at Lat Krabang on Bangkok’s outskirts. Dusit gathered a half-dozen third-year engineering student volunteers and within a week developed Flood Duck, a floating device with red LED lights that flash when it detects electricity in floodwaters. Made from materials he found at home costing less than $10, the gadget is a small plastic container filled with circuitry and topped with a toy duck. It’s now in routine use by rescue teams. While Dusit negotiates with potential manufacturers, he has enlisted students and volunteers in a makeshift production line and has donated 1,000 of the devices to cash-strapped hospitals. – Chris Pritchard


Late Riser

The dough used to make French pastries like éclairs is a concoction that’s as temperamental as it is tasty. Once made, it has to be quickly baked. Otherwise the dough becomes infested with microorganisms that stop it from rising. So it has to be made on the premises, and the dough machine must then be thoroughly cleaned. But now, with a dollop of European Union funding, researchers at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology have built a self-cleaning pastry machine engineered to produce sterile dough that doesn’t need to be baked immediately. The prototype is so finicky that it even monitors the final rinse water to ensure it’s free of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and cleaning fluids. Because of its longer shelf life, the pastry dough can be made centrally in larger quantities and delivered to individual patisseries for baking later. The developers are now hoping to commercialize the machine – and make a lot of dough. –TG


Engineering a New Libya

Even before a longtime University of Alabama professor (and former ASEE member) became Libya’s interim leader, engineering played a role in ending the 42-year dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi. Example: To gain intelligence on the colonel’s whereabouts, the rebel Transitional National Council (TNC) turned to Aeryon Labs Inc. of Waterloo, Ontario, and its Scout Micro drone helicopter. Weighing 3 pounds and small enough to fit into a backpack, the “spycopter” is equipped with a five megapixel still and video camera and a thermal vision night camera. It’s designed to operate in wind-driven sand and temperatures up to 122 degrees Fahrenheit. Operation is by a simple touch-screen interface that rebels learned to operate in two days.

The interim prime minister tapped by the TNC is Abdurrahim El-Keib, a 1973 University of Tripoli graduate who came to the United States to pursue a master’s in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California. He subsequently earned a Ph.D. from North Carolina State University and went on to teach power systems and electrical and computer engineering at Alabama from 1985 to 2005. More recently, he developed undergraduate and graduate programs at the Petroleum Institute of the United Arab Emirates. His mandate now is to appoint and lead an interim government that will draft a new constitution and schedule a general election. – PIERRE HOME-DOUGLAS


Power Walk

The idea of capturing ambient kinetic energy and putting it to use as electricity is not new. But a young British inventor says the technology behind his Pavegen tiles is the first application with huge commercial potential. His rubber, waterproof tiles are made from recycled tires, and 80 percent of their inner workings are made from recycled materials, too. The tiles harvest energy from footfalls and convert it to electricity. Five percent of that juice is used to light up an LED light in the tiles’ center; the rest can be used to light signs, streetlights, and pedestrian markings, and to power alarms or speaker systems. Founder Laurence Kemball-Cook – a 25-year-old recent engineering graduate – says Pavegen is getting its first big commercial test at Europe’s biggest mall, the newly opened Westfield Stratford City mall in east London, which is next to the still-under-construction Olympic stadium. Twenty PaveGen tiles are being laid into a walkway that more than 30 million people will use this coming year. And the tiles will most likely provide enough power for half the mall’s outdoor lighting needs. Kemball-Cook says he’s already getting queries from architects and designers from across Europe and the United States, and the tiles also have won several design and innovation awards. Time will tell if the Pavegen tile is a big step toward green lighting, or a small step toward a fun niche product. –TG

FACTOID: 8.3/4.5 – Percentage increases in tuition and fees in 2011-12 at public vs. private nonprofit four-year institutions – Source: college board, trends in college pricing


Half of all tenured and tenure-track engineering faculty have reached the rank of full professor. Women have seen their representation in the ranks increase steadily. Though they make up more than 22 percent of assistant professors, women account for only 8 percent of full professors. To improve their overall percentage, the gender gap will have to narrow at the full-professor level. While Asian faculty members have become more prevalent over the past decade, the share of underrepresented minorities in tenured or tenure-track positions has barely changed.

*Includes faculty data from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez and Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico

**Salaries are adjusted to a nine-month equivalent, and they exclude administrative supplements.

View Printable PDF of Infographic Illustration

Sensor Sensation
By Alison Buki

A MacArthur award-winning researcher brings excitement to the classroom.

The 50 students who enrolled in Shwetak Patel’s Embedded Microcomputer Systems class last winter could not have expected to draw a public spotlight. But once they rose to his challenge, building and programming controllers for a fleet of remotely piloted quadrocopters, a video of their drones’ successful flight leapt from YouTube into the local media.

Engaging students in exciting practical applications is the best way to teach advanced engineering concepts, argues Patel, a three-year assistant professor of computer science and electrical engineering at the University of Washington. Taking cues from his own research, which focuses on novel applications for wireless sensing technology, Patel overhauled the traditional platform for an embedded systems class. Instead of working with small motors and LEDs, he had students tackle the four-rotor helicopter drones project. “It taught the students all the basic concepts…they had to learn how to write embedded code, how to do wireless,” Patel explains. Captivated, the students taught themselves concepts outside the scope of their coursework – a professor’s dream come true. “Their code had to work really well or the thing wouldn’t fly,” he says. Emerging as stellar programmers – and documentary filmmakers – the students gained enough attention with their final demonstration for the course to draw overflow enrollment the following quarter.

Patel’s innovations reach well beyond the classroom and recently earned him a $500,000 no-strings-attached John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship. The “genius” award caps a stunning series of achievements for a 29-year-old that include founding and later selling a startup company, Zensi; a 2011 Microsoft Research Faculty Fellowship; and two National Science Foundation fellowships administered by ASEE: the Graduate Research Fellowship and the East Asia and Pacific Summer lnstitutes research program. He has also won junior faculty and research-adviser awards.

Like his teaching, Patel’s pioneering research is strongly invested in expanding the practical applications of modern computing technologies. He is best known for his work developing sophisticated, user-friendly energy sensors for homes and offices. Patel’s unique technology uses advanced algorithms to determine how much energy each household device is consuming by picking up individual activity patterns. By simply installing a few wireless sensors, residents can tell which of their appliances is using the most energy and can monitor water and electricity consumption throughout the day. The technology can also be used to monitor human motion within a building, with applications ranging from home security to elder care. In bestowing the genius award, the MacArthur Foundation said Patel, while envisioning cutting-edge tools, “devises elegant, simple solutions that dramatically reduce the cost of implementation.”

An Alabama native who earned a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate in computer science from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Patel is currently consulting with Belkin, the company that acquired Zensi in 2010, to help commercialize in-home energy monitoring technology. Belkin is running a pilot study in Chicago and may have the technology on the market as soon as next year.

But now for the question on everybody’s mind: How will Patel use his MacArthur grant? “I have some ideas,” Patel says, excited at the prospect of working on projects that might not interest traditional funding sources. “I’m looking into building low-cost versions of energy monitors, and [sensors] for a variety of health applications.” One such application, he told the Birmingham News, could enable patients with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease to monitor their lung capacity by coughing into the microphone on a cellphone. He may even start a nonprofit organization with the goal of helping low-income families take advantage of the technologies he has developed.

Alison Buki is an ASEE staff writer.

Being Marginalized

Engineering has often been out of sight, out of mind on campus.

I am at the University of Maryland, waiting for my escort to come take me to the first of my day of meetings with faculty. Overnight, I stayed in the university’s inn and conference center, on the extreme western edge of this large campus. The engineering buildings, where I will have my meetings and then lecture later in the afternoon, are located on the eastern edge.

If I were visiting my own campus, I might have stayed overnight at the Washington Duke Inn, located off the extreme southern edge of Duke’s West campus, across from the entrance to the campus proper via Science Drive. That road dates from the mid-20th century, when our red-brick engineering building was the first to open on it — out of sight and out of mind of the core campus buildings. For decades, the humanists never had to set foot on this road, and the engineers and scientists hardly ever had to depart from it. Now, our engineering complex is located at the end of Science Drive, still a good distance from the inn and from the heart of campus.

I have noticed similar geographical patterns on other campuses. During my undergraduate years at Manhattan College, the engineering buildings were located atop the hill beyond the main quadrangle. The year after I graduated, Engineering moved into a renovated candy factory down the hill and even farther away from the rest of campus.

My graduate school years at the University of Illinois were spent mostly on the engineering side of Green Street. The only buildings to the north of the engineering campus were gymnasiums and sports fields, and we crossed Green Street mainly to eat at the student union and to take math and foreign-language classes.

Why is it that engineering seems so often to be at the margins of higher education, both physically and metaphorically? The reasons, like the reasons for so many things, are rooted in historical fact and accident. Before the mid-19th century, many free-standing mechanics institutes were founded to give working men and women the opportunity to better themselves through study. Introducing engineering onto more traditional college and university campuses was intended to bring the legacy of the industrial revolution into the mainstream of learning.

In 1862, the Morrill Act granted states the acreage on which to establish land-grant agricultural and mechanical colleges. The agricultural enterprise naturally required considerable tracts of land, and it was wise to allow for breathing room. This necessarily put the farms at or beyond one edge of campus, which not only provided space to grow but also took advantage of prevailing winds to take olfactory reminders of the farms’ existence away from the campus proper.

The heart of campus, where the long-established humanities were housed, became a virtual walled city. At Harvard, there were repeated attempts to push the Lawrence Scientific School, which was endowed in 1847 to educate engineers and chemists, off onto MIT.

If there was an old engineering department near the heart of a university campus, it generally had no room to grow. In order to expand, it had to relocate to the opposite edge of campus from the farms, thereby keeping at bay the sights and the sounds of the machine shops and laboratories. The agricultural and mechanical arts seemed to be equally abhorrent to classics scholars.

The physical layout of so many of our campuses tells us a lot about how much engineering has grown in the past century and a half, but many campus layouts also make it strikingly clear that engineers often still have a long way to go to reach the center of campus life.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His new book, An Engineer’s Alphabet: Gleanings From the Softer Side of a Profession, is published by Cambridge University Press.

Engineers, Save Higher Ed!
By Vivek Wadhwa

Technology can propel a needed revolution.

Americans are becoming disenchanted with higher education. They say it lacks relevance and isn’t cost justified — and that therefore we should send fewer children to college. They blame universities for skyrocketing education costs. That is what I’ve learned — the hard way — in my effort to defend America’s education system.

In April, the popular tech blog TechCrunch published an article titled, “Peter Thiel: We’re in a Bubble and It’s Not the Internet. It’s Higher Education.” This was about the Paypal cofounder’s offer of $100,000 to 20 students if they agreed to drop out of college and start a business. I was horrified at the extremely positive reception this was receiving. So I crafted a hard-hitting response with input from three engineering deans: Tom Katsouleas of Duke University, Jim Plummer of Stanford, and Bruce Eisenstein of Drexel. We acknowledged that there are some examples of college dropouts who made it big, but argued that these are the outliers. We argued that most young people need a college education in order to achieve financial well-being and happiness in life.

A measure of success in the blogosphere is the number of “Facebook likes” and “Tweets” that a post receives. The piece against education received nearly 30,000 likes and 12,700 Tweets. In contrast, our piece received 450 likes and 400 tweets. In other words, we lost by a landslide.

Not to be deterred, I accepted an invitation by Intelligence Squared to debate Peter Thiel in Chicago at a nationally televised event. This was in October, and the topic was “Do too many kids go to college?” On my side was Northwestern University President Emeritus and Rasmussen College Chairman Henry Bienen. Thiel’s partner was political scientist and author Charles Murray.

Bienen gallantly defended the value of four-year undergraduate degrees and liberal arts education. I highlighted that parents in the countries we are competing with — India and China — are investing their life savings in their children’s education; that if we stop educating our children, Indian and Chinese children will eat our children’s lunch. I explained that students gain a lot more from college than just the education. They gain valuable social skills, such as how to interact and work with others, how to compromise, and how to deal with rejection and failure; and, critically, they learn how to learn. I argued that without the foundation that a college education provides, Americans could forever be trapped in the wrong, low-paying jobs.

The audience was highly sophisticated and educated. Yet we lost the debate, 47 percent to 46 percent. What won the day were the arguments that education has become far too expensive and that the nation’s trillion-dollar student-debt burden is the equivalent of an education bubble.

In all likelihood, this reflects the current mood of America. So, before disenchanted graduates launch a movement to occupy our universities, perhaps our educators need to look inward. It is a fact that education costs have increased disproportionately over the past two decades. It is a fact that despite advances in technology, we are essentially teaching the way we did at the turn of the century.

This can be fixed. As they do in solving the nation’s infrastructure problems, our engineers need to lead the charge. Technology has advanced so much over the past two decades that we can use it to completely change the way in which we educate. Tablet-type devices such as the iPad have become ubiquitous, and the world’s knowledge is now readily available on the Internet. The graphics capability of these devices is so advanced that we can teach students geography by taking them into virtual worlds, and teach mathematics using interactive games. Students from around the world can watch lectures from universities such as MIT and Harvard. We can have today’s Einsteins directly imparting their knowledge to millions.

If ever it was time for an education revolution, that time is now.

Vivek Wadhwa is a scholar specializing in entrepreneurship who is affiliated with Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, the University of California, Berkeley, Harvard Law School, and Emory University. He also advises several start-ups.

Help Yourself by Helping Others
By Senay Purzer

Students gain confidence in their own skills by supporting teammates.

Imagine a student, Alex, who constantly disagrees with his team members and procrastinates in completing his project assignments. Imagine another student, Bryan, who patiently listens to his teammates and intervenes when discussions appear to take a disruptive turn. Is Alex’s behavior a reflection of his self-efficacy? Do interactions with teammates affect Alex’s and Bryan’s achievement in class? Do Bryan’s positive verbal interactions result in improved self-efficacy and learning? While much research has been conducted to study the relationship between cooperative and collaborative learning in higher education, few studies have explored the nature of team discourse and how these discussions support or hinder individual student learning.

In a mixed-methods discourse analysis study involving 22 engineering students, I investigated the relationship between team discourse, self-efficacy – perception of one’s own academic competence – and individual student achievement. By combining survey and discourse analysis methods, I was able to gain an in-depth understanding of team learning processes. Thousands of verbal exchanges of the students were recorded weekly in the classroom when students worked on their design projects. These exchanges were then transcribed and coded. Quantitative data on students’ pre- and post-project self-efficacy were also collected using a Likert-scale survey. Next, I interpreted my results within a framework of two robust learning theories: Bandura’s social cognitive theory and Vygotsky’s social constructivist theory. Three key findings emerged from these analyses.

There is a relationship between being supportive toward peers and one’s own self-efficacy. The results indicated a moderate and positive correlation between the post-project self-efficacy of a given student and support-oriented discourse initiated by that student. However, in contrast with the social cognitive theory, receiving verbal persuasions did not improve self-efficacy. This suggests that what affected students’ self-efficacy and academic performance was not necessarily the negative or positive comments they received, but the amount of support-oriented discourse they themselves provided to others.

Lots of explaining, little task clarification. Students engaged in six types of discourse actions during their classroom discussions: task oriented, response oriented, learning oriented, support oriented, challenge oriented, and disruptive. Among these discourse actions, they spent most of their time answering questions and explaining ideas (response oriented) and less time identifying goals and clarifying tasks (task oriented). In addition, engaging in challenge-oriented discourse or learning-oriented discourse did not reveal correlations with self-efficacy or achievement.

Self-efficacy gains were related to task-oriented discourse. Another relationship was found between self-efficacy and task-oriented discourse. Students who were primarily told what to do had only small gains in their self-efficacy.

These results indicate that a team is not just a group of individuals who share a common goal, but a social entity with complex social, affective, and cognitive interactions. Teamwork can support individual student learning when these interactions promote self-efficacy. The results also suggest three observable characteristics of teams that reinforce learning and self-efficacy. Teams that lead to better learning for the individual members: 1) determine and assign tasks collaboratively, 2) respond to, critique, and elaborate on each other’s comments, and 3) minimize off-task behavior and negative criticism.

To reinforce positive actions and achievement of all individuals, teams can be monitored closely or taught how to monitor their own interactions. Video case studies of experts and novices and how they interact in their teams can be used to stress learning through vicarious experiences. These team self-monitoring skills and video case-study reviews have been put in place as a part of the revised curriculum at several institutions following this research, and the impact will be an area for future study.

Senay Purzer is an assistant professor in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. This article is an extract from “The Relationship Between Team Discourse, Self-efficacy, and Individual Achievement” in the October 2011 issue of the Journal of Engineering Education.

From Discovery to Success

How the most creative minds in business think

The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators
by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen
Harvard Business Review Press, 295 pages

That innovation has become a priority for businesses can be attributed in some small measure to Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor who championed its importance as early as 1995 and has been writing about it ever since. Christensen was also first to discuss the need for “disruptive technologies,” which today serves as a persuasive model for boldly re-envisioning products and restructuring markets.

Having addressed in several books the value of innovation in business, healthcare, and education, Christensen now turns to consider the personal characteristics of innovators. Along with coauthors Jeff Dyer of Brigham Young University’s management school and Hal Gregersen of INSEAD business school, Christensen undertook an eight-year study of successful creative individuals and their companies, interviewing 500 inventors and 5,000 CEOs, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, eBay’s Pierre Omidyar, Michael Dell of Dell Computers, and A.G. Lafley, formerly of Procter and Gamble. The result is a book that focuses not so much on business strategies as on “[digging] into the thinking of the innovators themselves.”

What we learn in The Innovator’s DNA is that creative entrepreneurs do indeed “think different,” as the Apple Inc. advertisement would have it. More important, innovators “act different,” determinedly taking steps to ensure that their businesses stand out from others. And while many of us may not possess inborn creativity, everyone can cultivate such traits, the authors believe. Offered as a working guide, The Innovator’s DNA is divided into two parts. The first discusses how individuals can strengthen core “discovery skills” – associating, questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting. The second shifts from individuals to groups and companies, identifying three crucial elements for developing well-functioning innovative teams: people, processes, and philosophies.

Without a doubt, this book joins an already overcrowded field of publications that purport to unlock the secrets of business creativity. In addition, many of the observations within The Innovator’s DNA are familiar – that innovators need to be inquisitive and experimental, for example. Yet, what distinguishes this study is its intelligent, appealing approach. Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen aren’t hawking five easy steps for success. Instead, they encourage broad creativity, open-mindedness, and experimentation. Attend conferences not for business contacts, they write, but for an inspiring exchange of ideas and new perspectives. For even greater cross-fertilization, join conferences in a different field and seek out contacts in diverse professions and levels of specialization. Elsewhere they suggest assuming the role of an anthropologist to observe deeply how customers interact with your products; visiting, or better yet, living and working in a foreign country; and finding ways to ensure that innovation is the task of each employee, not just top management.

Several chapters contain stimulating proposed exercises: to initiate an employee swap with another company, for example, as Google and Procter and Gamble did in 2008. Questioning is identified as an essential discovery skill because “questions are a critical catalyst to creative insights.” An exercise in the questioning chapter advocates group sessions devoted to “question-storming” – generating as many questions as possible on a given issue without giving in to answers – as one way to unlock different perspectives and understanding.

Also appealing in this book are the many anecdotes about famous innovators, such as Steve Jobs, whose experience auditing a Reed College calligraphy class inspired him, a decade later, to introduce different type fonts in the first Macintosh. Ratan Tata conceived India’s tiny, affordable Nano vehicle after watching a family of five huddled on a single motorbike in Mumbai. He gained lessons on marketing his car by observing how motorbike vendors at open-air markets offer on-the-spot driving instructions as well as lines of credit and insurance.

For Amazon’s Bezos, we learn, experimentation is key to the continued success of his company: It’s “the opposite of sticking to your knitting…the opposite of the ‘institutional no.’”

Though aimed at business groups, The Innovator’s DNA is a book that should interest a broad audience, including inventors, researchers, and professors seeking greater creativity in their teaching and research. Read it to find inspiration – and ways to put down your knitting.

Robin Tatu is a contributing editor of Prism.

A Challenge Equal to Space
By David F. Radcliffe

Earth’s unmet needs inspire a new generation.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of human spaceflight. On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space and the first to orbit the Earth. Three weeks later Alan Shepard became the first American in space, on Freedom 7’s suborbital flight. In July, Virgil “Gus” Grissom launched into space in the Liberty Bell 7, validating the human ability to perform in space by manually controlling the spacecraft’s orientation. Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov followed a few weeks afterward in Vostok 2, becoming the first person to remain in space for more than 24 hours. So many firsts were achieved in just four short months.

It was a time of Cold War tensions, yet paradoxically it was also a time of innocence. It was a time for heroes and unabashed national pride, when there seemed to be no boundaries to technological achievement. The sky was no longer the limit, literally.

The year 1961 was also the beginning of a period of major social change and political upheaval. The first Freedom Riders traveled from New York to New Orleans in May. Britain granted self-government to its colony of Uganda. Amnesty International was founded. Bob Dylan recorded his first album. East German troops began constructing the Berlin Wall. President Kennedy increased the number of American advisers in Vietnam. A new consciousness was stirring that eventually would begin to question many of the implicit, epistemological assumptions underlying engineering.

As a 9-year-old living in far-off Australia, I listened to all the U.S. space launches on Voice of America and maintained a series of scrapbooks with newspaper clippings, including very grainy images of Soviet cosmonauts and their spacecraft. Apart from making me want to be an astronaut, the excitement of the early space programs was a major influence on my choosing to study engineering.

When President Kennedy declared that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” engineers and others took up the challenge. They succeeded through a combination of ingenuity, ample resources, belief in themselves, and some good fortune. We should never forget that three astronauts lost their lives in the Apollo program: Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee – all engineers.

As the generation that was inspired by the early human spaceflights now approaches retirement age, the question arises: What will inspire the next generation of engineers?

Among the unplanned outcomes of the Apollo program were several stunning pictures of the Earth taken by the astronauts, most notably “Blue Marble” (taken by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972). This image fundamentally altered how we “see” our planet and ourselves. From the vantage point of space, Earth suddenly seemed a singular, lovely but fragile ecosystem. Thus what many consider the most daring and ambitious engineering challenge of the 20th century, the race to the moon, serendipitously provided humanity with the iconic image of Earth’s vulnerability.

The “Blue Marble” continues to energize an environmentally conscious generation to use its engineering knowledge to tackle the pressing global grand challenges of this century, like providing sustainable water, food, shelter, energy, and infrastructure that allow people to reach their full potential. A new understanding of engineering is emerging, one that is more inclusive and that blends human, social, and technical considerations, and even includes notions like social justice. This change in the conversation about the role(s) of engineering in society has its origins in the social movements and consciousness raising that ran parallel to the space program 50 years ago.

Just as an earlier generation was inspired to become engineers by the technological challenge of the early space program, so a new generation of young people, in developed and developing countries, is attracted to engineering by the opportunity to make a positive difference in people’s lives through meeting these global grand challenges – their Sputnik moment.

David F. Radcliffe is the Kamyar Haghighi Head and Epistemology Professor of Engineering Education at Purdue University’s School of Engineering Education.