December 2012

Cover Story: Delivering Big Data
How computer scientists convert information overload into valuable, even lifesaving knowledge.
By Thomas K. Grose

When Superstorm Sandy slammed ashore 5 miles south of Atlantic City, N.J., the night of October 29, where and when it hit came as no surprise. Thanks to supercomputers able to sift through ever higher mountains of data – collected from planes that fly into storms, satellites, ground stations, and weather balloons – and advances in modeling technology, forecasters had pretty much pinpointed 48 hours earlier where it would make landfall. Evan a four-day tracking forecast “is as accurate as was the two-day forecast just 15 years ago,” says Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center. “In other words, communities have gained two days of preparation time.”

Forecasters’ success in tracking Sandy, one of the worst storms ever to hit the East Coast, offers a high-profile example of the ways scientists and researchers harness and extract wisdom from a growing deluge of digital information, known by the buzzwords Big Data. Measured in petabytes, terabytes, and zettabytes, Big Data is no passing fad. Researchers predict that a capability to use artificial intelligence tools to cope with, analyze, and combine hoards of disparate data sets, structured and unstructured, will unleash countless breakthroughs in science, medicine, commerce, and national security, ultimately helping us to live healthier, safer, and more enjoyable lives. “There is simultaneous interest in Big Data from academia, government, and industry, and that bodes well,” says Naren Ramakrishnan, a professor of engineering in Virginia Tech’s computer science department. A report last year by the World Economic Forum called Big Data a new class of economic asset. In healthcare alone, says the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., effective use of Big Data could create more than $300 billion in value in a year, with two thirds of that coming from annual reductions in costs of around 8 percent.

Recognizing Big Data’s potential, the Obama administration announced last March that it would spend $200 million on a research-and-development initiative – via such agencies as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Departments of Defense and Energy — to improve ways to access, store, visualize, and analyze massive, complicated data sets. For example, the Energy Department is spending $25 million to launch a new Scalable Data Management, Analysis and Visualization Institute at its Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. And beyond the White House initiative, the Pentagon is spending in additional $250 million on Big Data research.

The term Big Data is actually an understatement. The amount of global data should hit 2.7 zettabytes this year, then jump to 7.9 zettabytes by 2015. That’s roughly equivalent to more than 700,000 Libraries of Congress, each with a print collection stored on 823 miles of shelves. A zettabyte is two denominations up from a petabyte. Big Data is also fairly new: IBM estimates that fully 90 percent of the data in the world today didn’t exist before 2010. Where does it all come from? Well, a short list would include news feeds, tweets, Facebook posts, search engine terms, documents and records, blogs, images, medical instruments, RFID signals, and billions of networked sensors constituting the Internet of Things. “The amount of data is going sky high,” says Mark Whitehorn, a professor of computing at Scotland’s University of Dundee. “There’s a reason why it was not collected back in the day.”

Early Indicators

Cloud computing – networks of thousands of warehouse-size data centers – means we can now collect and store vast amounts of data at relatively low cost. And the processing power of today’s supercomputers means it can be searched and crunched – again, at little expense. That capability is powering EMBERS (for early model-based event recognition using surrogates), a multiuniversity, interdisciplinary team headed by VT’s Ramakrishnan that uses “surrogates” to predict societal events before they happen. What are surrogates in this context? Well, if you fly over a country at night, luminosity can give you a pretty good gauge of its economic output. The points of light below can, for instance, indirectly indicate how much big industry it has and its locations. That makes luminosity a surrogate. And when you have enough surrogate information, it can also act as an early indicator of things to come. That’s certainly true of the mounds of public information now available to researchers in massive data sets. Everything from news feeds to tweets to search-engine commands are chock-full of myriad surrogates that, properly mined and analyzed, can forecast a range of events, from epidemics to violent protests to financial market swings.

These days, Ramakrishnan is engulfed in a sea of surrogates. In May, EMBERS won a three-year contract potentially worth $13.36 million from the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, the research arm of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The group was tasked with creating algorithms that can issue early warnings of potentially destabilizing events in Latin America, such as strikes, spread of infectious disease, or ethnic empowerment movements. Such events might be predicted based on changes in communication, consumption, and movement in a population. “It’s a big challenge,” Ramakrishnan says of tracking and analyzing rapidly changing data. “How do you do it automatically, and on the fly?” When an earthquake hit Virginia last year, Ramakrishnan notes, tweets from the epicenter were read by New Yorkers before the quake’s shock waves rattled the city mere seconds later.

To make worthwhile use of this information, researchers need to design new algorithms that can burrow through petabyte-level data sets and find insights. “The statistical tools we have were developed for a much different, smaller scale,” says Jan Hesthaven, a professor of applied mathematics at Brown University. The algorithms must also enable users to keep pace as the amount of data expands, explains Michael Franklin, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley. “As data grow to the petabyte level, it slows algorithms,” says Franklin, whose Algorithms, Machines, and People Lab (AMPLab) was awarded $10 million from the Obama initiative. Moreover, as these systems add more and more computers, the likelihood of partial system failures grows. So algorithms also need to be fault tolerant. In many cases – as with EMBERS – it’s also necessary for algorithms to work in real time as data keep streaming in, and from data sets that are very different from one another and not always that clean. “The ultimate goal is to perform analyses on terabyte and petabyte amounts of information that are constantly changing,” says Adam Barker, a computer science lecturer at the University of St. Andrews.

Of course, algorithms developed for one set of problems can also be applied to other sorts of data. Algorithms created to track, say, proteins, might also be useful in scoping out market anomalies. It all comes down to looking for patterns. “The basic math does not change,” Ramakrishnan says. That said, algorithms will have to be tweaked to answer the questions being asked. If data mining is looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack, then “some people care about the needle, others care about the hay,” Hesthaven says. Data scientists often must work with specialists in other disciplines. The EMBERS group collaborates with experts on Latin America who would know, for instance, if a flood of search-engine queries for a certain locally popular herbal remedy signals an epidemic. With calibration from experts on other regions, the models EMBERS develops could be used to detect emerging problems elsewhere in the world.

If supercomputers can say where and when a hurricane hits the coast, they can also predict wind patterns and enable power companies to overcome the problems caused by intermittent sources of energy, such as turbines. Researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory have put their supercomputers to use to make wind power forecasts more accurate and begun developing tools to predict the impact of wind power on systemwide electric grid emissions. Argonne’s supercomputers have also been used by Boeing engineers as virtual wind tunnels to simulate the effects of turbulence on aircraft landing gear.

Detecting Anomalies

The flip side of simulations is visualizations, presenting data graphically so they’re more easily understood by scientists. “We humans are very good at detecting anomalies and changes if data are presented to take advantage of that characteristic,” says Robert Calderbank, dean of natural sciences at Duke University. David Ebert, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue University, agrees: “The fact is that humans have evolved an ability to process information quickly, visually. People trust their eyes.” Carnegie Mellon University robotics researchers have created a browser called Gigapan Time Machine, which visualizes simulations built from archived data. It allows users not only to pan and zoom in and out of high-resolution videos but also to move back and forth in time. For example, you could focus on a building’s details, pull back for a panoramic view, or jet back into time to watch the building being built. This feature allows, say, astrophysicists to watch a simulation of the forming of the early universe, and to also zoom in to look at a specific region in detail. (For more on visualizations, see this month’s Up Close).

Beyond interpreting information and providing it in a form that’s easy to understand, effective use of Big Data requires being able to find what’s relevant in a data set. That’s where the Semantic Web comes in. It’s an effort to post data online in such a way that software crawling through them can understand the meaning behind the data. Jim Hendler, computer science department head at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a pioneer of the Semantic Web, says that in nearly 30 years of research almost every project he was involved with began with the question: Where do we get the data? Now it’s: How do we find exactly what we need? “We went from how to find information to how to filter it,” Hendler says, and the Semantic Web works as a filter.

Your DNA on a Card

In the foreseeable future, Big Data will probe more deeply into the mysteries of the universe. Franklin’s AMPLab, for instance, aims for algorithms that help find Earth-like planets. We’ll also get increasingly reliable climate-change models, faster medical research, and more precise delivery of healthcare. But perhaps the greatest breakthroughs will emerge from work that builds on the Human Genome Project. The ability to sequence a cancer patient’s specific genome to come up with tailored therapies is within reach. “That’s a big one,” Franklin says. “Next to that, everything else pales.” Indeed, it’s likely we’ll one day carry credit cards with our DNA sequenced on them to help doctors predict, and perhaps diminish, our risk of contracting various diseases.

A team at Dundee, meanwhile, is at work mapping the human proteome dynamics, a project more complex than mapping the genome because there is no single proteome, and the properties of thousands of cell proteins constantly change. Currently, many potentially useful drugs don’t reach the market because they could harm just a tiny fraction of the population. But since drugs work on cell proteins, knowledge of a patient’s proteome would let a physician find out, with a quick test, which drugs can be administered safely. In two to three years, the Dundee project is expected to yield one to five petabytes of data. “The computers of 10 years ago could not do this,” Whitehorn says. In as little as five years’ time, he adds, “we can improve the lives of a lot of people by producing better drugs.”

From the hospital bed to the street, Big Data holds the potential for saving lives, easing traffic congestion, fighting crime, helping first responders in emergencies, and gathering intelligence. The U.S. Department of Transportation is funding a $25 million Michigan study of 3,000 smart cars, buses, and trucks that have built-in data recorders and communicate with one another wirelessly to help avoid collisions and also warn drivers of hazardous conditions. Surveillance cameras could become more effective once they “have software behind them to try to predict crimes” based on silently recorded patterns of activity, Hesthaven says. Mind’s Eye, a project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is working on smart surveillance cameras that would collect images and forward only those relevant to intelligence collectors’ needs.


At Purdue, Ebert’s Visual Analytics for Command, Control, and Interoperability Environments (VACCINE) lab, funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is developing technologies for turning massive amounts of data into useful intelligence for domestic security personnel, including first responders. One project is working on gleaning information from photos, videos, sensor data, and 3-D models and crunching it into useful visual analytics that can be sent to mobile devices. This can include locations, time, temperatures, and possible toxins. “We ask, ‘What is the most salient information [responders] need?’” Ebert explains. Another VACCINE project is developing an automated algorithm that can detect possible plots or threats from “vast collections of documents.” While algorithms are great at scanning and finding patterns in mountains of data, “we need to keep humans in the loop” to ensure accuracy, Ebert says. For instance, while monitors may detect that hundreds of burglar alarms are going off in one area, a machine won’t draw any inference from that. But a human might quickly deduce there’s been an earthquake.

For supercomputers really to deliver the right information on demand, they need to communicate in natural language. At least, that’s the theory behind IBM research involving Watson, the machine famed for winning the game show Jeopardy!, which can digest and analyze 200 million pages of data in three seconds. Currently assisting medical researchers at Los Angeles’s Cedars Sinai Cancer Institute, soon to be joined by the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University, Watson could ultimately not only help physicians make diagnoses but also be able to take questions from doctors in natural language. And if it can grasp words, why not read? At Carnegie Mellon University, the Never-Ending Language Learner, or NELL, is teaching itself to read and comprehend information from millions of Web pages. So far, it has accumulated more than 15 million “beliefs,” and is “highly confident” that 1.8 million of them are accurate. For instance, it’s 93.8 percent certain that “dairy cow is a mammal.” OK, so it’s in the early days.

Not surprisingly, Big Data has re-energized computer science schools and departments that saw flat or declining enrollment not many years ago. Academics say classes are now mostly full and new courses and degree programs in data science are being added. Berkeley’s Franklin says his AMPLab has 18 corporate sponsors, in part because they’re keen to recruit his graduates. McKinsey & Co. forecasts that within six years, the United States could face a shortage of up to 190,000 people “with deep analytical skills.” Says Barker: “There are so many jobs in this area right now that Big Data engineers and data scientists can pretty much name their own salaries. There is not enough talent to fill the jobs.” For students, that means Big Data is a big deal.

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

Einsteins on the Beach
Japan looks to a remote institute for a technological reboot.
By Lucille Craft

ONNA VILLAGE, OKINAWA, JAPAN — With its ferocious typhoons, sprawling U.S. military bases, and underachieving economy, Okinawa seems an unlikely beachhead for academic greatness. Yet here in a sleepy hamlet better known for seaweed and scuba diving, Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, has unveiled near the capital of its southernmost prefecture the country’s first truly international research institution, the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology.

This fall, an inaugural class of 34 doctoral students from half as many countries joined this graduate university, which harbors ambitions well beyond advanced science. Japan’s newest research university “isn’t just a stand-alone project,” says John Dickison, who manages buildings on the futuristic, eco-friendly campus. “This is the core of the rejuvenation of Japan – not just Okinawa.”

The school was first conceived by Koji Omi, the country’s powerful minister of science and technology in 2001 and 2002 who subsequently assumed the mantle of minister of finance. In 2001, he also served as minister of Okinawa, which helps explain his choice of site. Unique among institutions of higher education in Japan, OIST falls under the jurisdiction of the prime minister, not the Education Ministry.

“OIST could not happen if it was located on the main island,” says Hiroaki Kitano, a faculty member known as the “father” of Sony’s robot dog, who has helped guide this unusual project. Were OIST in a major Japanese city, Kitano reckons, the scrutiny and pressure to accommodate vested interests would have sealed its fate. But at a 1,000-mile remove from Tokyo, “OIST is so distant, I think many professors in existing universities thought this was a joke – a waste of money!” Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a science adviser to the Japanese cabinet and a frequent critic of the country’s higher education establishment (Prism, November 2012), agrees that locating OIST far from the center was essential to its mission. In Japan, he says, “change always comes from the periphery.”

By building from scratch in a neglected corner of the country, OIST’s founders say they’ve been able to capture what many other established colleges around the globe aspire to but fall short of – the ultimate “flat,” hierarchy-free university. “No one,” says OIST President Jonathan Dorfan, “really runs an educational research institution in the world like this.” While cross-disciplinary studies and collaboration-boosting schemes have become the sine qua non from Boston to Beijing, OIST represents one of the most radical efforts yet, and a dramatic departure from the entrenched silos at most Japanese universities.

Underwritten by Japanese taxpayers to the tune of $987 million, with about $130 million annually for operations, OIST has no departments. All professors – five of whom hold engineering degrees – make up a single faculty spanning 50 research units in neuroscience, biology, physics and chemistry, environmental and ecological sciences, and mathematical and computational sciences. The presence of so many non-Japanese is also a departure, though the mix has been carefully considered: Nearly 50 faculty and most students are foreign. The school seeks to eventually support about 100 students, equally balanced between Japanese and foreigners. Of the 260 researchers, a bit fewer than half are non-Japanese. The lingua franca in classes and across campus is English.

Housed on a bluff overlooking the azure East China Sea, “the experiment,” as faculty members call it, is designed at every turn to get its denizens to cross paths and their ideas to collide. Door-free labs, an art-filled entrance tunnel, and skywalks connecting labs and classrooms were designed to encourage mingling. The spartan décor of typical Japanese science departments has been replaced with pastels and wood paneling, giving labs the feel of a high-end medical suite. Office space is deliberately assigned to mix éminences grises with associate professors and nanoscientists with geneticists and physicists, so that, not unlike at a carefully planned party, specialists from unrelated fields gradually drop their inhibitions and geeky jargon to share ideas.

Response from OIST’s academics has been positive. “It’s much more fun,” says faculty Chairman Ulf Skoglund. “You don’t become too much of a nerd. It’s better if you have more language, if you can communicate with people who are not in your field. Collaboration is highly correlated to success.”

“I could put together a team consisting of information science, neurobiology, and robotics in the same group,” says Kenji Doya, a mathematical engineer turned neuroscientist who sports a spiky crew cut and has a passion for triathlons. Head of the neural computation unit, he shows off his latest progeny, a small herd of

cyber-rodents that mimic animal behavior. “Such highly interdisciplinary work,” he says, “is very difficult to do anywhere in the world.”

Across campus, scholars from marine biophysics and quantum wave microscopy have joined forces to create a prototype windmill powered by ocean currents. Evolutionary biologist Alexander Mikheyev ended up lending his expertise in DNA and protein composition to an art conservator. She was trying to restore a century-old Okinawan musical instrument known as the sanshin, a kind of banjo, but was flummoxed over which creature’s hide she was dealing with.

“If you’re an evolutionary biologist, you’d [tend to] interact with other evolutionary biologists,” says Mikheyev, noodling with a music stand under his desk and wearing a T-shirt that reads Take me To Your Cluster. “You’d never talk to ecologists. Here you can have lunch with a physicist or scientists who don’t even do traditional research.”

“This Is Heaven”

Students are jolted out of their academic comfort zones, too, required to rotate through coursework outside their expertise. Sakurako Watanabe, 25, a Japanese student with a startlingly thick brogue – the byproduct of a neuroscience degree obtained in Scotland – laughs nervously as she confronts her mandated course load of physics next semester: “I have no idea what I’m going to do! The last time I did physics was in high school.” But for those who chafe at the confines of conventional majors, the freewheeling air of OIST can be intoxicating. Egyptian Mohamed Abdelhack, 23, an electrical engineering major pursuing the “brain-computer interface” and now training in biology, is a poster child for the school’s silo-free curricula. “This,” he says, “is heaven.”

About a third of the students hail from life-science backgrounds, another third from the physical sciences. Eight have an engineering background. Applicants undergo an intense vetting process, including interviews on the Okinawa campus. Faculty chairman Skoglund says candidates “should have a genuine interest in science – not just a job.” While graduate education typically involves students assisting in an adviser’s research, OIST “wouldn’t be a good place for someone who likes to follow instructions for five years,” says Mikheyev. Favored are self-starters who “take basic science and find applications for it.”

Attracting renowned professors to a place most would have trouble locating on a map proved to be less of a hard sell than administrators had originally feared. With guaranteed research funds, lighter teaching loads, and state-of-the-art lab equipment, Skoglund says they needed little persuading. A specialist in cryo-electromicroscopy, which involves 3-D reconstructions of molecules, Skoglund had seen the budget dwindle at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, his home institution. “I couldn’t even get money to hire a postdoc,” he says. Comments OIST’s Dorfan, a renowned particle physicist who arrived in late 2009 after serving as director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center: “The notion that there’s still an opportunity to have strong support for independent ideas, for discovery-oriented science… the opportunities are dwindling around the world.”

Boondoggle or Future Promise?

With the highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the industrialized world, Japan, of course, is hardly immune to financial realities. But Dorfan says the school’s heavy government subsidies are secure for at least 10 years, until it can begin to attract grants on its own. “The commitment by the Japanese government is obviously strong,” he says dryly, “or we wouldn’t be here.”

While OIST has hit its initial targets of securing funds, well-known professors, and a strong entering class, its mission to help turn around the struggling island of Okinawa is more daunting. Forty years after its reversion from U.S. occupation, and despite public injections of well over $100 billion, Okinawa still ranks next to last in per capita income of 47 prefectures as of 2009, the latest figure available. It has the country’s worst rate of unemployment and divorce, and supports one of the highest numbers of welfare recipients. In scores for primary and secondary scholastic achievement, Okinawa ranks dead last.

In 2010, a Businessweek column dismissed OIST as “Okinawa’s Doomed Innovation Experiment.” The effort to build a Silicon Valley-type industrial high-tech cluster, it argued, was destined to become just another bureaucratic boondoggle without comprehensive measures such as free-trade incentives, an upgrade of the public education system, and a hands-off approach from government.

“We understand what all the hurdles are,” says Dorfan, one of the few staff at OIST who favor buttoned-down shirts, eschewing the unofficial school uniform of sandals, T-shirts, and kariyushi, Okinawa’s answer to the Aloha shirt. He notes that it took decades for a robust industrial cluster to form around Stanford. Success, he says, “is by no means an unreasonable expectation.”

Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons OIST could impart is something it doesn’t take pains to advertise. High-skilled, foreign-born immigrants have been vital to the success of engineering and tech start-ups in the United States, accounting for a quarter of all high-tech ventures in America. By contrast, Japan remains hampered by its homogenous society and an ingrained resistance to immigration, despite a fast-shrinking and graying population. If OIST can be nurtured as a successful international research center, its example could help shake up Japanese academe and put the country on an innovation track.

Lucille Craft is a freelance print and broadcast journalist based in Tokyo.

WOW the Audience
Many engineering students lack the communications skills they will need to succeed professionally. Here’s how educators are working to fix that.
By Thomas K. Grose

Lisa D. Bullard, director of undergraduate studies in the department of chemical and biomolecular engineering at North Carolina State University (NCSU), spent nine years working for Eastman Chemical Co. So she knows what it takes to succeed as an engineer. That’s why Bullard likes to ask students in her Professional Development class how much time they think they’ll spend on the technical aspects of their jobs versus on documentation and communications. Invariably, they guess 75 percent of their duties will involve all things technical. “And I have to tell them, no, it’s the opposite,” says Bullard.

The workplace reality check tends to stun aspiring engineers, many of whom gravitated to engineering as a way to focus entirely on science, math, and technology while dodging dreaded English and speech classes. “Most students would rather spend their time doing calculations,” says Audra Morse, associate dean for undergraduate studies at Texas Tech University, “and we have to tell them that those calculations aren’t of much use if they can’t explain them to their boss.” Beyond explaining the numbers, engineers are expected to make formal oral presentations, run meetings, and quickly pitch ideas to teammates or clients. Civil and environmental engineers in particular may have to regularly address the public and field questions at hearings or community meetings. And all engineers will need to talk their way through job interviews over the course of their career. Indeed, communication skills are considered so crucial that ABET requires engineering schools to ensure their graduates have picked some up along the way.

The accrediting body lets schools decide how to meet that requirement, however. Many still opt to farm out the chore to English and media departments, where classes often emphasize writing rather than speaking. But a number of engineering schools across the country—including NCSU, Texas Tech, and Vanderbilt—have started to address that imbalance. Some have developed communications classes geared strictly for engineering students that place a stronger, often equal, focus on public-speaking skills. Others, like Bucknell University, integrate communications lessons into engineering courses. At Texas Tech, Dean Fontenot teaches Professional Communications for Engineers, a course she developed a decade ago. It’s service learning based—students work on actual, budgeted projects for local community groups and government agencies, ranging from animal shelters to NASA—and requires students to give six oral presentations. Vanderbilt’s Technical Communications course was designed by Julie E. Sharp, an associate professor of the practice of technical communications, and it includes three major oral presentations. Meanwhile, Daniel Cavanagh and Joseph Tranquillo, both associate professors of biomedical engineering at Bucknell, have developed a series of oral and written exercises or assignments that have been incorporated into nearly all of the dozen engineering courses required by their department.

“Delivery Is Another Story”

How badly do engineering students need help honing their oral communications skills? The need varies from school to school. Bullard’s professional development course, which she coteaches with chemical engineering professor David Ollis, focuses on written lessons for half the semester, with the remaining time divided equally between oral skills and professional development. That’s because while most of her students are decent at public speaking, “their writing skills often leave something to be desired.” Over the past 14 years, Bucknell’s Cavanagh has noticed more first-year students arriving on campus with stronger presentation skills, probably because they get practice in high school. Still, he finds that all students need help improving their delivery. Vanderbilt’s Sharp agrees. Most students can come up with content and organize it, she says, “but delivery is another story.”

Among the most common weaknesses instructors see is looking down at the floor instead of the audience. “You have to be credible, and the only way to do that is with eye contact,” Fontenot tells her students. Along with staring at their feet, students make the mistake of reading from sheets of paper, notecards, laptops, or slides. Since engineers must learn to talk extemporaneously—which requires knowing their material backward and forward—Vanderbilt’s Sharp urges students to think of PowerPoint slides as the backdrop of a speech. “The focus is on you,” she tells them. Fontenot reminds her students that public speakers must be ready to give a talk even if their PowerPoint presentation conks out. Voice projection is another skill students must work on, she adds, because many initially have a bad case of the mumbles.

Understanding the audience and preparing remarks accordingly is another important communications tool. It’s fine to use jargon, abbreviations, and mind-numbing numbers with other engineers, cautions Fontenot, but bosses, clients, and colleagues typically aren’t engineers, and thus don’t grasp “engineeringese.” When Fontenot’s students designed components for a mock Orion space capsule for NASA last year, the working engineers they spoke with no doubt understood their jargon. But engineers must also be prepared to deal with clients who, for example, run animal shelters or arts centers. Many of Cavanagh’s bioengineering students must work with physicians. Although doctors may be comfortable with math and science, he advises his students, they are not engineers and thus it’s best to use clear, nontechnical English when speaking to them.

“Elevator Pitch”

It is also important, instructors say, to keep the lessons as realistic as possible. That’s why Fontenot designed her class to incorporate service-learning projects that require students not only to interact with nonengineers but also to stick to, and make presentations about, budgets on deadline. Such projects also enliven the class for budding engineers, who typically enjoy hands-on activities. To inject a bit of real life into his assignments, Bucknell’s Cavanagh tries to impose “realistic limitations” on students, including varying the length of time they have, the number of PowerPoint slides they can use, or the locale. For his senior design class last spring, Cavanagh recruited a dozen top administrators and had each student literally give an “elevator pitch” to one of these “executives” about the device they were designing during a one-minute, 50-second elevator ride. Because students didn’t know when their turn would come, there was an added element of surprise. One clever undergraduate, in anticipation of the pitch, loaded images of his device into his smartphone. Cavanagh admits the exercise was a bit “corny,” but notes, “The students received good feedback, and they really enjoyed the experience.” To add verisimilitude to her class, Sharp recruited a cadre of Vanderbilt engineering alumni to conduct mock interviews. “It’s great practice,” she says, “and it also lets students start to build up a [career] network.”

Not surprisingly, one thing many students must conquer is knee-knocking terror. “Studies have shown people fear death less than they fear public speaking,” Sharp says. To help ease those anxieties, she treats her class as one big, supportive family. Ahead of the first oral presentation, for example, students can practice in groups, where they tend to give helpful suggestions. In-class critiques always accentuate the positive, and everyone gets a round of applause. “No one is put on the spot in front of the class,” says Sharp, who later gives students more candid and critical appraisals, one-on-one. Bucknell takes a tough-love approach, with some student presentations videotaped, played back in class, and critiqued. “The students don’t like it,” Cavanagh admits, “but they can see how the critiques are justified if they’re fiddling with their keys or holding a large sheet of paper, because it’s distracting.”

Assessing how well a student “performs” an oral presentation can require instructors to be subjective. Most tend to use scoring rubrics with easily identifiable points. At Bucknell, Cavanagh says, faculty members discuss and reach general agreement on what strengths they’re looking for, so there is little variance from class to class. Additionally, he says, students are measured using different baselines. Those who start with relatively polished speaking techniques are judged differently from students with initially shaky skills. “We’re looking for progress,” Cavanagh says, noting that all wind up on the same par.

Ultimately, instructors find that even their most reluctant or grudging public speakers come to understand the professional need for good oral presentation skills. “Engineers tend to be very pragmatic,” Sharp says. In fact, she adds, “I’ve been told by students that this was the most practical course they’ve had at Vanderbilt, and the most valuable.” Coming from engineers, that kind of praise speaks volumes.

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

Big Impact
By Mark Matthews

A generation from now we may look back on the Internet as just one phase in a long revolution. If so, a new phase is well under way, as Tom Grose explains in our cover story on Big Data. The Internet’s search and sharing functions, combined with ever faster computing as predicted by Moore’s Law, have given us access to immense amounts of information. By 2015, the world will contain the digital equivalent of some 700,000 Libraries of Congress. Now computer scientists are finding ways to crunch the numbers and extract meaning from these huge data sets. Their tools, researchers predict, will enable breakthroughs in science, medicine, commerce, and national security. Lifesaving possibilities include early warning of epidemics and medical prescriptions that fit a person’s DNA. Increasingly, these data tools will become simpler to use and widely available, thanks to work by researchers like Cecilia Aragon, a pioneer in human-computer interaction and the subject of our Up Close profile.

It may seem odd for a nation that introduced the Prius and is a leader in robotics to find itself in a rut, but that’s Japan in 2012, struggling to recover from last year’s tsunami and nuclear disasters. There are glimmers of hope amid the gloom, however. One is the new research institute on the Okinawa coast described by Lucy Craft in “Einsteins on the Beach.” Our headline shamelessly borrows from the title of an opera by Philip Glass, but it fits the world-class ambitions of this graduate-level haven that flouts many Japanese academic conventions.

Elsewhere in Prism, you’ll find biographies of candidates for ASEE’s Board of Directors, as well as their statements. In Last Word, Tom Peterson offers priorities for engineering from the perspective of his four years at the National Science Foundation.

While we strive to put out the best magazine possible, we at ASEE want to make sure it continues to interest readers. So we’re asking you to join in an online survey intended to elicit what people like or dislike, and where we can improve. (You won’t miss the stunning survey ad by our designer, Yajaira Lockhart.)

We hope you enjoy this month’s Prism. We look forward to your comments.

Mark Matthews


Climate Science

Extreme Ice

Breathtakingly vast, Greenland’s ancient ice sheet turns out to be as fragile as it is formidable. Huge chunks—one twice the size of Manhattan—splintered with thunderous cracks from its giant glaciers this summer. NASA scientists also were stunned to see the whole 660,235-square-mile surface briefly turn into slush. Environmental photographer James Balog has spent the last five years documenting the impact of Earth’s big thaw on 16 glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Nepal, Alaska, and the U.S. Rocky Mountains. His stunning new book, Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers, culls glittering images of frozen landscapes transformed by erosion and meltwater from among scores of photos snapped every half-hour by 34 time-lapse cameras. Each freezes a fleeting moment in our changing climate. – Mary Lord

Crop Science

Unconventional Wisdom

Are hybrid farms the future of American agriculture? An eight-year study conducted at Iowa State University indicates the idea is worth further cultivation. Researchers divided a 22-acre plot of prime farmland into three fields. In the first, they planted corn one year, soybeans the next—a crop rotation typically employed by Midwest farmers—and used lots of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Crops in the second field were on a three-year rotation cycle using corn, soy, and oats, with red clover planted during the winter and plowed into the soil in the spring to replenish it. In the third field, corn, soy, oats, and alfalfa were rotated on a four-year cycle; the alfalfa was fed to animals whose manure fertilized the field. Rather than eschew chemicals, the researchers just used them tactically, and in low doses. Result: After eight years, the longer-rotation fields used eight times less herbicide than the traditional field, and 86 percent less chemical fertilizer. There was also a 200-fold reduction in toxins leaching into groundwater in the experimental fields. The study, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, also determined that the experimental fields were as productive and profitable as the conventional one. Though the hybrid approach requires more labor, higher wage costs were offset by savings from reduced chemical use. As one University of Illinois crop scientist told Wired: “Needing more labor means more jobs. It will be good for rural communities.” Not to mention the environment. – Thomas K. Grose

Advanced Manufacturing

Quick Sanitation

A University of Washington student group has won the $100,000 3D4D Challenge, sponsored by, a British charity that sees additive manufacturing as a means to bring social benefits to the developing world. The students designed Big Red, a 3-D printer that takes shredded plastic waste, melts it, and uses it as its “ink” to print composting toilets and parts for rainwater collection systems. Matthew Rogge got the idea while working with the Peace Corps in Africa and Latin America, where he realized it isn’t easy to build irrigation and sanitation systems without customized parts. The team will use the money to partner with the nonprofit company Water for Humans to try out the technology in Oaxaca, Mexico.

New York City sees 3-D printing as a budding new industry. Using a pair of nylon scissors only just printed, Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently cut the ribbon at the groundbreaking in Queens of the 25,000-square-foot Factory of the Future. The Dutch company behind the facility, Shapeways, offers people the opportunity to make, buy, and sell customized products fabricated by state-of-the-art 3-D printers. The site will house 50 giant printers capable of using a variety of materials, including acrylic, nylon, glass, ceramic, and precious metals. In true New York fashion, it will operate around the clock. – TG


Genetic Makeup

For $470 a pop, the Organic Pharmacy, in London’s chi-chi Chelsea district, offers customers a DNA test that will match them with skin-care and beauty products best suited to their skin. The 30-minute test is provided by geneOnyx, a cloud-based analysis company, which has licensed technology originating with Christofer Toumazou, a professor of biomedical engineering at Imperial College. Toumazou developed what the company says is a new class of semiconductor sequencing that’s relatively inexpensive and offers results quickly at the point of care. A saliva sample is deposited on a chip, which is plugged into a USB stick and inserted into a PC or smartphone, which, in turn, shoots the data to a cloud-based lab. The analyses can be tailored to any sequence of interest, and a version of the technology is already being used by several major drug companies in their genetic research. – TG

Energy Usage

Servers’ Big Appetite

Cloud computing. It sounds so, ahhh . . . airy, light, and clean. In actuality, it’s anything but, the New York Times reports. The super-warehouse-size data centers, crammed with servers, which make up the “cloud,” waste about 90 percent of the electricity they consume. Only 6 to 12 percent of the power is used to do calculations; the rest keeps servers idling, just in case they’re needed. They also have to be kept cool, so require a lot of air conditioning. Drawing around 30 billion watts of juice a year, the output of 30 nuclear power plants, the world’s data centers consume 1.5 percent of the globe’s total electricity. Search giant Google claims to be an exception. Not long after the Times article appeared, Google let the press into its Lenoir, N.C., center for a one-time-only peek and posted video tours on YouTube and Street View. Google says only 10 percent of the electricity it grabs from the grid is wasted. It has figured out a way to keep temperatures inside a comfortable 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Most of the heat generated by its servers flows into an enclosed “heat aisle” — where temperatures hit 120 degrees — and is then absorbed by coils and pumped outside. – TG

Audio Engineering

Adjustable Ambience

After lousy service, what diners dislike most in restaurants is noise, a survey by restaurant guide Zagat found. Earlier this year, the New York Times sampled 37 restaurants, bars, stores, and gyms, and found that noise levels were dangerously high in a third of them. Sound engineers told the Times that people drink and eat more when music is loud and fast. Such music also attracts a younger clientele. So how can a restaurant maintain a fun “buzz” without annoying customers? When John Paluska, who managed the band Phish for 17 years, opened a 3,000-square-foot Mexican restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., he contracted audio engineer John Meyer to install a sound-control system. Hidden within the restaurant are a variety of materials that dampen reverberation, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. But the restaurant, Comal, has also been fitted with 123 speakers, subwoofers, and microphones. The system captures the sound and then feeds it back into the restaurant. With an iPad, Paluska can microprogram the sound levels to vary from area to area. He tends to keep things hushed in the dining rooms and a bit louder in the bar area – enough, perhaps, to drown out stale pickup lines. – TG


Slime Fuel

You’ve heard of Minute Rice? How about 60-second Biocrude? Researchers at the University of Michigan have figured out how to “pressure cook” wet algae for no more than a minute, transforming 65 percent of the slimy plant into biofuel. “We’re trying to mimic the process in nature that forms crude oil with marine organisms,” explains chemical engineering Prof. Phil Savage. To do that, Savage’s team buries a capped steel pipe filled with Nannochloropsis micro-algae in sand heated to 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. After a minute, the algae reach 550 degrees; most have become biocrude, with 90 percent of the plant’s energy retained. The breakthrough could prove cheaper than current $20-a-gallon methods for making biofuel from algae, which require the algae to be dried first. Meanwhile, a recent National Research Council report warned that the massive amounts of energy, water, and nutrients needed to turn algae into biocrude remain big barriers to mass production. The report also noted “uncertainties” about the level of greenhouse gas emissions that would be released during production. A process like Michigan’s, that takes drying out of the equation, might one day make a more sustainable option. – TG


Singapore Showplace

When the new Singapore National Sports Stadium opens in 2014, it will boast the world’s largest domed roof. Constructed of ultrathin steel and retractable, the roof will weigh in at 8,881 tons and cover 215,278 square feet. The roof’s two sides will also house what the architecture and engineering firm Arup calls “the largest addressable LED screens in the world,” while around 3,000 LED lights will dot its steel trusses. Built to host soccer, rugby, cricket, and other athletic events, the 55,000-seat stadium will use an energy-efficient cooling system that delivers pockets of cool air to each seat. Such creature comforts will no doubt help to sell the 61 executive suites, which start at around $59,000 and top out at around $222,200. – TG


Identified Flying Objects

If the U.S. Air Force had had its way back in the 1950s, residents of Roswell, New Mexico, wouldn’t be the only ones claiming to have seen flying saucers. Recently declassified documents, including schematics, from the National Archives reveal plans to build a fleet of aircraft that looked like something straight out of a sci-fi movie. A cutaway view of Project 1794 from 1956 shows a saucer-shaped vehicle with a pilot’s cockpit housed in a bubble-like protuberance in the middle. The craft was designed for vertical takeoff and landing and flying at speeds of up to Mach 4 with a ceiling of 100,000 feet. Two prototype “proof of concept” subsonic versions of Project 1794 were built by the Canadian aeronautical firm Avro Aircraft. Tests, however, showed both to be unstable, and the Air Force canceled the project in 1961. – Pierre Home-Douglas

Naval Engineering

Small Craft Warning

Should conflict break out in the Persian Gulf, the Iranian navy cannot come close to matching the U.S. fleet in firepower. But Iran is capable of launching suicide attacks using small, fast boats. To counter this kind of threat, the U.S. Navy recently developed a robotic, 36-foot speedboat with an inflatable hull, equipped with Israeli-made Spike missiles, a .50-caliber machine gun, and night-vision cameras. In three days of tests off Maryland’s coast, the drone successfully launched six missiles at a target a mere two miles away. While the Air Force has for more than a decade used drones to fire air-to-surface missiles, the Navy has used them only defensively, mainly for sweeping mines. It hopes, however, to eventually use a flotilla of drones to patrol waters around its larger ships. But the robotic patrol boats could also be used to guard coastlines and to protect shipping traffic from pirate attacks. – TG

Disaster Engineering

Water Works

When floods inundate huge swaths of your city, who are you going to call? The Unwaterers! Part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Unwatering SWAT Team is a civilian crew of around a dozen engineers based in Rock Island, Ill. After Superstorm Sandy pummeled the East Coast on October 29, parts of New York City were submerged in 13 feet of water. Hundreds of millions of gallons filled five city subway lines, two train tunnels, and three major roadways. The SWAT team—composed of electrical, mechanical, and hydraulic engineers as well as emergency management experts—arrived a day later with a variety of impressive pumps, including one so powerful it can drain an Olympic-size swimming pool in 15 minutes. Unwatering, the art of removing water from places where it’s not meant to be, differs from dewatering, which is sucking water from places where it is OK for it to be. While New Yorkers may have chuckled at the team’s name, they clearly appreciated engineers who knew how to unwater their city’s critical transportation infrastructure. – TG


The following charts compare degrees awarded to foreign national students in engineering disciplines in 2001 and 2011. Foreign students represent a higher proportion of overall master’s and doctoral degree recipients than of bachelor’s degrees. The change in percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded to foreign national students from 2001 to 2011 was less than those awarded advanced degrees. The largest percent increases were for master’s degrees in electrical engineering, chemical engineering, and computer engineering. The largest percent decreases were for doctoral degrees in architectural engineering and mining.


Blue-Sky Visionary
By Mark Matthews

A former stunt pilot brings high tech down to Earth.

As a young, shy software consultant in the mid-1980s, Cecilia Aragon overcame a fear of flying to train as a stunt pilot, powering her single-engine prop plane through loops, spins, and rolls. Each time she went up and didn’t crash, flying became easier; indeed, everything became easier. She went on to perform in air shows, earn bronze medals in the National and World Aerobatic Championships, found a flight school, and develop curricula that prepared pilots for in-flight emergencies.

Nowadays, Aragon helps users of technology overcome less traumatic but nonetheless difficult barriers. A pioneer in the growing field of human-computer interaction, she directs the Scientific Collaboration and Creativity Lab in the University of Washington’s Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering. The navigation, visualization, and augmented-reality tools she has developed let everyone from pilots to consumers, scientists, and scholars digest complicated data in ways that save fuel or lives and make sense of the universe. Her innovations have won Aragon a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers and honors as one of Hispanic Business magazine’s Top 25 Women of 2009.

Aragon’s flying experience served her well when she turned to scholarship in the 1990s, pursuing a Ph.D. in computer science at the University of California, Berkeley and research at NASA’s Ames Research Laboratory. Recalling how, as a pilot, the only thing that alerted her to invisible, dangerous airflows was spotting the occasional dust devil (whirlwind) near a runway, she set out to change that, making it the subject of her thesis. With help from Navy flight-test engineers, she designed a visualization system to convey large amounts of airflow data from flight-deck sensors to a cockpit computer screen in real time. She made it vivid and simple enough for stressed helicopter pilots, with just a fleeting glance at the screen, to see where hazards loomed.

Moving to the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL), Aragon tackled the failure of programmable thermostats to deliver their promised 10 percent household energy savings. It turned out the new thermostats were so complicated to program that consumers gave up. “Manufacturers said, ‘Why not get out your manual?’ But most people don’t know where their manual is.”

A better system, Aragon says, would have a screen that instantly tells a user, “Your thermostat is not programmed,” and with the push of a button provide clear instructions for how to do it. Aragon, graduate student Daniel Perry, and fellow researchers came up with a set of “usability metrics” for manufacturers to employ in designing future thermostats. Taking note of such things as the number of button presses required per programming task, the metrics are now being studied by the Environmental Protection Agency, and may become design requirements for manufacturers.

At LBL and now at the University of Washington, Aragon has been intent on designing interfaces that make vast amounts of data understandable and that open up bottlenecks in scientific discovery. “What’s new about Big Data is the complexity” and size, she says. “It’s straining human comprehension.” Her development of the visual analytics system Sunfall is credited by LBL with eliminating 90 percent of the human labor required in the search for supernovae, the intense stellar radiation bursts that can outshine whole galaxies.

Aragon’s software lets scholars go where curiosity leads them. Recently, two University of Washington biologists, Jevin West and Carl Bergstrom, joined with the academic database JSTOR to find the contribution of women to scholarship over the centuries. The Hoptree visual navigation system developed by Aragon and graduate student Michael Brooks gives users easy access. Click on Sociology, for instance, and you’ll find that women contributed 31.5 percent of works overall and 49.9 percent of the subcategory labeled “sexual activity of adolescents.”

Aragon’s own curiosity runs to how kids interface with technology, and their emerging rich language of emoticons capable of conveying feelings.

The life of an associate professor currently leaves Aragon no time for aerobatics. But she’s not complaining. Teaching and mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, and seeing them grow into independent researchers, “makes me excited to go to work every morning,” she says, her enthusiasm defying the onset of a cold at the end of a long week. Though grounded, she’s soaring.

Mark Matthews is editor of Prism.

Reading a Transcript

Surprisingly few curricular changes have occurred since 1919.

In the course of preparing a lecture on the engineer turned artist Alexander Calder, I obtained a copy of his transcript from the archives of the Stevens Institute of Technology, from which he received the degree of Mechanical Engineer in 1919. I was struck by how similar the curriculum he followed was to the one I followed at Manhattan College almost a half century later.

Mathematics, physics, and chemistry, along with mechanics, mechanical drawing, and descriptive geometry, were common to our first two years. What distinguished Calder’s freshman and sophomore years from mine was that he took a required foreign language (his was Spanish), but I took none during my entire four years as an undergraduate engineering student. Nor did I take the shop practice courses that Calder did.

His junior and senior years were filled with technical courses and their associated laboratories, much as mine were and as engineering students’ are today. In fact, the overall basic mechanical engineering curriculum seems to have remained surprisingly unchanged over nearly a century. It now has more mathematics and less hand drafting, but a time-traveling student moving in either direction would not likely be disoriented, except perhaps by the presence or absence of computers.

Was there anything in Calder’s curriculum that hinted at his ultimately becoming a world-class artist? A critic or scholar looking for clues might find suggestions of his artistic invention, the mobile, in some of the mechanics textbooks, and might find inspiration for his flat-plate stabile constructions in the instruction in orthogonal projection. Virtually all engineering students were exposed to the same coursework, but Calder found artistic inspiration in it. The fact that his mother, father, and grandfather were practicing artists is more likely to have had a more direct influence on his turning to art after engineering.

Many a recent engineering graduate has gone into a profession other than engineering. Before the present economic crisis and downturn, the high salaries offered to problem solvers by financial and management consulting firms lured students away from traditional engineering careers. Today, it can be the ultimate goal of a career in law or medicine that makes an engineering degree a means rather than an end in itself. Some of today’s engineers may even become artists.

The one thing that definitely distinguishes Calder’s transcript from those of most of today’s engineering graduates is the number of courses and cumulative hours that were expected for the degree. An average semester for him involved about 32 hours per week in the classroom or laboratory and consisted of seven, eight, or nine distinctly graded courses. There were also additional courses taken in supplementary terms.

As increasingly complex as structures, machines, and the systems that operate and control them have become, many seasoned engineers wonder why current engineering curricula seem to demand less rather than more of today’s students. Part of the answer lies in the elimination of the dozen or so shop practice, surveying, and drawing-related courses that Calder took. And today, of course, increasingly students are being told by professors and employers alike that they should earn a master’s degree before entering the professional workforce.

Times and curricula have changed, but in fewer ways than might have been expected a century ago. Calder’s textbooks in mechanics, for example, and the problems and exercises they contain, look surprisingly familiar. It is not so much that their authors were prescient as that present-day ones are presenting the same timeless basics. We can only hope that among today’s students there are not a few who are inspired to be as inventive in engineering as Alexander Calder was in art.

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.

Our Reverse Brain Drain
By Vivek Wadhwa

U.S. immigration policies are sending entrepreneurial talent abroad.

“It breaks my heart when some of our brightest students — who graduated from the top of their classes in countries like India and China—are forced to leave. There aren’t enough work visas for them, and even when companies want to hire them, the arduous procedure of sponsoring them for a special exemption discourages them from doing so. And if the students want to start their own companies, the chance of approval has been historically even more slim. I have also noticed a distinct change over the last decade in what they say about their opportunities back home. Before, most considered the United States their only option. Now they have good opportunities back home.” This is what Tom Katsouleas, dean of the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University, told me when I interviewed him for my book.

Yannis C. Yortsos, dean of the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California, added that most of his school’s foreign students express a strong desire to stay in the United States for at least a few years after they graduate. But the tide is turning. “We have noted a trend for some Chinese students, particularly those from large cities, to return home as soon as they have good job opportunities at home. Similarly, students from India are also increasingly returning home after they have some work experience,” said Yortsos.

These comments explain the findings of our latest research on immigrant entrepreneurship.

In 1998, AnnaLee Saxenian, now dean of the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, documented that Chinese and Indian computer scientists and engineers were running one quarter of Silicon Valley’s tech firms. I worked with Saxenian in 2006 to update this research. We found that from 1995 to 2005, the proportion of immigrant-founded start-ups in Silicon Valley had increased to 52.4 percent. And the trend that began in Silicon Valley had become a nationwide phenomenon, with 25.3 percent of the nation’s engineering firms being started by immigrants. We also documented an alarming increase in the backlog of skilled immigrants waiting for permanent resident visas: more than 1 million in line as of October 2006. The problem is a shortage of these visas — only 140,000 are available every year for skilled workers of all nationalities. And there is a 7 percent per-country cap. This means that people from high-population countries like India and China get the same number of visas as those from Iceland and Mongolia. Indians and Chinese face waiting times exceeding a decade.

Based on these findings, in 2007, we predicted a reverse brain drain of talent — with highly skilled workers becoming frustrated with the visa situation and leaving the United States.

In our latest research paper, America’s New Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Then and Now, published by the Kauffman Foundation, we report that immigrant entrepreneurship has indeed stalled. The proportion of immigrant-founded start-ups in Silicon Valley has dropped to 43.9 percent and nationwide to 24.3 percent. It is not that Americans are gaining greater opportunities because immigrants are leaving. Kauffman Foundation data show that U.S. entrepreneurial activity has essentially remained stagnant. In other words, the economic pie is becoming smaller.

True, this is a good thing for the global economy. Tech entrepreneurship is booming in countries like India, China, and Brazil. It is being fueled by engineering students returning home from the United States. But we aren’t sharing this talent out of generosity. We are mistreating and mishandling engineers who want to join in the American dream and contribute to our success. As I concluded in my book, “In alienating and locking out skilled immigrant entrepreneurs and inventors, we have not only blocked the flow of the very lifeblood that built the economic backbone of this great country, we have also deadened the nerve endings that create the next great thing. If we restore this flow, we restore our nation.”

Vivek Wadhwa is a scholar specializing in entrepreneurship and the author of The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent. 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.

JEE Selects:
Uncovering Design Strategies
By Shanna R. Daly, Seda Yilmaz, James L. Christian, Colleen M. Seifert, and Richard Gonzalez

A collection of 77 examples helps students tap their own creativity.

Good ideas are the foundation for successful engineering. The ability to generate novel ideas is essential to innovation and to producing designs that solve practical problems. But how do engineers learn to generate ideas? While there are a few systematic methods available, the existing techniques are not grounded in empirical evidence. Our study examines how engineers, both students and practitioners, come up with design solutions. By understanding how engineers generate ideas, we can develop an empirically based technique to help others learn to do so.

Participants in our study followed a “think aloud” protocol while they generated ideas for a new design problem. We collected design drawings with written descriptions and labels, and transcribed verbal data. This collection of data was reviewed multiple times as we searched for evidence of how designers generated ideas and transitioned from one concept to another. From the written and verbal data, we identified the strategies evident in their designs by looking for characteristic differences between concepts in each participant’s set, distinguishing characteristics of individual concepts, and explanations of driving factors of an idea.

Consider the example of generating an idea for a chair. One design might be characterized as supporting multiple functions, such as a chair that offers shelves under the seat. Another design might display foldability, by including multiple hinges to make the chair more compact when not in use. As another example, consider one chair design that looks similar to a standard classroom desk chair, and a second chair design that maintains the similarity to a standard classroom desk chair but has utilized the back of the chair for a coat hook. The designer used the strategy of utilizing an opposite surface to add a feature. By analyzing many designs across individuals, we were able to identify a set of strategies embodied in different designs.

In our paper, we present the collection of strategies we extracted from participants’ data, and show examples of how the use of the strategies prompted new design ideas. We call these strategies “Design Heuristics” because while the strategies are not deterministic, they guide engineers toward possible design solutions. Design Heuristics evident in the examples above include Make Multifunctional, Fold, and Utilize Opposite Surface. Additional examples of Design Heuristics include Compartmentalize, Create System, Incorporate Environment, Mirror, and Rotate. Our analysis of the data collected found empirical support for the use of Design Heuristics in idea generation across levels of expertise.

By uncovering the Design Heuristics that engineers use to explore solution spaces, we can provide engineering students and practitioners with a collection of explicit, empirically based strategies to aid their idea generation. Based on our additional studies on Design Heuristics across engineering problems, we have created an idea generation tool called “77 Cards: Design Heuristics for Inspiring Ideas” ( The tool includes the 77 Design Heuristics strategies identified to date, along with examples of their use in existing products as illustrations.

We have now used this tool in numerous engineering classrooms, and collected data on student outcomes. Neutral coders rated the ideas generated with the tool as more creative and diverse than those generated without the tool. This collection of Design Heuristics can become a part of the repertoire that engineering students and practitioners can turn to when generating ideas, assisting them in identifying and modifying concepts and leading to greater success in idea generation.

The Design Heuristics approach is founded on empirical examination of engineers’ designs. As a result, it offers a way to teach engineering students specific strategies that will increase their chances of success in generating ideas to solve design problems when they become practicing engineers.

Shanna R. Daly is a research scientist at the University of Michigan. Coauthors are Seda Yilmaz, Iowa State University; James L. Christian, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Colleen M. Seifert, University of Michigan; and Richard Gonzalez, University of Michigan. This article is excerpted from “Design Heuristics in Engineering Concept Generation” in the October 2012 Journal of Engineering Education. (Supported by NSF Grant 0927474)

Resistance is Futile

Why technology will wipe out certain jobs, and what’s the smart way to react

Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, Digital Frontier Press 2012, 92 pages

The current rate of technological advance can often feel bewildering, with so many functions once handled by humans being automated, from manufacturing to banking to retail sales – and soon perhaps, if Google has its way, even driving cars. Yet, despite such incursions, too little attention is given to the ways in which machines are replacing many human jobs, write the authors of Race Against the Machine. Even as the U.S. economy recovers from the recession of 2007 to 2009, unemployment remains high, in part because companies are relying more heavily on technology that supplants human functions, while many workers are failing to master the skills needed to re-position themselves advantageously for this new reality.

The answer is not to rage against machines, as did 19th-century English textile workers, the Luddites, whose destructive rampages against industrial looms ultimately failed. Racing against machines is also futile because humans will always lose such a contest, as did folklore’s John Henry, who bested a steam shovel in a digging competition only to die from the exertion – or, more notably, Gary Kasparov, the world chess master who in 1997 lost to a $10 million supercomputer programmed by IBM.

In this slim yet incisive volume, Brynjolfsson and McAfee, who serve as director and associate director, respectively, of the MIT Center for Digital Business, make a strong case for recognizing the deep impact of accelerating technologies, noting that “the pace and scale of this encroachment into human skills is relatively recent, and has profound economic implications.” They reject a cataclysmic scenario, however: Computers may render many jobs obsolete, but they won’t spell the end of human workers; and some skills will become even more valuable than ever before. What is important, they feel, is to “understand these phenomena, discuss their implications, and come up with strategies that allow human workers to race ahead with machines instead of racing against them.”

The book’s first chapters bring home the point of just how quickly technology has been advancing over the past few years. Consider, for example, that the 2004 winning entry of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Grand Challenge for autonomous land vehicles covered less than 8 miles in the uninhabited Mojave Desert, taking several hours to do so. That result seemed to confirm belief that computers could never master the complex functions needed to operate a car. Yet six years later, Google’s driverless car navigated more than 1,000 miles on terrain as tricky as the densely populated, winding streets of San Francisco. In other areas, computer programs are reaching unprecedented levels in translating language and beating humans hands down in sophisticated games such as Jeopardy! Chapter Three highlights the extent to which “technological unemployment” is affecting the economy, dissolving jobs, lowering the median family income, and creating serious divides between high- and low-skilled workers. As the power and scope of technology continue to accelerate, the authors warn, governments, businesses, and individuals must race not only to keep abreast but also to take advantage of new developments.

The last two chapters explore how to respond and benefit, citing pioneering businesses such as Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon, which have created new marketplaces and employment opportunities that had not existed before. A 19-step “agenda for action” moves beyond business to larger institutional changes the authors feel are needed in education, government, visa laws, business regulations, and national infrastructure and research. It is this section that provides considerable food for thought. Should teaching tenure be abolished, as they suggest; can copyright and patent laws be reformed for greater productivity? This new industrial revolution will “lead to sharp changes in the path of human development and history,” Brynjolfsson and McAfee assert, but they remain optimistic that the digital frontier can be made to work for us, not against, us.

In keeping with their message, this volume was published as an e-book to circumvent the costs, waiting time, and distribution limitations involved in traditional publishing. Straggling Luddites can get their hands on a hard copy, but engineers will more likely download it to an electronic reader – like everyone else.

Robin Tatu is Prism’s senior editorial consultant.


Presented below are candidates for offices to be voted on in the 2013 ASEE elections. These candidates were selected by the 2012 ASEE Nominating Committee, chaired by Renata Engel. The nominations were received by the executive director as required by the ASEE constitution. The ASEE Nominating Committee believes that the candidates offered here are eminently qualified and deserve the close consideration of the membership.

Members are reminded that additional nominations of eligible candidates may be made by petition of at least 200 individual members. Nominees so proposed must indicate a willingness to serve before their names are placed on the ballot. Such petitions and agreements must be presented to the executive director no later than Jan. 1, 2013.

Write-in votes will be accepted for all offices. In all cases, a simple plurality constitutes election. The official ballot, which will be furnished to each individual member by March 1, must be returned by March 31.

Editor’s note: Due to space limitations and in the interest of fairness to all candidates, the biographies and statements may have been edited to fit the allotted space.

Candidates for the office of President-Elect

Nicholas Altiero

Dean, School of Science & Engineering

Tulane University

Nicholas Altiero received a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Notre Dame, and a master’s degree in mathematics and a doctoral degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Michigan. Following postdoctoral appointments at the University of Michigan and at the Department of the Interior’s Twin Cities Research Center, he joined the faculty of the Materials Science and Mechanics Department at Michigan State University in 1975. In 1990, he was named associate dean for research and Graduate Studies of the College of Engineering, where he had administrative responsibility for the research, technology transfer, graduate studies, and distance education operations of the college. In 1998, he was named chair of the department of materials science and mechanics. In 2000, he joined the faculty at Tulane University as dean of the School of Engineering, the ninth dean in the school’s 112 year history. In 2006, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Tulane University was restructured and Altiero was named the inaugural dean of the integrated School of Science and Engineering.

Altiero has held visiting positions at the Polytechnic University of Milan as a Fulbright Scholar and at the Technical University of Aachen as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow. He has published extensively in the areas of computational mechanics, fracture mechanics, geomechanics, and biomechanics. and has received funding for research, teaching, and outreach projects from NASA, NSF, DOE, the CDC, and multiple industry sources. He has taught a wide range of courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels and, in 1991, received the State of Michigan Teaching Excellence Award. He is a fellow of the American Society for Engineering Education and a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. He currently serves as Chair of the ASEE Engineering Deans Council and as a member of the ASEE Board of Directors. This is his second term on the ASEE Board of Directors; he served from 2000 to 2002 as chair of the ASEE Engineering Research Council. He also serves on a number of boards and committees, including the Louisiana Innovation Council, the Nominating Committee for the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authorities, and the Board of Trustees of the New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School. He currently serves as vice president of Core Element, a New Orleans-area program that provides materials and training for hands-on science education to K-12 teachers.

Candidate’s Statement

I am honored to be nominated for the position of ASEE president-elect. I have been active in ASEE leadership since 1990, first as a member of the Engineering Research Council and subsequently as a member of the Engineering Deans Council. I was elected to the Executive Board of the Engineering Research Council in 1994 and ultimately served as chair in 2000-2002. In 2005, I was elected to the Executive Board of the Engineering Deans Council, and I currently serve as its Chair. I have served on the ASEE Board of Directors twice and as vice president for Councils twice. I believe deeply in the mission of ASEE and the role that ASEE plays in advancing excellence in engineering and engineering technology education and, as president, I would endeavor to build on the strengths of our membership and to aggressively promote ASEE’s leadership role in STEM education.

ASEE has always emphasized that providing value to its members is a primary component of its mission. This has enabled ASEE to attract a large, diverse, dynamic membership that is the very source of its strength. Above all else, ASEE must continually develop and effectively offer services that attract new members, provide value to current members, and create an environment in which the membership can collectively address the major challenges facing engineering and engineering technology education. There are rapid changes occurring in education that are transforming the way that we teach, learn, and create. Not only must ASEE continue to provide programs and services that enable its members to stay current on the effective application of these new platforms and technologies; it must also continue to provide the forum for engineering and engineering technology educators to be the drivers of these innovations and their application.

The role of ASEE has never been more significant than it is today. As our nation and the world place more and more emphasis on the importance of STEM education and the development of innovation-driven economies, ASEE must clearly assume a leadership position in promoting public awareness and informing public policy. Significant challenges in K-12 STEM education, attraction to and retention in engineering programs, building partnerships that fuel innovation, and competing in a highly competitive global economy demand our attention and the authority of our collective voice. If elected, I pledge to work with the excellent leadership team at ASEE to make your organization even more member oriented and publicly recognized.

Pat Fox

Associate Chair of Technology Leadership and Communication Department

Purdue School of Engineering and Technology

Indiana University/Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI)

Pat Fox, who has served as an associate and assistant dean for 20 years, is the associate chair of the Department of Technology Leadership and Communication at the Purdue School of Engineering and Technology at

IUPUI, an urban public university with approximately 30,000 students. Fox has been a faculty member at IUPUI for 30 years and teaches courses in leadership, ethics, and sustainability, including two study-abroad courses on sustainability. She has authored and coauthored numerous papers on a variety of engineering education topics, including assessment, innovative teaching, industry collaboration, international partnerships, undergraduate research, sustainable development, globalization, and administration.

A member of ASEE since 1983, Fox has served the society in numerous leadership roles, including three terms on the ASEE Board of Directors as vice president for external relations (2009-2011), vice president for public affairs (2008-2009), and Engineering Technology Council chair (2004-2006). In addition to her Board appointments, she has extensive service and experience on the ASEE Board of Directors in other areas. She was appointed vice president for Institutional Councils (2004-2005) and was voted by her peers to serve as first vice president for four consecutive years (2008 through 2011). In addition, she served five years on the Board’s Executive Committee, four years on the Board’s Finance Committee, and four years on the Long-Range Planning Committee.

Fox’s extensive service also includes other positions within ASEE. For example, she has worked with the Engineering Technology Division and Council, the Corporate Member Council, the International Division, and the Student Division in various capacities (program chair, reviewer, committee member, adviser). She served as chair of the CMC’s Special Interest Group for Engineering, Technology, and Society Liaison. During her work with CMC and with others, she was instrumental in bringing together the four Institutional Councils (EDC, ERC, ETC, and CMC) and the College Industry Partnership Division to establish an ASEE national award for collaborative work between industry and engineering education. She has also been active at the grass-roots level of ASEE and was one of the founding members who worked with engineering students to establish the ASEE Student Division. She is the ASEE campus representative at IUPUI.

Fox was the first woman to be awarded ASEE’s Frederick J. Berger Award in 2003 and James H. McGraw Award in 2008. Among other awards she has received, she was selected by her peers in 2007 to be an ASEE Fellow for her career accomplishments, leadership, and dedication to ASEE.

Candidate’s Statement

I am passionate about ASEE and dedicated to its mission. I am honored to be nominated as president-elect and will continue to serve you to the best of my abilities, if elected. My leadership and administrative experience, coupled with my vision and energy, make me an excellent fit for this position. In addition, my steadily increasing responsibilities on various committees and the ASEE Board have prepared me well to lead ASEE at this particularly challenging point in time.

We live in a very complex and ever-changing global environment where educating engineering and engineering technology students has never been more important for the world. Many significant issues currently face us in engineering and engineering technology education, including accreditation, continuous improvement, diversity, globalization, industry relations and collaboration, K-12 education, recruitment, research, retention, scholarly activities, STEM education, workforce education, etc. Arguably, the most important concern for all of us today is the financial challenges that are facing higher education. ASEE has the same issues that we face each day in our own institutions, including financial challenges and a rapidly changing landscape. I served four years on the Finance Committee, and I am aware of the need for ASEE to continue to work toward making sure that the society is financially sound now and in the future. I am very optimistic, and I see a wealth of talent, knowledge, abilities, and dedication in our society, which includes individuals like you, who solve problems and redesign challenges into opportunities to make institutions and ASEE excel in all areas of their core mission.

As president, I will help the divisions, councils, chapters, sections, and zones work together to move ASEE to a higher level in regional, national, and international arenas. One of my strongest attributes is my ability to work successfully with a broad spectrum of stakeholders, including engineering faculty, engineering technology faculty, university and college administrators, undergraduate and graduate students, and industry leaders. As a result of my 30-year career in engineering and engineering technology education, I will effectively lead ASEE and chart a sustainable future direction for the organization.

I ask that you give me the opportunity to represent you and ASEE by voting for me as your next president-elect. Together we can bring to fruition the goals and aspirations of the core values, mission, and vision of ASEE. Thank you for your time and vote.

Candidates for the office of Vice President, External Relations

Grant Crawford

Director, Mechanical Engineering Program,

Civil and Mechanical Engineering Department

U.S. Military Academy

Grant Crawford, Ph.D., P.E., is a colonel in the United States Army, an associate professor, and director of the Mechanical Engineering Program in the Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering at the United States Military Academy, West Point, N.Y. He has served in this capacity since July 1, 2008, and is responsible for leadership of the mechanical engineering faculty, curriculum development, and management of the program budget and resources. He has taught courses in thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, thermal-fluid systems I and II, heat transfer, fixed-wing aerodynamics, helicopter aeronautics, computer-aided design, mechanical engineering design, aerospace systems design, and military science. He also advises senior cadets in the Mechanical Engineering Capstone Design course.

Crawford was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army upon graduation from the United States Military Academy with a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering in 1985. Following initial military assignments to Korea and Germany, he earned his master of science degree in aerospace engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1994, and taught at West Point as an instructor and assistant professor. From 1998 to 2001, Crawford again served in an operational assignment with the Army until his selection to return to the West Point faculty as a senior faculty member. He earned his doctor of philosophy degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Kansas in 2004 and returned to West Point as an assistant professor and director of the Aerodynamics and Thermodynamics Group. He was promoted to associate professor in 2008 and assumed his current position as Director for the Mechanical Engineering Program. In this capacity, he has taught numerous engineering education seminars, both in the United States and in India. He served as a mentor to the engineering department faculty at the National Military Academy of Afghanistan in the summer of 2009.

Crawford has served in a variety of national-level positions and is currently the ASEE Zone I chair (pro tem), chair of the Fundamentals of Engineering Examination Committee for the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES), and a mechanical engineering program evaluator for the Engineering Accreditation Commission of ABET. Crawford holds commercial pilot ratings in both fixed and rotary wing aircraft and has been a registered professional engineer in the commonwealth of Virginia since 1998.

Candidate’s Statement

It is an honor to be nominated to serve as your representative for external relations. This position requires a broad set of skills and abilities, and requires communication with entities external to ASEE as well as communicating our external activities to those within the organization. There is also a responsibility to serve as a member of the Finance Committee and to chair the society’s Projects Board. I believe I possess the interpersonal and financial skills that will enable me to be an effective representative for you in this capacity.

I enjoy working with teams. My service in the Army has taken me to a variety of places in the United States and around the world, from the Philippine Islands and Korea to Germany, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In all instances, a major aspect of my responsibilities has involved working with people in a manner that reflects understanding and respect for their country and culture. One of the most rewarding experiences of my professional life was the two months in the summer of 2009 that I spent working with and mentoring my colleagues on the faculty of the National Military Academy of Afghanistan. I believe that I learned as much from my associates as they did from me. Each and every experience has served to hone my ability to work with a broad range of people in pursuit of a common goal.

My financial and resource management experience is vast and varied. It runs the gamut from small budgets in the tens of thousands of dollars to oversight of multimillion-dollar programs and spans over two decades. It includes extensive experience in budgetary management in government organizations as well as budgetary supervision for an academic program. In many instances, I have worked with multiple accounts and lines of funding from multiple sources. I believe I am amply prepared for the financial responsibilities inherent in this position.

This is an exciting time for ASEE and STEM initiatives in our country and around the world. From our focus on student retention to STEM outreach and international engagement, the vice president of external relations will play a critical role in ASEE’s leadership of engineering and engineering technology education initiatives. I appreciate your consideration for this position and, if elected, will do my utmost to fulfill your trust and expectations.

Bevlee Watford

Associate Dean, Academic Affairs

Professor, Engineering Education

Virginia Tech

An active member of ASEE since 1986, Bevlee Watford has served the organization in multiple capacities. She has held elected office in both the Women in Engineering and the Minorities in Engineering Divisions. She chaired the Diversity Task Force that resulted in the creation of the ASEE Diversity Strategic Plan as well as a standing Diversity Committee, which she chairs (2010-2013). She is currently chair of Professional Interest Council IV (2010-2013) and serves as vice president of the PICs on the ASEE Executive Committee. She serves as an associate editor of the Journal of Advances in Engineering Education. In 2010, she was elected a Fellow of ASEE.

Watford is a professor of engineering education in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech. She received her B.S. degree in mining engineering, and her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in industrial engineering and operations research from Virginia Tech. Since 1992, she has been founding director of the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity (CEED) at the College of Engineering. She has secured more than $6.5 million in funding and support for the CEED and other undergraduate initiatives from a variety of sources. Her research activities have focused on the recruitment and retention of students in engineering, with a particular emphasis on under-represented students. The CEED office has implemented nationally recognized programs that have enhanced the success of all students. These include freshman peer mentoring, summer bridge programs for incoming freshmen, and residential living-learning communities. CEED was awarded the 2010 Claire Felbinger Diversity Award by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. In 2011, CEED received the NSBE-ExxonMobil Impact Award for implementing successful research-based efforts to improve retention. In 2008, Watford received the Women in Engineering ProActive Network

WEPAN Founders Award in recognition of her service to WEPAN and her efforts to increase the participation of women in the engineering profession.

Watford has served as associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Engineering since 1997, responsible for all undergraduate activities from recruiting to commencement. From 2010-2011 she served as interim department head of engineering Education. From 2005 to 2007, she served as a program manager in the Division of Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation.

Watford was the 2004-2005 president of WEPAN and has served on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Minority Engineering Program Administrators (NAMEPA). She is currently a member of the National Academy of Engineering’s EngineerGirl Website Committee.

Candidate’s Statement

I am honored to be nominated for the position of ASEE vice president, external relations. This is an exciting time, as we are experiencing a global emphasis on STEM education. At local, state, and federal levels, the imperative to increase the number of STEM graduates, particularly engineering and engineering technology graduates, is highly visible. Numerous organizations and corporations are focusing their efforts on building the engineering pipeline. ASEE is in a prime position to collaborate with others to achieve a major positive impact on enrollment and graduation numbers. I see the vice president for external relations having a key role in transforming partnerships with strategic organizations to achieve real and lasting change.

With oversight responsibility for the Projects Board, this position is heavily vested in ensuring that ASEE is involved in external projects that enhance the organization, both internally and externally. Some external projects, such as managing fellowship review processes, help ASEE to thrive financially. Others, such as educational workshops, enable ASEE to provide leadership on issues of global importance. Regardless of the type of project, each serves to raise the visibility of ASEE as a leader in engineering education.

Global engagement is also a focus within the engineering education community. Academic leaders are developing strategic goals to increase the number of engineering students engaging in a global experience. ASEE is involved in several global initiatives that promote education, discussion, and strategic partnerships with the international engineering education community. As the world becomes increasingly “flat,” the value of these and future global initiatives to our community can only increase. With oversight of this area, the vice president for external relations can have a large impact on the success of these collaborative efforts.

Within ASEE, I have served as vice president of PICs and program chair and then chair of the Women in Engineering Division. My experiences working with the ASEE senior leadership as chair of the Diversity Task Force resulted in the ASEE Diversity Strategic Plan and a standing Diversity Committee. That effort solidified my perception of ASEE’s ability to contribute to and influence an important national agenda.

I understand and appreciate the volunteer nature of ASEE, and I have been successful in bringing people together to accomplish a stated goal. I believe that my experiences in leadership and management, coupled with my enthusiasm for engineering education and ASEE, will enable me to effectively serve the organization and its membership. I hope that I will have the opportunity to do so.

Candidates for the office of Vice President, Finance

John Mason

Vice President for Research and Associate Provost

Auburn University

John Mason serves as vice president for research and associate provost at Auburn University. He is President of the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization that provides research program development, technology transfer, and commercialization initiatives. As chief research officer, he is a member of the president’s cabinet and provides leadership for strategic planning for the university research enterprise. Mason is a professor of civil engineering in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering at Auburn University.

Prior to joining Auburn University, Mason was an associate dean in the College of Engineering at Penn State University. He also had served as director of the Thomas D. Larson Transportation Research Institute and executive director for the multi-state consortium of the Mid-Atlantic University Transportation Center.

Mason has been an active member and leader in ASEE, serving on the Engineering Research Council (ERC) as a member of the Board of Directors, secretary/treasurer, vice chair, and chair. He also served on the Nominating Committee for both ERC and ASEE, the ASEE Executive Director Search Committee, the Projects Board, the Data Standardization Committee, the ASEE Board of Directors, and as a panelist for the SMART/Department of Defense Fellowship program.

He has considerable public and private financial management experience. Mason is responsible for a $20 million operating budget and administration of a research enterprise of $130 million. As president of a non-profit organization, he provides oversight for budgetary responsibilities to build, market, and operate a 150-acre research park, a public-private partnership. He has served on various public and private-sector boards. He is currently a member of the Finance and Audit Committee for Oak Ridge Associate Universities, trustee member for the Southeastern Universities Research Association, and board member for a private-sector engineering firm.

Mason holds a B.S. degree from Penn State University, an M.S. degree from Villanova University, and a Ph.D. degree from Texas A & M University. He is also a registered professional engineer in Pennsylvania.

Terri Morse

Engineering Operations & Technology Program Director,

The Boeing Co.

Terri Morse is program director for engineering, operations and technology, global technology – external technical affiliations (ETA) at the Boeing Co. ETA is an enterprise-level initiative aimed at defining and overseeing the strategy and investment levels for companywide external industry technical affiliations. Execution includes providing clear strategy, guidance, and processes connecting diverse Boeing Business Unit activities and people to internal and external technical opportunities (domestic and international) in order to maximize R&D yield, ensure technology readiness, and be the catalyst of innovation. She manages Boeing’s relationships with more than 200 external technical organizations.

Morse began her career at The Boeing Co. in aerodynamics. She has held engineering and management positions developing flight controls, autopilot/auto throttle, flight management systems, flight deck systems, mechanical/hydraulic, environmental control, and electrical wiring systems. She has been part of the original design teams for the 757/767, 737-300, 747-400, 777, and 787 airplanes. In addition, she has been a leader of the Engineering Define Lean & Efficient (L&E) program responsible for developing the next-generation processes and design tools for use across the Boeing Co. Focus programs for L&E have included 787, Unmanned Combat Vehicles, Boeing Satellite Services, and Future Combat Systems. She graduated summa cum laude from Central Washington State University.

Morse is an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and Fellow of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). She currently serves on the National Engineers Week Foundation’s Strategic Planning Committee, the Industrial Research Institute’s External Technical Director’s Network, and the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Engineering Women Advisory Committee, and is chair of the American Society for Engineering Education’s Corporate Member Counsel, vice president of the ASEE Institutional Councils, and member of the ASEE College Industry Partnership Division.

She has received the SWE Distinguished Service Award, the Hewlett-Packard Innovation Award, and the ASEE Excellence in Engineering Education Collaboration Award for her work in establishing a Boeing-sponsored national student competition with SWE called Team Tech, in which she still serves as National award coordinator. More than 50 university campuses and 1,400 students have participated in the competition over a 20-year history. Morse has been recognized in Cambridge Who’s Who, Who’s Who In the World, Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who of American Women, and Who’s Who in Science and Engineering.

Candidates for the office of Chair, Professional Interest Council I1

Gene Dixon

Associate Professor,

Department of Engineering

East Carolina University

Gene Dixon is a tenured associate professor at East Carolina University, where he teaches aspiring engineers at the undergraduate level. Currently, he teaches the senior design capstone course and project management. He is responsible for securing industry projects for the experiential learning component of the course. Previously, he held positions of responsibility in industry with Union Carbide, Chicago Bridge & Iron, E. I. DuPont deNemours, Westinghouse Electric, CBS, Viacom, and Washington Group. Positions include project engineer, program assessor, senior shift manager, TQM coach, and production reactor outage planner. He also has experience as a corporate trainer and motivational speaker.

Dixon received a Ph.D. degree in industrial and systems engineering and engineering management from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, a master’s of business administration degree from Nova Southeastern University, and a B.S. degree in materials engineering from Auburn University. He has authored several publications on the follower component of leadership and has been active in research concerning nuclear waste management, energy conservation, engineering education, and leadership-focused processes. He has served as newsletter editor/secretary, program chair, division chair, and awards chair (or equivalent) in both the Engineering Management and Engineering Economy Divisions of ASEE.

Dixon is a fellow of the American Society of Engineering Management and serves as secretary of the Society and will be president in 2015. He also serves on the Eugene L. Grant Award Committee for the Engineering Economy Division of ASEE. His recognitions include the Franklin Woodbury Award for Special Service by the ASEM in 2003 and the 2002 Merle Baker Award for Best Conference Paper by the ASEM. He was instrumental in the founding of the CSRA Section of the ASEM and is listed as the chartering president. He was a founding officer of the Lee-Metro Jaycees when he was an undergraduate engineering student at Auburn, and was an active member of the Oak Ridge (TN) Jaycees, also while an undergraduate.

Adrienne Minerick

Associate Professor,

Chemical Engineering Department

Michigan Technological University

Adrienne Minerick is an associate professor of chemical engineering at Michigan Technological University. In this role, she leads a research group, the Medical microDevice Engineering Research Laboratory (MD-ERL), teaches graduate and undergraduate classes, and is active in chemical engineering educational pedagogy as well as women in engineering


Minerick received her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Notre Dame in 2003 and B.S. degree from Michigan Technological University in 1998. She began as an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Mississippi State University in 2003 and was promoted/tenured in 2009 before transitioning back to her alma mater in 2010 as an associate professor. Minerick’s research interests include electrokinetics, predominantly dielectrophoretic characterizations of cells, and the development of biomedical microdevices. She earned an NSF CAREER Award (2007), has published research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Lab on a Chip, and had an AIChE Journal cover. She is an active mentor of undergraduate researchers and served as co-PI on an NSF REU site. Research within MD–ERL also inspires Desktop Experiment Modules (DEMos) for use in chemical engineering classrooms or as outreach activities. (See

Minerick is a recipient of the ASEE Chemical Engineering Division’s Raymond W. Fahien Award (2011) and Michigan Tech’s Fredrick D. Williams Instructional Innovation Award (2012). Within ASEE, she has earned five awards for papers and research, including the New Engineering Educators Division’s Best Paper Award (2010); the Southeast Section’s Thomas C. Evans Instructional Paper Award (2007 and 2009), New Faculty Research Award (2008), and Outstanding Paper Award (2006). At Mississippi State, she earned the Bagley College of Engineering’s Engineering Educator Award (2009) and was inducted into the Academy of Distinguished Teachers (2009). At Michigan Tech, she was inducted into the Academy of Teaching Excellence (2012).

Minerick has been a representative, treasurer, webmaster, newsletter editor, and programming and division chair in ASEE’s Women in Engineering Division, Chemical Engineering Division, New Engineering Educators, and Southeast Section division leadership teams since 2003. She has contributed to 33 ASEE conference proceedings articles and five educational journal publications. She presently serves as president of the American Electrophoresis Society and is a member of ASEE’s Diversity Committee.

Candidates for the office of Chair, Professional Interest Council IV

Maura Borrego

Associate Professor,

Engineering Education

Virginia Tech

Maura Borrego is an associate professor in the department of engineering education at Virginia Tech. All of her degrees are in materials science and engineering. Her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees are from Stanford University, and her B.S. degree is from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Borrego earned a College of Engineering Certificate of Teaching Excellence two years after joining Virginia Tech, for her teaching in the first-year engineering program. She was instrumental in getting the Ph.D. in Engineering Education approved at the state level in 2007. Borrego developed four new graduate courses in assessment and research methods. She directed the graduate program for 18 months, before accepting a 2010 Science and Technology Policy Fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She is currently serving as a program director in the Division of Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation.

Borrego has been an active member of ASEE since 2000, coauthoring 30 ASEE national conference papers. She is a member of the Educational Research and Methods (ERM), K-12 and Pre-College Engineering, Graduate Studies, Minorities in Engineering, and Women in Engineering Divisions. She is current chair of the ERM Division (2011-2013), which has 1,350 members. In ERM, she also served as an elected board member (2006-2008), Nominating Committee chair (2007), Best Paper Committee chair (2008-2009), and program chair for the 2010 Frontiers in Education Conference that ERM cosponsors with IEEE’s Education and Computer Societies. In the Graduate Studies Division, she served as an elected board member (2011-2012) and conducted a membership survey. Borrego is looking forward to using the leadership skills she developed in ASEE and her administrative positions to increase collaboration among divisions and ensure communication between ASEE’s Board of Directors and its divisions.

Borrego has earned the NSF CAREER Award and Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for her engineering education research. Her results are published in 30 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Engineering Education and Advances in Engineering Education.

She is a recipient of two Outstanding Research Publication awards from different divisions of the American Educational Research Association. Borrego guest-edited one of the first special issues of Advances in Engineering Education and currently serves as an associate editor of the Journal of Engineering Education. She is also a 2010 State Council for Higher Education in Virginia Outstanding Faculty Member in the Rising Star category.

Beth Holloway

Director, Women in Engineering Program

Purdue University, West Lafayette

Beth Holloway is director of the Women in Engineering Program at Purdue University, where she initiates, manages, evaluates, and promotes comprehensive activities and programs that recruit and retain women in engineering from kindergarten through faculty ranks. She received both B.S. and M.S. degrees in mechanical engineering from Purdue University. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. degree in engineering education, also from Purdue. Her research areas include women and leadership, particularly in male-dominated careers; differential retention issues for women across engineering disciplines; and engineering admissions practices. Holloway recently co-led a cross-disciplinary team of faculty and staff in the creation of a minor in engineering leadership development as part of the Purdue College of Engineering’s strategic plan.

She has been a member of ASEE since 2002, reviewing abstracts and papers, attending regional, national, and international conferences, and presenting posters, papers, and workshops. She is currently the program chair of the Women in Engineering Division. She served on the ASEE Diversity Committee from 2010 to 2012. In each position held, she has worked to increase the collaboration across ASEE to make a greater impact and leverage resources.

Holloway also has been president of the Women in Engineering ProActive Network (WEPAN), 2006-07, served on WEPAN’s Board of Directors from 2005 to 2008, and was cochair of the 2003 WEPAN National Conference. She believes in student engagement, and currently serves as adviser to the Purdue Society of Women Engineers, which has more than 400 members. Under her guidance, Purdue SWE has continued its long tradition of excellence and leadership development, winning numerous awards at the university, regional, and national levels. Holloway has served on numerous other boards and committees, both locally and nationally.

Prior to joining Purdue, Holloway was a research and development engineering group leader at Cummins Inc. While at Cummins, she was a recognized corporate engine lubrication system expert, with specialties in piston cooling nozzle and lubrication pump performance.

Candidates for the office of Chair, Professional Interest Council V

Linda Krute


Engineering Online Program

North Carolina State University

Linda Krute is director of distance education programs for the College of Engineering at North Carolina State University. She has been active in the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and the College-Industry Partnerships (CIP) Divisions of ASEE, two of the three divisions in PIC V.

In 2004 and again in 2009, the Continuing Professional Development Division awarded her the Joseph M. Biedenbach Distinguished Service Award for her contribution to continuing engineering education and to the division. She was honored in 2011 to be selected as an ASEE Fellow.

Krute is also serving on the executive committee of the International Association of Continuing Engineering Education (IACEE) as vice president for membership. She earned her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from Oklahoma State University, her M.A.C.E. degree from Morehead State University, and her B.S. degree from Harding University. Her areas of study have been related to teacher education, adult education, and the administration of adult and continuing education programs. Krute also has held teaching positions on the high school, community college, and university levels in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kentucky. Prior to joining North Carolina State in 2002, she served as associate director of the Office of Continuing Engineering Education at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

Lea-Ann Morton

Assistant Vice Chancellor,

Missouri University of Science & Technology

Lea-Ann Morton has been working at Missouri University of Science and Technology (formerly University of Missouri, Rolla) for 11 years and has held numerous positions. Most recently, she was named assistant vice chancellor for university advancement. Previously, Morton was director of the Career Opportunities and Employer Relations office, where she led the department to numerous national rankings for five consecutive years (including ranking 11th in the nation for career services). She also held the position of assistant director at two four-year institutions, managing the cooperative education and internship programs.

Morton has been an active member of ASEE since 2009 and has been involved with CIEC through various activities. She holds membership in all three divisions that the PIC V board member will represent, as well as being on the board of directors for two of them. She secured and coordinated the plenary speaker for 2012, nominated the recipient of the 2010 Lou Takacs Award, and even involved her husband as 2011 companion chair. Morton is actively involved with the CPD and CIP Divisions and served as program chair in 2011 and 2012 respectively. Additional activities within CIEC include conference program reviewer, assisting with numerous conference sessions as a moderator, serving as exhibitor chair and AV person, and assisting with Red Star events. She has assisted with recruiting new professionals and increasing membership, as well as obtaining new session and preconference workshop presenters. She also secured funding for various sponsorship levels and involved corporate partners in presentations and other CIEC activities.

Morton holds a doctorate in educational administration and policy analysis from the University of Missouri, St. Louis and national certification in dining and business etiquette as well as international protocol. At Missouri S&T, she has participated in ABET accreditation meetings and data collection processes, assisted with creating the Corporate Relations Team – a campuswide initiative to manage corporate relations, strengthen partnerships, and maintain key school status – and served on many other campus and chancellor-appointed committees. Recognitions include recieving the Inspirational Woman Award, Outstanding Staff Award, Recruitment and Retention Award, and the Distinguished Young Alumni Award from the College of the Ozarks. Morton has been published and has presented at several national conferences, including CIEC, National Association of Colleges and Employers, the American Educational Research Association, the National Cement Employers Association, and the Alcoa Technology Forum.

Candidates for the office of Chair-Elect, Zone II1

Ruby Mawasha

Assistant Dean,

College of Engineering & Computer Science

Wright State University

Ruby Mawasha is assistant dean at Wright State University and director of engineering and computer science programs at the Lake Campus. He received his B.E. degree in mechanical engineering from the City University of New York at City College in 1990. He received his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in mechanical engineering in 1993 and 1998, respectively, from the University of Akron. He is associate director of the NASA/Ohio Space Grant Consortium, whose mission is to advance the nation’s capability in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) development of a diverse workforce through NASA-related collaborations. Mawasha is a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Registered Professional Engineer (PE) in the state of Ohio, and a PE Examiner under the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying.

As an active member of the North Central Section (NCS) of ASEE, Mawasha is a former section chair and vice chair. As a campus representative for WSU, he successfully served as the 2008 conference chair of the NCS; In addition, he won the Campus Representative Award in 2008 and 2012 for making substantial efforts recruiting and retaining faculty and students for the ASEE membership. At WSU, Mawasha is very focused on engineering education issues and in 2011 was appointed to initiate and direct a new bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering with a concentration in manufacturing engineering at the WSU-Lake Campus.

Mawasha has demonstrated leading change through capabilities by spanning the realms of classroom instructor, mentor, classical engineer, and professional administrator. He has participated in programs geared toward improving the status of engineering research and education through targeted research funding and as a panel reviewer for national, state, and local agencies, reviewer of peer journals and conference proceedings, and student advising. He served as director of diversity in engineering and science while at the University of Akron, to increase recruitment and retention of minorities in STEM, and currently serves as director of the Wright STEP Program at WSU to promote STEM awareness in K-12 education. He continues to explore efforts of improving technical literacy and teaching and has published more than 50 engineering/education journal articles or proceedings.

Mawasha has received numerous awards and honors, including People’s Key to the City Award (STEM); Phi Beta Delta (International Scholars); Dean’s Commendation, Senior Design Project; Omicron Delta Kappa (National Leadership); ASME Young Engineers Program Award; Pi Mu Epsilon (Mathematics); and Tau Beta Pi (Engineering).

Gary Steffen

Associate Professor and Chair,

Computer & Electrical Engineering Technology and Information Systems & Technology

Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne

Gary Steffen is chair and associate professor in the Computer, Electrical, and Information Technology Department (CEIT) at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne (IPFW) in Fort Wayne, Ind. Starting at IPFW in 1989, he has taught a variety of courses in digital systems, networking, and computer security, as well as serving in administrative positions. He is recognized as an outstanding educator, receiving the IPFW ETCS Excellence in Teaching Award (2003) and the Indiana Council for Continuing Education Faculty Member of the Year Award (2001). He currently shares his passion for teaching by serving the greater campus community as an elected member to the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT), and as the ASEE campus representative to IPFW.

Steffen was granted his B.S. degree in electrical engineering technology and A.S. degree in supervision in 1989 from IPFW, his M.S. degree in computer science from Ball State University in 2001, and an Information Assurance and Security graduate certificate from Purdue University in 2003. His industrial experience includes 10 years of administering electrical and networking laboratory facilities in addition to heading his own consulting firm. His unique background brings a combination of technical skill, industrial application, management practice, and subtle humor to his classroom. Student projects directed by him have been recognized by his institution and by ASEE. His keen insights and nomination of a student’s outstanding accomplishments led to the student’s selection to the USA Today Academic All American Team.

Steffen has been a member of ASEE since 2002 and is active both on the local and national levels of the organization. At the local level, he initiated the first joint section conference (2006) between the Illinois-Indiana and North Central sections. The conference, held at IPFW and chaired by Steffen, brought together several hundred educators, resulting in a profit for ASEE. He went on to hold the positions of Illinois-Indiana section chair (2007-2009) and Past Chair (2009-2011). Nationally, he has served on the Board of Directors for the Tau Alpha Pi Engineering Technology Honor Society (2006-2008). Bringing his conference experience to the national stage, he was appointed the Engineering Technology Division program chair for the 2011 Conference for Industry and Education Collaboration (CIEC) held in San Antonio, Texas. He currently sits on the executive board for the Electrical and Computer Engineering Technology Department Heads Association (ECETDHA). His years of dedication were acknowledged by his acceptance of the 2009 Illinois-Indiana Service Award.

Candidates for the office of Chair-Elect, Zone IV

Amelito Enriquez


Engineering and Mechanics

Science and Technology Division

Cañada College

Amelito Enriquez is a professor of engineering at Cañada College – a federally designated Hispanic-serving community college in Redwood City, Calif. He received his bachelor’s degree in geodetic engineering from the University of the Philippines, her master’s degree in geodetic science from the Ohio State University, and her Ph.D. degree in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Irvine.

Since joining Cañada College in 1995 as the only full-time engineering faculty member, he has developed a number of federally funded programs to increase the participation, retention, and success of under-represented students in engineering: the Summer Engineering Institute (a summer engineering camp for high school students), Math Jam (a math bridge program), Physics Jam (an intensive program for students preparing to take physics), the NASA Creating Opportunities for Minorities in Engineering, Technology, and Science (COMETS) program (a summer research internship program for community college engineering students), and an NSF scholarship program for Cañada STEM students. He has also developed programs for engineering faculty, including the Summer Engineering Teaching Institute (a summer workshop on effective use of technology in engineering education), and the Joint Engineering Program (a collaboration to help strengthen community college engineering programs throughout California). Additionally, he developed the Bridge to Engineering Program for veterans supported by the Veterans’ Employment-Related Assistance Program (VEAP).

He has received a number of awards related to engineering education, including the ASEE Pacific Southwest Section (PSW) Outstanding Community College Educator Award, the Hewlett-Packard Technology for Teaching Award, and the League of California Community Colleges Out-Of-The-Box Thinkers Award. In December 2011, he received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring presented by President Obama at the White House.

Being from a community college where the main focus is on teaching, Enriquez has made ASEE his main professional organization. Enriquez is currently chair of the ASEE PSW Section, after previously serving on the PSW Executive Board as vice chair, community colleges for four years. He is also currently vice chair of the ASEE Two-Year College Division, a position that he has held for the last two and a half years. He regularly attends ASEE section and national conferences, and has received the ASEE Zone IV Best Paper Award twice (2009 and 2010), and Best Paper awards from both the ASEE Mathematics Division and the Two-Year College Division in 2011.

Eric Wang

Associate Professor,

Mechanical Engineering Department

University of Nevada, Reno

Eric Wang is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), where he has taught a wide variety of courses, including Introduction to Engineering Design, since 1995. He is a recipient of several teaching awards, including the ASEE Pacific Southwest Section’s Outstanding Teaching Award (2001), UNR’s Distinguished Teacher Award (2003), and the Nevada Regent’s Teaching Award (2009). In 2008, he was awarded the ASEE Merl K. Miller Award for best journal paper in the Computers in Education Journal.

Wang has been actively involved in engineering education since 1994, and in ASEE since 1999. He was recently chair of the ASEE Pacific Southwest Section (2011) and has served on the Pacific Southwest Section’s Board of Directors since 2007. He has served on several ASEE conference planning committees, including the 2007 ASEE Pacific Southwest Section and the 2010 ASEE Zone IV conferences, both of which were hosted by UNR. He has presented more than 25 papers and posters at educational conferences, including 14 at ASEE national, zone, and section conferences.

Each summer, Wang runs a series of LEGO robotics summer camps for 100 middle school students. He has authored four books on engineering with LEGO bricks and has conducted workshops for more than 1,000 K-12 teachers on teaching with LEGO bricks in the United States, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, New Zealand, and Australia.

Wang’s interests include dynamic systems and controls, robotics, and engineering education. He has been principal investigator on numerous educational grants and has graduated one Ph.D. and four M.S. students in the area of engineering education.

Engineering’s Interlinked Challenges: Innovation and Diversity
Thomas W. Peterson

U.S. leadership can’t be sustained without a wider talent pool.

In my professional lifetime, I cannot recall a time when more attention was focused on innovation than right now. It is touted as the key to our economic growth, the solution to our jobs crisis, and one of the dominant characteristics that distinguish the United States from the rest of the world. But four years as assistant director for engineering at the National Science Foundation have persuaded me that America’s advantage in innovation can’t be maintained without both enlightened government policies and a greater, more imaginative effort by the engineering community and educators.

The key ingredients of innovation are a talented, diverse workforce capable of stimulating creative ideas; a good idea, most often the fruit of basic research; and a process to turn that idea into a product or process of societal benefit that can reach the marketplace.

The effort must begin with the identification, recruitment, and retention of enough talented people to keep the U.S. engineering workforce in a leadership position. This is a daunting challenge when fewer than a half million of the 12 million students at four-year universities study engineering, when just 70,000 a year eventually leave with a degree in engineering, and when only 150,000 out of 2.7 million graduate students are engineers. Our colleges’ graduation of engineers places us statistically below just about any other economically developed country, and frankly, below many countries that aren’t so developed.

Further, the population studying engineering is not representative of the country. While we saw a slow but steady increase in the percentage of women in engineering from the mid-1970s until 2000, the percentage of women graduating in engineering hasn’t changed in the past 10 years. Similarly, the percentage of African-Americans and Hispanics gaining engineering degrees is well below their proportion of the population and shows little sign of improving. To exclude half the population based on gender, and a large number of the remaining half on the basis of ethnic background, is to deny the profession the diversity of thought so necessary for solving our world’s grand challenges.

Together with our sister agencies and industrial partners concerned with our future workforce, NSF has invested millions of dollars to address these challenges. Yet our progress has slowed. Clearly, we need to bring to bear all our problem-solving skills on this critically important issue. NSF can play a leadership role, again in concert with other science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) funding agencies. We must also more fully engage the Department of Education in order to scale the best practices of K-12 STEM education, often developed with NSF support.

Translational Research

Strategic federal investments can encourage and support innovation within the academic community. NSF’s $7 billion research budget represents about 10 percent of nondefense research and development, and about 20 percent of all investments in basic research throughout the federal government. Of this, the Engineering Directorate’s share is about 10 percent. What can one reasonably expect to accomplish with this relatively small amount of money? The answer is, quite a bit. NSF’s support for basic research is well known. Less recognized is our long-standing support for translational research, primarily in the Engineering Directorate. Such research is fundamentally what engineering is: taking an idea, iterating it to meet a societal need, and in the process spinning off new ideas for basic research and identifying new needs for society.

This support for the entire innovation ecosystem, not simply the front end, is intrinsic to the DNA of NSF, and has been since its founding in 1950. A portion of the basic research we fund has the potential for eventual translation to products and processes of societal benefit. Sometimes we invest in basic research with a clear, visible pathway to translation. But not all brilliant commercial ideas result from a purposeful focus on a particular marketable concept. Often, the opportunities for translation of basic research results into benefits for society are not clearly evident a priori. Our funding portfolio must therefore support both pathways. This calls for thoughtful, strategic investments across a broad range of basic research areas and spanning all disciplines supported by the Foundation. Of the wide range of programs that capitalize on partnerships among faculty, business, and industry, at the top of the list are the many “Centers” programs, particularly the Engineering Research Centers and the Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers.

The genealogy of many successful commercial enterprises traces directly back to NSF support. For example, a Small Business Innovation Research grant to Andrew Viterbi and Irwin Jacobs in 1985 helped them develop a single chip implementation of the so-called Viterbi decoder and launch Qualcomm, now an almost $15 billion enterprise with global reach. NSF-backed research led to the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR technique, which made DNA fingerprinting possible. Support for the synthetic biology Engineering Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley has led to the development of an artificial pathway for the antimalarial drug artemisinin. Support for the Science and Technology Center at Illinois led to the development of magnetic resonance technology by Paul Lauterbur, who received the Nobel Prize for his discoveries. NSF also funds prolific inventor Chad Mirkin, at Northwestern University, who has spun off companies based on nanotechnology.

Sometimes serendipity plays a role. An intriguing case in point is that of Hector Garcia-Molina, a computer science and electrical engineering professor at Stanford University, and his 1990s “digital library project.” The project’s final report to NSF mentioned that one of Garcia-Molina’s graduate students, Larry Page, had developed a search engine able to link among Web pages. It went on to say that more information could be found at

More Is Required

The United States cannot rest on these successes. We have to find ways of stimulating and supporting the entrepreneurial spirit within our students and faculty, particularly within engineering colleges. NSF has programs pursuing this objective: The Engineering and the Education and Human Resources Directorates are jointly supporting a national center, led by Stanford University, focused on entrepreneurship within undergraduate engineering curricula. The year-old Innovation Corps, or I-Corps, identifies university faculty (not just engineers) whose NSF-funded research has led to interesting technical ideas, and helps educate them on how to translate those ideas to the marketplace. In financial partnership with Intel and GE (and hopefully others), NSF is investing in undergraduate programs aligned with the objective of the President’s Jobs Council to increase by 10,000 the number of graduating engineers and computer scientists. The program will focus specifically on improving first- and second-year retention rates.

While it has been a privilege to have been part of these activities, my NSF colleagues and I also recognize that addressing the challenges of stimulating innovation and of diversity in the future workforce can’t be separated. In fact, diversity is critical to innovation. So in returning to academe, I look forward to seeing NSF programs that integrate research and education become more evident. This empowerment to create, to explore, to exact fundamental benefit to human life, and to become an agent for real and lasting positive change in the world defines what it means to be an engineer.

Thomas W. Peterson is completing his term as assistant director for engineering at the National Science Foundation. He will become provost and executive vice chancellor at the University of California, Merced. The opinions expressed are his and do not necessarily reflect the views of NSF.