February 2012

Field of Dreams
Upstart undergraduate inventors are learning to navigate the marketplace – often with university help.
By Alison Buki

IT WAS A CLASSIC EUREKA MOMENT.

Browsing in an antique store on vacation two years ago, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University senior Manu Sharma chanced upon a display of spiraling front-porch adornments known as wind twisters. Inspired, he thought: Why not make a wind turbine shaped like this? Sharma explained the idea to his honors-program professor, who encouraged him to seek university funding. That initial $1,000 grant spurred Sharma’s zest for entrepreneurship — and a start-up to develop and distribute his innovative power generator. Launched in early 2011, Nuovo Wind now has three classmates plus a faculty member on board, private investors, and a potential first customer: the Tanzanian government.

Step aside, Bill Gates. The days of dropout turned entrepreneur may be numbered. More than half of U.S. millennials (ages 18 to 34) say they want to start a business or already have done so — and engineering schools are striving to accommodate them. Some now host start-up workshops with business schools. Others have created venture funds and mentor networks. A few even built entrepreneurship centers to promote a culture of invention — including, in Stanford University’s case, within undergraduate engineering education. All told, roughly two thirds of 2,000 U.S. colleges and universities surveyed by the Kauffman Foundation currently offer entrepreneurship courses and activities. Engineering schools comprise a robust share: A recent Journal of Entrepreneurship Education study of 160 campuses by Cornell University researchers found nearly half the undergraduate engineering programs house some form of entrepreneurship activities.

The increase in entrepreneurial offerings means that the next Facebook founder need not choose between earning a degree and chasing a start-up dream. At Arizona State University, for instance, applications for the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative, a six-year-old program that gives student teams funding, office space, mentors, and training, soared 32 percent from 2010 to 2011, with some 30 teams receiving seed money — eight more than the previous year. Many student entrepreneurs become “serial inventors,” says Phil Weilerstein, executive director of the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, a National Science Foundation-supported nonprofit that engages 5,000 student entrepreneurs on 200 member campuses each year and, over the past 15 years, has helped launch more than 130 student-led companies. Of 40 patents obtained by these ventures, undergraduates claimed more than half.

“A lot of the panacea for this economy is to train students to be entrepreneurs, and to create jobs, not just take jobs,” says Nathalie Duval-Couetil, executive director of Purdue University’s Certificate for Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program. Launched in 2008 as part of a multimillion-dollar grant from the Lilly Endowment, the program was designed to supplement or “turbocharge” undergraduate education. Today, more than 1,000 students — roughly 15 to 18 percent of them from engineering — are enrolled in the five-course series that covers every essential of starting a business, from pitching an idea to fundraising and marketing.

In fact, start-ups are the great American job machine, responsible for much of the nation’s job growth in recent years, a 2010 Kauffman Foundation analysis found. Without the entrepreneur’s drive to bring ideas to market, “an ‘innovation’ is just a gizmo gathering dust in the lab,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Susan Hockfield told a Silicon Valley audience last year, noting that MIT’s alumni volunteer-run Venture Mentoring Service helped start 142 ventures that have raised $850 million in external financing over the past decade.

Other schools have hastened to improve the climate for entrepreneurs. In 2009, the University of Florida’s School of Engineering established the UF Engineering Innovation Institute, where students take a sequence of courses to build a broad range of skills, such as leadership, sustainable design, and business management. “It is intended to build a culture of innovation within the faculty, students, and staff,” says director Erik Sander. Last November, Harvard University opened the doors of its new Innovation Lab. The i-lab, as it is called, will provide both academic and meeting space (with Xbox gaming room and snack-filled refrigerator) for young entrepreneurs as well as host workshops, weekend “start-up scrambles” to pitch new ventures, and other efforts to promote business development.

The road from initial inspiration to up-and-running company is often rocky and unpredictable, especially for young inventors with little to no business experience. Having the support of mentors, professors, and now entrepreneurship institutions within schools gives undergraduates a better shot. From research grants to fully integrated “invention classes,” universities are sending the message that engineering students can succeed as entrepreneurs.

SURVIVAL OF THE CLEVEREST

Manu Sharma’s trajectory from Embry-Riddle aerospace engineering major to postmodern wind-turbine designer – and head of a fledgling firm with $50,000 in venture capital – was anything but straightforward. It began with an entrepreneurial professor who encouraged him to develop his spark of an idea using a $1,000 school research grant.

To come up with a turbine that was both maximally efficient and inexpensive to make, Sharma employed a Darwin-like theory called evolutionary design optimization. The method involves generating a large number of potential designs on computer software and then using special algorithms to select the most “fit.” Using an open-source CAD program and developing his own evolutionary algorithms, Sharma ran through hundreds of designs, selecting the most efficient ones to “mate” — combine specific traits of two designs, like genetics — and produce even more fit “offspring.” He pursued his project fervently, doing most of his work outside of class and sometimes gathering advice from professors. “If I had free time between classes, I would grab a laptop and work on my code,” he says. Once he had perfected a small-scale model, Sharma applied for and won a second university research grant – for $7,500 – to fund a prototype.

Sharma’s wind-turbine design wasn’t the only thing that evolved. He also had to learn how to pitch his idea to potential investors and develop a sensible business plan. He gained this experience by “pretty much applying to all the clean-tech competitions I could find,” he says. Though he failed to win any, Sharma gained valuable experience presenting his invention to potential backers. More crucially, he learned that developing countries offered the best target market for his low-cost turbines, which can generate the same amount of electricity for one quarter the price of a traditional $10,000 wind turbine.

In early 2011, Sharma, now a fourth-year student, officially launched Nuovo Wind to make and distribute the turbines. Soon afterward, he was admitted to the prestigious Kairos Society, a nonprofit dedicated to providing the most talented young entrepreneurs with opportunities to network with global industry leaders. The experience further stoked Sharma’s passion for entrepreneurship, and his enthusiasm spread: Three classmates, also Embry-Riddle seniors, as well as his electrical and computer engineering professor, Brian Butka, signed on to the start-up. Now, in addition to private investors, the Tanzanian government has expressed interest in Nuovo Wind’s innovative turbines.

In many ways, Sharma followed the traditional, self-taught path many students have taken over the years. But now, thanks to the recent crop of entrepreneurship-focused curriculum options, more budding engineers are innovating inside as well as outside the classroom.

EVERYTHING ILLUMINATED

An appropriately named INVENT! class gave University of Utah bioengineering majors Jessica Ashmead and Annicka Carter, both 20, the idea of starting a business. This novel approach to an introductory engineering course was designed in 2009 by Patrick Kiser, an associate professor of bioengineering. Students attend twice-a-week lectures on bioengineering fundamentals, while on Fridays they hear from a variety of innovators on topics ranging from acquiring patents to applying for grants. At the end of the course, students can opt to devise a theoretical solution to a current problem in the field instead of taking a final exam. Ashmead and Carter, friends and roommates, grabbed the first option — then took their project several steps further.

Their invention is based on “an idea that’s fairly simple but extremely important,” says Carter. It’s a lighted surgical retractor. The instrument, widely used in surgery to hold incisions open, has several lighted versions on the market today. But most need A/C power cords, which often get in the way during surgery and can be difficult to sterilize. Many retractors are thus designed to be disposable. Ashmead and Carter’s battery-powered retractor uses built-in LEDs as a light source. The OptiGuide, as they named their design, is reusable — all parts are easy to sterilize — and offers surgeons a portable, sustainable, and efficient way to light surgical cavities.

Beyond creating a fully functioning prototype, Ashmead and Carter found patenting their idea to be one of their main challenges. “Being able to come up with exactly what your patent will claim is really difficult when there are so many [pre-existing] patents on little parts of your idea,” Carter says. Fortunately, the INVENT! class and the university’s Technology Commercialization Office provided connections to legal experts. The pair credit their bioengineering instructor turned adviser, Holly Holman, with being a mentor throughout the process.

To raise funds to develop their idea, the OptiGuide team members, like many young innovators, turned to student competitions with cash prizes. Utah’s INVENT! course encourages participation in such contests and feeds into a statewide invention contest called techTITANS that Ashmead and Carter entered as part of the class. Though they didn’t win, the experience motivated them to “enter as many competitions as we could,” says Carter. They went on to win honorable mention and $5,000 in the national Collegiate Inventors Competition, sponsored by Kauffman, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the Abbott Fund, a nonprofit arm of the global healthcare company. Although Ashmead and Carter both are full-time students with part-time jobs, they insist OptiGuide has become their true passion. “We love it,” says Ashmead. “If we could choose to do anything when we get home from work and school, we would prefer to work on [OptiGuide],” agrees Carter. “If we could, we’d spend all of our time on this.”

DELIVERING HOPE

Courses need not focus explicitly on entrepreneurship to ignite student interest — and foster schoolwide collaboration. Consider Engineering Projects in Community Service, or EPICS, a service-learning program that originated in 1995 at Purdue and now has outposts on 20 U.S. campuses and more than 30 high schools. (EPICS High was featured in a December 2010 Prism article.)

At Arizona State University, which began offering the program in 2009, a series of three courses guide student teams through the steps of creating and deploying original engineering projects to help local or international communities and nonprofits. That’s how biomedical engineering major Gabrielle Palermo came to join forces with Susanna Young, a first-year grad student in mechanical engineering. They teamed up after discovering they’d been working independently on the same EPICS project: refurbishing empty shipping containers for use in disaster relief and as mobile medical clinics in developing countries.

The professional aspects proved as engaging as the technical challenges. “Being part of a team, learning how to present… how to network,” says Palermo. “You’re just learning all these skills that you wouldn’t get in a regular engineering class.” With teammates John Walters, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student, and Clay Tyler, who is pursuing a master’s in the same field, Palermo and Young pooled their resources and applied for funding through the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative, a program that provides $200,000 annually to ASU student business ventures. Their idea, called the G3Box (the three G’s stand for “Generating Global Good”), won $10,000 in seed money. The team was thrilled. “It was like, yeah, people really like the idea,” Palermo recalls. “You can get kind of far with this!”

G3Box was born from a need to bring safe, modern, and sustainable medical care to underdeveloped countries, especially those suffering from high maternal death rates. Many hospitals and international aid organizations lack the space and resources to expand their services, the ASU team discovered. That’s where G3Box’s key innovation comes in. Ports worldwide have a surplus of large empty shipping boxes that are prohibitively expensive to send back. By outfitting these spaces with medical equipment, potable water, and solar panels, the team is repurposing waste while providing accessible medical care for those in need.

The G3Box team describes the venture as a “more than profit organization” on its Facebook page. Indeed, the business is a model of social entrepreneurship: For every six boxes sold for disaster relief, G3Box can donate a maternity clinic to the developing world, where 99 percent of all maternal deaths occur. Palermo and her team have been hustling to finish their first maternity-clinic prototype for shipment to Kenya, where the maternal death rate is 50 times that of the United States. “Its main goal is to save as many lives as possible,” she says.

The team’s passion and hard work continue to pay off. Recently they were named “College Entrepreneurs of the Year 2011” by Entrepreneur magazine. In the future, G3Box plans to provide medical training to recipients and also may explore other uses for the shipping crates, such as mobile classrooms or libraries. Although Palermo and her teammates, like many young entrepreneurs, did not expect to start a business in college, she claims that G3Box developed naturally out of their shared interest in improving the world. “We all have the same values: trying to help people. I think all of us went into engineering for that reason,” she reflects. “It’s just interesting that we took that, spun it a bit, and now we’re trying to run a business.”

NO FUSS, NO FLAKES

While many student-led companies spring from a bolt of inspiration, Grady Laksmono’s grew out of a simple E-mail. Last year, Laksmono, then a computer science and engineering graduate student at the University of Southern California, responded to a message from USC’s business school looking for software engineers to help with a student Web venture. Thus trueRSVP was born.

Any party planner frustrated by trying to predict how many people will actually show up can appreciate the premise of trueRSVP: “Flake-proof your event.” (Flake is slang for someone who bails out at the last minute.) The new Web-based service, launched in the fall of 2011, promises accurate head counts based on a proprietary algorithm that gleans data on invitees. Unlike Facebook, Evite, or other online event-organizing tools, trueRSVP awards points and badges to guests who go to each event, while QR (quick-response) codes, which can be read by cellphones, allow hosts to keep track of attendees. The more events a user participates in or hosts, the more accurate trueRSVP’s predictions of both overall attendance and the reliability of individual guests. Given that nearly 1.7 billion invitations will be sent this year for nearly 60 million events planned online, the market has promise.

Anna Sergeeva and Fei Xiao, trueRSVP cofounders and entrepreneurship minors at USC, say they brought Laksmono on board with their project right away, impressed by his “enthusiasm and drive.” Like Manu Sharma, Laksmono spent many hours — even a Hawaii vacation ­— coding and debugging a program he had built from scratch.

Laksmono’s story holds inspiration for engineers who are looking to break into entrepreneurship but have yet to stumble upon their own “big idea.” By teaming up with business school students, he was spared the stress of learning how to pitch and market a new product.

TrueRSVP caught the eye of an angel investor and made its debut last September at — where else? — a Silicon Valley start-up showcase. Xiao, in a wedding gown, played the jilted bride: “Has anyone seen my groom? He was a no-show at the altar.” In tracking attendance, it scored a hit. Now, Sergeeva and Xiao see opportunities in trying to make the overall event planning process easier. Xiao clearly sees a marketing strategy: “We want trueRSVP to become the go-to site for all your event planning needs.”

Alison Buki is an ASEE staff writer.

The 10,000 Challenge
Can engineering schools answer the White House call for more engineers? Should they try? It depends on whom you ask.
By Thomas K. Grose

For years, U.S. industry has repeated the mantra “We need more engineers.” Now the White House is listening, with the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness declaring a national goal of graduating 10,000 more engineers a year – a jump of 14 percent from the 72,300 engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded last year. To help the process along, companies have pledged to hire 7,000 more interns and the council has promised further, as yet unspecified, initiatives. But the Obama administration’s challenge has thrown into sharp relief several pressing problems in engineering education: declining state support for public institutions, necessitating tuition hikes; a stagnant graduation rate relative to other academic majors; and poor retention.

To the question, do engineering schools have the needed capacity, the answer from many deans is yes – but the trend is not universal. “That is a very doable goal,” says Feniosky Peña-Mora, engineering dean at Columbia University. Indeed, many are already doing so. Michigan Technological University plans to increase its graduation rate by around 15 percent by 2020. Cammy Abernathy, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Florida, has seen enrollment there shoot up nearly 20 percent over the past five years to 5,500 and says, “We simply cannot graduate enough students to satisfy employers.” Iowa State University says it’s on track to increase graduate numbers by around 14 percent. A number of private engineering schools are also in growth mode. Yet Gary S. May, dean of the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech, says, “We are pretty close to full capacity,” and with no additional state funds in the pipeline, expansion isn’t in the cards.

Not everyone is convinced the White House goal is either possible to reach anytime soon or even desirable. C. Daniel Mote Jr., a mechanical engineering professor who was the longtime president of the University of Maryland, College Park, says that state schools will be hard-pressed to graduate that many additional engineers, especially given budget constraints. “There could be a real capacity problem,” he explains, with some schools forced to overcrowd their classrooms, rely too heavily on adjunct and temporary faculty, and schedule Saturday classes. Mote is not surprised that most engineering deans welcome the White House plan and are keen to expand their programs. But he claims the surge isn’t necessary. Currently, the nation has about 1.9 million engineers. American schools have over the decades typically graduated about as many engineers as industry needed, he says, and that’s still largely true, except in a few narrow areas — the petroleum and cybersecurity industries, for example. Increasing the supply of engineers won’t create more jobs, Mote says, and actually risks dampening demand and depressing salaries. “My heart says there should be more engineers, but I don’t see that demand at the moment.” He does not dispute that employers are snapping up recent graduates, but says that’s not proof of a supply shortage. The “young ones” are relatively cheap hires and have up-to-date skills. “Industry does not want to retrain employees,” he says. If he’s correct, the case for more engineers may lie less in the current state of the workforce – with the economy still in recovery – than in what National Academy of Engineering President Charles Vest anticipates will be a “wave of retirements in the coming years” as the baby boom generation ages.

The Impact of Tight Budgets

The burden of increasing capacity will fall largely on public universities. Why? Around 36 percent of the nation’s 641 institutions offering ABET-accredited engineering programs are private, but they account for slightly fewer than 20 percent of total graduates. “The bulk of America’s engineers are produced at public universities,” Abernathy says; that’s not going to change. And that exposes the complicated economics faced by public and land-grant universities. Budget-constrained state legislatures have been slashing higher-education funding. Leonard Bohmann, associate dean at Michigan Tech, estimates that most public schools now get less than 30 percent of revenues from states. Accordingly, tuition increases have become de rigueur at many schools. “We [public schools] are becoming increasingly like private universities. That is just the reality,” says Jonathan Wickert, Iowa State’s engineering dean. For some, this is an incentive to increase enrollment. “The more students we have, the more money we have,” Bohmann says. Iowa State’s budget system likewise rewards growth: The engineering school’s financial resources have expanded as its enrollment has increased. It is even adding 17 new faculty members this year.

In Iowa and some other states, the budget gods have tended to smile on engineering, relatively speaking. While Iowa State’s appropriations have nosedived 25 percent over the past three years, lawmakers found $74 million to fund a new engineering building complex. And though Michigan Tech also plans to add faculty in coming years, Bohmann argues that nationally additional teachers are not necessary to reach Obama’s goal. He estimates the current national B.S. degree/teacher ratio at around 2.75 percent; an additional 10,000 students could nudge it up to 3.1 percent, an average he calls “reasonable.”While their numbers won’t make a big dent in the national total, engineering deans at a number of private universities say they, too, are expanding operations. Since elite schools are reluctant to dilute their student bodies by adding many more students, this means drawing a bigger proportion to engineering. At Harvard, Dean Cherry Murray says her goal is to enroll 15 percent of the Harvard student body, which would more than double enrollment to around 1,000. Yale graduates around 70 engineers a year, and Dean T. Kyle Vanderlick says, “We could easily grow to 120 or 140, and it would still be an intimate setting.” Columbia graduates around 400 students a year, and Peña-Mora says it could boost that number by around 14 percent. At Princeton, engineering enrollment has climbed 20 percent in five years; this year’s freshman class numbers a record 330, outpacing overall student enrollment growth. Princeton’s undergraduate population, now 5,149, “grew by 10 percent over the last five years,” explains H. Vincent Poor, engineering dean. “It’s not going to grow again.”

Retention: ‘Low-Hanging Fruit’

Attracting – and keeping – a bigger proportion of incoming students requires a reversal of more than two decades’ graduation trends. The high-water mark in engineering education was 1985, when 77,572 undergraduate degrees were awarded, or 7.8 percent of the total number of bachelor’s degrees conferred that year. A lengthy decline followed. While the numbers have ticked upward in recent years, engineering’s share of the total number of degrees awarded has fallen to about 4 percent.

Deans at public and private schools agree that better retention would be the quickest, most economical way to increase graduate numbers. Georgia Tech’s Gary May calls it “low-hanging fruit.” A 2007 Science report found that the average retention rate at U.S. engineering schools was just 56 percent, and at some schools it was as low as 30 percent. Few students drop out because they can’t do the work, Florida’s Abernathy says. “They are just not enamored with the first-year courses.” So the notion is, fix that curricular defect, lose fewer students, and increase graduates. Some deans sound confident this will happen. “There is a revolution going on in engineering teaching,” Harvard’s Murray says, one that should eventually improve retention rates. “It’s one way to address the question of more [engineering graduates] without a huge amount of additional resources.” More schools are embracing active-learning techniques and entrepreneurship (see “Field of Dreams,”) and giving first- and second-year students hands-on projects that can include some engineering design to help keep them interested and staying put.

But tighter budgets can hamstring retention efforts. “We have not had the resources to scale up the successful pilot programs that we believe would have the biggest impact,” says Abernathy. For instance, Florida cut a pilot scheme that placed engineering teaching assistants into freshman chemistry courses to help students see how they would eventually use what they were learning. Moreover, the reality is that for several years now many schools have tried hard to improve retention rates with little to show for their efforts. Maryland’s Mote argues that reducing student attrition won’t increase graduation levels. Typically, public schools accept fairly large numbers of transfer students from community colleges to replace the freshmen and sophomores who drop out. If retention improves, there will be fewer places for transfer students, he says. “So, the overall numbers would not change much.”

Clearly, many engineering deans and educators believe that the administration’s goal is necessary and reachable. But Mote, for one, hopes that the effort evolves at a leisurely pace. He would prefer to see degree numbers increase by only a few percentage points at a time, to see if the market accepts the new additions. “If we are going to try to do this, I’d do it slowly, in increments.” Given austerity budgets and hard-to-change attrition levels, that may be the only way it’s going to happen.

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

Previous Prism articles on this topic include: “Way to Grow,” April, 2010; “One in a Hundred,” January, 2010; and “Re-engineering Engineering,” February, 2009. Find them at www.prism-magazine.org.

FROM THE EDITOR
Stay-in-School Start-Ups
By Mark Matthews

Last spring, billionaire PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel paid $100,000 to 24 students from some of America’s top schools to drop out and launch a business. But why drop out? As Alison Buki reports in our cover story, students around the country are discovering they can both stay in college and invent products with commercial or social potential. Buki highlights four intriguing examples of undergraduate invention and entrepreneurship: a turbine inspired by front-porch wind twisters; a lighted, reusable surgical retractor; a shipping container turned medical clinic for developing countries and disaster sites; and software that lets event planners keep closer track of who’s apt to bail at the last minute. One appeal of engineering is how it can marry seemingly divergent goals and come out with a win-win. In this case, engineering educators are finding ways for students to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams and emerge as better-educated engineers. One of the appealing things about today’s students is that, besides hoping to become the next Peter Thiel, many apply their inventive talent to solving stubborn human problems, like Kenya’s unacceptably high maternal death rate.

Industry has long argued for an expansion in the ranks of engineers. And now the President’s Jobs and Competitiveness Council has taken up the cry, calling on universities to graduate 10,000 more engineers annually. But leading educators are not responding with one voice. Engineering deans contacted by Tom Grose for his feature “The 10,000 Challenge” generally agreed the goal could be met. But engineer Daniel Mote, former president of the University of Maryland, College Park, says, “My heart says there should be more engineers, but I don’t see that demand at the moment.” However the debate is resolved, the Jobs Council challenge has trained a spotlight on poor retention and may generate new efforts to fix it.

As always, we welcome your comments on this month’s Prism.

Mark Matthews
m.matthews@asee.org

E-MAIL

New Warship Is Squandering Money

I would like to comment on your cover story, “Uncharted Waters,” and the column “Damn the Torpedoes” (Prism, December 2011).

In the 1970s and ’80s, the Navy developed a series of Fast Frigate guided missile destroyers (the Oliver Hazard Perry FFG7 class warships). These vessels were “built to cost” and relatively inexpensive to maintain. Powered by then-revolutionary gas turbine engines (a marine version of the DC-10 engine called the LM-2500 built by GE), they could be brought to operation very quickly in an emergency. Over 50 of these frigates were built, and many are still continuing in cost-effective service.

Those vessels were also criticized by those who thought they failed to do “this, that, or the other thing.” Those mounting the criticism were among what some of us called the Blue Water Battleship Mentality Crowd. These are apparently the same Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) folks who now bring us the DDG 1000s, at $4 billion a copy. In trying to build a warship that is all things to all people and meets every conceivable threat, we end up with a vessel that is so far up the exponential cost curve that we can only afford to build a few of them. The “university research industry” and the “military industrial complex” love this approach and the dollars that come with it.

The reality, though, is that NAVSEA is squandering precious public funds in building yet another gold-plated blue-water navy ship, when the far greater threats are littoral (inshore, “brown” water). These littoral threats demand a quite different approach than is traditional in the U.S. Navy.

The David Farragut admirals in charge love the idea of commanding a deep-water “unsinkable battleship,” standing on the prow of what we see reflected in the DDG 1000, sword in hand, defying the torpedoes. Mostly, they pay lip service to the idea of conserving precious taxpayer dollars, much less building a Navy to meet the changing threats that we really face – threats, it would seem, that could be better met by fewer carrier battle groups and a much larger number of way-less-expensive littoral combat vessels.

— Mark A. Cooper
Emeritus Professor of Engineering
California Polytechnic State University
Captain, U.S. Naval Reserve, Engineering Duty

Failure to Communicate

I enjoyed the column “Softening the Curriculum” by Henry Petroski (Refractions, Prism, November 2011). Petroski quite correctly stresses the importance of “projecting a sense of professionalism” and the need for technical people to communicate effectively. The column also affords the opportunity to raise questions seldom addressed when “softening the curriculum” is discussed. First, if the current curriculum fails to inculcate an ability to communicate, is there sufficient reason to assume that doing more of what isn’t now working will solve the perceived problem? Specifically, how will possession of an advanced degree change a person’s ability to communicate?

Second, in reading much of the discussion on this topic, it appears to me that the current structure of higher education differs markedly from that experienced by many current practitioners. At present, many students take the first two years of higher education at a community college, and transfer to a four-year institution. Online instruction with computer grading and limited “face time” (if any) with the instructor have become quite common. What is there to suggest that the same routine would not be used for graduate work and the master’s degree obtained online? Will the collection of a few more course credits in this manner facilitate improvement in communications and presentation?

Third, the medical and legal professions require extensive internships or clerkships that are intended to provide (or polish) the soft skills to which Petroski refers. Both these professions have accepted part of the responsibility for the development of new members entering their field. By contrast, in the technical arena, the current term used to describe new employee orientation appears to be “toilet training.” Is this an image of professional responsibility? If not, what specifically does the term communicate?

— Andrew C. Kellie,
Professor, Engineering Technology
Murray State University
Murray, Ky
akellie@murraystate.edu

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Write to prism@asee.org
Submissions may be edited for brevity and clarity.

FIRST LOOK

CIVIL ENGINEERING

Span-tastic

The Hoover Dam Bypass over the Colorado River posed both aesthetic and construction challenges. The bridge’s proximity to what a prospectus dubbed “one of the engineering wonders of the world” inevitably would invite comparison with the tourist icon. Moreover, any span across the spectacular 800-foot-deep Black Canyon had to complement an “incredible mosaic of colors and forms on the cliffs.” Completion took two years longer than planned. The high-line cable crane required to lift materials into place collapsed in 2006 and had to be replaced. The desert heat meant concrete had to be mixed and poured at night, and cooled with liquid nitrogen in summer. But after the bridge opened to traffic in October 2010, Duke University’s Henry Petroski pronounced the Western Hemisphere’s longest concrete arch span a “magnificent engineering achievement.” Photographer Jamey Stillings followed the construction over a two-year period and collected his pictures, including this one, in a recent book, The Bridge at Hoover Dam. (See Petroski’s take on another distinctive bridge.)

Artificial Intelligence

Rock the House

Pop-music charts are a showcase for chaos theory. How else to explain a market that can place Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” on the same hit level as “Mistletoe” by Justin Bieber? That’s why predicting a song’s success is a sucker’s game. Or was. A Bristol University researcher has devised machine-learning algorithms that can forecast which tunes will hit the top five — as well as those destined to peak at 30 or lower — with a 60 percent accuracy rate. A team led by Tijl De Bie, an expert in artificial intelligence, scoured Britain’s top 40 music charts since 1961 and scored each song using a variety of musical features, including tempo, time signature, duration, loudness, and harmonics. Songs then were checked against the actual weekly charts over that 50-year period. Among hits the system accurately predicted: 1971’s “Get It On” by T-Rex, Gnarls Barkley’s 2006 smash “Crazy,” and “Just Dance,” a 2009 Lady Gaga hit. Hits it missed include Alicia Keys’s 2010 smash, “Empire State of Mind.” Because the system constantly “learns” what’s hot, it also tracks how musical tastes have changed over the decades. Danceability became important only in the 1980s. And since the ’90s, loudness and simple rhythms have gained in importance. De Bie has set up a website (Scoreahit.com) detailing the research and is working on a Web app that will allow budding hit-makers to score unreleased tunes. Will De Bie’s algorithms make the pop charts less chaotic? Perhaps. But that could also make for overly homogeneous music. – THOMAS K. GROSE

Biomimicry

Desert Air

A few years ago, when Australia was hit by a bad drought, Edward Linacre was dismayed that many farmers faced with failing crops and mountains of debt were committing suicide. So Linacre, a graduate industrial design student at Australia’s Swinburne University of Technology, designed an irrigation system that extracts water from air. His inspiration: a desert rhubarb that’s efficient at harvesting water and the Namib beetle that lives off minute droplets of dew that collect on its back. Linacre’s low-cost, low-maintenance device channels air into underground pipes, where moisture condenses and is stored in a tank. That water then is pumped directly to plant roots so it doesn’t evaporate. Linacre’s solar-powered Airdrop system recently beat out 500 other entries from 18 countries to clinch the United Kingdom’s $15,500 James Dyson Award. Linacre’s prototypes, tested in his mother’s backyard, have been small so far. With prize money in hand and an industrial partner pending, Linacre now hopes to demonstrate that Airdrop can work on a larger scale. If he succeeds, farmers hit by future droughts may stave off disaster. – TG

FACTOID: 27% – The proportion of American multinational companies’ research-and-development workforce located outside the United States in 2009, up from 16 percent a decade earlier. – Source: National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators 2012

IMAGING

Jump Shot

As breathtaking as large, panoramic photos often are, the process of creating them is, to many photographers, a much less attractive prospect. While painstakingly stitching together images from a recent vacation, Technische Universität Berlin graduate Jonas Pfeil came up with a better idea: a spherical camera, called a camera-ball, that can take 360-degree panoramas in a single snap. Once the softball-size sphere is tossed into the air, a built-in accelerometer tells when the ball has reached its zenith. Then a microcontroller triggers simultaneous action by 36 two-megapixel cellphone cameras, capturing a mosaic of images.

Pfeil, a computer engineer, and his research team have built a prototype with an exterior protected by small blocks of foam and a flexible interior made of a resilient nylon material that can be 3-D printed. A lithium-polymer battery is housed in a protective cage in the center of the ball. Once the panorama has been captured, users can transfer it to their personal computer via USB cable.

So, next time you want to preserve a gorgeous mountaintop view or photograph your whole family reunion, just throw up a ball. Don’t forget to say “cheese.” – Alison Buki

Renewable Energy

Waste Not

Laugh if you must, but poop power is gaining serious attention as a clean (really) energy source. Human waste typically is dried into biomass and either buried in landfills or turned into fertilizer — and both solutions have major environmental drawbacks. However, if the 7 million dry tons of sewage generated by American treatment plants were converted into energy, some estimates claim it could produce 7 million to 7.6 million megawatts of power, reports Scientific American. A year-old study published in an American Chemical Society journal, based on samples of wastewater taken from a plant in northeast England, determined that the estimated amount of potential energy in sewage was 20 percent higher than previously thought. Last May, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave $100,000 to two University of Calgary engineers researching ways to make the conversion of feces to energy more efficient. And Scientific American recently profiled a Florida company, Earth, Wind & Fire Technologies, that produces both electricity and biodiesel from sewage and is in the process of setting up operations at 50 different sites worldwide. Another benefit: Human waste is one energy source the planet will never run out of. –TG

Materials Engineering

Invisibility Cloak

Current stealth-aircraft technology uses shape to scatter electromagnetic waves and render planes “invisible.” But a “magic black cloth” developed by researchers at the University of Michigan could someday be used as a camouflaging paint. The coating, made from carbon nanotubes, absorbs 99.9 percent of any light that hits it and can make a three-dimensional object look like a flat, black sheet. Against a black background, the coated object is essentially invisible, though it still casts a shadow. Night-flying aircraft would blend into a dark sky. Human eyes see an object because of the way it reflects, or scatters, light. But this coating, which is about half the thickness of a sheet of paper, absorbs so much light, there’s none left to scatter. Led by Jay Guo, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, the Michigan team achieved “perfect black” by creating a forest of tubes with just the right amount of space between them to push the light-absorbing capacity of carbon nanotubes to its highest level. The coating also might one day be used to give display screens a much higher contrast and thus sharper images. – TG

3-D Printing

Pillars and Planes

Euromold, an industrial-tech trade show in Frankfurt, Germany, bills itself as a world’s fair for moldmaking, tooling, design, and application development. That’s not as yawn-inducing as it sounds. The event also showcases advanced-manufacturing technologies, and the latest exposition in late November highlighted some very cool additive manufacturing — aka 3-D printing. On hand was Neri Oxman, an MIT assistant professor of media arts and sciences, who displayed her technology for printing concrete that makes building columns that are lighter and stronger than those made from traditional concrete, and in shapes that could not be made using molds. She showed a load-bearing column based on plant stems that use bundles of concrete filaments. Meanwhile, researchers from the University of Southampton showed off their unique drone, the world’s first printer-constructed aircraft. Last year, a team led by Jim Scanlan, who heads Southampton’s Computational Engineering and Design Research Group, printed and then flew the drone, which has a geodesic structure that’s very stiff yet lightweight, and also highly complex. Indeed, it’s too complicated to be built economically using traditional manufacturing methods. Southampton’s drone team was aided by U.K. start-up 3T RPD, another fair participant; it demonstrated a lighter, more efficient gearbox that uses 3-D printed-hydraulics. The printer-produced lightweight products on display at Frankfurt should hold heavy-hitting appeal. – TG

Research Frontiers

Japan’s New Wave

Six years and some $1 billion later, Japan’s experimental Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) is well underway. Accredited in November, the graduate school will accept its first 20 students this fall, with a goal of building to 100 within five years. OIST offers a very different blueprint from Japan’s rigid, hierarchical institutions of higher education, which have few ties to campuses or industries outside the country. Foreigners will make up half the institute’s students and researchers — there now are 200 on board — and English is the school’s lingua franca. OIST’s president, Jonathan Dorfan, a physicist recruited from Stanford University, already has had great success in attracting top-notch researchers to the beautiful new campus overlooking the East China Sea. OIST has no departments, in part to foster cross-fertilization of ideas among disparate researchers, including physicists, biologists, engineers, and computer scientists. Moreover, its labs were designed to force researchers to mingle and share equipment. Japan’s economy has been moribund for decades and needs the kind of jolt high-tech start-ups could provide. Entrepreneurial academics are a rare breed in Japan, and that’s a situation that OIST hopes to remedy. – TG

Brain Science

Seizure Sensor

Brain implants that map where epileptic seizures originate require so much wiring that a sensor array can accommodate only about eight sensors per square centimeter. The resulting images are murky, at best. But a new flexible, ultrathin implant that packs silicon nanomembrane transistors into the array itself needs so much less wiring, 360 sensors can fit into that same square centimeter. Built by Brian Litt, a bioengineer at the University of Pennsylvania, in collaboration with University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, materials engineer John Rogers, the device eventually could help physicians better understand and treat seizures. In a test of the implant on an epileptic cat, the Litt-Rogers team discovered that seizures may originate from “microdomains” within the cortex. That’s a big discovery if proved accurate, because it’s currently assumed that large sections of the brain are involved in causing seizures. – TG

Telecommunications

Calling Cards

First cellphones got smart. They soon may be flexible as well. Developers have unveiled a so-called PaperPhone made from a thin-film plastic using an electronic ink display. “This is the future. Everything is going to look and feel like this within five years,” boasts Roel Vertegaal, director of the Human Media Lab at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, who developed the device with researchers at Arizona State University and E-Ink Corp., a maker of e-book displays. A video released by Queen’s shows how the “flexible iPhone” can be manipulated by bending or squeezing it to read books, play music, or make calls. It also can be written on with a pen. Vertegaal says the PaperPhone’s flexibility and thinness make it even more portable than current mobile devices. Tech trend followers will be watching to see how this technology unfolds. – TG

UP CLOSE:
The New Manhattan Project
By Thomas K. Grose

Cornell’s dean develops a Big Apple curriculum.

Cornell University’s College of Engineering is home to around 500 faculty and teaching staff, 3,051 undergraduates, and 1,426 graduate students. If that didn’t keep Dean Lance Collins busy enough, these days he spends a fair amount of time in New York City, some 220 miles southeast of Cornell’s upstate campus. Not that he’s complaining, mind you.

That’s because in December, a partnership between Cornell and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology won a fiercely contested global competition run by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to develop and build a $2 billion graduate school of engineering and applied sciences on 11 acres of Roosevelt Island, in the middle of New York’s East River. Collins was a key member of the team — led by Cornell President David Skorton and Provost Kent Fuchs — that put together the winning bid over nine months of secretive strategizing with their Technion counterparts and, in a triumphant coup, secured $350 million from a billionaire Cornell alumnus.

Groundbreaking won’t start until 2015, but Cornell and Technion officials have pledged that the school will open its doors in temporary digs this coming September. The looming deadline presents Team Cornell with a huge logistical challenge, and Collins is its point man in setting up the academic program.

While keeping to that fast-paced schedule is paramount, he says, “what’s critical is bringing the quality of the Ithaca campus to this new engineering school, and keeping to the same top standards.” The curriculum is being decided jointly by Cornell and Technion, which are shaping it to fit the school’s remit –and Bloomberg’s vision – to act as an economic development engine that spins off technology-driven companies suited to New York’s big-city environment. It will be based around three interdisciplinary hubs with huge commercial potential: healthcare, connected media, and urban infrastructure. But the hubs are designed to be flexible enough to accommodate demand from other industries and changing economics, Collins says. “We aren’t going to try to pick winners and losers.”

Come fall, between 10 and 20 Cornell and Technion faculty members will set up shop in New York, while the first students will be transfers from Ithaca. The school will enroll its first students next January. Ultimately, the campus will house 200 to 250 faculty, including core faculty, as well as researchers with joint appointments to both Ithaca and Haifa, and visiting faculty. Enrollment will eventually hit 2,000 to 2,500. Cornell also wants to tap into its vast alumni base in the city and link researchers and students with mentors from the business and technology worlds.

Cornell is a 147-year-old Ivy League school, and its COE has a strong history of doing blue-sky research. The Technion, home to three Nobel Prize winners, has been particularly adept at transferring technology and talent to successful start-ups. (See “Impatience and Invention,” Prism, November 2008). Collins says that working with a university that has a different culture and is 6,000 miles away is proving easy, mainly because Cornell faculty had already forged dozens of collaborative links with Technion researchers. Moreover, he adds, both schools have a shared vision that the Manhattan school should be unique, and not a carbon copy of either of its progenitors.

Collins, who earned degrees in chemical engineering from Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, became Cornell’s engineering dean in mid-2010, after a stint as head of the college’s mechanical engineering and aerospace department. Technion also has a strong reputation for aerospace research, but initially the New York school will create start-ups that don’t require large manufacturing facilities in a city where rents are high and space is tight. In time, Collins hopes that spinoff companies that do need more factory space might set up manufacturing operations in and around Ithaca. Meanwhile, the excitement he feels about playing a leading role in setting up the Manhattan project is palpable. “This is simply the largest event since our founding. It has that sort of scope.”

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

REFRACTIONS:
Crossing the Mississippi
BY HENRY PETROSKI

Inside the control room of a unique swing span

I recently traveled to the Quad Cities, an area that comprises Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, and Moline and Rock Island, Illinois. It was my first visit there, and I was grateful for the opportunity to learn firsthand about places I knew only indirectly.

When I was in graduate school at the University of Illinois, faculty members regularly flew up to the Quad Cities to lecture in extension courses taken mostly by engineers working at the Rock Island Arsenal and the John Deere Co., both of which remain major employers in the area. It was the pre-Internet age, and there were few alternatives to face-to-face teaching. Students in early morning classes the next day could guess which professor had taken the midnight flight back to Urbana.

The Quad Cities area is steeped in history, which my hosts were happy to relate. It was there in 1856 that the first railroad bridge to cross the Mississippi River was completed. Fifteen days later, it was struck by a steamboat and partially destroyed by the ensuing fire. Like most innovations, the bridge had met with opposition from those wedded to established ways of doing things. Steamboat interests strongly opposed the new mode of transportation, and they challenged the railroads’ right to obstruct the river. In a legendary court case, Abraham Lincoln defended the railroads against the riverboat industry. He lost the case in circuit court, but won on appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Even before the bridge, the river had been difficult to navigate. The water was shallow and the rocky rapids hazardous. It was these conditions that led to the construction of a lock and dam, which at the same time removed one obstacle and introduced another. The original bridge was replaced by an iron one in 1872 and that by a steel one in 1896.

This bridge, known as Government Bridge, is historically significant on several counts. It was the first commission for the engineer Ralph Modjeski, who went on to design and build major spans across the country. The Rock Island bridge is a two-deck structure, with road traffic below rail. It is unique in having its swing span capable of rotating a full 360 degrees in either direction.

During my visit, I was given the rare opportunity to climb up to the control room, from where bridge and river traffic are monitored and the swing span is opened to allow boats and barges through the lock. This is a complex operation. Before the bridge can be swung open, all vehicle, foot, and rail traffic must be halted; rail joints uncoupled; and the ends of the 365-foot-long movable span freed from their bearings.

The centerpiece of the control room is a set of enormous hundred-year-old gears. Much of the structure and the machinery in the room is original, but it has over the years been repaired and supplemented with modern parts and equipment, including an air conditioner, television monitors, and, of course, computers. The bridge operator works more comfortably, safely, and efficiently now, but does pretty much the same things his predecessors did.

I don’t know how many Illinois professors might still travel to the Quad Cities, but I expect that if they do so it is more to consult than to teach. Understandably, most extension courses today are taught remotely, using online and video conferencing technology that has developed with the Internet and electronics industries. Yet to many an instructor, a course is still a course, involving lectures and quizzes. Whether in teaching a new course or operating a century-old bridge, technological upgrades do not necessarily change the fundamentals.

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.

REINVENTION:
How Not to Think Like an Engineer
By Debbie Chachra

Today’s complex challenges require a more subtle approach.

We engineers have a specific way of thinking. As my friend Larisa Mann, a DJ, scholar, and activist, puts it, “If you tell Deb about a problem you have, she will immediately suggest ways of solving it. It’s what she does.” The engineering science mind-set – approach things rationally and analytically, proceed step by step, and come to a single, closed-ended solution – is phenomenally successful at solving problems.

Our professional training is often the lens by which we view the world. But engineering science education has traditionally been very focused on conveying a set of content and skills, with very little consideration given to how the pedagogies used affect the learner’s way of thinking or the approach to questions that they foster. Engineering education typically excludes problems that involve people, and trains young engineers to be most comfortable with questions that have a single correct answer. At the most extreme – and thankfully rare – edge of this mind-set lies the disturbing overrepresentation of engineers among terrorist groups.

But the types of problems we expect engineering graduates to be able to address, such as the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges, involve complex interactions of technology, systems, and society. How do we help our graduates develop the ways of thinking they’ll need in order to address these types of problems?

One place to start is with a greater emphasis on design, particularly design that involves interacting with users. This semester, I watched my first-year engineering design students struggle with the transition from doing coursework that had a clear, algorithmic progression­ – follow these steps and you will get an A – to engaging with a design process that didn’t have right answers, that required trade-offs, and that needed them to be reflective and self-aware. Open-ended problem solving, in general, allows students to get comfortable with the idea that in engineering practice, as in life, there is rarely one right answer.

Another way to develop these higher-level cognitive skills is with self-directed learning, which gives students a chance to figure out what questions they want to ask, and why. And finally, of course, we can ask students to consider explicitly the social, political, or historical context of their work.

It’s not just engineers who are influenced by their professional education. Astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson makes the case that the American public might not be well served by the overrepresentation of lawyers in the U.S. Congress, as legal training focuses on constructing and delivering the best argument, rather than on what is correct or best reflects reality. Are lawyers, for instance, the ones best equipped to make decisions about complex technical and scientific issues, from stem cell research to Internet commerce?

Law school and engineering education are both nominally concerned with delivering a corpus of knowledge, but they both also foster specific ways of thinking. As engineering educators, we’ve historically focused on the content and skills, and we certainly don’t want to lose that. But it’s time for us to also start giving some thought to not just what our students think about, but how they think.

Debbie Chachra is an associate professor of materials science at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. She does research, speaks, and consults on engineering education and the student experience. She can be reached at debbie.chachra@olin.edu or on Twitter as @debcha.

ASEE TODAY

President’s Letter

Training ≠ Education

We need to make others aware of the difference.

By Don P. Giddens

You’ve probably noticed that education is frequently in the headlines these days, sometimes in a positive context and at other times with criticism. On the positive side, there is a broad and growing realization that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, from kindergarten through postgraduate study, is important to the nation and offers potential for helping us get back on track economically through innovation and job creation. There has been growth, albeit modest, in the number of students studying engineering, and in some areas of diversity the needle is moving just a bit in the right direction. Although much work remains, the quality of students and faculty in engineering and engineering technology has continued to improve, at least by commonly used metrics. There is clear evidence of the positive impact of technology on everyday life, and many subscribe to the idea that technology is needed to solve many pressing problems of society, including such grand challenges as health, security, safe water, and food.

On the other hand, education in the United States is under fire from several quarters. Academic performance of our K-12 students, on average, remains behind that of many other nations, and the percentage of college-eligible students who consider studying STEM fields remains well below that of countries with which we wish to compete. The cost of higher education to students has escalated much faster than other costs, partly because of decreasing state support (in the case of public universities) but also because of significant growth in areas that are not directly academic, such as improved student services and facilities, expansion of university bureaucracy (some of it needed in response to increased oversight and regulation, some highly questionable), and the frequent lack of processes that focus on the old concept of continuous quality improvement. The public is demanding a response, whether from schools or politicians.

Technological innovations are touted as one answer for doing more with less in education, and clearly information technology has enabled significant increases in effectiveness across many aspects of education. Unfortunately, governors, state legislators, and boards of trustees often think that technology is the answer to being able to increase class sizes (hence increasing tuition revenues through higher volume, while decreasing state support), reduce the need for faculty and classrooms, and cut costs. Worse, teachers and professors are often accused of being part of the problem – even by some in our own community.

As usual, we have significant challenges and yet notable opportunities.

I believe there are a few axioms related to engineering education in such a rapidly changing world. One is that “education and training are not synonymous.” While it is true that the pace of change is astounding and we often say that most of what we teach in an engineering education will be obsolete within several years, as educators we must distinguish – and press others to distinguish – between education and training. Yes, some training takes many years, such as training for cardiac surgery, but many technological changes that occur are incremental, very specific, and short-lived. A well-educated person is able to cope with these changes and even create them. Education, on the other hand, is a much broader concept that relates to both breadth and depth in longer lasting principles – which leads to a second axiom: “Fundamentals are fundamental.” These are the things that are basic truths and foundations upon which a student can build a lifetime of learning. While we, as educators, have a training role to an extent, we also have a much more important educational role.

So where are ASEE and our members in all this? Let me cite just two examples.

ASEE is heavily engaged in informing those who make public policy related to engineering and engineering technology education. Our publications are resources for contributing to informed discussions of diversity, the importance of university R&D to economic health, and innovations in education. ASEE has assisted in arranging for deans to visit members of Congress and their staffs to discuss important and timely issues. We have been asked for, and provided, input on the K-12 education component of the America COMPETES Act. Input from ASEE representatives has been included in the Congressional Record. We also maintain a significant database related to engineering degrees, research funding, student enrollments, faculty salaries, and other metrics that provide nonpartisan information for informed debate.

ASEE is also at the forefront in emphasizing both the scholarship of teaching and learning and its practice, as evidenced by the Journal of Engineering EducationAdvances in Engineering Education, articles in Prism, and sessions at the Annual Meeting as well as various Section meetings. We provide a spectrum of articles, presentations, and workshops that enable faculty to be more effective. The Leah Jamieson and Jack Lohmann-led study, “Innovation with Impact,” which will be externally reviewed, finalized, and released over the next several months, represents a significant body of data and recommendations that all educators will find useful, especially policymakers, department heads, deans, and provosts.

In this election year, many factors are converging to cause STEM education to be in the national limelight. I’m pleased to say that ASEE is on the front lines of involvement in helping to inform, shape discussion, and propose improvements that go well beyond being incremental. It’s a great time to be in engineering and engineering technology education and a great time to be a part of ASEE.

Don P. Giddens is president of ASEE.

 Shanghai Symposium Urges Stronger  Links Between Education and the  Global Economy

By Christina White

The ASEE Global Symposium on Engineering Education and the Global Economy last October brought 75 leading figures from academia, industry, and government from around the world to Shanghai. After exploring the role of engineering schools as innovation engines for the global economy, participants produced a series of recommendations on ways to improve international education, treatment of intellectual property, and industry-university collaboration.

The symposium was different in both structure and composition from past ASEE international conferences. Besides hearing from invited speakers and interactive panels, participants formed three working groups, which focused, respectively, on research parks and translation of research to the marketplace, global education experiences, and policy and government. All participants were encouraged at the outset by Cochair Tom Katsouleas, dean of engineering at Duke University, to listen for harmony and commonalities.

Key questions examined by the various speakers and working groups included: How can university ideas be translated into innovations that improve society and drive the global economy? What skill sets are needed to drive the global economy of the 21st century, and how are these best learned? What is the role of government in bridging the valley of death between university research and start-ups and businesses?

Darryll Pines, dean of engineering at the University of Maryland, explained the contrasting influences and events that have shaped the attitudes of three generations of engineering students: baby boomers, generation X, and generation Y. Technically sophisticated, the current generation of students expects to join a diverse workforce and seeks to have a positive impact on society, he noted.

Scholars from China and the United States led discussions about best practices and challenges in global cocurricular experiences. A common theme was the need for engineering to provide hands-on experiences. Whether in a study abroad program, an international solar decathlon, or designing in a developing country, engineering students thrive in international experiential learning, speakers agreed. Through those experiences, they develop a 21st-century skill set and mind-set, including critical thinking, collaboration, and communication, essential to innovatively solving grand challenges.

Robert Parker, executive dean of the University of Michigan-Shanghai Jiao Tong University Joint Institute, moderated a panel discussion about the workforce needs of multinational corporations. Collaboration and communication skills are key attributes for engineers to be successful in geographically distributed teams, speakers noted.

Looking at barriers to success in international partnerships, Dan Mote, professor and former president at the University of Maryland, College Park, said that with an appreciation of different cultural influences, trust can be developed to build sustainable, interpersonal relationships. Those relationships, in turn, can lead to global partnerships that diversify the university student body and better prepare students to communicate, design, and lead in an international workforce.

Each working group was moderated by an international team. Moderators included Louis Martin-Vega, engineering dean at North Carolina State University, Shou-Wen Yu, former vice president of Tsinghua University, Quyuan Ye, professor and former deputy president of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and Gregory Washington, engineering dean at the University of California, Irvine. Each group generated recommendations that represent calls to action for universities, government policymakers, foundations, and multinational corporations.

Universities were urged to give intellectual property to faculty and students, or at least to think more creatively about how both could benefit; increase the scope of engineering-driven, university-wide entrepreneurship activities; establish more meaningful ways for students to collaborate internationally; and give faculty members greater incentives to foster and engage in global partnerships.

Industry and government were encouraged to enhance the research park concept to create a true “educational, translational, and human resource development experience”, promote more market- and use-motivated research, and form collaborations among industry, academic institutions, foundations, and philanthropic organizations and governments. Recommendations for governments included forming round tables of industry, academia, and policymakers; open collaboration among governments regarding intellectual property; and increase funding mechanisms and policy support for partnerships.

 Three From ASEE Win Gordon Prize

The National Academy of Engineering has awarded the $500,000 Bernard M. Gordon Prize, which recognizes innovation in engineering and technology education, to three Harvey Mudd College professors, all members of ASEE.

The winners are Clive L. Dym, professor of engineering design and director of the Center for Design Education, who is an ASEE fellow; M. Mack Gilkeson, professor of engineering emeritus and cofounder of the hands-on Clinic program; and J. Richard Phillips, professor of engineering emeritus and Clinic director for 17 years. Phillips is also a past chair of the Pacific Southwest Section. Half the award will go to the institution.

They were cited for “creating and disseminating innovations in undergraduate engineering design education to develop engineering leaders.” Harvey Mudd’s website quotes Ziyad Duron, Department of Engineering chair, as saying the three “have contributed to an engineering program that has design, problem-solving, and professional practice woven throughout a student’s experience at HMC.”

ASEE members who have previously won the Gordon Prize, listed alphabetically, are Frank S. Barnes, professor in the electrical and computer engineering department at the University of Colorado, Boulder; Thomas Byers, professor in the management science and engineering department at Stanford University; Edward Coyle, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue University; Edward Crawley; professor of aaeronautics and astronautics and of engineering systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Eli Fromm, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Drexel University; Leah Jamieson, dean of engineering at Purdue University; John Lamancusa, professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Learning Factory at Penn State University; Lueny Morell, a member of the Strategy Team at HP Laboratories; William C. Oakes, associate professor of engineering education at Purdue University; Jacquelyn Sullivan, associate dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder; and Jose Zayas-Castro, professor and chair of the Department of Industrial Management Systems Engineering at the University of South Florida.

 2012 ASEE Workshop on  K-12 Engineering Education

The American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) is pleased to hold its ninth annual K-12 Workshop on Engineering Education, “Employing Engineering for STEM Learning,” presented by Dassault Systèmes, on June 9, 2012, at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio, Texas.

This daylong program for K-12 teachers, administrators, and engineering educators from Texas and across the country will provide an energizing, interactive overview of successful engineering education instruction for the K-12 classroom. Attendees will discover innovative best practices, new contacts for collaboration and outreach, and the latest take-away tools for engineering education. Take advantage of this unique event, and help get students excited about engineering.

For further details including registration, go to: http://asee.org/K-12workshop/2012.

For additional information, contact Libby Martin, K-12 Meeting Manager, at k12workshop@asee.org.

ASEE in San Antonio, Texas 2012: Spurring Big Ideas in Education!

LAST WORD:
Reaching a Larger Audience
By Deborah L. Illman

Engineering students aren’t learning how to spread their message.

Studies have shown that Americans generally do not understand the nature of engineering, appreciate how it differs from science, or hold the profession in very high esteem. Why would they? Science and scientists get the lion’s share of media coverage. Meanwhile, the word technology has become synonymous with computing and communication devices, while advances in other engineering disciplines – be it aeronautics, bioengineering, civil and environmental engineering, materials development, or beyond – remain hidden.

Engineers could improve public understanding of their profession with sharper communications skills. But 12 years of leading a program in science and engineering news and nonfiction writing at a leading research university suggests that few engineering students participate in such courses or pursue careers involving public communication to the extent science students do. This realization came, much to my chagrin, after analyzing enrollment figures for our program, then housed within the engineering school’s department of technical communication (TC). I could count on one hand the number of students who came to my writing classes, other than technical communications courses, from engineering disciplines over a five-year period. Even though the courses were advertised to all departments in exactly the same way, science students outnumbered engineering students by about 30 to 1. What’s more, every award-winning writer has been a science graduate student.

Engineering’s communication gap has spurred national efforts to improve public awareness, such as last year’s launch of a new website by the National Academy of Engineering. Its goal:  to promote broad implementation of recommendations in the 2008 NAE report, “Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering.” Yet when it comes to teaching future engineers to be better writers and communicators, most academic programs have not addressed, to an adequate degree, communication for broader audiences.

There is considerable variation in the configuration of engineering communication courses from campus to campus. Whether housed in the technical communication, English, or other department, most focus on genres of communication for technical audiences: recommendation reports, proposals, design documents, memos, and oral presentations. Traditionally, programs have not tapped the journalism faculty’s expertise or aimed to help students reach a broader, nontechnical audience.

Maintaining such strictly separated silos is counterproductive. Engineering departments have been quick to note the lack of room in the curriculum for communications courses. Some even protest that engineering students are “writing averse.” Overcoming the former is a matter of will; it will require a commitment on the part of faculty and administrators to get serious about enhancing the preparation of engineers to include communicating with broader audiences. The second barrier is a self-defeating, often self-fulfilling myth. Research by Zhang et al. (2004) found significant correlation between a student’s odds of graduating in engineering and high school GPA and math SAT scores. By contrast, students with strong verbal SAT scores were less likely to graduate with an engineering degree. The curriculum needs courses and activities that would help retain those highly verbal future public ambassadors for engineering.

We should prime the tech-journalism pipeline by helping undergraduate and graduate engineering students gain mass-media experience. News-writing courses and experiences help students not only in writing but also in engaging with practicing professionals; putting their science and engineering learning in societal context; developing analytical skills; observing real science and engineering in practice; thinking on their feet; and becoming better speakers, interviewers, and listeners. Schools should also encourage greater participation in programs like the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program and in local chapters and affiliates of the National Association of Science Writers. In 2010, the AAAS program hosted a total of 12 fellows, with one engineering student versus 11 science students. Similarly, in 2011, the program hosted a total of 11 fellows, with one engineering student versus 10 science students.

Also helpful would be writer-in-residence programs at engineering schools. If we want our students to change the conversation about engineering, let’s give them the tools to do it.

 

Deborah L. Illman is the editor of Northwest Science & Technology, published by the University of Washington, Seattle, and a former senior fellow of the National Science Foundation Discovery Corps.

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