January 2012

A Deeper Partnership
Forget science fairs and drop-bys. Engineering educators now actively prepare teachers to deliver the E in K-12 STEM.
By Mary Lord

It’s a flinty November morning and nearly every second-grade teacher in Harford County (Md.) Public Schools has bundled into a local school to witness a retooling of the district’s science classes. Students will spend six weeks learning about “Growth and Change” through agricultural engineering, starting with flowers and culminating in a hand-pollinator design project. Curriculum developer Pamela Lottero-Perdue, a Towson University science education professor and former engineer, directs the teachers to uncover a plate at each table and identify which foods are fruit. Apples, sure. But bell peppers and cukes? Kids will say, “Eeew,” blurts a teacher. “The scientific definition is different from the nutritional one,” explains instructor Ashley Black, whose second graders piloted the engineering unit last year. Be prepared for complaining parents, she advises; most won’t know that fruit is a flower’s ripened ovary, whether apricot or zucchini, and will insist cucumbers are vegetables.

Behold the newest dimension of engineering education. Propelled by research and the country’s drive for more science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) graduates, outreach programs have evolved well beyond the career-day talks, teacher workshops, and other one-shot efforts of a decade ago. “You can only do so many science fairs, and what impact does it have?” observes Beth McGrath, executive director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at New Jersey’s Stevens Institute of Technology. Today’s engineering pipeline stretches from kindergarten design projects to video-game pilots to teacher prep programs, and often includes sustained relationships between universities and schools. As engineering faculty work with classroom teachers, regular science, math, or language arts instruction is being “engineer-ized,” says Elizabeth Parry, director of K-20 engineering partnerships at North Carolina State University. A few pioneering institutions, like hers and Towson, are creating curriculum and delivering professional development to entire schools and districts.

“I would say that engineering has gone from ‘would be sweet’ outreach to ‘Damn! We best get on it to build capacity for tomorrow’s innovation squad,’ ” says Jacquelyn Sullivan, associate dean of the University of Colorado, Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, describing the progression. TeachEngineering, a searchable digital library of standards-based, teacher-vetted engineering activities that Sullivan has overseen since its inception, exemplifies this trend. Now 10 years old, it has 41 curriculum-contributing partners nationwide and a long list of educators eager to contribute material. Other indications of momentum:

  • Engineering is Elementary (EiE), a research-backed curriculum for primary school students developed by the Museum of Science, Boston, began with just eight teachers and 200 pupils seven years ago. Since then, it has reached 32,700 teachers and about 2.7 million students, often via university outreach efforts.
  • Project Lead the Way, an engineering program launched in a dozen upstate New York schools in the mid-1990s, now includes 4,215 schools and more than 400,000 middle and high school students in every state.
  • K-12 & Pre-college Engineering is among ASEE’s fastest-growing divisions, adding more than 800 members since its launch in 2003. The number of submissions on K-12 topics to ASEE’s annual conference has more than doubled in the past five years. In 2011, the division received 220 abstracts and 158 papers, with 132 getting published.

[ a two-way street ]

By connecting to classrooms, engineering educators can play a vital role in improving K-12 STEM instruction while introducing students to an exciting, lucrative profession many know nothing about. Beyond improving science learning, engineering increasingly is seen as a vehicle to encourage critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity. And outreach is not a one-way street. Colleges of engineering can themselves benefit from K-12 efforts in attracting a more diverse student body, and improving persistence and teaching quality. Malinda Schaefer Zarske, researcher and former engineering outreach coordinator at the University of Colorado, Boulder, for example, says having to explain complex concepts to kids as a National Science Foundation graduate fellow made her “a much better teacher.” Biggest bonus: sharper communications skills.

The growth of university involvement follows a 2005 exhortation from the National Academy of Engineering’s “The Engineer of 2020” that “the engineering establishment should participate in efforts… to improve math, science, and engineering education at the K-12 level.”

The NSF now devotes 15 percent of its engineering education budget — which has averaged $30.7 million annually for the past decade — to K-12, a 2011 analysis calculated, with an average award of $1.4 million, eight times the average for undergraduate projects. Early NSF-sponsored projects centered on getting kids interested in STEM, particularly through such informal experiences as visiting a science museum. The emphasis has since switched to curricula, instruction, and classrooms. K-12 engineering education currently accounts for 21 percent of a recent initiative to develop innovative technology experiences for students and teachers, including 30 projects focused on using videogames and virtual worlds to teach STEM.

It has taken a while for engineering to take root in schools. A 2009 National Academies report declared engineering education “almost invisible” on the K-12 STEM radar screen. But now, with engineering and design prominently featured in next-generation science standards being developed from a National Research Council framework, NSF is “interested in not just reaching more students but learning from these efforts and scaling up,” says Joan Ferrini-Mundy, the foundation’s assistant director for education and human resources. That includes “a concerted effort around teacher preparation” and expanding professional development programs so educators learn how to incorporate authentic engineering experiences into their science or math classes.

Universities are leading some of the boldest efforts through federally funded Mathematics and Science Partnerships with state education agencies and schools. These represent a much deeper, research-based approach than what Chris Rogers, director of the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach at Tufts University, dismisses as hunch-driven “whiz-bang efforts” of the past in which “some guy comes in, puts a piece of potassium in water, and fires ’em up about science.”

[ ‘e’ in every subject ]

When Beth McGrath and her colleagues set out seven years ago to demonstrate engineering could add value to K-12 classrooms, “there was a certain level of skepticism.” Today, she says, the research center has “more demand for professional development, scoping and sequencing, and planning for STEM curriculum than we can accommodate.” North Carolina State’s Parry, who works with the entire teaching staff in five schools on how to integrate engineering into every subject, including gym, admits she was “not the favorite person” when she first walked into classrooms. But by stressing “it’s about ‘engineering’ the verb, not the noun,” Parry could show teachers how hands-on projects could help develop students’ problem-solving skills and boost engagement across the board, not just in science. “It’s a tool to provide passion,” she says.

K-12 classroom instructors seem natural partners for engineers. Finding materials and pacing lessons add up to “a very tough engineering design problem that they’re solving every day,” notes Gerhard Salinger, a program director in NSF’s research on learning division and an early champion of K-12 engineering. Elementary classrooms have seen the biggest change, adopting engineering at five times the pace of higher grade levels. “It’s an opportune time,” explains Parry, ASEE’s K-12 and Pre-College division chair. “Teachers are generalists and have more control of the classroom and less ability-grouping, so they get more diverse teams,” and chances to integrate instruction.

Enter educators like Towson Assistant Prof. Lottero-Perdue, who is customizing a curriculum to put the “E” in STEM for every Harford County, Md., elementary grade. With a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, she spent a year in industry before migrating to education, first as a master high school engineering and physics teacher, then earning a doctorate in science curriculum and instruction. Her partnership with Harford County Public Schools (HCPS), known as the SysTEMic project, grew out of the Army’s desire to help communities near the Aberdeen Proving Ground east of Baltimore prepare schools for an influx of new families under its base-consolidation plan. The university and school district argued the merits of starting young with engineering, and in 2008 won a $100,000 grant. A big chunk went to train teachers. “We can’t just say, ‘Oh, by the way, you’re going to be teaching engineering next year,’” says Lottero-Perdue, who modified and matched the Engineering is Elementary (EiE) curriculum to each grade’s state science content standards rather than tacking on a unit at the end. “They had no professional development in the subject. Many of them may not like science.” Already, teachers feel they barely have time to cover science; make engineering an extracurricular and few might opt to do it. By showing that heating a drink or performing other everyday tasks can convey engineering concepts, Lottero-Perdue hoped to quell their fear. “The whole point is to make teachers comfortable,” says Andrew Renzulli, HCPS’s science supervisor, who calls their enthusiasm for engineering “contagious.”

Since its 2009 launch, the SysTEMic project has received multiple grants, including from Maryland’s education department, and grown from a few pilots to all 33 elementary classrooms in the school system. “It’s a brand-new world,” beams Renzulli, who fired up the teachers at November’s training session by rhapsodizing about “the noise of learning” from excited kids doing engineering and science. That time is reserved during the district’s quarterly professional development days for Lottero-Perdue and her seasoned teachers to coach engineering underscores HCPS’s commitment to the effort. “We didn’t want it to be a one-stop wonder,” says Lottero-Perdue, who calculates that when Harford County pupils board the buses in June, all will have learned one engineering unit in grades 1 through 4 and two in grade 5 — taught largely by teachers she trained.

[ ‘this was difficult!’ ]

Alison Baranowski, a fourth-grade teacher at Havre de Grace Elementary School and an early recipient of Lottero-Perdue’s professional development, has seen her mostly low-income students’ engagement in science soar with the inclusion of engineering. “During lessons, students ask questions, think outside the box, and more than anything start to think like problem solvers,” Baranowski reports. “Every ability level can participate, too.” Integrating engineering also has influenced how Baranowski teaches science. “I try to ask questions instead of dishing out content,” she explains, adding that she also likes to familiarize students with the scientific method and turn more activities into experiments.

In previous years, Baranowski’s fourth graders would have learned about geology and erosion in the “rocks and minerals” curriculum. With the new materials-engineering unit, students apply content knowledge to construct a tile wall that can withstand a “wrecking ball.” The design process starts with reading a book about a Chinese girl who engineered a solution to a problem. The fourth graders then do the same, investigating the properties of sand, soil, and other earth materials to determine which would best keep tiles together. Finally, teams test their walls against a golfball pendulum. “Exciting times!” Baranowski exclaims. “Thinking like engineers and using the engineer-design process has been incredible.”

Embedding engineering into STEM instruction required a similar all-hands effort. The district’s elementary science specialist, Amy Ryan, found EiE units to match existing curriculum. After brainstorming on how to merge them, Lottero-Perdue drafted a blended unit. “I often had to reduce science in order to make time for the engineering,” recalls Lottero-Perdue. “This was difficult!” She modified existing science lessons, developed new ones, and wrote guides to translate science concepts into engineering concepts and processes. Kids, she finds, “particularly love the idea that they can work to solve a problem via the engineering design process for which the teacher doesn’t hold the one single answer!”

Engineering’s open-ended design challenges require K-12 educators to alter their teaching style. For starters, “design is not the same as inquiry,” the thrust of experiment-based science, notes NSF’s Gerhard Salinger. Also, “teachers get very nervous if there is no correct answer.” That’s where engineering schools come in. For North Carolina State’s Parry, “teacher professional development is where engineering can be the difference maker.”

Increasingly, collaborations are becoming institutionalized. The University of Texas, Austin, is training a corps of K-12 engineering educators from scratch. UTeachEngineering, part of the university’s pioneering science-teacher prep program, began four years ago, when the state legislature approved engineering as an acceptable science course. With a $12.5 million NSF math-science partnership grant, the university’s engineering and education faculty created a program to equip current science teachers and engineering and science undergraduates with content, pedagogy, and classroom practice. Stevens recently launched its first graduate certificate program for teachers, a five-course science and engineering sequence focused on energy and climate change. Teachers also receive monthly classroom visits to help them incorporate engineering in elementary and middle school science lessons.

For some engineering majors, K-12 outreach can increase interest in their chosen field, boosting retention. As an undergraduate in mechanical engineering at Tufts, Melissa Pickering struggled to see the practical side of her theory-heavy coursework. By contrast, she “loved” spending four or five hours weekly with elementary students in Boston’s Chinatown. “Every time I went in, I felt better about the week,” she recalls. “It’s hard to be discouraged around really excited kids.” Simplifying science and engineering concepts for youngsters not only made high-level physics more “tangible”; the experience ignited Pickering’s K-12 career. After two years as a Disney engineer, she formed a company, iCreate to Educate, to disseminate engaging, hands-on educational tools such as animation software developed at Tufts. Pickering may be part of a trend. Parry found that 67 percent of engineering majors who participated in K-12 outreach contemplated going on to graduate school — double the percentage of their nonparticipating peers.

University of Michigan fourth-year engineering students Shonique White and Amber Spears have experienced outreach from both sides. Both owe their choice of majors to participating in programs aimed at Detroit-area youth. Now, White has succeeded Spears as volunteer leader of an Ypsilanti elementary school engineering club. White loved how the kids “would get so excited,” hugging Spears when she arrived. “They knew they were going to do something cool.” When a student sends a thank-you note, “you know that you’re helping,” adds Spears, a civil and environmental engineering major. “You’re opening their eyes to something beyond. I could possibly be planting a seed.”

[ how do you measure? ]

While veteran outreach coordinators like Parry can point to improved classroom climate and student achievement, sustained outreach programs are too new for research to determine the impact on the engineering pipeline. Then there’s the issue of gauging student learning. “Is it the diversity of solutions you see in class?” asks Tufts’s Chris Rogers. “In conventional science and math classes, it’s how many students get the right answer,” a mind-set that can lead to standardized curricula and stifled innovation before prospective engineers arrive on campus. “How do you assess a student’s contributions to group activities?” wonders Michael Haney, a director of NSF’s Discovery Research K-12 program, who favors portfolios or other ways to showcase a history of each student’s work. “Ultimately, schools will have to assign credit for that,” he says. Another concern: providing authentic engineering experiences, rather than canned activities. “In science education,” notes Haney, “every experiment is so contrived it doesn’t represent the real world.”

Answers to these questions depend in part on how engineering will be treated in the next-generation science standards due out this year. Currently being written from a National Research Council framework, these “common core” learning standards focus on crosscutting, interdisciplinary concepts and put engineering and design on a par with physics, biology, and other sciences that traditionally have had a “stranglehold” on curricula, as NSF’s Salinger puts it. Half the states have signed on to develop the new standards. The hitch: Of the 41 educators and experts on the writing team, only one has engineering experience, and he’s not an educator.

Mary Lord is deputy editor of Prism.

Staying Number One
How can U.S. research universities remain the world’s best?
By Beryl Lieff Benderly

How can U.S. research universities remain the worldís best?

As the nation struggles to recover from the 2008 economic collapse and subsequent recession, at least one sector — dubbed “America’s best industry” by journalist Fareed Zakaria — retains world dominance. It is higher education, especially research-based graduate education, which has undergirded the innovation crucial to America’s prosperity.

Even before the financial crash and recession, however, knowledgeable observers worried that American pre-eminence faced serious challenges, especially from Asian contenders such as China, India, Hong Kong, and Singapore, which are working aggressively to build world-class universities of their own. Multiple forces appear to threaten America’s great research institutions, and the economic crisis, which caused sharp drops in endowment and state support, only exacerbated them.

In April 2009, these concerns were crystallized in an address by Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former president of the University of Tennessee who served as secretary of education under George H.W. Bush. Speaking to the Association of American Universities, which represents the top-tier research universities in the United States and Canada, he compared today’s academic scene to America’s loss of its once unchallenged dominance of the automobile industry. “Nothing is more vulnerable than entrenched success,” Alexander said, quoting George Romney, president of American Motors, America’s no. 4 automaker in Detroit’s glory days. The so-called Big Three — General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler – “didn’t just make the best cars in the world, they made almost all the best cars,” Alexander went on. But they failed to keep pace as Japan met customer demand for smaller, fuel-efficient cars. The rest is the sad story of the decline of America’s auto industry.

U.S. research universities now occupy a similar position of undisputed pre-eminence, Alexander continued. “The United States does not just have the best universities in the world — it has almost all the best universities” — 35 out of the top 50, eight out of the top 10, according to rankings by Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, he told the AAU, many of whose 61 members are on that list. “In the midst of our pride, I suggest we remember the warning of George Romney.”

To keep universities from meeting the auto giants’ fate, Alexander proposed that the National Academies “assemble a distinguished group of Americans to assess the competitive position of the American research university, both public and private” and recommend the “top 10 actions” that would “assure the ability of the American research university to maintain the excellence needed to compete and prosper … in the global community of the 21st century.” He met with heads of the academies and made his request official in a letter cosigned by Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who chairs an appropriations subcommittee that allocates federal research funding; Rep. Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat, since retired, who chaired the House Science and Technology Committee; and Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, top Republican on the House panel.

Two and a half years later, the Academies’ report is nearing completion and may be released in February. Among people who work at the nexus of academe and public policy, it is anticipated as a groundbreaking document on a par with the 2005 Academies’ report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” which Alexander also helped initiate. The earlier study, led by engineer and former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, warned that America’s competitive advantage in science and technology had begun to erode, undermining U.S. suppremacy in innovation. It called for a coordinated federal effort to strengthen basic research, vastly improve K-12 science and math, and develop and keep top students, scientists and engineers. Congress responded with the landmark America COMPETES Act of 2007, setting a course for steady increases in research funding.

The working title of the new study, “Riding on Thin Ice,” suggests it will sound an alarm as urgent as that in “Gathering Storm.” It is led by Charles O. Holliday Jr., chairman of the Bank of America and former chairman and CEO of DuPont, who served on the previous panel. Its staff director is Peter Henderson, another “Gathering Storm” veteran.

Recommendations remain closely guarded. But the delay in finishing the study – it was expected last summer – hints at the tough problems the panel has had to tackle. Chief among them is money. World-class research institutions require “huge financial commitments,” a recent World Bank report noted.

The pummeling that elite university endowments took early in the U.S. financial crisis still left them better off than many state institutions whacked by budget cuts. Though they raised tuition at a faster pace than private schools, state universities haven’t recouped the lost state money. A congressional ban on earmarks means they can’t count on their Washington representatives to secure federal research dollars. At the same time, administrators complain that federal grants are insufficient to cover their overhead.

A Question of Numbers

Few remedies avoid controversy. Holliday’s remarks to PCAST, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, in July 2011 indicate his committee is paying considerable attention to the intersection of academe and industry and new types of partnership. So-called innovation ecosystems connecting business and university researchers are flourishing around the country, with engineering schools often playing a key role. But any emphasis on university ties to industry is bound to raise questions about the nation’s commitment to long-term basic research, which, while not quick to return profits, has yielded transformative discoveries. Holliday, an industrial engineer, also mentioned looking at “the efficiency of the universities themselves.” Such words, coming from a corporate chieftain, could stir fears of downsizing, layoffs, or loss of academic autonomy.

More contentious is a question raised by former AAU President Robert Berdahl, who was influential in launching the new study: How many research universities does the nation require? As the World Bank notes, only a small fraction of the 5,000 institutions of higher learning in the United States rank among the world’s best schools. Yet federal policy, enshrined in the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, is to spread research money widely. Through EPSCoR, the National Science Foundation and five other research agencies stimulate research and improve laboratories in states that in the past have been less successful in securing federal grants.

International collaboration offers a relatively low-cost way for American researchers to tap the best minds overseas, thereby boosting the overall research enterprise. The number of internationally coauthored articles more than doubled over the past two decades, reports the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. But shared knowledge, by definition, is at odds with boosting competitiveness, and Congress can be picky about which countries deserve U.S. collaboration.

New Frontiers

Holliday recounted two historic events that shaped research universities, telling PCAST his committee had vigorously debated whether to recommend a “third big thing.” The first was passage of the Morrill Act of 1862, which granted federal land to finance such powerhouses as the University of California, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Rutgers University. The second was World War II, which mobilized university and industry scientists to develop winning technologies. Franklin Roosevelt’s desire to maintain the research momentum in peacetime led to the seminal 1945 report, “Science, The Endless Frontier,” by presidential adviser (and engineer) Vannevar Bush, and the expansion of “the grand federal-government-university partnership” from six universities to over 100, Holliday said.

The 23-member study committee represents a wide range of institutions, backgrounds, and interests and includes experts in physical, biomedical, social, and life sciences; engineering; the humanities; information technology and finance. Seven members are corporate or nonprofit CEOs, eight are presidents of universities or university systems. Former officials include a U.S. senator, an under secretary of energy, and a national laboratory director. Eight panelists are members of one of the National Academies, one won the National Medal of Science, another the National Medal of Technology, and a third the Nobel Prize.

The panel’s approach has been as broad as its membership, judging from a presentation last March by staff director Henderson. The panel was examining, he said, the history, role, and trends affecting both public and private research universities, along with their “intellectual capacity,” governance, management, finance, and regulatory burden. Also getting attention: the organization and resources that underlie research, doctoral education, the processes of commercialization related to economic growth, and foreign competition. Finally, and most significantly, it will strive to “envision the mission and organization of these diverse institutions 10 to 20 years into the future and the steps needed to get there.”

Berdahl shared his own concerns with the Academies’ Board on Higher Education and Work Force, which is overseeing the study. They include “the lack of a national strategy” regarding research and the need to “reduce damaging fluctuations in the research appropriations… and create incentives for states to provide more consistent and sustained funding for their research universities.” Also needed, he continued, are the “means of sustaining younger faculty [and of] making certain that universities are properly reimbursed for their investment in federally funded research.” With universities performing most government-funded research, Berdahl tells Prism, “unless [they] are strong and able to attract and maintain the best minds, the country will be putting a lot of money into research that won’t be nearly as productive.”

Six years ago, “Gathering Storm” galvanized Congress into action. But lawmakers never appropriated the full amount called for in the America COMPETES Act, and bipartisan support had diminished by the time the measure came to be reauthorized. This year’s university study may find Congress less welcoming, and it will have to compete against election-year static. Will its message be heard, or will the ice give way beneath “America’s best industry”?

Beryl Lieff Benderly is a Washington-based freelance writer and fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Primary Colors
GOP contest paints a blurry picture on science and R&D.

GOP contest paints a blurry picture on science and R&D.

Political campaigns seldom turn on issues of science, technology, research, and student achievement that are the lifeblood of engineering educators. So it’s no surprise that when science has come up in the race for the 2012 Republican nomination, it has mainly appeared in rhetoric geared toward conservative activists who predominate in early primary voting. To wit: Most of the seven GOP contenders who were still in the race as of early December are either skeptical of global warming or doubt that humans are the main cause. Several appear not to accept evolution. Some oppose government funding for scientific research; others support it only for defense or commercial use. What does all this mean? Michael Lubell, who follows science funding in Washington for the American Physical Society, a physicists’ group, says little of real substance has emerged. He adds, “I don’t expect to hear anything more until it becomes clear who the [GOP] candidate will be. It doesn’t factor into the primary elections very much.”

Whoever wins the party’s nod will need to engage in a fuller debate. The nominee faces an incumbent president, Barack Obama, who has made government-backed research and development the linchpin of his long-term economic growth strategy – particularly energy R&D and advanced manufacturing – and championed science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education at all levels.

The stakes are high, with deep cuts looming in 2013 in both domestic and defense spending that could pit science agencies and federal student aid against favored domestic programs and defense research against big-ticket weaponry. The nation’s energy policy, embracing every sector from transportation to manufacturing, nuclear power, agriculture, and oil and gas exploration, also hangs in the balance.

Are Republicans ready for this conversation? More than you might expect from the primary campaign, it turns out – at least in several cases. Here is a snapshot gleaned from their positions and records in office up to this point. It’s presented with a strong word of caution. Candidates low in the polls as this is written – pre-Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary – could shoot to the top before the South Carolina and Florida primaries later in January. Others prominently mentioned here could plummet or even be forced out of the race.

Editor’s Note: Since this article appeared in print, both Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman have ended their campaigns.

Newt Gingrich

During the current campaign, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has trod carefully on hot-button science issues. He says both evolution and creationism should be taught in schools. And he has compared today’s global warming alarms to those in the 1970s predicting a new Ice Age. His joint commercial with current Speaker Nancy Pelosi to raise concern about climate change? “The single dumbest thing I’ve done in recent years,” he now says.

As a lawmaker and entrepreneur, he has consistently supported federal funding for scientific research, including basic research. Yet while he displays a fascination with technology, in 1995 he helped shut down the Office of Technology Assessment, a low-key congressional advisory agency of experts that was on the GOP target list for ways Congress could show it was cutting its own spending.

Both during and after his stint as House speaker, he several times called for doubling federal spending on science for the coming decade. He pushed for sharp increases in the budgets of the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, served on the influential Defense Science Board, and consistently supported increased funding for federal STEM programs.

In 2004, Gingrich created his own nonprofit group, the Center for Health Transformation, to underwrite the adoption of new technology by medical institutions. (He also runs a for-profit business with the same name.) He has helped drum up research money for diabetes and other major diseases, and served as a regent of the National Library of Medicine, and as a member of the National Commission for Quality Long-Term Care.

In line with many high-tech entrepreneurs and research universities, Gingrich supports eliminating the current cap on the number of visas that the United States can grant foreign researchers under the H-1B program.

Mitt Romney

Romney, too, has spent the primary campaign hedging on politically charged science questions. “I believe God is intelligent, and I believe he designed the creation,” he says carefully. “And I believe he used the process of evolution to create the human body.”

On climate change, he says he believes that the world “is getting warmer,” although “I can’t prove that.” He adds, “I don’t know if it’s mostly caused by humans,” and opposes large federal efforts to mitigate it. “What I’m not willing to do is spend trillions of dollars on something I don’t know the answer to.”

Romney started to build a strong pro-science record early on in his four-year term as governor of Massachusetts, home to premier research universities and high-tech firms. He publicly supported embryonic stem cell research, putting him at odds with right-to-life conservatives, helped negotiate a regional cap-and-trade compact, and proffered his own greenhouse gas reduction plan. He consistently supported state funding for basic research and energy technology and bolstered math and science in public schools. And he frequently appeared on campuses to encourage more technological research.

He also supported boosting math and science education in public schools, backing legislation that would have added 1,000 new math and science teachers and required schools to offer Advanced Placement classes in those subjects.

But Romney shifted ground midway through his term as he prepared to compete for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. In 2005, he vetoed legislation authorizing embryonic stem cell research, saying it “crosses the line.” The state legislature later overrode him. Romney also reversed course on joining the regional cap-and-trade plan that he’d helped put together. And he essentially abandoned his own plan for reducing greenhouse gases. He also began lacing his rhetoric on issues such as evolution, global warming, and stem cell research with qualifiers.

Rick Perry

The Texas governor has said he’d “substantially increase” government funding for research, but what he’s talked about so far primarily involves defense-related projects and efforts to develop technologies for commercial use. Fundamental research rarely comes up.

Perry’s 11 years as governor show he clearly grasps the importance of Texas’s growing high-tech industry and the state’s position as one of the world’s leading centers of disease research and treatment. In 2005, he helped create the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, which has given some $360 million in grants to companies and schools for research, product development, and recruitment of scientists. Last year, he established the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, which has plans to award some $3 billion in research grants. Despite conservative opposition, he ordered mandatory vaccinations of girls to preventhuman papillomavirus, which has been shown to lead to cervical cancer.

But little of the money he has doled out has gone to university-based pure research. Texas falls in the middle of the pack in overall R&D spending, and less than 5 percent of that is devoted to basic research, according to National Science Foundation data. Critics have charged that many recipients of grants from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund have made sizable contributions to Perry’s campaign.

As governor, Perry has had rocky relations with some university presidents. Early on, he backed a plan that would have separated universities’ research activities from teaching efforts and sought to measure professors’ productivity and tie their pay to their performance. But he hasn’t pursued it, and many consider the initiative dead.

On evolution, he describes himself as “a firm believer in intelligent design as a matter of faith and intellect” — leaving little room for Darwin. On climate change, he has said, “There are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects” — and that their views are being challenged “almost weekly or even daily.”

Jon Huntsman

The former Utah governor sounds downright aghast at the antiscience image fellow candidates have been projecting. “When we take a position that isn’t willing to embrace evolution, when we take a position that basically runs counter to what 98 of 100 climate scientists have said … I think we find ourselves … in a losing position,” Huntsman told ABC News in August. He succinctly Tweeted his own views: “I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming—call me crazy.” He describes himself as a “passionate” supporter of stem cell research, including some involving human embryos.

As governor from 2005 through August 2009, Huntsman backed government funding for research. He calls this “the most fundamental of all issues for government,” saying it will ultimately help provide answers to America’s most critical problems while spawning jobs and economic success.

Huntsman signed the Western Climate Initiative, in which Utah joined with other states in setting targets for cutting the production of greenhouse gases. He briefly endorsed a cap-and-trade plan for reining in carbon emissions, but has since reversed himself, contending that such schemes are unworkable and too costly.

No stranger to scientific research, Huntsman has been active in his billionaire family’s substantial efforts to underwrite cancer research and treatment (under the Huntsman Foundation and the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Utah).

Ron Paul

The Texas congressman’s budget-balancing blueprint, “A Plan to Restore America,” proposes eliminating entirely the Departments of Energy, Commerce, Interior, Education, and Housing and Urban Development. That would kill off DOE’s $5 billion Office of Science, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ($4.5 billion), the National Institute of Standards and Technology ($750 million), the U.S. Geological Survey ($1.1 billion), and all agricultural research.

Paul also would trim some $7 billion from the budget of the National Institutes of Health. His proposal doesn’t specify cuts for the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, but its emphasis on spending cuts throughout would seem to leave few agency budgets intact. In late 2010, he voted against reauthorizing the America COMPETES Act, which paved the way for federal grants totaling $45 billion for scientific research over three years. As a physician, he obviously possesses scientific knowledge, though as with other candidates, his views have shifted. In 2008, he said, “Human activity probably does play a role” in global warming. More recently, he called the science behind that view a “hoax.”

Michele Bachmann

The Minnesota congresswoman and onetime Tea Party favorite doesn’t mention science much in her campaign appearances. One televised comment drew widespread derision: She reported being told by a mother that an HPV vaccination had caused her daughter’s mental retardation. She disses evolution, opposes spending for efforts to deal with climate change, and is against allowing embryonic stem cell research.

In 2007, Bachmann voted against legislation that raised the maximum Pell grant and cut the interest rates on student loans, saying the program “fails students and taxpayers with gimmicks, hidden costs, and poorly targeted aid.” The bill later became law. Like Ron Paul, she opposed reauthorization of America COMPETES.

Rick Santorum

As a senator, Rick Santorum supported government funding for research, but primarily for defense-related projects.
In 1998, he pushed through a bill to keep money flowing to the Allegheny University of the Health Sciences by allowing its students to continue receiving federal loans even though the school’s parent company was bankrupt. He has called the whole climate change debate “junk science.” In 2006, he wrote the foreword for a book of essays, Darwin’s Nemesis: Phillip Johnson and the Intelligent Design Movement. He praised Johnson, sometimes called the father of the movement, for helping promote leaders in the cause of “scientific renewal.”

Art Pine, a longtime Washington correspondent for several national newspapers, is now a freelance writer.

The 24/7 Tutor
Interactive courseware guides students through Statics at their own pace.
By Thomas K. Grose

Interactive courseware guides students through Statics at their own pace.

Many engineering educators are embracing research-proven active-learning techniques — hands-on activities and in-class demonstrations — to help motivate students and give them a deeper conceptual understanding of abstract underlying principles. It would seem that active learning is well-suited to Statics, which teaches methods for measuring the forces between bodies. Often the first engineering course students take after freshman physics, it requires solving thorny math-based problems, as well as grasping tough concepts. But Statics is typically taught in lecture halls to hundreds at once, whereas active learning works best in small classes.

Enter Paul S. Steif, a professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, and Anna Dollár, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Miami University, Ohio. They’ve developed pioneering online courseware for Statics that uses computer- and Web-based technologies — particularly interactive virtual tutors, as well as simulations and real-time assessments — to embed active-learning techniques into lecture-hall-size classes. And results so far look good.

Use of virtual tutors is still somewhat virgin territory, even amid an explosion of digital technology in education. Steif and Dollár are the first to combine the technology into a progressive narrative that covers an entire course.

“Theirs is very developed. It’s actually an online textbook,” says Christine Valle, director of the Women in Engineering program at Georgia Tech and a member of a team of virtual-tutor researchers. Autar Kaw, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of South Florida who also designs engineering courseware, says, “When it comes to virtual tutors . . . no others are at the level of Paul and Anna’s.”

How does the Steif-Dollár Statics course work?

Outside of class, relative concepts, skills, and methods are explained to students in online modules using text, graphics, videos and animated simulations — some interactive, some not. Next, students are given 10 to 15 problems to solve, or learn-by-doing exercises, each broken down into easy-to-grasp pieces. Each quiz also includes a walkthrough that employs animation. And here students are guided by virtual tutors — the courseware contains around 300 of them — that offer hints and feedback. When students get a correct answer, they’re given an encouraging “Good job,” but also an explanation of why the answer was correct — just in case they made a lucky guess or got a right answer but took a wrong route. If students make a mistake, sometimes they’re given a generic “That’s wrong”; other times they may get a more detailed response.

‘Did I get this?’

Students can also receive hints. The tutor reminds them of the underlying principle, shows how that principle is linked to the problem at hand, and can actually provide answers, showing graphically how they were achieved. Some of the tutors also employ “scaffolding,” a process that runs a student through a series of mini-steps to a solution. Students can redo problems as many times as they want. “It is very self-paced, self-regulating learning,” Dollár says – a luxury lecture halls usually don’t afford.

If a student feels he or she has mastered a concept after completing half the problems in a module, the rest can be skipped. How do students know if they’ve nailed it? The program also has a “Did I Get This?” feature that instantly provides an assessment of how well they understand the concept at hand.

The self-assessment software spares students the embarrassment of admitting ignorance in front of classmates. “No one wants to raise their hand to say, ‘I don’t get this,’” says computer engineering junior Shiloh Womack, one of Dollár’s students. And yet if students don’t request an explanation, they risk making a mistake on homework or, worse still, in an exam. With the self-assessment application, “you can see right away if you got it or not,” says Womack. However, it’s important that students use it; Steif and Dollár have found that students who made the greatest use of the self-assessment tool later had significantly higher exam and in-class quiz scores than students who eschewed the self-assessment activities or did very few of them.

For instructors, the courseware includes a “learning dashboard” with aggregate and individual data from the whole class. Immediately, a teacher can see if there are areas that have stumped large portions of the class. Data will show where students made the most mistakes and which learning objectives gave them the most trouble, Dollár explains. That pinpoint knowledge allows instructors to spend valuable class time on vexing topics, not on material most students have mastered. It also frees them to spend more time on design projects or demonstrations that go beyond basic understanding. “I can take things to a higher level in class,” Dollár says. “I am in the class for the difficult problems.”

Steif and Dollár’s courseware is based on another teaching method that’s gaining traction among educators: the inverted classroom, where students use study time going over materials, — often delivered as videoed lectures, — that traditionally would have been presented in class. Class time can instead be devoted to discussions or projects.

A ‘huge push’ for innovations

Smart, resourceful students know how to ace exams by memorizing information and formulas, while utterly failing to understand the concepts behind them. “We are certainly very aware of that,” Steif says. So he and Dollár drew from a Statics Concept Inventory that Steif developed based on test results from many institutions. “That gave us a good understanding of what common misconceptions students have,” Dollár says. “It is really impossible to answer a question correctly if you don’t understand the principle underlying it.”

Dollár thinks that the software’s greatest selling point is its round-the-clock accessibility. “The most important thing is it’s always there. It’s 24/7.” Georgia Tech’s Valle says online-based teaching tools also fit students’ digital lifestyles. “Students are so used to virtual, online worlds. That’s why there’s a huge push to capitalize on online innovations.”

Steif and Dollár designed the Statics course at the request of CMU’s Open Learning Initiative (OLI), which develops intelligent tutoring systems, virtual labs, and simulations to give students in a variety of disciplines more opportunities for feedback and assessment. Both use the courseware, as do instructors at around 10 other schools. It’s free and requires very little setup, apart from teachers having to register their students.

Beyond Statics, Steif and Dollár believe their Web-based, inverted-classroom software could be readily adapted to many other engineering courses, particularly those typically taught in lecture halls. Steif cautions, however, that “it is sometimes challenging to convert desirable student activities into ones that can be done — and can be evaluated — by the computer.” Their approach points to a new direction in engineering education, they say.

Shiloh Womack’s verdict? “It’s awesome.”

Thomas K. Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent, based in London.

Never Too Young
By Mark Matthews

Two years ago, K-12 engineering was “still in its infancy,” a National Academies panel found; the STEM acronym stood for math and science only. That’s changing, as Mary Lord reports in our cover story, “A Deeper Partnership.” Teachers and school systems are finding in engineering design a way to engage young people at various levels of ability. As they do, universities’ school outreach efforts are moving well beyond those occasions where, as Tufts’s Chris Rogers puts it, “some guy comes in, puts a piece of potassium in water, and fires ’em up about science.” Often propelled by research, the outreach turns out to be a two-way street: In some cases, faculty members find that their own teaching improves. One graduate told Lord the experience kept her in engineering. In keeping with the dogged, comprehensive reporting Prism readers have come to expect from her, Lord conducted some two dozen interviews and visited Harford County, Md., where a Towson University assistant professor (and former engineer) is revamping the elementary science curriculum and professional development for the entire district.

The recent frantic, high-profile competition to build an applied science graduate school in New York City might suggest all is well with America’s research universities. In fact, they face challenges from multiple directions, including shrinking state budgets and the prospect of cutbacks in federal research funding. Beryl Benderly’s feature, “Staying Number One,” takes a look at the growing worry that the institutions responsible for so much of the nation’s innovation could lose their global pre-eminence.

Inevitably, universities will be affected by whoever wins the White House in 2012. So, with the GOP primary season heating up, Art Pine examines what we might expect from the various Republican candidates. While higher education and science seldom figure prominently in political campaigns, a fuller picture emerges from the candidates’ records.

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

Mark Matthews



Party Cruise

Swizzle sticks and paper umbrellas have met their match. Massachusetts Institute of Technology mechanical engineer Lisa Burton has just invented Cocktail Cruisers, which sail merrily across the surface of a drink, dodging ice cubes and bouncing off the glass. Their only propulsion for the one-minute ride is the difference in surface tension between alcohol and water.

The idea bubbled up when the Ph.D. candidate and her supervisor, John Bush, were discussing Marangoni-effect equations. These show that the meniscus of a liquid at the edge of a floating object exerts a pulling force — the higher the surface tension, the stronger the force. Eureka: Why not liven up drinks with a miniature boat steadily leaking a low-surface-tension liquid out the back to allow it to move forward?

Burton, who is as comfortable in the kitchen as she is in MIT’s Fluids Lab, emptied her pantry to test the hypothesis and search for a potable but potent fuel for a Marangoni-powered fleet. Tabasco and Bacardi came out tops, with the rum winning the tie-breaking taste test.

She has since perfected the design with colleague Nadia Cheng, constructing edible Cocktail Cruisers from gelatin. Burton even floated the idea with avant-garde chef José Andrés, who is adapting the concept for minibar, his restaurant in Washington, D.C. – Don Boroughs


Royal Treatment

The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering is already being hailed as a potential Nobel Prize for the discipline. The clearly lofty goal of the recently announced £1 million (around $1.6 million) prize is to “identify and celebrate an outstanding advance in engineering that has created significant benefit to humanity,” says Britain’s Royal Academy of Engineering, which is overseeing the award. It’s hoped the high-profile prize will inspire more young people to pursue engineering careers. “Too often the engineering and engineers behind even the most brilliant innovations remain hidden from public view,” contends John Parker, Royal Academy president. The prize is open to any engineer – or a team of up to three – from anywhere in the world. It’s funded by a trust seeded with donations from several large corporations, including BP, GlaxoSmithKline, Siemens, and Sony. An international judging panel will be appointed in February and start accepting nominations. The process closes in July, and the winner will be announced in December. Although it’s a global award, Imperial College engineering Prof. Jeffrey Magee tells the Sunday Times of London that it should also help remind the world of Britain’s long history of engineering excellence. “Banking is not the only thing we do in the U.K.” – THOMAS K. GROSE


Safer Transplants

Animal-to-human transplants are problematic because recipients’ immune systems attack the new tissue. To counter that effect, patients are given powerful antirejection drugs. Now researchers at Britain’s University of Leeds’ Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering have come up with a better idea. Codirector Eileen Ingham devised a low-cost method of treating animal tissue in solutions that remove living cells. What remains is a bio-scaffold that, once implanted in a human, is repopulated by the recipient’s own cells, which effectively renders it safe from rejection. The technology recently earned the center the U.K.’s Queen’s Anniversary Prize, the highest accolade for a British academic institution. So far, 70 U.K. patients have been successfully treated with arterial patches made from pig heart sacs. Meanwhile, clinical trials are underway using treated pig heart valves, and trials for ligaments and knee cartilage are expected to start within the next two years. – TG

Earthquake Detection

Warning Sign

A reliable earthquake predictor is the elusive holy grail of seismologists. But Raul A. Baragiola may have found one. The sudden release of ozone from underground rock might act as an advance warning of a temblor, according to a discovery by the University of Virginia professor of engineering physics. Baragiola’s team found that ozone – a byproduct of electrical discharges in the air – is emitted by rocks fracturing under pressure. If further research shows a positive correlation between ground-level ozone near faults and earthquakes, Baragiola says, detectors could be used to monitor for sudden increases in the gas. “Such an array, located away from areas with high levels of ground ozone, could be useful for giving early warning to earthquakes,” he says. Ozone monitors might also one day act as “canaries,” predicting cave-ins at mines and at tunnel-excavation and landslide sites. – TG

Thermoelectric Systems

Chilling Effect

Refrigeration hasn’t changed much in 50 years. It still relies on compressors, evaporators, and refrigerants that increase greenhouse gases and deplete the ozone layer. That’s not cool. Cleaner thermoelectric systems have proved to be inefficient and costly – until now. New solid-state technology by Texas start-up Sheetak that uses thermal capacitors and thermoelectric coolers claims to have overcome the twin hurdles of inefficiency and cost. In October, Sheetak and partner Delphi Automotive got a $4.7 million ARPA-e grant from the Department of Energy to develop a thermal storage system that handles the heating and cooling needs of electric vehicles. Sheetak also got a $1.2 million ARPA-e grant in 2010. The company founder is Uttam Ghoshal, a former master inventor at IBM, who earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. Ghoshal — who has served as an adjunct professor at the University of Texas, Austin — also invented the cooling chip that’s at the heart of a battery-operated, $69 mini-fridge being test marketed in rural India by Indian conglomerate Godrej and Boyce. And that really is cool. – TG


Forget Anonymity

The confluence of facial recognition – or detection – software, social media, and marketers could force consumers to reconsider their definition of privacy. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University used readily available facial-recognition software, information from social media sites, and cloud computing to see what they could learn about strangers. They were able to identify some folks on a popular dating site despite using pseudonyms. They could also correctly ID some students on campus based on Facebook photos. And, starting with just a photo, they were able to successfully predict the interests of some students, even finding the Social Security numbers of several. The team, led by Alessandro Acquisti, an associate professor of information technology, also developed an “augmented reality” smartphone app that seeks sensitive information about people in real time. Meanwhile, New York start-up ImmersiveLabs recently rolled out digital billboards that use facial detection software to target ads to different people in real time. If it spots a young man, it might cue a beer ad. A young woman? Up pops a perfume ad. ImmersiveLabs tells the New York Times that its systems store no data and it doesn’t analyze the emotions of passersby. But undoubtedly other high-tech marketers will soon venture where ImmersiveLabs dares not. Just imagine: sensitive billboards that suggest products because they know if you’re feeling sad or happy. Uh, no, thanks. – TG

FACTOID: “Difficult” “Gratifying” “Cool” – Words associated with engineering among teens who have/have not considered pursuing it. – Intel Survey of Teens’ Perception of Engineering released Dec. 6, 2011


Light and Airy

A photograph of a small, meshlike metal object resting atop a fuzzy dandelion perfectly captured the essence of a unique new material, “ultralight metallic microlattice.” As the picture connotes, the metal is only slightly heavier than air. Indeed, it’s 99.99 percent air, which makes it 100 times as light as Styrofoam. “The trick is to fabricate a lattice of interconnected hollow tubes with a wall thickness 1,000 times thinner than a human hair,” says Tobias Schaedler, a researcher at HRL Laboratories, who developed the material with colleagues from the University of California, Irvine, and Caltech. The 0.01 percent of the lattice that’s not air is 90 percent nickel, because nickel is easy to work with, but the process could be duplicated using other metals. The researchers, funded by DARPA, took inspiration from the weight-efficient architecture of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Eiffel Tower, then applied it at the nano level. The lattice can be squeezed to half its size and bounce back, so it’s highly energy absorbent. Possible applications include shock absorbers, acoustic dampeners, battery electrodes, and insulation. This invention could have a heavyweight future. – TG


Sensitive Sensor

A standard biosensor has a metal electrode coated with enzymes. The enzymes react with compounds in a solution, producing a measurable electric signal. It’s a way to detect some diseases. The process is inefficient, and the measurements are far from perfect. Researchers have for some time considered using carbon nanotubes on the sensors because of their strong electrical properties. Nanotubes don’t mix well with liquid. However, two Purdue University engineers — Marshall Porterfield, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering, and Jong Hyun Choi, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering — may have solved the problem. Choi developed a synthetic, self-building DNA that readily attaches itself to carbon nanotubes, making them water-soluble. When they’re in a solution, an electrode is dipped in and the charge attracts the nanotubes, which coat the electrode’s surface. Once covered in nanotubes, the electrode attracts the enzymes, and the necessary reaction starts. Their biosensor was developed to detect glucose, but it could be adapted to find many different compounds, Porterfield says. The technology might one day be used for personalized drugs that self-test their effectiveness in real time. –TG

Learning Technology

Total Immersion

At the Rochester Institute of Technology, three engineering-technology courses were notorious for high withdrawals: pneumatics and hydraulics, applied dynamics, and applied fluid mechanics. Nearly 23 percent of students in fluid mechanics received low or failing grades. A trio of mechanical engineering technology faculty wondered if immersing students in a technology-rich learning environment would help. So over a six-year period, some 500 undergraduates were taught in RIT’s Teaching and Learning Technology Studio, an interactive test-bed classroom that features 26 tablet PCs loaded with DyKnow collaborative software, a projection system that can display three different images simultaneously, and flexible seating. It worked. The technology helped students visualize complex materials, made it easier for them to model problems, and improved interactions with faculty. The number of students earning D’s and F’s or withdrawing from fluid mechanics is under 10 percent. Other classes have seen similar results, with 90 percent of students saying the high-tech teaching tools helped them learn and retain information better than traditional lectures. – TG


Wight Turns Green

Britain’s Isle of Wight, located about three miles off England’s south coast, is mainly famous for its annual music festival. But now, with backing from the government, it aims to be the U.K.’s largest sustainable energy project. Just 23 miles long and 13 miles wide with a population of 142,500, the island seeks to become a net exporter of energy, cutting residents’ energy bills by half and eliminating waste going to its landfill — all by 2020. The so-called Ecoisland partnership includes some impressive corporate names, including Toshiba, IBM, Cable & Wireless, Silver Springs Networks and wind-turbine maker Vestas, which has a large research center on the island. A $3.9 million solar energy project would provide electricity to 3,500 homes, and power also would come from geothermal, wind, and tidal sources. Electric cars, smart-grid technology, improved building insulation, and a rainwater-capture system would be part of the mix. The island has a head start on its green future. Impressively, it already recycles half its trash. – TG


Beware Printer Snoops

Think your documents are safe, now that your computer has the latest security software? Maybe not, once you click on “Print.” Columbia University researchers say they’ve discovered “a whole new class of flaws” that leave printers vulnerable. The problem, says computer science Prof. Salvatore Stolfo, lies in updates of so-called firmware sent over the Internet. When dispatched by the manufacturer, these updates are intended to make your device work better. But not all updates are sent by trustworthy sources. Stolfo and colleagues at Columbia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science found that certain HP LaserJet printers accept firmware updates without verifying their authenticity. This could allow unscrupulous firmware providers to make a printer erase its operating software and install a booby-trapped version.

HP doesn’t reject the researchers’ findings. “While HP has identified a potential security vulnerability with some HP LaserJet printers, no customer has reported unauthorized access,” a company press release says. “The specific vulnerability exists for some HP LaserJet devices if placed on a public internet without a firewall.” Some private-network printers could be vulnerable to malicious modifications, it adds. An upgrade to mitigate the problem is being developed.


Engineering doctorates plateaued over the past four years after growing by almost 50 percent earlier in the decade. Yet, the composition of degree recipients is changing. The percentage of degrees awarded to women is at an all-time high, while the share of degrees awarded to nonresident aliens has declined by 12 percent since 2006. The data also indicate divergent trends in several fields during this time.

View Printable PDF of Infographic Illustration

Northern Ambition
By Pierre Home-Douglas

A Canadian pursues top talent in the United States and abroad.

As a crystallographer, Suzanne Fortier got used to viewing the world a little differently from most, examining matter at the atomic and molecular level to understand its underlying structure. But nowadays, she looks out from Ottawa across the global scientific landscape. As head of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Canada’s equivalent of the U.S. National Science Foundation, she’s intent on luring the world’s best scientists and engineers to spur Canadian innovation.

Competition for talent is tough, but Fortier learned about high-stakes science from a master. After earning her Ph.D. from McGill University in 1976, she did a postdoc at the Medical Foundation of Buffalo – now the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute. There, she worked under Herbert Hauptman, who would go on to share the 1985 Nobel Prize in chemistry. It was one of her career’s highlights. Their research used probability theory to develop methodologies for solving crystal structures. While inspired by Hauptman’s appreciation for the beauty and harmony of mathematical equations, she recalls, “the work was leading edge, and the community in the field was international and highly competitive. It was great to learn early on that competition is good. It forces you to aim higher and higher.”

Canada’s outreach has been growing for more than a decade. In 2000, it set up 2,000 research professorships at Canadian universities. Roughly a third were filled by people from outside Canada, including 18 percent from the United States. Since Fortier became president of NSERC, the country has established the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship – $50,000 a year tax free for three years at a Canadian university – and the Banting Scholarship for postdoctoral researchers, named after Frederick Banting, the Canadian who discovered insulin.

Unlike NSF, NSERC does not get involved in social science, K-12 education, or providing money for laboratories and equipment. Its focus is threefold, Fortier says: people, “investing in talent, both research chairs, fellowships and scholarships for students”; discovery, “unleashing all the creative power in our researchers and students”; and innovation, “linking all of our talent and discoveries to the benefit of our industrial society.”

Whereas U.S. research agencies are sometimes at pains to justify funding research with obvious commercial applications, NSERC spends a full third of its $1.1 billion budget forging partnerships between industry and academia. It hopes to double the number of companies involved in its research partnership programs with universities to 3,000 in the next five years. Recently NSERC started promoting what Fortier calls a “first date” – relatively short-term R&D collaborations between entrepreneurs and university-based researchers. To aid the process, NSERC has cut the wait time for grant decisions to five weeks. “Companies have no time and money to waste,” Fortier says. “We have to increase our agility and flexibility without compromising on the rigorous processes to make sure that we make good investments.”

Fortier, 62, says she was drawn to science by inspiring teachers in high school. She was introduced to her chosen field at a 1968 science fair. “I did a project on diffraction of sound waves. One of the judges at the fair said, ‘If this is of interest to you, come by my crystallography lab at McGill University.’ I did and found it absolutely fascinating.” She was the first in her family to earn a university degree. After her postdoc, she joined the chemistry department at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, moving later into administration. The word “administrator” doesn’t convey what it takes to guide and empower researchers so they can realize their dreams, she says. “Motivator” says it better.

If part of her current job is to motivate bright researchers to immigrate, the outgoing, personable Fortier does so with a salesman’s flair. Canada, she says, is not just a great place to live, but “a country of opportunities, where talent, commitment, and hard work are the ingredients needed for success.”

Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based in Montreal.

Working in Steel

An engineer’s iconic sculpture defines the art and soul of teaching.

On campuses across the country, there stands a singular piece of outdoor artwork that appears to be solidly abstract. It is more properly described as a work of realism, however—and one with a very practical purpose.

The original Steel Sculpture was created in the mid-1980s by Duane S. Ellifritt, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Florida who wished to help students visualize the details of structural steel connections. Field trips were a conventional way of achieving this, but there was not always a suitable building under construction to visit. Models would have been too heavy to lug to class and too bulky to store. This situation led Ellifritt to create the sculpture.

His pedagogical engineering objective did not mean that his work was without artistic inspiration. He had been pursuing painting as a hobby, so assembling steel beams, columns, angles, bolts, and more was not completely rash. The success of his achievement both as a work of art and as a teaching tool was appreciated by faculty members at other engineering schools, and Ellifritt sent them his plans. Today, the sculpture is promoted by the American Institute of Steel Construction, which publishes a teaching guide to use with it.

It was only last fall that I learned that Duane Ellifritt was the Steel Sculpture’s creator. On the occasion of the artwork’s 25th anniversary, Modern Steel Construction ran a news item celebrating the event and noting that steel sculptures had been installed on at least 135 college and university campuses. The magazine also ran a profile of the engineer/artist.

The feature brought back memories from about a decade ago, when I first met Duane. We were both part of a delegation visiting China’s Three Gorges Dam construction site to learn more about Chinese engineering. As I recall, Duane was a quiet and unassuming member of our group. What most distinguished him then, besides a full and wide mustache, was his penchant for sketching at the places we visited as well as during meetings. Duane’s sketches were so evocative of our activities that a selection was included in the final trip report.

Subsequently we kept in touch by exchanging Christmas cards, with Duane’s being handcrafted and hand-decorated. I came to know him as a painter who worked in pencil, pen, charcoal, pastel, and—most especially—watercolor. Modern Steel Construction taught me that he also worked in steel.

I learned from the profile that Duane had recently taken up “the nearly lost art of fore-edge painting,” in which books are decorated in such a way that the painting can only be viewed when the pages are fanned out in the appropriate way. When the book is closed, the edge looks like it has simply been gilded. The engineer Ellifritt designed a special clamp that holds the book pages in the proper position for the artist to paint upon them.

An excellent example of an engineer whose interests go far beyond the technical, Duane Ellifritt moves easily between the art of engineering and the fine arts of painting and sculpture, and each of his seemingly divergent interests informs the other. His Steel Sculpture has benefited countless engineering students and enriched numerous campuses.

When he first proposed that a steel sculpture be erected at the University of Florida, an art professor asked if it was indeed art. Ellifritt was pleased recently when an alumni association calendar featuring art on the Florida campus devoted a page to his Steel Sculpture.

Henry Petroski, the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University, is the author of An Engineer’s Alphabet: Gleanings from the Softer Side of a Profession.

Teaching Without Borders
By Mark Raleigh

Student-led projects need an academic underpinning.

In its 2005 blueprint, “The Engineer of 2020,” the National Academy of Engineering stated that engineers were and should continue to be leaders in the movement toward sustainable development: “This should begin in our educational institutions and be founded in the basic tenets of the engineering profession and its actions.” Engineers, it went on, should “ethically assist the world in creating a balance in the standard of living for developing and developed countries alike.” Now, as we near the midpoint between that report and the 2020 horizon, how have universities responded? In general, progress has been slow at the top.

Many engineering students are given little opportunity to develop world awareness, a quality that encompasses cultural sensitivity, understanding of environmental issues, and ethics. This problem was noted in an alumni study published by David Wormley, Penn State’s engineering dean, at about the same time as the NAE report. Yet the engineering curriculum continues to be rigidly weighted toward technical courses. Cocurricular opportunities such as study abroad remain foreign to most engineering students.

Working at the grass roots, students themselves are trying to bridge the gap. The past decade has witnessed a movement toward international development engineering, or IDE, by numerous organizations, such as Engineers Without Borders and Engineers for a Sustainable World. The fuel for these organizations comes from students and young engineers who want to apply their technical education to address the basic needs of disadvantaged communities around the world.

A challenge for students is to elect empathy over sympathy and view themselves as capable collaborators, not caped crusaders. Engineers are inclined to see through their technical lens, and don’t know the history and culture of their partner communities. A problem with the traditional curriculum is that it is shaped in part by the end product, i.e., meeting ABET requirements and readying engineers for employment. It emphasizes technical skills required for projects in the United States and other wealthy and advanced nations, not the myriad of technical and nontechnical skills required to have a positive impact on “developing” communities. While IDE students benefit from the fundamental technical knowledge currently provided, they would be better prepared to understand their experiences with supplementary education in poverty theory, language, history, international studies, and anthropology.

Technical expertise will not guarantee success in the developing world, which is fraught with socio-political complexities and historic injustices that provide the context for IDE design projects – and impose some of the constraints. Building a reliable irrigation system for a community in South America has less to do with knowing hydraulic design and more to do with water economics, local agriculture practices, and regional politics.

While some engineering schools offer courses and programs to prepare IDE students, many have failed to update their curricula to provide holistic, interdisciplinary training for this application of engineering. More is needed. There must be a sea change in the engineering curriculum that includes widespread integration of IDE activities. Courses should be developed that prepare IDE students for the nontechnical aspects of projects and help them process their experiences after projects are completed. Some universities, like the Colorado School of Mines, offer minors and certificates in humanitarian engineering. The success of these programs should be evaluated, and other schools should consider adopting them.

The march toward the NAE vision of the “2020 Engineer” is being led by students and young engineers involved in IDE organizations, but there is a significant opportunity for educators to enhance the development of engineers as globally aware citizens by embedding IDE into the curriculum. There is also much to be learned about best practices in IDE. Putting them into an academic context would generate discussion about the complexities and difficulties of working toward a sustainable world.

Mark Raleigh is a doctoral candidate in civil and environmental engineering and past president of the Engineers Without Borders chapter at the University of Washington.

Why They’re Leaving
By Kely A. Rodgers and Rose M. Marra

To retain students, help them feel they “belong.”

Perhaps because of the overall accountability wave sweeping higher education, there appears to be renewed focus on those vintage buzzwords “retention,” “attrition,” and “persistence.” Institutions are concerned with not only attracting students but also supporting them to degree completion. In few disciplines is this of more critical interest than engineering programs, many of which do not graduate enough students to meet workforce demand. If we are suffering a decrease in interest in engineering, then we must be vigilant in retaining those who do enter — especially women and students from underrepresented ethnic groups who are particularly vulnerable to high attrition rates in engineering programs.

The vulnerability of engineering students, particularly when compared with those in non-STEM-related fields, has been addressed in the literature. Researchers have largely pointed to three factors threatening the retention of students in engineering: engineering “climate,” academic preparation, and students’ self-efficacy and motivation. The suggestion has been that the persistence of our most vulnerable populations, women and underrepresented minority students, may be especially sensitive to these factors.

In our study, we wanted to understand how these factors played into a non-retained student’s decision to either migrate into another major or leave college altogether. Consistent with the research, we identified three factors that influenced students to leave engineering. Two were academic: difficulty of the engineering curriculum and poor teaching/advising. The other was more attitudinal and involved a lack of “belonging.” The roles that these factors played in decisions to leave engineering were both expected and surprising. The higher a student’s GPA, for example, the less curriculum difficulty factored into the decision to leave. For most students, however, the feeling that they didn’t “belong” in engineering was the biggest determining factor. This was especially true for students of color, for whom the lack of belonging and curriculum difficulty were more influential in their decision to leave than they were for Caucasians. In fact, the lack-of-belonging factor was especially key in understanding the failure of some students to persist in engineering despite robust GPAs and positive perception about the difficulty of the curriculum and quality of the teaching and advising. The more students felt they did not belong in engineering, the lower their GPAs were. Not surprisingly, those students who did not feel they belonged in engineering switched to non-technical majors.

The findings relating to students’ perception of teaching and advising were somewhat troublesome. Those who did not feel their high school education had prepared them for engineering courses were more likely to cite poor teaching and advising as influencing their decisions to leave. This relationship became stronger the longer students remained in engineering.

Our findings provide a few points for intervention. Engineering programs need to concern themselves not only with academics but also the social side of the engineering experience. On the academic side, great care needs to be taken with those students who enter engineering with weaker high school preparation than their peers. Programs might also revisit their teaching methods and advisement procedures to ensure that they truly offer students the assistance that they need to be successful. We did not examine the specific aspects of advising and teaching practices that were especially problematic, but this information is important for programs hoping to revisit and revitalize their procedures.

On the social side, inclusiveness should be not only a goal for engineering programs but also a demonstrated priority by creating a variety of welcoming social spaces, especially for women and minority students. Through these methods and with additional research, we can find ways to attract and retain students desiring engineering careers.

Kelly A. Rodgers is an assistant professor of educational psychology at the City University of New York. Rose M. Marra is an associate professor of learning technologies at the University of Missouri’s School of Information Science and Technologies. This is excerpted from “Leaving Engineering: A Multi-Year Single-Institution Study,” in the January 2012 Journal of Engineering Education.

Perils of Invention

We need to stay alert to technology’s unintended consequences.

Indra’s Net and the Midas Touch:
Living Sustainably in a Connected World
by Leslie Paul Thiele
MIT Press 2011, 330 pages

In Vedic lore, Indra’s net is a concept that depicts the connectivity of all existence: Stretching into infinity, this gossamer web is said to support a vast complex of shimmering jewels, with each facet of each gem reflecting all the other gems dangling from the net. No jewel exists separately but instead gains its existence from this “infinite cavalcade of reflections.” Thus, the destruction of a single strand of the net threatens the entire creation. For Leslie Paul Thiele, a professor of political science and director of the Sustainability Center at the University of Florida, Indra’s net serves as a perfect metaphor for the fragility of life on Earth. Hence its use in the title of his new book on sustainability.

Thiele argues that to grapple with the rapidly spiraling problems of globalization – pollution, overpopulation, shortage of resources, and the “unparalleled crisis” of climate change – we need to acknowledge these embedded connections. “We will neither achieve more sustainable societies nor understand the nature of our current challenges if we do not explore and embrace the breadth and depth of our interdependencies,” he writes.

Yet like Midas, the mythical Greek king also invoked in the title, humans often have made choices that are ambitious, greedy, and shortsighted, with little thought for the consequences. Midas asked that everything he touched turn to gold, but the king’s remarkable ability quickly proved self-destructive when even his food transformed to metal, rendering him unable to eat – or survive. In similar fashion, the Midas touch of new inventions, greater technology, and medical advances promises “golden lives of justice, order, comfort, plenty, and power” yet “delivers us into a realm of endless and escalating side effects.” Technological advances will always produce unintended negative consequences, so we must stay alert to the possibilities and be agile in our response, the author argues.

Indra’s Net and the Midas Touch explores these complex interconnections with the aim of heightening awareness and inspiring action. Thiele weaves his own multi-strand web in examining the issues from the perspective of ecology, ethics, technology, economics, politics, psychology, and physics and metaphysics – each of which is treated in a separate chapter. Early sections of the book highlight examples of attempts to control nature that have produced additional, often insurmountable problems, most famously the use of the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT. DDT’s dangers were brought to light after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which exposed its poisonous effects on humans and wildlife, as well as the dangers of scientific solutions that ignore the complexity of biodiversity. Interestingly, the widespread use of DDT was itself the outcome of a much earlier scientific experiment gone wrong. When gypsy moth larvae were accidentally released in Boston in the late 1880s, they spread and multiplied until trees throughout Massachusetts were threatened. The 1957 DDT eradication program that prompted Carson’s concern was only one of many efforts to destroy the pests; but it, too, proved futile, and the moths continue to plague America’s Northeast, as well as parts of the South and Midwest.

Today, many social and ecological problems are the result of previous attempted solutions. And because unintended consequences will continue to occur, “prudence demands that our actions be tempered by knowledge and that our knowledge be tempered by wisdom,” writes Thiele. He urges the exploration of cautious, “appropriate technologies” that have low environmental impact and that are safe to fail – with effects that can be reversed once the technology, should it prove harmful, has been withdrawn. Echoing the view of writer Wendell Berry, Thiele also strongly advocates solutions that remain attentive and responsive to the web of relationships in which they are embedded.

Indra’s Net delivers an urgent message to think anew about humans’ relationship with their home planet. Thiele’s interweaving of different voices, though at times somewhat heavy-handed, generally produces a layered, thoughtful deliberation that is well worth reading.

Robin Tatu is a contributing editor of Prism.

Shared Expectations
By Paul S. Goodman

Students and schools need to reach an understanding of what makes an engineer.

New colleges are being launched throughout the world to meet a growing demand for well-trained engineers, particularly in emerging economies like China, India, and Brazil. This trend presents educators with the chance to design programs from scratch and decide what to borrow – or not – from existing high-quality engineering schools. It also affords established schools a chance to witness and adopt successful new practices.

One notable start-up in the United States is the Olin College of Engineering, which attracted top-notch faculty and students to collaborate on a new approach to engineering education. Obviously, no model fits every country or situation. But my own experience in designing a variety of new colleges, coupled with research on both new and established institutions, has allowed me to identify key principles that can lead to success.

First, an explicit shared understanding about learning must be developed among faculty, students, and staff. I call this an Organizational Learning Contract (OLC) and believe that other desirable attributes flow from it. Developing a learning contract means that all participants know the specific learning outcomes – for example, design and group skills – that students are expected to acquire. If everyone focuses on a common set of skills, students are more likely to learn them. I recently compared two highly ranked engineering schools. In one case, a start-up with a strong OLC, students could readily articulate most of the skills they were supposed to acquire. Efforts were made both before and after the students entered the institution to reinforce a common understanding about these skills. In the other school, a well-known established institution, learning outcomes were merely mentioned in course syllabi or in curriculum documents. When we formally asked students to name the skills they were supposed to develop, they could not generate the list and embraced very general expectations, such as the prospect that college “will help me get a job.” Neither students nor faculty had a clear map of important skills or how they would be learned.

A second important principle is that colleges should provide a variety of learning environments, such as lectures, mentoring, group work, and peer teaching. Certain environments are more conducive to developing particular skills. Also, the opportunity to practice similar skills across different environments is another way to facilitate learning. Analysis suggests that multiple and varied learning environments – in and outside classrooms – go hand in hand with a strong OLC.

In my recent study, the institution with the strong contract offered explicit feedback and redesign mechanisms to accelerate learning. That is, students would develop projects around learning outcomes and receive feedback to improve these skills. Such features were absent from the well-established and ranked institution.

What are some of the consequences of strong contracts in new engineering startups? One critical finding is that strong-contract students have a better model of how to learn. Given the rapid change in knowledge, knowing how to learn over time is of critical importance. In addition, students are more engaged and motivated, which contributes to learning. There is good evidence that what students learn in the strong-contract school gets applied in company internships. Another important consequence is that these students have very positive attitudes about their learning environment. These extend toward both professors and the challenges students face in their courses. Students’ graduation rates are strong, and they have a very high identification with their institution.

Could OLCs, based on fundamental learning principles, be adopted by an existing engineering school? Clearly, such a change would come up against traditional practices. One way that I’ve found to overcome resistance is to start small, identifying a few generally accepted learning outcomes and building an OLC around them. Another way is to show senior college administrators a discrepancy between their impression of what and how students learn and evidence provided by students.

Paul S. Goodman, Richard M. Cyert Professor of Organizational Psychology and director of the Institute for Strategic Development at Carnegie Mellon University, is the author of Organizational Learning Contracts: New and Traditional Colleges (Oxford, 2011).