September 2012

Dream Factory
University engineers are often the hidden stars behind on-screen excitement.
BY Alison Buki & THOMAS K. GROSE

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button charmed moviegoers with the story of a man whose life unfolds in reverse, from wizened oldster to cherubic baby. The 2008 film, starring Brad Pitt, raked in $333.9 million and won three Academy Awards, including one for visual effects. And these effects were indeed amazing. For nearly a third of Button’s 166-minute running time – 325 frames – the title character wasn’t Pitt at all but instead a virtual Benjamin, who seamlessly interacted with humans on screen. This was achieved largely by an image-capture and simulation system called Light Stage, which digitally processes the full dynamic range of light in a scene and uses the data to relight virtual characters with an accuracy that makes them appear more realistic and alive.

Light Stage inventor Paul Debevec, who shared a separate Scientific and Engineering Oscar with three colleagues in 2010, has spent 13 years working with movie studios on the special effects that turn Hollywood movies into blockbusters. But that’s not his day job. He is a research professor at the University of Southern California and heads the Graphics Laboratory at the school’s Institute for Creative Technologies.

Debevec is hardly unique. With a never-ending appetite for discoveries and inventions emerging from cutting-edge research, filmmakers and game publishers have formed symbiotic relationships with many engineering and computer science academics at top research schools, including USC, Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech, and MIT. “They are tasked with showing people things that nobody’s ever seen before, every single summer. And that’s a tall order to fill,” Debevec explains. “That’s why they’ve become very important early adopters of new technology.” There’s a payoff for researchers, too. Consider the windfall bestowed on Carnegie Mellon’s computer science faculty and students four years ago with the opening on their campus of Disney Research, Pittsburgh, a lab specializing in radio, antennas, and sports visualization.

University-based special effects engineers help keep innovation humming in an industry where the United States still leads the world. U.S. films generated about $80 billion in revenue in 2010, according to federal figures, and the U.S. industry enjoys as much as a 90 percent market share in some countries abroad, producing a trade surplus of nearly $12 billion in 2009. The Motion Picture Association of America claims the film industry supported 2.2 million U.S. jobs and paid nearly $137 billion in wages in 2009. The video game industry is also huge. Research consultants at Gartner estimate that the combined value globally of the film industry’s software, hardware, and online sales will jump from $74 billion in 2011 to $112 billion in 2015.

From King Kong to The Avengers

From the early days of film, technology has always been central to the industry’s success. Thomas Edison devised the classic motion picture camera and sprocketed film in the late 19th century, an invention that’s only now giving way to digital cameras. Movies flourished in the silent era, but went into overdrive when The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, launched the “talkies” in 1927. By the time Greta Garbo uttered her first on-screen line in the 1930 film Anna Christie – “Gif me a vhisky, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby!” – a majority of U.S. and British theaters were equipped for sound.

The 1933 King Kong, one of the earliest special effects-driven megahits, used stop-motion photography to make the giant ape appear alive. This technique, which requires shooting models that are moved ever so slightly for each shot, reached its apogee in the 1960s and ’70s, when famed animator Ray Harryhausen made such classics as Jason and the Argonauts and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Movies in 3-D debuted in the 1950s as a way for the industry to compete more successfully against television. They quickly fell out of favor, but new digital technologies have boosted 3-D’s popularity anew.

George Lucas’s 1977 Star Wars kicked off the current era of special-effects superhits. All of the biggest box office winners since then – Jurassic Park, Terminator, Toy Story, Titanic, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Avatar and this year’s The Avengers – have owed much of their success to the magic created by special-effects engineers. It was, in fact, the 1993 release of Steven Spielberg’s technologically groundbreaking dino-romp Jurassic Park that stoked Debevec’s fascination with visual effects. Then a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley after earning a B.S. in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Michigan in 1992, he became interested in exploring the problem of how to integrate, realistically, computer-generated objects and people into pre-existing environments. “I just thought it would be cool to try to do it scientifically right,” Debevec says, noting that Spielberg’s designers “were doing it basically all by eye and by sheer force of artistry.” In 1997, while still a grad student, Debevec invented a system of image-based modeling that could create realistic virtual replications of buildings. Those techniques were featured two years later in the artificial-intelligence thriller The Matrix.

The award-winning Light Stage system, used in Avatar and Spiderman 3 as well as Button, focuses on capturing and simulating humans in real-world illumination. It has continued to evolve over the past decade, since Debevec built the first version on a wooden stage with a single spotlight. Light Stage X is the most current and technologically advanced of Debevec’s systems. A geodesic half-dome structure, the stage stretches 9 feet in diameter and boasts 346 LED light units placed evenly throughout, each with its own microprocessor that connects to a larger main computer.

Mobile Apps and the Wii Console

Movie companies tend to be first-users of visual technologies, which later migrate into video games. But Debevec expects that within a few years games will be offering the same kind of innovations almost simultaneously with film. Since its start in the early 1970s with arcade games like Pong and Pac-Man, the industry has soared as games went from tape cassettes to CD-ROMs to DVDs to consoles. The biggest growth area today is wireless broadband and mobile app-based games. Also popular are hands-free, motion-sensing games, first introduced in 2006 by Nintendo with its Wii console. Competitors at Sony and Microsoft have since rushed to create similar products. In 2010, Microsoft debuted Kinect for Xbox 360, a motion-sensing peripheral that allows users to become the game controller through gestural input and voice commands.

With 8 million units sold in the first 60 days, Kinect set a Guinness world record for the fastest-selling consumer electronics device. Engineers and programmers were quick to see that its 3-D depth sensor, multiarray microphone, and a state-of-the-art video camera could be used for myriad other products. Soon, hackers were rigging Kinect to a quadrotor for autonomous navigation, and programming it to remotely control humanoid robots. Microsoft initially was inclined to fight the hackers but now is rolling out a special version for them and has become a partner in a Kinect Accelerator to fund Kinect-based ventures.

Besides exploiting game technologies for other purposes, engineers are working on better games, ones that help players become action heroes, athletes, and pop stars. At Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center, four graduate students are looking to take motion-sensitive game play to the next level by adapting it to the more complex world of fighting games, also known as “hack and slash.” Patrick Jalbert, Adam Lederer, Pei Hong Tan, and Chenyang Xia recently completed a group project called Action in Motion, which features a short action-oriented game where players control the movements of a fighting 3-D animated robot through gestures.

Since few Kinect players can perform the flashy martial arts moves frequently seen in fighting games, a main challenge for the Action in Motion team has been fostering a sense of natural continuity between the users and their avatars. Through a combination of sophisticated animation blending techniques and many hours of player testing, the group has created a system of gestural controls that lets users intuitively guide their robot avatar through a variety of combat situations while also looking dynamic and fun. To accomplish this, “you need to mix in some animation and poses,” says Jalbert, the team’s animator. The player “performs the action, and then the character will do it in a more theatrical way.” A demonstration of the game proved very popular at an ETC project fair last May. “We had some younger players that we couldn’t tear away from it,” Lederer says. The Carnegie team hopes to sell new, more action-oriented Kinect adventures: “This game is a proof of concept that something like this can work. We are hoping to inspire people . . . to create different kinds of games on the Kinect,” Lederer says.

Another technology that’s still in the lab but holds huge potential for the film, television, gaming, and music industries is holography, the transmitting of life-size – or larger – holograms, even in real time. This technology is likely to get its start in gaming – with holographic avatars that initially are much smaller than life-size – before jumping to TV or movie screens, says V. Michael Bove Jr., director of the Object-Media group at the MIT Media Lab. “Gaming looks like a clear case, because it’s easier to do on a desktop or tablet,” Bove says. “For the big screen, it’s harder to scale up.” But what about the life-size “hologram” performance of the late rapper Tupac Shakur that thrilled the crowd last April at the Coachella music festival? It turns out that the technology used to resurrect Tupac – who died of gunshot wounds in 1996 – wasn’t what it claimed to be. “That wasn’t really a hologram,” Bove explains. “From an engineering perspective, the optics behind it were 150 years old.” It was instead an optical illusion created by projecting an image onto a half-silvered, angled mirror. The result is an image that looks as if it’s onstage. The Tupac stunt did, however, prove that demand for real holographic entertainment could be strong. An MIT holography spinoff, Zebra Imaging, is working to make that happen.

Bove’s team, meanwhile, created a buzz at an early 2011 holography conference in San Francisco when it used a Kinect camera to transmit a holovideo in real time that moved at 15 frames per second. Since then, his team has increased the rate to the 24 frames per second required for feature films and the 30 frames per second needed for television transmission. Bove argues that true holovideos will be much more three-dimensional than current 3-D technologies, and users won’t need to wear silly glasses to see it. The 3-D techniques used in films do not have motion parallax, which makes focusing hard. “That’s not so bad on the big screen,” Bove says, “but in the living room, on a desktop or a table, you want to refocus to different distances, so it’s uncomfortable. With holograms, you don’t have that problem.” Also, with current 3-D technology, audience members see the same image no matter where they’re sitting. With a hologram, viewers see different sides of the image depending on where they’re sitting – screen-left, right, or center – which is more realistic. In the future, holography will have a role to play in the visualizing of the massive amounts of data collected by supercomputers, Bove says. “Holograms are perfect for that. That is certainly going to happen.”

History of the Universe

Technologies that make superheroes and space aliens come alive in movies and computer games have applications far beyond pure entertainment. Stanford University’s Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC) is engaged in what might be the ultimate reverse-engineering project: reconstructing and visualizing the universe’s early days. The project draws on discoveries of phenomena like cosmic background radiation (traceable remnants of the big bang), quasars (black holes), and pulsars (rotating neutron stars) that have deepened our understanding of the history of the universe. Tom Abel, an associate professor of physics and head of KIPAC’s computational physics department, leads a team of more than 200 faculty, students, and postdocs that uses supercomputers to re-create events in the universe, or “predict the past,” as he puts it.

In KIPAC’s dazzling renderings of the cosmos in flux, multicolored clouds of space dust swirl entrancingly as stars form and galaxies collide. Each animation lasts two or three minutes, but the periods each one depicts could range from the few milliseconds of a supernova to billions of years of cosmic history. Beyond their aesthetic appeal, these visuals offer a novel way to conceptualize events typically beyond human imagination. Accordingly, KIPAC animations have been used in planetarium shows at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Viewers experience the shows in 3-D at high-definition resolution, with dual projectors casting the animations onto a massive panoramic screen.

KIPAC tackles numerous engineering challenges, most significantly in developing software capable of crunching trillions of data bytes. “Everything from running the models to the final visualizations are all custom-written,” Abel says. The man responsible for transforming data sets into stunning animations is Ralf Kaehler, head of the Visualization Lab at KIPAC, an applied mathematician by training. Kaehler has developed algorithms that convert data created by a supercomputer (which calculates variables like size, brightness, temperature, and distribution of matter in space) into colorful 3-D images using iterative techniques and state-of-the-art graphics cards. Cinematic elements, such as camera movement, zooming, and pacing, are also used to add visual flair and to enhance viewers’ comprehension. Abel sees potential for modeling and visualizing the huge amounts of data collected in areas ranging from natural phenomena, such as long-term weather patterns, to nuclear fusion reactions.

Video game special effects increasingly are found in instructional materials. Earlier this year, the Pentagon and FBI acquired licenses from Epic Games for the same engine used for Mass Effect 3 and Infinity Blade. The Pentagon will use it for, among other things, training intelligence analysts and medics.

Many Players

A common thread in all special effects engineering is its multidisciplinary nature. Bove’s holography team at MIT includes chipmakers, experts in digital signal processing, optics specialists, and, he notes, “mechanical engineers, because eventually it all has to be packaged into a box.” To foster collaboration across disciplines, USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies was deliberately established as an independent center, not part of a college or department. At Georgia Tech, Blair MacIntyre, an associate professor of computer science, is an expert in augmented reality (AR), where users enhance their real environment with digital information – including 3-D graphics and pictures – in real time, often via the viewer of a smartphone camera. “It’s still relatively niche-y,” MacIntyre says. But eventually, he believes, the technology will move beyond smartphones to a hands-free headset, providing games that immerse players in a sci-fi novel. To do that, he says, requires a host of experts, including computer vision and graphics specialists. “Games basically touch all of the computer sciences disciplines.” And others, too: One of MacIntyre’s projects is the Augmented Reality Game Studio, where students and faculty from Georgia Tech work with colleagues from the Savannah College of Art and Design and the Berklee College of Music to develop mobile AR games.

As in so much of information technology, advances in special effects may bring down the entertainment industry’s blockbuster budgets. James Cameron’s Avatar cost an eye-popping $237 million. It now takes $10 million to develop a major-title computer game for a single console platform. But Debevec predicts that within a decade, the cost of high production-value technologies will be within reach of small-budget auteurs: “I think the technology will really be mature when an independent filmmaker can use every single tool that was at the disposal of James Cameron when he made Avatar.”

Special-effects technologies have revolutionized film and turned electronic games into a major global industry. Soon they will penetrate the field of advanced computing. The next generation of so-called exascale supercomputers – 1,000 times faster than today’s – won’t use central processing units (CPUs), which would melt from the heat generated. Instead, computer engineers are turning to the general processing units (GPUs) used in games. GPUs are able to run many computing tasks simultaneously, and a single GPU uses one-eighth the energy per calculation of a CPU. Supercomputers running on Sony PlayStation 3 chips? Now that is a special effect.

Alison Buki was, until recently, an ASEE staff writer. Thomas K. Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent.

Lives of an Engineer
For Walter Buchanan, IBM mainframes, the Saturn V rocket, Navy service, and the law were just a prelude to the “constant stimulation” of teaching.
By Pierre Home-Douglas

After a career spanning rocketry, wartime service aboard an aircraft carrier, teaching, research, and consulting, Walt Buchanan could be a walking advertisement for lifelong learning. Over four decades, he earned five degrees in fields as varied as mathematics and languages, law, engineering, and higher education. He gained four of them, including a Ph.D., while working full time, so he can appreciate the financial burden facing today’s students. As ASEE president, he’s intent on finding ways to make engineering education more affordable.

Now department head and J.R. Thompson Endowed Chair Professor of Engineering Technology at Texas A&M University, Buchanan, 70, grew up on a family farm in central Indiana. The prospect of spending his adult life rising at 5 a.m. to milk cows didn’t offer much appeal, so he focused instead on academics. A high school teacher turned him on to what would be a lifelong love of mathematics, and after graduation in 1959, he enrolled in Indiana University as a major in pure math, expecting that he would eventually earn a Ph.D. in the subject. One of the requirements for the program was studying two foreign languages. Buchanan chose German and Russian. The latter made him an ideal candidate at the height of the Cold War to work at the National Security Agency. After graduating and spending a year as an aerospace engineer with the Martin Co. in Denver, Buchanan applied for a job at NSA and was waiting for his top-secret clearance to come through when a job became available at Boeing in New Orleans. The company was building part of the Saturn V rocket that was the backbone of the Apollo program. Buchanan served as a liaison between engineers and programmers, working on the venerable IBM mainframe 7094 computer.

From Law to Engineering

One of his fellow workers at Boeing fired Buchanan’s imagination with tales of life on the high seas, so he quit the company and joined the Navy. After officer training in Newport, R.I., he was commissioned in the spring of 1966 and spent two years on the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga, including stints in the South China Sea and the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War.

While a naval officer, Buchanan participated in several courts martial involving subordinates. The brief encounters with the legal system inspired him to study law after his active duty ended. Working at the Indiana tax board during the day, he attended Indiana University at night, earned his J.D. in 1973, and joined the Veterans Administration in Indianapolis as an attorney. But after a few years, he could not see himself doing the same work for the next 25 years. “It just didn’t interest me enough,” he says.

Thinking he would go into patent law, Buchanan enrolled in a B.S.E. program in interdisciplinary engineering at Purdue University – again, taking classes at night. He enjoyed it so much he never went back to law. “I like to tell people that I used to be a lawyer, but then decided I wanted to do something useful for society, so I became an engineer!” Before completing his degree he began teaching an evening course in engineering technology. Finally, he found his career. He added a master’s degree, also from Purdue, while working at the Naval Avionics Center in Indianapolis as an electronics engineer, before joining the electrical engineering technology department at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) in 1986. He earned a Ph.D. in higher education from Indiana University in 1993. “My only regret is that I did not figure that I wanted to teach earlier,” he recalls. “It’s just that when the initial enthusiasm wore off with those other jobs, I didn’t feel like continuing. That has never been an issue with teaching. There is a constant stimulation, a constant excitement where you are creating and disseminating knowledge.” In 2003 he was awarded the ASEE James H. McGraw Award, which recognizes outstanding service in engineering technology education.

A New Image for Technologists

Colleagues hope Buchanan, one of a very few ASEE presidents with an engineering technology background, can correct what they see as a flawed impression: that the field is basically engineering lite. As Robert English, professor of engineering technology at New Jersey Institute of Technology, puts it, “There is a perception that engineering technology is the stepchild of engineering. In the past it has often been given short shrift – that it steals jobs from engineers. I think Walt can help change that opinion.”

Part of the problem, Buchanan says, is simply one of nomenclature. “Engineering technology should be called applied engineering and engineering should be called engineering science.” He explains, “Up until Sputnik, what we would call engineering technology was engineering, and after Sputnik they added math and science and something had to give.” Some of the technology-based laboratory courses were dropped from the engineering curriculum. Buchanan argues that with the focus on more hands-on education, engineering technologists are able to hit the ground running when they are hired in industry. “It typically takes less time for them to gear up.” He also points out that around 35 of the 50 states allow someone with an engineering technology degree to obtain a professional engineering license.

Throughout his career, Buchanan has worked hard to make engineering technology more visible and create more of a collegial atmosphere among its professors. In 1995 he set up the Engineering Technology Listserv. As Lawrence Wolf, former president of Oregon Institute of Technology, recalls, “I didn’t have a clue what a listserv was at the time. Email was pretty new, and I thought it was just clogging up my inbox. But I soon realized there was a flood of information it provided that I would otherwise have missed.” Bob English adds, “Engineering technology was pretty disjointed at the time. There was no way to communicate other than at annual meetings. And now suddenly you had access to want ads, discussion points, ideas on what textbooks could be used for new courses, and a host of other resources. It contributed greatly to engineering technology.” Today, the Engineering Technology Listserv has more than 4,000 members in 54 countries, including not only universities and colleges but also corporations, organizations, and government agencies. Buchanan also serves on the editorial or advisory boards of the Journal of Engineering Education, the Journal of Engineering Technology, and the International Journal of Modern Engineering.

In the past 20 years, Buchanan has worked in universities all over the United States, while also consulting, performing research, and publishing. He was dean of engineering and industrial technology at the Oregon Institute of Technology, chair of engineering technology and industrial studies at Middle Tennessee State University, and director of the School of Engineering Technology at Northeastern University, where he returns every year and treats his former faculty to dinner. “He is so loyal that way,” says Tim Johnson, associate professor of electrical engineering and electronics at Wentworth Institute of Technology. He adds that Buchanan welcomes those with differing views. “If we had a difference of opinion, we would debate and discuss and give our reasons. We may not still agree, but there was no offense taken. He has a way of letting you express yourself and sometimes helping you express yourself better.”

Other former colleagues praise Buchanan’s sense of humor and laid-back nature. “He is an unusual combination – a low-key, high-energy person,” OIT Professor Marilyn Dyrud states. Adds Dan Jennings, Texas A&M professor of industrial distribution: “I guess all of us have some kind of hidden agenda, but Walt is very open. That old cliché ‘What you see is what you get’ is the way Walt is.”

Buchanan’s focus on the cost of obtaining an engineering degree stems from concern over mounting student debt. At more than $1 trillion, it now surpasses credit card debt. “This simply is not sustainable,” Buchanan argues. One of his goals is to attract more community college instructors to ASEE and encourage more students to enter engineering and engineering technology programs from two-year schools. He points, as an example, to the agreement Texas A&M has with nearby Blinn Community College. Students can take courses at A&M and then transfer there after two years to finish their degree. “Quite frankly, if I were a parent of a high school student today and my kid got into Texas A&M, I’d be tempted to have him or her go into Blinn first. They’d save $10,000 on their tuition costs.”

With virtual meetings and website information, Buchanan hopes ASEE can increase involvement by community college members who cannot obtain travel money for annual meetings and conferences. “This could be worked on a lot more. It could be more the norm than the exception, as it is now.”

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

Ideas Worth Sharing
A multiuniversity collaboration yields lasting improvements in engineering education.
By Margaret Loftus

Daunting first-year coursework at Boise State University nearly crushed Brooke Garner’s ambition of becoming an engineer. “I questioned why I needed to do as much studying as I was doing,” she recalls. The career began to lose its appeal: “Would I graduate from college and be stuck in a dark, back office somewhere, sending out sheets of numbers and product analysis?” But Garner’s freshman experience wasn’t all grind. She also got to put her creativity to work in BSU’s Ceramic Micro-electromechanical Systems lab, designing and building a transistor out of low-temperature co-fired ceramic and silver paste. “It brought my education to life,” says Garner, who stayed and is now a junior in mechanical engineering.

Engaging freshmen and sophomores in research – even the many who arrive underprepared in math and science – is among the lasting “silver bullets” of a five-year, $10 million effort to improve engineering education and retention at nine western U.S. schools serving underrepresented or at-risk students. A recent follow-up report on the 2003-2008 William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Engineering Schools of the West Initiative found that many of the reforms ESWI prompted had been maintained – and with impressive results. Granted, it was a hefty sum to begin with, says Carolyn Plumb, chair of the ESWI assessment committee, “but I’ve never seen $10 million do this much in regard to programs that have benefited students.”

Conceived in 2002 by Mary Jaffe, daughter of the Hewletts and director of the foundation, the initiative aimed to graduate more so-called global engineers – those with strong technical skills who are able to work in teams across gender and culture lines – with an emphasis on women and other underrepresented minorities. The effort was directed at universities in the western United States that primarily grant bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

A Stress on Collaboration

After soliciting proposals from 17 schools, ESWI funded nine of them, with caveats. The grants were renewable each year for five years depending on a project’s success. After that, schools were told, the money would dry up. “This was not a foundation that they could keep coming back to. They needed to think from Day 1 how they’d get more money,” recounts ESWI Director Rick Reis, a consulting professor in mechanical engineering at Stanford University.

Next, in an unusual move, Reis asked the schools to work together. “We said we’re prepared to fund all of you, but you’re not going to compete. We want you to revise your proposals to hear about how you’ll collaborate. Tell us who you’d like to work with and how you’ll share things.” That surprised Rand Decker, chair of the civil and environmental engineering department at Northern Arizona University, one of the nine. “In 25 years of grant experience, I’ve always ended up working in a vacuum. This is the only one where they said, ‘Now that we have this pool of awardees, we want you back in a room feeding off each other.’” Reis reserved $1 million to fund meetings of grantees. Access to travel funds was critical, he says, since airfares between rural points in the West can easily reach $1,000.

For open-enrollment BSU, the timing of the grant was fortuitous. Just six years old, the College of Engineering faced two challenges The biggest was underprepared freshmen. At the same time, the college wanted to encourage faculty research but lacked a pool of graduate lab assistants because it had no Ph.D. program. “So by necessity, we had to go with undergrads,” explains mechanical engineering Prof. John Gardner, who served as the school’s principal investigator for ESWI. “They didn’t have the mathematical or engineering sophistication, but many of them had life skills that they brought into the lab. Some of them are better designers and many are better mechanics than most of the faculty.”

From 2004 to 2011, the one-year retention rate among these first- and second-year BSU STEM students, primarily from under-represented or at-risk groups, was 98 percent. Once they were able to prove the effectiveness of the program with help from ESWI, BSU had no trouble securing future funds from other sources, such as the National Science Foundation. “We said, ‘Here’s a great program, and here’s proof,’ ” says Gardner. “That’s gold in today’s environment.”

At Montana State University, the College of Engineering focused its proposal on getting more Native Americans into the engineering pipeline. The ESWI grant created the Designing Our Community program, which seeks to recruit and retain more Native Americans, as well as return the graduates to their communities, traditionally underserved by engineering and technology. The grant funded support on multiple levels, including recruitment visits to the seven reservations throughout the state, the hiring of a DOC director, and Skype-like connections so students could communicate with their families regularly and not feel the need to visit home as often on weekends. But the greatest impact, says Assistant Dean Heidi Sherick, came from a stipend that meant these students didn’t have to find employment. “Instead of putting 10 to 15 hours a week into a job at a fast food restaurant, they could put more time into studying.” The formula worked. The college’s Native American engineering and computer science bachelor’s degree completers rose from three in 2007 to 11 in 2011, making it one of the highest producers of Native American engineering graduates in the country.

Northern Arizona University took an entirely different approach. Instead of focusing on one program, Decker and his co-PIs distributed the funds in mini-grants of $25,000 to $100,000 to faculty, staff, and even students. “We wanted to spread that money so it had an opportunity to be a creative catalyst in a large population, a shallow but broad pond,” Decker says. The Engineering Talent Pipeline (ETP) provided supplemental instruction in gateway sophomore engineering courses – statics, dynamics, mechanics, thermodynamics, fluids – that is credited with a boost in retention and has been institutionalized. Faculty-led outreach efforts, including a summer camp for Native American women that yielded a significant uptick in the enrollment of Navajo women, have since been dropped by the university. Nonetheless, recruitment and retention numbers are strong. Classes that previously had 25 to 30 students now have more than 60, according to the ESWI final report. Just how much of the increase can be attributed to ETP is hard to say, considering NAU’s considerable recruitment efforts in Asia and the Middle East, and the economic downturn. But the report credits the program with better preparing the school to handle the influx of students.

Those involved in ESWI say its overall success stems from the strong foundation of collaboration. With money available to meet at least once a year after the annual ASEE conference, awardees were able to share ideas and build on each other’s expertise. Gardner says MSU, for one, especially benefited from discussions on shaping modules of introductory engineering classes. For example, MSU and NAU have applied robotics activities used by another grantee, the University of Nevada, Reno.

Keep the Ball Bouncing

But it wasn’t just engineering educators who worked together. Reis insisted on assessment and sustainability, requiring faculty to look for help outside engineering and enlist metrics specialists and fundraisers. For instance, NAU has adopted Oregon State University’s freshman retention survey. “It was brilliant,” says Decker of the ESWI approach. “The power of it in terms of what resulted was a heck of a lot more than the sum of nine.”

The other key component was sustainability. As chair of the sustainability committee, Decker was charged with helping the nine schools “keep the ball bouncing after the money from Hewlett ended.” That meant ramping up proposal writing from the very start, which was encouraged by providing a stipend of $3,000 for each successful proposal. “If you were to amortize the hours, they probably were getting paid $3 an hour. It wasn’t the money; it was the sense that what we are doing is important to someone,” says Decker. “It was powerful because it was supported by Hewlett.” As a result, 38 proposals were funded across the nine schools, generating some $12 million.

Assessment Chair Plumb, who is director of educational innovation and strategic projects at MSU’s College of Engineering, says, “I’ve been involved in engineering education for 25 years and involved in externally funded projects from foundations and government agencies, and 60 or 70 percent of the time those projects go away when the funding stops because the institutions can’t sustain them. But in this case, that really didn’t happen. Most programs have been sustained and even grown.”

Margaret Loftus is a freelance writer based in Charleston, S.C.

Hands-on Mathematics
Algebra, trigonometry, and calculus tailored for engineers help boost retention and student success.
By Mary Lord

It’s orientation season and dozens of University of Vermont freshmen and their families have filed into Votey Hall, home of the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, for some academic survival tips from Joan Marie Rosebush, the college’s director of student success and, not coincidentally, a senior math instructor. “Math is the most important course you’ll take,” she tells the newcomers. “If you’re not solid, you’re just asking for trouble.” Indeed, the inability of incoming freshmen to advance past the traditional introductory calculus sequence – the prerequisite for statics, dynamics, and other core engineering courses – has become a leading cause of attrition and a major challenge for engineering programs nationwide. “It’s worse than a gatekeeper. It’s a bottleneck,” contends Nathan Klingbeil, senior associate dean and professor of mechanical and materials engineering at Wright State University.

Vermont, Wright State, the University of Utah, and Cornell, among other schools, are working to eliminate that bottleneck with math curricula designed for engineering students who arrive at college ill-prepared or rusty. Introducing streamlined precalculus, interactive online summer classes, math with engineering applications, and small-group problem solving guided by teaching assistants, they’ve eased students’ entry to engineering and seen improved retention and graduation rates. In the process, they have pinpointed and sought to build upon important differences in the analytical skills required of mathematicians and engineers.

Summer Refresher

After finding that many freshmen weren’t ready for calculus, Vermont’s Rosebush whittled down a precalculus course, preserving the rigor and textbook but focusing on the math needed for physics. Rosebush also offers incoming engineers an online, no-pressure summer math refresher course, a cross between Khan Academy visuals and small-group tutorial, with step-by-step calculations and student responses. The idea, she says, is to have math “not just for the ones who do belong in engineering, but for those students who think engineering is for them.” The school offers evening drop-in tutoring sessions during the semester, and Rosebush teaches a freshman calculus section that meets five mornings a week instead of the usual four, building confidence as well as competence.

Back in 2003, Wright State was losing most of its aspiring engineers before they completed the required calculus sequence. Today, first-year retention has reached an all-time high, student performance in math and engineering continues to rise, and graduation rates have soared. What changed? Wright State replaced the traditional math prerequisites for core sophomore-level courses with EGR 101, Introductory Mathematics for Engineering Applications, which delivers only the algebra, trigonometry, calculus, and other math topics actually used in physics, circuits, computer programming, and other engineering fundamentals. Developed by Klingbeil and colleague Kuldip Rattan, EGR 101 is taught exclusively by engineering faculty and student TAs, whose lectures, labs, and recitations provide physical context to math. “When you teach math for the sake of math, you develop problem solving and critical thinking skills, but you don’t develop an ability to transition between applications,” says Klingbeil. By letting students move ahead in the curriculum before finishing the required calculus sequence, EGR 101 has pushed engineering graduation rates to 40 percent, compared with 15 percent for those who didn’t take the course.

“The Derivative: What is it, and why do engineers need to know it?” is how EGR 101 introduces calculus. Rather than focus on the equations, Klingbeil has students drop a ball and measure the time to impact. An engineer, he says, would want to know the ball’s average velocity and speed at impact. The first is just distance divided by time. To calculate the latter, however, students must measure the velocity of the ball at different points as it drops, eventually connecting their results to the slope — the definition of the derivative.

To convey Newton’s laws, Klingbeil asks students to calculate the stopping time of a braking car. “There’s not a freshman engineering kid in the country who doesn’t understand that,” he says. Manipulatives also help instill understanding. For example, co-developer Rattan uses one- and two-linked robots to teach trigonometry, which is “the way you actually use trig,” says Klingbeil. Students can take the link, measure it, and plug their results into a formula to see if it works, rather than having to “remember a bunch of trig identities.”

Joshua Deaton is “one of the textbook cases” of a first-year engineering student doomed to derail at Wright State. “I never would have persevered through the calculus,” which his rural Ohio high school didn’t offer. Such EGR 101 engineering examples as figuring the area of asphalt needed to widen a truck entrance — a problem from Klingbeil’s co-op experiences — “saved me,” he contends, and helped switch his mind-set from “I’m doing math to I’m using math to analyze something.” Deaton earned a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering with highest honors in 2009. Now pursuing a Ph.D., he is one of a number of grad student teaching assistants called upon to apply the new freshman pedagogy contained in EGR 101.

When not using complex algorithms to design and model aircraft structures, Deaton is helping freshmen understand differential equations by examining the Tacoma Narrows Bridge disaster. Because he remembers what was “really hard,” he knows which sections his freshmen will stumble over and tailors examples accordingly. Deaton also has written MATLAB programming guides while other TAs have rewritten labs to make difficult topics less daunting. He often calls students to the board and says, “You, come up and solve it.” And no one leaves the room “until everyone gets the problem,” he says. “I’m notorious.”

Incorporating Earth Challenges

Poor student results on an engineering professor’s math placement test at first had University of Utah engineering and mathematics faculty yelling at each other. But now they are revising, together, the first two years of undergraduate engineering math.

The first course, which debuts this fall, will cover single-variable calculus, vector geometry, algebra, and the calculus of parametric curves. It is the beginning of an accelerated four-semester core sequence that formerly took five semesters. Each course will explore engineering applications in TA-led small-group labs, with videos created by every engineering department supplementing lectures and providing the basis for homework problems and class projects. For example, chemical engineering professor and associate chair Geoff Silcox has developed modules on current environmental challenges that involve engineering math, such as the depletion of world oil reserves and the build-up of pollution in lakes. His challenge: Finding examples that didn’t “go well beyond” the students’ engineering background. Utah also is investing heavily to keep class sizes small, train teachers, and intervene with strugglers. “The bottom line is increasing the number of high-quality engineering graduates,” says Peter Trapa, math department chair.

For engineers, “It’s not enough just to know the math,” says Cornell math instructor Maria Shea Terrell, who serves on a multidisciplinary panel working to refine the school’s 50-year-old engineering math offerings. Students might understand a concept, she says, “but that ability to apply it is a separate skill.” To help students figure out how to turn an engineering problem into a mathematical one, Terrell and her colleagues in engineering and math developed materials with an engineering context. A query on surface intervals, for example, might ask the volumetric flow rate of water as it pours through a pipe cut at different angles. As teaching assistants move from table to table, posing questions that steer group discussions, students converge on the correct answer: a bucket would fill at the same rate because the flux across the pipe’s surface never changes, no matter how it is cut. In a traditional math class, students rarely get to see which concept is right for the job.

Engineering math’s applications approach certainly has appeal. Cornell student surveys routinely give the course high marks. Supported by $4.6 million in National Science Foundation grants, Wright State’s model is now under consideration by more than two dozen institutions nationwide, including Oklahoma State University, the University of Tulsa, and the University of Toledo. Whether engineering math takes root beyond a handful of innovators and pilot programs remains to be seen. That certainly is Klingbeil’s aim. “We’re trying to propose an engineering solution to the way engineering education works in this country,” he says. “It needs to be mandatory, and it needs to be wide scale… We’re trying to fix a national problem here.” With the president calling for universities to graduate 10,000 more engineers a year, it doesn’t take a genius to do that math.

Wright State’s model math curriculum is available at 

Mary Lord is deputy editor of Prism.

Palpable Hits
By Mark Matthews

With this issue, we introduce a boldly redesigned Prism, featuring a new masthead and typefaces and subtle use of a prism symbol as a colorful element on various pages. We’re hoping this new look will encourage ASEE members to continue enjoying the magazine in print form. But starting this month, readers also have two online options: the familiar Prism website, with convenient search and sharing functions as well as videos and a 14-year archive; and a new .pdf format (PDF: 27MB) that reproduces the layout and most of the illustrations of the paper version.

Those illustrations shine vividly alongside our cover story, in which Alison Buki and Tom Grose take us behind the scenes of the entertainment industry. Movies and video games are top U.S. exports, and university engineers have made – literally, in Paul Debevec’s case – contributions worthy of an Oscar, from the digital technology that shows Brad Pitt aging backward in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to sensors allowing game players to control a fighting 3-D animated robot with voice or gestures. Applications reach well beyond recreation. They include turning supercomputer-crunched data into stunning visual re-creations of the early days of the universe.

For engineers to develop such technology – or even get a degree – they need mathematical tools. Inadequate preparation in math has become a major headache for incoming freshmen and educators alike. Deputy Editor Mary Lord learned this when she accompanied her son to orientation at the University of Vermont. But an engineering solution is taking shape at Vermont, Cornell, Wright State, the University of Utah, and elsewhere. As Lord recounts in “Hands-on Mathematics,” courses developed specifically for engineering students are helping them get past the first-year hurdle and stay on track.

Among other offerings this month, you’ll enjoy reading a profile of ASEE President Walter Buchanan, as well as the first of his letters to the membership. And check out the stream of emails that arrived in response to our summer cover story, “Steeper Ascent.” If you have a comment on the September Prism, please let us know.

Mark Matthews


U.S. Lags Behind

The article “Steeper Ascent: Should a Master’s Be the Minimum for Engineers?” (Summer 2012 Prism) addresses a major current issue for engineering in the United States but misses some of the most crucial arguments for movement of the professional engineering degree to the graduate level. Engineering is the only major profession for which the U.S. professional degree is not at the graduate level. Medicine, law, business, public health, architecture, and pharmacy all build a graduate professional degree upon a broad undergraduate education. In this world where societal and political issues tie more and more with technology, engineers have no less need for breadth. Also, much of the rest of the world is already moving to put the professional engineering degree at the graduate level. Japan has done this as have most of the European universities that are adjusting degree structures in response to the Bologna Process. This includes the United Kingdom, where the master’s degree for Chartered Engineer status is taken by most engineering graduates. Thereby the U.K. is an instance of more education for engineers, not less. It is generally agreed that the U. S. should have a goal of offsetting the loss of basic engineering jobs offshore by producing a more capable engineer, but that goal does not jibe with having an amount of education in the professional degree that is less than for other countries.

C. Judson King
Provost and Sr. Vice President – Academic
Affairs, Emeritus, University of California
Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular
Engineering, Emeritus, UC Berkeley

No Compelling Evidence

ASME, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, would like to respond to Thomas K. Grose’s article “Steeper Ascent: Should a Master’s Be the Minimum for Engineers?” in the Summer 2012 Prism.

ASME has published a position paper opposing the requirement of a master’s degree or equivalent (MOE) to sit for the engineering licensing exam, the prerequisite in the current Model Law of NCEES. ASME has not found nor been shown any compelling evidence that the risk to the public’s safety and health will be decreased by adopting MOE.

ASME supports the NCEES Model Rule that continuing professional competency be required for the continuation of licensure. We also believe that requiring a master’s degree might discourage young people from pursuing engineering as a career choice.

With regard to the article’s comment about engineers who work for companies that don’t demand a license, an ASME policy states that engineers must abide by stringent product and service standards that safeguard public safety and health “issued by government, industry groups, and organizations such as ASME.” The ASME position is endorsed by nine other engineering organizations.

A coalition of these organizations is prepared to oppose the adoption of the current Model Law if it comes before individual legislatures and/or licensing boards. As ASME Past President Amos Holt said in Grose’s article, the state licensing boards are heavily laden with civil engineers “and they’re pushing this hard.” So, the coalition recognizes that this will be a challenge and welcomes support from all engineers in its efforts.

Additional information is available at

Marc W. Goldsmith
ASME President

A Vehicle to Advance Excellence

The American Society of Civil Engineers applauds ASEE’s summer edition of Prism for stimulating discussion about the future of engineering education. Preparing engineers for tomorrow’s world means that we need to consider future requirements for becoming a professional engineer. Work began on the Raise the Bar initiative more than a decade ago as many in the profession, including the National Academy of Engineering, realized that in the future it would become impossible to meet all the educational necessities for engineers in today’s traditional four-year undergraduate degree. This work resulted in the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying passing a Model Law that raises educational requirements for licensure and thereby seeks to ensure that in the future, professional engineers will have attained the body of knowledge necessary to fulfill their professional responsibilities.

We see a master’s or equivalent as the vehicle to advance technical excellence, enhance professional leadership, and continue to protect the public into the future. It’s clear that engineering has gotten much more complex, and as we move into the future, new advances such as nanotechnology and new materials will become an everyday part of what we do. Future engineers will also need to understand how to engineer new products, projects, and systems more sustainably and more economically. It will be most effective to learn this new knowledge as part of the formal educational process.

To meet the challenges of that future, we need the four components critical to licensed engineering practice to be absolutely solid: education, examination, experience, and lifelong learning. Competitor nations such as the United Kingdom have already embraced the concept of advanced education for their licensed engineers. Now is the time for the United States to Raise the Bar as well.

Andrew W. Herrmann
President 2012
American Society of Civil Engineers

Engineers See the Need

I commend Prism for the balanced Summer 2012 cover story. Hopefully, this discussion will continue. My view on this issue evolved after 10 years as dean at Arizona and 2.5 years as National Science Foundation senior education associate.

Norm Augustine and John White stated that ultimately market forces will bring change. Data show that change is already occurring. To illustrate, I use data for 1966-96 from NSF’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2000 and for 2002-12 “Engineering by the Numbers,” a pdf document available from ASEE. Over the 30-year period, 1966-96, baccalaureate production increased from 35,826 to 63,114, but it peaked at 76,820 in 1986 (that number was only surpassed in 2010). Master’s production in engineering increased consistently from 13,705 to 27,761 in that 30-year period. From 1986 to 1996, master’s growth was 31.6 percent. However, during the later 10-year period, 2001 to 2011, the growth was 53.1 percent.

During 1972-92 the ratio of master’s to baccalaureate degree production was about 33 percent, ranging from 26 to 40 percent. During the last five years this ratio exceeded 50 percent, reaching 56.5 percent in 2011. Growth in baccalaureate degree production in 2011 was 5.6 percent; for the master’s it was 8 percent. So engineers clearly see a need for study beyond the baccalaureate degree and are opting for more formal education.

I served on both Phase I and II committees of the NAE Engineer of 2020 study. Our charge: Look forward two decades, and envision likely changes and make engineering education recommendations. The question to the committee was: What education will best qualify engineers to meet the 2020 challenges? The first recommendation was: The B.S. should be considered as a preengineering or “engineer in training” degree. The committee making recommendations included educators and industry representatives.

Ernest T. Smerdon
Dean of Engineering Emeritus, University of Arizona
Past President, ASEE

Adopt a Five-Year Curriculum

Proposals calling for broadening the undergraduate engineering curriculum ignore the essential aspect of time. The undergraduate curriculum is already packed to overflowing, while curriculum hours have been reduced. Public university engineering in Tennessee was reduced by the legislature to 128 hours, down from the 134 to 135 hours previously in our own curricula. Courses I still believe are needed have been dropped.

The typical undergraduate curriculum is too intense. This discourages potential students and drives away some capable students, who see their classmates in other majors working less hard. The answer to this and the concerns about course addition can be addressed in one formally simple way: We must adopt a five-year undergraduate curriculum of about 150 hours, with one nontechnical course per semester. The hurdle for public institutions, of course, is gaining state support. This objection could be met if the professional societies supported it and state engineering accrediting agencies required it. Engineering students in their fifth year could be charged a higher credit-hour rate, which should not be objectionable given that they earn more money following graduation than, for example, those in the liberal arts or education. And it is still cheaper in time and money than preparation in other professions such as pharmacy and law.

My proposal should not be equated with those calling for the master’s degree as the “first professional degree.” Given the more mathematical and theoretical content of graduate engineering courses, such study is not needed for standard engineering practice nor required for passing the FE and PE licensing exams.

James W. Hiestand
Professor of Mechanical Engineering
University of Tennessee-Chattanooga

Only a Matter of Time

I thoroughly enjoyed Thomas Grose’s article reactivating the idea of a five-year engineering degree for entrance to the engineering profession. After a half century of involvement and direct participation in this issue, I have come to believe it is only a matter of time before engineering criteria for acceptance as a qualified engineer will be substantially raised.

My career in engineering was spent for the most part in a large corporation (Deere & Company) where as vice president of engineering I contributed to setting the standards for hiring entrance-level engineers. Although we would hire engineers with a four-year bachelor’s degree, we tried to attract master’s level graduates and in the later years, Ph.D.-level engineers, as the engineering and technology skills necessary to work effectively in the intense computer-based design and manufacturing activity of a heavy equipment producer was just not well enough developed in a four-year graduate.

To bolster this activity, we also provided tuition support and company leaves for selected engineers with only four-year degrees to improve their educational status. Because our corporate base was in the states of Iowa and Illinois we came under a manufacturer’s exemption so that licensure of engineers, although desirable, really did not affect the engineering profile of our company.

In 1984 and 1985, as president of ABET, I became deeply involved in the debate over raising the entrance-level degree for recognition as an engineering professional to a five-year program. There was at that time virtually no support for the idea. Opposing arguments by companies and deans were economically based and not focused on raising or broadening the stature and capability of the engineering profession.

I am of the firm belief that the engineering curriculum leading to an engineering degree from any recognized university must be dramatically improved. I also believe that focusing on only the university experience is shortsighted and will not solve the problem.

In order for students to really be prepared for college-level engineering education, they must start training earlier than their freshman year in a university. One alternative to a five-year program at the university level would be a far more disciplined and intense technical education at the high school level. High school graduates today from a high percentage of both our public and private high schools are often ill-prepared to face the engineering discipline requirements of college-level work. I’m told that the reason the four-year degree in engineering averages 4-1/2 years is that the first year is primarily remedial. We have to solve this problem before we do anything else.

Gordon H. Millar
Port Orange, Florida.

Learning About Learning

Mary Lord made some interesting points in her article “The Right Kind of Innovation” in the Summer 2012 Prism. She wrote, “engineering education must apply to pedagogy and practice the same design process that drives continuous technological improvements.” I think that statement is true and very important. Basically, engineers design, and they should apply good design principles to their pedagogical endeavors. However, earlier in the article she also asked: “What actions and support do faculty need if they are to equip students with the knowledge and skills to tackle the world’s urgent problems . . . ?”

In the process of engineering design a certain amount of knowledge of the science underlying the design – whatever it is – is necessary for a successful design. As the article notes, students need certain “knowledge and skills” to tackle problems. Designing a course – or a portion of a course – also requires certain knowledge and skills, and not just knowledge of the subject matter. Educators also require knowledge about the learning process and skill in applying that knowledge. They need that knowledge in order to make informed decisions about “action and support” in the design of the learning experience, and it is that knowledge, I believe, which is currently missing in the background of almost all educators – not just engineering educators. The article suggests that they already have that knowledge.

We often find educators taking courses and workshops on active learning. They adopt it, but when a problem occurs they relegate active learning to the junk heap. I believe that happens because they don’t understand why it works.  Using the terms from your article, they know the right “actions and skills,” but they don’t have the “knowledge.” I think that engineering educators are firstly engineers, and engineers often want to know why something works before they can be convinced to use it.

The “scholars” want the culture to shift, but they first need to think about the conditions necessary for that culture shift.

Edward (Ed) J. Mastascusa
Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus
Bucknell University
Lewisburg, PA.

Write to
Submissions may be edited for brevity and clarity.


Earthquake Resistance

Height of Invention

Tokyo’s new 2,080-foot Sky Tree, the world’s tallest broadcast tower, is projected to draw 32 million visitors a year. But tourists won’t see one of its most striking features – a design intended to survive severe earthquakes and catastrophic winds. Engineers began by studying soil formation as deep as 1.8 miles and taking meteorological measurements using a radiosonde balloon. The structure itself has a tripod base anchored with rootlike walled spikes plunging 330 feet. Aboveground, designers drew inspiration from the central column in Japan’s earthquake-resistant five-story pagodas. Adapting it for the Sky Tree, they decoupled the core from the outer steel structure, with energy-absorbing oil dampers in between. The upper part of the column acts as a balancing weight against swaying. The end result, proclaims a paper by Thomas Bock of Munich Technical University, is “one of the safest buildings ever built.”

Energy Storage

Power Paint

Batteries typically come in three shapes: square, rectangular, or cylindrical. But researchers at Rice University have developed a spray-on battery that could be affixed to substrates of any shape and on any surface, including glass, steel, ceramics, and plastics. To make the battery, the researchers lay down five layers of “paint” using a spray gun, two current collectors, a cathode, an anode, and a polymer separator. In one experiment, they sprayed the layers atop two sets of nine bathroom tiles. One was charged with a solar cell, the other with house current. Each was able to power LED lights that spelled out “RICE” for six hours, and each provided a steady output of 2.4 volts. In other tests, the team successfully painted the battery on a variety of materials, including a ceramic beer mug. The process requires fabrication in dry, oxygen-free rooms, but the team believes it can develop an open-air construction method that would make the process more commercial. One possible application would be snap-together wall tiles coated with the battery and then covered with solar cells. A battery-powered mug that keeps beer consistently chilled seems like a winner, too. – THOMAS K. GROSE

Chemical Engineering

Sticking It Out

Chewing gum is maddeningly difficult to clean from shoes, sidewalks, clothes, and carpeting. Revolymer, a young British company cofounded by Terence Cosgrove, a professor of chemistry at the University of Bristol, has a solution: a moisture-retaining polymer that makes removal a snap from any surface or material. The company has had to struggle since its 2005 launch. Last year, it had a pretax loss of around $6.1 million on sales of $232,500. Undaunted, Revolymer recently went public, listing on the London Stock Exchange’s AIM market, an exchange of small-cap companies. Apparently investors think its technology is worth sticking with. It raised an impressive $82 million. Now the firm plans to launch its own brand of nonstick chewing gum, Rev7, and to make a greater push in licensing its technology to rival brands. – TG

Brain Injuries

Risky Practice

Earlier this year, groundbreaking Virginia Tech research about the potential for medical damage to very young football players from practice and game “hits” got a lot of media coverage. The study, led by by Stefan Duma, a biomedical engineer at Virginia Tech, placed sensors in the helmets of 6-to-8-year-old players during 10 practices and five games. While most hits were moderate – no more than what an aggressive pillow fight might inflict – 5 percent involved 50 to 100 g’s, as in gravitational forces. That’s car- accident-level battering, according to Duma, equal to big hits in college football. For older collegiate and professional players, hits of 100 g’s are not a great cause for concern. Youngsters, however, can suffer cumulative brain damage from “bellringers.” Pop Warner, the nonprofit youth football organization that runs leagues for 285,000 children ages 5 to 15, says it will greatly reduce the amount of full-speed contacts allowed in practices. The research also found that most heavy-duty hits occur in practices, not games. But Matt Grady, a pediatric sports medicine specialist, told the New York Times that the new rules weren’t tough enough, and all tackling should be eschewed at that age. He said catching, running, and throwing were the skills that potential pros needed to learn as kids, not tackling. “Players should develop these skills, and then we can add in the collisions later.” – TG


Breaking the Mold

Japanese carmaker Toyota and Ben Bowlby, a British racecar designer, have each come up with radical prototype vehicles that challenge current automaking concepts. Toyota’s Camatte is a small city car that can be quickly customized to change its style and color. Body panels are fastened to the frame with large, twistable knobs and can easily be removed and replaced if drivers want to change from, say, a mini sedan to a tiny SUV. Like the McLaren F1 sports car, it’s a three seater with the driver in the middle. But the seats and pedals can be adjusted so that a 4-foot-tall child could drive it on a go-cart track, albeit with an adult to help with steering and braking. Toyota says it has no plans so far to produce the car, but the idea behind it is to generate enthusiasm for driving among young Japanese, whose interest in car ownership has been plunging. Meanwhile, Bowlby’s dagger-shaped Nissan DeltaWing concept racecar managed to perform well in last June’s 24-hour endurance race at Le Mans — for six hours, at least. That’s when it was nudged by another car and forced into a wall. Before the crash, however, the car’s unique aerodynamic design — its front wheels are only 2 feet apart, its back wheels 51/2 feet — enabled it to sprint around the 8.5-mile track despite having half the horsepower of the other 55 cars. At half the weight, it was also much more fuel efficient than its rivals, so it required fewer pit stops. That’s a design advantage that might someday improve street cars, too. – TG

Resource Management

Sophisticated Mayans

To astronomy, agriculture, mathematics, and timekeeping, add another complex field at which the ancient Mayans excelled: sustainable engineering. Excavating in northern Guatemala, a multiuniversity team led by the University of Cincinnati recently uncovered several new landscaping feats at the pre-Columbian city of Tikal, including a waste-not water collection system and the Mayans’ largest dam. Built of cut stone, rubble, and earth, the dam stretched for more than 260 feet, with 33-foot-high walls that held about 20 million gallons of water in a man-made reservoir. The findings, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shed new light on how Tikal’s 60,000-plus inhabitants endured periodic drought and other environmental challenges. Rain falling on plastered plazas or the cantered causeway that still leads into town, for instance, was sluiced into man-made reservoirs. Quartz sand filtration beds purified the water as it entered the city. Paleoethnobotanist David Lentz believes sophisticated irrigation systems sustained Tikal’s burgeoning population for centuries. Severe ninth-century droughts, he surmises, may have overwhelmed the engineered environment and contributed to the city’s abandonment – a valuable lesson in today’s parched times. – MARY LORD

Engineering Faculty

Action Heroes

Engineering is usually the opposite of fantasy. But a little flight of fancy can help when trying to explain what engineers do in simple terms. In a new comic series produced by George Washington University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, faculty researchers take a star turn as caped crusaders. First up: Assistant Professor Pinhas Ben-Tzvi, aka RobotronMan, who dispatches a swarm of mini-robots to rescue survivors trapped in fallen rubble. Next, colleague Nan Zhang becomes the Aggregator, using high-powered data retrieval and analysis to track down the source of a salmonella outbreak. A creation of SEAS’s communications and design team, the “Superheroes” series spotlights faculty research but also serves to show K-12 students what engineers and computer scientists can achieve in the lab. “We decided to use a cartoon to try to rise above the clutter and cacophony of noise that exists on the Internet,” says Dean David Dolling. It seems to be working: After the first episode, visits to SEAS’s website doubled.


Troubled Waters

Nearly a third of some 800 nanotechnology products now on the market contain silver nanoparticles. Research has established that when silver nanoparticles oxidize, they release silver ions that could, in sufficient quantities, interrupt the delicate mechanisms of fish gills, leading to potentially deadly levels of sodium and potassium in their blood. New research at the California NanoSystems Institute and the University of California, Los Angeles, has found that the crystal structure of silver nanoparticles could also determine their toxicity. Particles with structural defects can have a poisonous effect on fish cells and zebrafish embryos, even if silver ions aren’t released, because the deformed particles disrupt healthy biomolecules. Far from acquitting silver-ion release as a problem, the researchers say both processes most likely occur in tandem. They also found that pretreating silver nanoparticles with cysteine, an amino acid, rendered them much less harmful. The report suggests that new guidelines regulating the release of, and exposure to, silver nanoparticles should be developed based on its findings. – TG

Sustainable Design

20 BY 20

Reborn as a center of innovation, the Philadelphia Navy Yard boasts 120 firms, including the Tasty Baking Company and headquarters of hipster clothier Urban Outfitters. Employment will reach 10,000 once pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline is fully moved in. Still, the nation’s first naval shipyard retains an off-beat charm: Its “grungy structures and mismatched architecture create an unconventional beauty,” writes the Philadelphia Inquirer. It’s not only grungy but green. The yard is a test bed in an ambitious attempt to slash energy use in U.S. commercial buildings by 20 percent by 2020. The U.S. Department of Energy and local agencies have staked $125 million over five years in the effort, called the Hub for Energy Efficient Buildings. “To cut 20 quads is a huge challenge,” says Hank Foley, vice president for research at Pennsylvania State University and executive director of the Hub. To succeed, “we must optimally renovate buildings that already exist.” That requires both a multidisciplinary approach and “more process-engineering thinking in the building industry.” Starting with Building 661 at the yard, the Hub is pushing advanced retrofits of average-size commercial buildings. Foley hopes new collaborations will bring more ideas – nothing less than “a tsunami of creative engineering.”

Electricity Generation

Going Viral

Gadgets that use piezoelectric materials like ceramics — which produce a small electric charge from mechanical energy — have grown commonplace. Lighters, gas-grill starters, and electric guitar pickups all use them. But ceramic manufacturing creates toxic wastes. Now comes a possibly cleaner alternative: viruses, the kind that are harmless to humans. Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have figured out how to produce electricity from the M13 bacteriophage, which feeds on bacteria. M13 is coated with corkscrew-shaped proteins; researchers bioengineered it to have four negatively charged molecules at the tip of one of the proteins. That boost in the charge difference between the proteins’ negative and positive ends increased the virus’s voltage output. The viruses self-assemble in a film, and a 20-layer stack was sandwiched between two gold-plated electrodes to form a generator about the size of a postage stamp. When pressed, the generator produced about 25 percent of the voltage of a AAA battery, enough juice to flash a “1” on an LED screen. Seung-Wuk Lee, an associate professor of bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley, says he’s confident the amount of power the generator can produce eventually will ramp up greatly. Virus-powered generators could one day be used to harvest body-motion energy to run cellphones and tablets, or even biomedical devices like pacemakers. That’s nothing to sneeze at. – TG


The top four disciplines in which American undergraduate students received engineering degrees in both 2005 and 2010 were mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, civil engineering, and computer science/engineering. In both years, the percentage of students receiving master’s degrees and doctorates was more equally distributed across disciplines than that of students receiving bachelor’s degrees. Students received the most doctorates in chemical engineering (ranked Number 1) in 2005 and 2010, and biomedical engineering (ranked a close Number 2) in 2010.

View printable PDF of infographic illustration.

Pushing Powerpoint

A masterly lecturer brings construction to life.

Raymond Paul Giroux is an engineer with 33 years’ experience with the Kiewit Corp., one of the giants in the heavy-construction industry. Like many an engineer in his line of work, Giroux has moved around the country as one job was completed and a new one started. He and his family lived in Boston while he was part of the team building the Big Dig’s Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge, and they moved to the hills beyond Berkeley when he began working on the new East Bay span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

Even when he settles down in one place, Giroux travels for his company, and so he spends a lot of time in airports, on planes, and in hotel rooms. Some years ago he decided to make use of that time by reading the history of great engineering projects, especially those with anniversaries approaching: the Brooklyn Bridge turned 125 years old in 2008; Hoover Dam hit 75 in 2010; and the Golden Gate Bridge is 75 this year. To help commemorate those events, Giroux prepared lectures about the building of the structures.

I have had the good fortune of hearing all three talks, albeit on three different occasions to three different kinds of audience. I heard him speak to civil engineers and geologists at an ASCE history and heritage symposium commemorating the anniversary of the dedication of Hoover Dam; to a class of first-year engineering students about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge; and to a general audience about the Golden Gate Bridge.

All three lectures were extremely well received. Giroux communicates the essence of engineering and construction in a way that is meaningful to professional engineers, scientists, students, and laypersons alike. His integration of human interest stories with the technical details and societal implications of engineering and construction is a model of communication and motivation.

All of Giroux’s talks are illustrated with PowerPoint slides, but his are not the kind of interminable bulleted lists that have made the Microsoft software and the slide shows that result from it objects of ridicule. Indeed, the most common question that seems to arise in the minds of those who hear a Giroux talk is what software he used to create the strikingly detailed animation sequences that show construction cranes in action, concrete being placed for foundations, and steel hoisted into place to build towers. The action-filled slides are definitely a highlight of a Giroux presentation.

As he will readily admit, there is no special or esoteric software employed. However, in the mind and hands of a master like Giroux, the drawing and animation features of PowerPoint are enough to bring a construction site alive on the projection screen.

It is not just his dazzling animation sequences that make his talks so engrossing and well-received. Giroux also personalizes his talks to make their message even more immediate for the speaking venue. When he spoke at my institution, for example, he gave the audience a sense of the magnitude of the Golden Gate Bridge by stacking up beside an elevation of one of the bridge’s towers multiple scaled images of the Duke Chapel tower, beneath which most students and faculty walk daily.

Giroux’s talks on great construction projects are unique in their design and animation. His PowerPoint presentations do not comprise a series of static bulleted lists punctuated by static images. Rather, his kinetic slide shows convey the vibrant energy that permeates any construction site. He captures the excitement of engineering in action, and he communicates it to his audiences with a clarity and an enthusiasm that are rare in the seminar room today.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest books are An Engineer’s Alphabet: Gleanings from the Softer Side of a Profession and To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure.

Shock and Awe
By Thomas K. Grose

Electrical stimuli, robotics, and drugs get paralyzed rats up and running. Humans could be next.

Can damaged spinal columns be reengineered so that some paraplegics regain their ability to walk? That possibility may be a step closer to reality. A team of researchers in Switzerland led by Grégoire Courtine, an associate professor of life sciences at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne’s Brain Mind Institute, has gotten paralyzed rats walking again by using a combination of tissue growth-enhancing drugs, electrical stimuli, and rigorous training. They’re now planning trials to see if the technology will also work with humans.

The researchers first injected the rats with what Courtine calls “a cocktail of pharmaceutical agents.” They then applied an electrical stimulus at two points along the rats’ spinal column, just below the wound. The rats were rigged into a vest and harness linked to a robotic apparatus that safely supported them but did not facilitate walking. To give the rats an incentive to move, a small chunk of chocolate was dangled just ahead of them. Next came a lot of tough training for the rats, 30 minutes a day. But within two to three weeks, the rats begin to take a few shaky steps on their own. After six weeks, all were walking independently, and some were even sprinting and negotiating stairs.

The drugs mimic neurotransmitters in the brainstem and encourage the brain to sprout neurons, which entices the central nervous system to find new routes around the severed part of the cord and reconnect itself. “I use the analogy of a car,” Courtine says, with the brain acting like an engine, the spinal column like a drivetrain, and the spark like an accelerator. “Without the stimulus, there is no locomotion.” The one caveat is that the treatment works only in those instances where the spinal cord is partly, but not wholly, severed. However, that is the case for roughly a quarter to a third of human paraplegics.

“It is completely an engineering operation,” Courtine says of his experiments. “Half of my lab is engineers,” including roboticists and electrical engineers. The procedure requires constant stimulation, and Courtine is working with Finetech Medical, a British engineering company, and Nick Donaldson, a professor of bioengineering at University College London, to design and develop an implant for use in humans. The team will initially use just stimulation and the robotic apparatus with human subjects, adding the drugs only very slowly afterward because of possible side effects. Human trials should start within three years.

Courtine is building upon work begun by V. Reggie Edgerton, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Edgerton’s team, using similar tactics, has enabled Rob Summers, a 23-year-old paraplegic, to stand for a few minutes at a time and take a few assisted steps on a treadmill. French-born Courtine initially studied mathematics and physics but earned his Ph.D. in experimental medicine from the University of Pavia, Italy, and was a postdoc at UCLA. He calls Edgerton “a pioneer” of the field and refers to him as “my mentor.”

Though Courtine admits to spending seven days a week in his lab, the 37-year-old also finds time to play the piano — Chopin, mostly — and sports, particularly tennis and snowboarding.

Asked if the hardworking rats are ever rewarded with the chunks of chocolate, Courtine chuckles, and explains that the sweet treats are necessary only in the early stages of the regimen. Once the rats get the hang of walking, that’s motivation enough. “They love to walk. They love to go and go and go and go.” And the dream that this technology could one day help some paraplegics to walk again is motivation enough for the energetic Courtine.

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

Help Is on the Way
By Vivek Wadhwa

Advancing technology will tackle many of our current ills.

People believe we’ve run out of ideas. As children, we dreamed of a world of flying cars and space colonies, robotic servants, and Star Trek-like tricorders, replicators, and holodecks. Yet even today our cars mostly still run on internal combustion, our jetliners were designed in the ’60s — as was the Internet – our infrastructure is crumbling, and our economy is a mess.

True, our dreams haven’t all become a reality, but we have achieved a lot more than people realize. And the best lies ahead – provided that our institutions react responsibly. This is the decade in which we will lay the foundation for solutions to the world’s grand challenges: education, health, and shortages of energy, water, and food.

How? A wide assortment of technologies is advancing at exponential rates and converging. Engineers know the impact Moore’s law has had in computing. The same is happening in fields such as robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), 3-D printing, nanomaterials, medicine, and synthetic biology. This is making it possible for small teams to do what was once possible only by governments and large corporations: solve big problems.

Think what has happened with the Internet — which until 15 years ago had advanced at a snail’s pace. It has changed the way we work, shop, and communicate. Knowledge once found in costly encyclopedias is today abundant and free. Poor farmers in India are connected to their counterparts in China and Peru, and to scientists and students at MIT. The Internet caused social upheaval in the Middle East and facilitated the creation of India’s $100 billion IT industry.

Take AI, which we left for dead after the hype it generated in the ’80s. It enabled IBM’s Watson to defeat Jeopardy! champions and is making possible self-driving cars, voice recognition, advanced learning systems, and digital doctors.

Then there is robotics. The robots of today aren’t the androids or Cylons we used to see in science fiction movies, but specialized electromechanical devices controlled by software and remote controls. Robots are now capable of performing surgery, milking cows, and flying fighter jets.

3-D printing has advanced to the point where we can “print” physical mechanical devices, medical implants, jewelry, and even clothing. The cheapest 3-D printers, which print rudimentary objects, currently sell for between $500 and $1,000. Soon, we will have printers at this price that can print toys and household goods. Within this decade we will see 3-D printers doing the small-scale production of previously labor-intensive crafts and goods. In the next decade we can expect the manufacturing of the majority of goods to be done locally, buildings and electronics to be 3-D printed, and a rising creative class to be empowered by digital making.

Micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) allow us to build inexpensive gyros, accelerometers, and temperature, current/magnetic fields, pressure, chemical, and DNA sensors. Entrepreneurs are developing iPhone cases that act like medical assistants and detect disease; smart pills that monitor our internals; and tattooed body sensors that monitor heart, brain, and body activity.

Using nanotechnology, engineers and scientists are developing new materials such as carbon nanotubes, ceramic-matrix nanocomposites (and their metal- and polymer-matrix equivalents), and new carbon fibers. They are developing products that are stronger, lighter, more energy efficient, and more durable than anything that exists today.

With the price of a full genome sequence dropping to about $1,000 and advances in “writing” DNA, researchers and even high school students are creating new organisms and synthetic life-forms — algae that efficiently produce liquid fuel, biological computers, new materials and structures, and bioengineered viruses that attack disease.

My main worry is that we haven’t developed sufficient ethical guidelines for the coming era and will fail to ward off dangers posed by these technologies. Synthetic biology, for instance, could create doomsday viruses. Social media, such as Facebook, already enable governments and criminals to know more about us than Big Brother ever dreamed, and nanomaterials could wreak havoc on the planet. Will humanity advance alongside its exciting new tools?

Vivek Wadhwa is a scholar specializing in entrepreneurship. He is vice president of academics and innovation at Singularity University and is also affiliated with Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, Stanford University, and Emory University.

‘At-Risk’ or Ill-served?
By Elizabeth Litzler & Jacob Young

Analysis of a large-scale survey upsets some notions of why students leave engineering.

The drive for improved retention of engineering undergraduates demands a better grasp of why some of them leave the field. To understand the risk of attrition more clearly, we chose to deviate from conventional measures and instead used quantitative survey responses from more than 9,000 undergraduates at 21 engineering schools to examine qualitative differences among students. We grouped students using a novel method and multiple measures and examined how individual characteristics and student experiences and perceptions caused them to fall into one or another group. Our study revealed the dire consequences of a poor educational climate and negative student experiences in the first year and produced insights that can help researchers and practitioners think anew about attrition.

Using latent class analysis, we found that students fell into one of three groups: Committed (52 percent of the sample), characterized by their strong commitment to engineering as a major and intention to complete the degree; Committed With Ambivalence (41 percent), who were more ambivalent about engineering but still intended to graduate with an engineering degree; and At Risk of Attrition (7 percent), characterized by even greater ambivalence about their engineering major and a weaker commitment to graduating with an engineering degree.

We used a multinomial regression model to examine the relationship between a variety of covariates and membership in each commitment group. Consistent with prior research, students with the lowest risk of attrition were more likely than students in the other groups to feel a sense of community and collaboration with their peers, have higher academic confidence, experience high-quality teaching from professors, and feel more strongly that engineers contribute to society. Those who were less confident, who experienced negative interactions with peers and instructors, and who held negative perceptions of engineering as a field were less likely to be committed.

But our study provided new findings about race, perceptions of work-family balance, transfer, grades, and the effect of feeling overwhelmed by homework. For instance, students from racial and ethnic backgrounds that have been historically underrepresented in science and engineering were no more likely than overrepresented students to be at risk of attrition. Taking covariates into account, we found that the differences between African-Americans and whites – and between males and females – mainly reflected differences in student experiences and perceptions.

Freshmen are much more likely to be in the At Risk of Attrition group than in the Committed group. They are highly susceptible to the environment around them, and experiences in the first year may lead them straight into non-engineering majors. Transfer students enter engineering programs with a high level of commitment to graduation and desire to be in the major, validating the view that they represent an important source of diversity. The relationship of GPA to the risk of attrition is revealing: Students with higher GPAs are more likely to be in Committed With Ambivalence and At Risk of Attrition groups. And while conventional wisdom suggests that overwhelmed students would be most likely to leave engineering, the study suggests that these students are also the most committed.

Our results provide further evidence of the need to update the engineering curriculum, and underscore the important role of faculty in creating respectful environments and providing high-quality instruction. Engineering colleges and departments play a key role in the quality of the student experience and ultimately in the retention of engineering students.

Elizabeth Litzler is director for research at the University of Washington’s Center for Workforce Development. Jacob Young is an assistant professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. Their study used data from the UW center’s Project to Assess Climate in Engineering, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. This article was adapted from “Understanding the Risk of Attrition in Undergraduate Engineering” in the April, 2012 Journal of Engineering Education.

Go With the Flow

An engineer explores nature’s model for efficient systems.

Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization.
By Adrian Bejan and J. Peder Zane. Doubleday, 2012. 304 pages.

It was in 1995 at a conference in France that Adrian Bejan had his eureka moment. As he listened to Belgian Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine describe the inexplicable presence of myriad tree-shaped structures in nature – trees, rivers, lightning bolts – Bejan realized that what was being labeled a random phenomenon was in fact a naturally occurring design in nature. Perhaps it took an engineer to make the connection; and for Bejan, a Duke University thermodynamics specialist who had long grappled with issues of flow, a pattern suddenly became clear: Everything that moves is a flow system, and over time, each system develops a structure that supports the best movement. Moreover, Bejan realized, this principle applies to both animate and inanimate systems. Riverbeds, bolts of lightning, and human lungs all share a similar branching shape because each seeks out the greatest efficiency in moving a current – whether water, electricity, or oxygen. “This treelike pattern emerges throughout nature because it is an effective design for facilitating point-to-area and area-to-point flow.”

Fired by his thoughts, Bejan scribbled down what he would come to call the constructal law: “For a finite-size flow system to persist in time (to live), its configuration must evolve in such a way that provides easier access to the currents that flow through it.” Sixteen years later, Bejan and his colleagues continue to expound upon constructal law through hundreds of publications, lectures, and conferences devoted to what he argues is a core principle of physics, one that accounts for all natural design and evolution.

In this new book, coauthored with journalist J. Peder Zane, Bejan provides a thorough exploration of constructal law in areas as diverse as natural phenomena, human and animal biology, and man-made, engineered structures such as roadways, communications, and even the university ranking system. Constructal law governs each of these systems, he argues, and provides new understanding of what it means to be alive: “(L)ife is movement and the constant morphing of the design of this movement.”

From the outset, Bejan distinguishes himself from proponents of so-called intelligent design, ensuring that readers understand that physical science, not God, is at work. Indeed, while many have identified enduring patterns in nature, mathematics, and physics – such as those found in fractals or evolutionary change – “what has been missing is a single principle of physics that unites these phenomena and allows us to predict how they should evolve in the future.”

Early chapters take us through the basic tenets of constructal law, replicating basic experimentation Bejan undertook in observing flow systems in drying mud puddles, crystallizing snowflakes, boiling rice, and elements of heat transfer in the field of thermodynamics. Subsequent chapters are more ambitious, challenging, for example, Darwin’s belief that the evolution of species is both unpredictable and based on a competition for survival. Fish, land animals, and birds are governed by the same, not different, principles of movement, Bejan argues. Despite their seeming differences, each evolves with a tendency toward more fluid movement. Moreover, life-forms evolve not as competitors but together, jointly responding to interlocking environments of a global flow system. People, too, are integral to this system, not apart from nature, evolving into a “human and machine” species that uses technology extensions to overcome natural limitations – and facilitate easier flow.

The pronouncement of an overarching global design and the evolutionary tendency of all life-forms working together “to make the whole Earth flow more easily” may not resonate with all readers. Nonetheless, Bejan’s constructal law is a provocative formulation that can inform design work in engineering fields ranging from the mechanical to the biomedical. As Bejan notes when discussing why Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International airport stands out as a masterpiece of design, understanding constructal law can avoid ad hoc approaches that rely upon slicing and dicing the variables. In short, for engineers, and for the evolving human-machine species in general, “it is a principle we can use to build better things.”

Robin Tatu is Prism’s senior editorial consultant.


Letter From the President

Our Role Expands

Engineering education becomes a K-20 systems issue.


The Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, now the American Society for Engineering Education, was created in 1893 and is one of the oldest engineering societies in America. Over the past century, ASEE has played a significant role in shaping engineering curricula, improving teaching methods and academic quality, and influencing national policy on engineering education. As engineers, we are trained to approach problems in a systematic way, and we have a history of being successful. This success has raised the standard of living in countries like the United States, but to keep progressing in a globally competitive environment we need more – and greater diversity among – engineers. ASEE’s key role in answering the demand for graduates will only continue to grow.

During the past decade in particular, this role has expanded significantly to include students in grades K-12. Again, ASEE is leading the way, with a number of resources directed at this effort. Engineering, Go for It is a great start for increasing awareness of engineering careers. The K-12 Workshop at the annual conference gives hundreds of teachers each year the opportunity to learn about engineering in and out of the classroom. And the nearly 800 members of the K-12 and Precollege Division actively participate in research and the practice of engineering in K-12 classrooms. Members not only present 100 papers each year at the conference, but they also work throughout the year in K-12 schools, conducting research, establishing effective practices, training teachers, and increasing knowledge of engineering — primarily supported by public and private funding.

K-12 and Precollege Division members are largely discipline engineers working in higher education who use their engineering skills in the K-12 classroom. Starting in kindergarten and continuing through high school, they work with teachers, students, and parents to teach engineering as a process for problem solving, systems thinking, and collaboration. Constraints, criteria, and failure are used as ways to frame problems and solutions. While pre-engineering classes exist at the middle and high school levels, engineering is taught most often as an integrator of other subjects. In other words, students use the math, science, language arts, social studies, and arts topics they are taught to solve contextual problems using engineering design. Context and application are important: Research indicates students decide whether they like math and/or science in mid-elementary school. Therefore, our early involvement is essential for students to not only learn about engineering as a process but also as a potential career because their familiarity with it positions them to make informed choices about their post-secondary lives. Efforts to expand engineering and technological literacy in K-12 classrooms are both strategic and appealing, as investment supporting research and practice continues to increase significantly each year.

The Next Generation Science Standards currently under development provide a unique opportunity for engineering educators to have a direct impact on student achievement and career choices. With the addition of attributes of engineering design to these standards, we have the potential to reach most students in this country. Our K-12 division colleagues have established ASEE as a center of competency for K-12 engineering, with members participating in virtually every level of science, engineering, and STEM policy, research, and practice. Through their work, and the work of ASEE members in general, the awareness of engineering as a distinct field of study will increase.

ASEE is uniquely positioned to influence efforts to increase the general public’s engineering and technological literacy, both necessary for success in the 21st century. By exposing more students at earlier ages to what engineers and engineering technologists do to advance society, we are equipping them to enter a profession with tremendous potential to not only produce a good living but also to change the world.

Engineers in both industry and higher education must collaborate to create an environment ensuring that by the first year of high school, every American student will:

  • Be aware of the opportunities and income potential in engineering and engineering-related fields;
  • Know the educational qualifications for these positions;
  • Have the opportunity to interact, virtually and face-to-face, with engineers to learn about their jobs, educational experiences, and the industry or university where they work;
  • Be able to identify qualified universities that enable them to obtain the skills for these positions.

This is an ambitious list, but our students should have every question answered and be able to prepare for their careers while in high school. It will require teamwork and assistance, but we are fortunate that engineers have a record of success.

ASEE is ideally positioned to take steps to meet this goal. By investing our expertise in developing engineering awareness and habits of mind beginning at the start of a student’s academic journey and continuing through high school graduation, we are strategically addressing the need to create a broader, more diverse talent pool of undergraduates who will choose engineering and engineering-related fields as their careers.

These actions will help us remain a leader in engineering education for the 21st century and beyond.

Walter Buchanan is president of ASEE.

Officer and Innovator

Outstanding Teacher Col. Bobby Grant Crawford

There’s hands-on learning, and then there’s the seat-of-the-pants lesson gained inside a cockpit, where textbook-based calculations don’t always match the data and measurements of an actual flight. “The common misperception is that the equations and theories always give the right number,” Associate Prof. Bobby Grant Crawford tells his West Point mechanical engineering students. “There are eddies and currents that affect the aircraft. Theory is useful, but real life is unpredictable.”

Whether encouraging students to “wiggle the stick” of an aircraft or compete in an unmanned vehicle competition, Crawford, a seasoned pilot, Army colonel, and winner of ASEE’s 2012 National Outstanding Teaching award, gives them a taste of real life while opening up, in his words, “new and exciting realms where they have never traveled.” Described as “the consummate educator” by a colleague, Col. Daisie Boettner, he has helped scores of U.S. Military Academy undergraduates navigate a steady engineering path over the past 11 years through a combination of engaging projects, rapport, and personal example.

Now head of USMA’s mechanical engineering program, Crawford began honing his teaching skills as a junior officer and West Point instructor in 1995, fresh from earning a master’s in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech. Six years later, he was tapped for a fully funded Ph.D. program at the University of Kansas, and he joined the USMA’s permanent faculty in 2004. He has taught 14 different courses and advised more than 100 students in independent study and senior capstone design projects. Deployed to Afghanistan in 2009, he developed a 48-lesson aeronautics course and textbook for undergraduate trainees of the fledgling Afghan Air Corps.

The numerous curriculum changes he has led include combining fluid mechanics and thermodynamics into a two-course sequence and designing a mechanical engineering sequence for humanities majors. He also was instrumental in improving the engineering program’s manufacturing and lab capacity, personally procuring funding for a laser cutter/engraver and other equipment. An avid woodworker, Crawford launched an annual contest — in which he competes alongside students – to design and manufacture class-ring containers.

Crawford’s most important innovation, however, may be the classroom environment he creates with hands-on demonstrations — such as taking his aircraft performance class up in one of the mechanical engineering department’s two planes — and attention to each student’s learning style and interests. “It’s easy to be the expert in a subject, but it’s hard to develop the rapport, to engage the students and help them gain that knowledge,” Crawford explains. To break the ice, he regularly begins class by asking students what they want to know about mechanical engineering, the Army, or anything else. A typical question: What’s it like to fly a helicopter? He also administers a learning-styles inventory to identify how students absorb information — most are visual or sequential learners — and uses the opportunity to ask about their interests and lives.

This rapport-building didn’t come naturally. “I had to get out of my comfort zone,” says Crawford, an introvert who plans classes with minute-by-minute precision. But by now, he’s able to convey his own excitement. “Colonel Crawford’s enthusiasm for heat transfer is contagious,” wrote Jill Seidel, a mechanical engineering major in the West Point class of 2007, in a letter of support for his award.

Crawford, chair of ASEE’s Zone 1 Council of Sections, says he will “work with students to the bitter end” if they are motivated to stick with engineering. And he doesn’t leave motivation totally up to chance. One of his past ASEE conference papers is titled, “Teaching Mechanical Engineering to the Highly Uninspired.”

Mary Lord, deputy editor of Prism.


ASEE campus representatives were honored at the annual conference for their success in recruiting new members at their schools. Societywide winners were Wayne Davis, dean of engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and James Moore, associate dean of engineering at the University of Southern California, who shared top honors for most new members recruited. Robert Nelson, from the University of Wisconsin Stout, took the award for highest percentage faculty membership. Accepting for Nelson were incoming campus representatives Cheng Liu and Dean Jeffrey Anderson.

On the heels of this very successful year for campus reps, ASEE is launching a concerted, yearlong drive to attract new members. While membership numbers in recent years have neared record levels, ASEE’s “market share” of engineering and engineering technology faculty is lower than it could be.

Titled “ASEE Is Me,” the new campaign aims to communicate creatively and broadly the benefits of belonging to the premier engineering education society working across all disciplines. The campaign features engaged, high-achieving current members describing, in their own words, such professional benefits as networking opportunities, quality publications, and assistance in balancing competing professional priorities.

ASEE has developed a website – – specifically for the campaign and created several short videos compiled from on-camera interviews conducted among attendees at the 2012 annual conference. Different marketing strategies will be used to reach a variety of cohorts. ASEE has gathered testimonials from a cross section of members, diverse with respect to race, age, institution type, geographic region, and job title. In an effort to appeal to Research 1 faculty, for example, ASEE will feature Ann McKenna of Arizona State University stating, “Interactions at the annual conference help enhance my teaching and inform thinking about new directions for research.”

Various media and publication outlets have been identified with the aim of maximizing value on advertising buys and staff time. Members’ outreach ideas are welcome.

Nathan Kahl, ASEE director of communications. N.kahl@asee.org1


Organized around the theme “Spurring Big Ideas in Education,” ASEE’s 119th Annual Conference & Exposition combined a packed schedule of workshops, lectures, and panels with popular new events and off-hours strolls along San Antonio’s famed River Walk. A festive Division Mixer, spotlighting the work of numerous divisions, promises to be a keeper, as does the Main Plenary II, featuring the previous year’s Best Paper winners. Headliners included engineer-entrepreneur Randal Pinkett, a winner on TV’s The Apprentice, and Northrop Grumman’s Charles Volk.

The June 10-13 conference was preceded by ASEE’s inaugural International Forum, presented in collaboration with sister engineering education societies from China, India, Japan, Korea, and Malaysia, and the ninth annual K-12 Workshop on Engineering Education, where teachers plunged into hands-on activities they will take to their classrooms.

A large exhibition hall, showcasing the educational material and technology produced by ASEE’s corporate partners, provided a convenient venue for both poster presentations and the Meet the Board forum.

Besides the nightly E-newsletter, Conference Connection, this year’s gathering introduced ASEE TV, bringing interviews with key participants to attendees’ hotel rooms.

The conference culminated with the traditional Awards Banquet, installation of new board members, and a passing of the president’s gavel from Don P. Giddens to Walter Buchanan. Find more photos at


ASEE has launched a retention and time-to-graduation survey of engineering schools that will allow schools for the first time to measure their success against both a national benchmark and aggregate retention rates of selected peers. Currently, there is no public source at the national level of engineering retention rates and time to graduation. Reliable, broad-based data are essential for developing successful retention strategies.

Begun June 21, the survey asked participating schools to complete an institutional profile with information on admissions processes; the year that students enroll; types of programs that add time to graduation, such as co-op, dual-degree, or combined B.S./M.S. degree programs, and whether the school is public or private. This information will allow ASEE to develop a benchmark report that takes into consideration institutional characteristics that affect student retention and time to graduation.

After schools completed their profile, they downloaded a survey that is tailored to their school’s policy as to when they enroll students. A school that enrolls students during freshman, sophomore, and junior years will download a survey with data entry tabs for freshman, sophomore, and junior cohorts. A school that enrolls students during freshman year only will download a survey that contains only a freshman data entry tab. Schools create cohorts based on when students enter the school of engineering, and from that point on, no new students may be added to a cohort. Students are tracked to graduation for up to eight years. Transfer students are tracked separately.

ASEE will develop a benchmark report and will show aggregate data. Also, schools that participate in the survey will be able to log on to the survey and create aggregate reports based on their own selected peers. Schools will know the aggregate retention rate of their selected peers and their retention rank among their selected peers but will not know the rank of other schools.

The survey was part of a larger, ongoing ASEE study of student retention funded by Intel and the Sloan Foundation. The study includes a new ASEE report, “Going the Distance,” documenting more than 60 strategies and practices that were identified as effective in retaining students in engineering.

Brian L. Yoder, ASEE director of analysis, evaluation, and institutional research


From safe tap water to cellphone apps, engineering’s impact on daily life is obvious. Yet relatively few Americans — including science teachers and their students — know what engineers do or the fulfilling opportunities an engineering education can provide.

A new vision for K-12 STEM education now percolating in states could shatter that status quo. And engineering educators have a pivotal role as change agents. This summer, ASEE became a “critical stakeholder” in the nationwide effort to develop radically different science standards, with engineering as a fourth branch of science. That means members can help shape the way engineering and design are worked into science curricula across the country and ensure that future undergraduates become familiar with the field. “It’s a big opportunity that we shouldn’t squander,” says Elizabeth Parry, K-12 and Precollege Division chair and head of the recently formed ASEE committee overseeing this effort. Participants include two deans and two corporate members as well as K-12 division members. “We don’t want to be bystanders,” Parry adds. “We’re using our expertise and looking at the system and re-engineering it.”

The Next-Generation Science Standards (NGSS) represent a dramatic departure from current content standards. Based on a conceptual framework for K-12 science developed by the National Research Council, the NGSS emphasize broad, discipline-spanning concepts and put engineering practices on a par with traditional sciences. The terms “engineering” and “design” figure prominently, as do raised expectations that students must “do” science and engineering, not merely study them.

Only one of the 41 lead authors is an engineer, however. And a first public NGSS draft, released in June, contained few engineering specifics. By getting in on the NGSS ground floor as critical stakeholders, engineering educators can review the draft standards, suggest revisions, and help K-12 teachers incorporate authentic experiences and practices.

Some 26 states have pledged to consider adopting the new standards, which are being written by content experts and teachers in a process being managed by Achieve, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. Achieve expects to release two more drafts for public review before submitting the NGSS to states for approval. Even if engineering schools end up with only “a bump” in enrollment, Parry argues, “we’ll have more citizens who are scientifically and engineering literate.” That is why she hopes engineering educators will support the NGSS at the local and state levels. “It’s critical that engineering educators speak as one voice about what engineering is and what it can do for society.”

Mary Lord


All Divisions are ‘Publish to Present’

With a few exceptions, all conference papers must be submitted for peer review in order to be presented at the conference and, subsequently, published in the conference proceedings.

The process for the submission of ASEE annual conference papers is as follows: All authors must submit an abstract of their papers, to be reviewed and evaluated. Authors of accepted abstracts will be invited to submit a full paper draft to be reviewed by three engineering educators. A draft may be accepted as submitted, accepted with minor changes or major changes, or rejected. Successful review and acceptance of the full paper draft will produce a final paper to be presented at the annual conference. Exceptions to the “Publish to Present” requirement include invited speakers and panels.

Here are important dates in the process:

Sept. 21, 2012 — Deadline for abstract submission

Oct. 5, 2012 — Deadline for accepting or rejecting abstracts

Dec. 7, 2012 — Deadline for submission of draft paper

March 15, 2013 — Deadline for accepting or rejecting draft papers, or accepting draft papers pending changes

March 29, 2013 — Deadline for submitting final papers or revised draft papers

Abstracts for the conference must be submitted via ASEE’s web-based conference abstract/paper submission system, Monolith.

Go to the conference website to learn more and see the full Call for Papers from each ASEE division.


Prism and eGFI – Engineering, Go For It have together won 19 awards so far this year. The prizes include one for the eGFI teachers’ newsletter – ASEE’s first award for an electronic newsletter.


Distinguished Achievement Award winners:

  • Lung-I Lo, Prism cover design “Wheel of Hope,” October 2011
  • Stacie Harrison, eGFI Magazine 5th Edition, Pre K-12 Publication Design

Distinguished Achievement Award finalist:

  • Thomas K. Grose, Prism feature article “Hot Courses,” May-June 2011


Grand Award:

  • eGFI Magazine 5th Edition

Awards of Excellence:

  • eGFI Teachers Newsletter Team, The eGFI Teachers’ Newsletter
  • Joseph Wharton, print advertisement
  • Stacie Harrison, Prism cover design, “Meet the Freshmen of 2020,” January 2012
  • Mary Lord, Prism feature writing, “A Deeper Partnership,” January 2012
  • Thomas K. Grose, Prism news writing, “Get Fracking,” September 2011

The Communicator Awards

Gold Award of Excellence:

  • Don Boroughs, Prism feature article, “African Phoenix,” October 2011
  • Mary Lord, Prism feature article, “Preparing Future Engineers Around the World,” February 2011.
  • Jaimie Schock, Prism feature article, “Secrets Are Out,” October 2011

Silver Award of Distinction:

  • eGFI Magazine 5th Edition
  • Prism design, “Preparing Future Engineers Around the World,” February 2011
  • Prism cover design, “What They Like,” Summer 2011
  • Prism cover design, “Tour de Force,” September 2011
  • Prism cover design “Wheel of Hope,” October 2011
  • Prism feature article, “The Interdisciplinarian,”April 2011
  • Prism feature article, “Get Fracking,” September 2011
Plug-and-Play Labs
By John Robertson

Teaching electronics used to pose a costly challenge. Technology has changed that.

Engineering graduates are entering a job market that has changed significantly in the past decade. Today’s grads face consolidation, specialization, and intense pressure from the global marketplace. Job skill requirements are steadily rising because many tools have been automated to handle lower-level functions. Indeed, today’s jobs often cluster at the margins of expertise — either at the very low or very high end — while those in the traditional middle ground are becoming scarcer.

As educators, our task is to help students transition to this higher ground — in the case of engineers by making sure that they are equipped with good, practical multidisciplinary skills. To that end, we need to evolve beyond the traditional textbook-oriented curriculum to something more representative of today’s technology. The basics needn’t change, but if they are to be used effectively, they must be taught in the context of their current applications.

The pathways to that solution involve more hands-on experience, self-paced labs, and the application of just-in-time principles to learning.

But hands-on learning defies a one-size-fits-all approach. Electronics, in particular semiconductor engineering, poses particular challenges. There are no moving parts, and the components are almost too small to see. In the sections where a digital system interfaces with the analog world, students need to learn that the circuit diagram rarely tells the complete story, and they have to provide the additional contextual specifications to make it function reliably.

Until recently, hands-on learning in electronics also meant steep instrumentation costs, which can run upwards of $100,000 to equip a lab with many identical workstations. Operating with few workstations resulted in limited access, a scheduling nightmare, and a constrained environment that stifled curiosity.

At Arizona State University Polytechnic, our approach to semiconductor engineering education is evolving rapidly and causing us to introduce new tools for teaching. The framework has been developed through collaboration with a strong network of local industry partners. We have found that simpler solutions are now possible as computer technology reaches into the realm of instrumentation. The pathways to that solution involve more hands-on experiences, self-paced labs, and the application of just-in-time principles to learning.

For our introductory microelectronics course, we use plug-and-play kits from companies such as Analog Devices Inc. Students experience good precision signal processing at about $150 per kit (which includes power supplies, function generators, and oscilloscopes). The kit becomes the lab. The portable analog design kits allow students to do the lab work on their own hours, whether in a campus lab or at home. The constraint has been shifted from the institution to the student.

These experimental kits for students function like just another computer peripheral connected to the USB port. Students need only learn the simple interface once and can then use it for a wide range of applications. Since it’s easy to set up an experiment, students can put more thought into what to measure and into analyzing the outcomes.

Use of the kits is particularly attractive to the large number of students who live some distance from campus and often also have full-time jobs. Students set their own pace to reach their solutions. In many cases, they have big gaps in their educational experience, which shows up quickly in the application of concepts in practical work. Invariably, they meet the usual problems of instrument-experiment interaction. When they have to identify their own problem and then pose a solution, it means much more than if they simply follow a carefully sanitized procedure. For those who need help, we can offer just-in-time tutorials. I’ve found that talking with students about what can go wrong is as important as demonstrating how a system should work.

Along the way, our students are learning the great thing about the practical analog world — there are pitfalls for the careless or poorly prepared, but there is also great satisfaction when good solutions are demonstrated. They’re getting equipped for a workplace where they will have to tackle problems with no textbook solutions — and no red flags when they’ve made a mistake.

John Robertson is a professor in the Department of Engineering, College of Technology and Innovation, at Arizona State University, and a former Motorola executive responsible for new product design. He can be reached at