Yes, the engineering research of David Gracias does resemble the hobby of folding paper. And the way, under his microscope, nano-materials fold themselves into cubes and pyramids, like tiny polyhedrons coming to life, seems Disney inspired. But please don’t say it’s cute. “I hate the word cute; I’m not in the business of doing ‘cute,’” protests Gracias, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Johns Hopkins University. Until recently, “origami was treated like a game,” he says. The pioneers who incorporated the ancient Japanese art into high technology were both lonely and frequently mocked. “That a real scientist could do something useful with it was treated with skepticism. They would say, ‘How cute.’” Recalls University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign civil engineer Glaucio Paulino: “People did not believe in this idea. They said it looks funny.”
No longer. With practical implications ranging from minimally invasive surgical aids to highly efficient capture of solar energy and giant space telescopes that fit into a small payload, origami engineering has evolved into a well-funded fount of innovation. In 2009 the Gracias Laboratory created the world’s smallest precisely patterned cube, a self-folding structure just 100 nanometers long on each side. Two years later, in a collaboration with researchers at the Johns Hopkins Medical School, hundreds of self-folding microgrippers were deployed and then retrieved to successfully biopsy the bile duct of a live pig. These were the world’s first untethered submillimeter surgical devices.
Origami’s growth took a new turn in 2012, when the National Science Foundation launched the Origami Design for Integration of Self-assembling Systems for Engineering Innovation (ODISSEI) program and granted some $16 million to 14 universities, with millions more to come. Paulino, who helped raise the mast of ODISSEI, says the NSF was looking for “the next topic in engineering — a vision toward the future,” adding, “We felt origami was such a project.” One of the grant recipients, Max Shtein of the University of Michigan, strongly concurs. “We’re wading into a sea of possibilities,” says the materials science and engineering professor. “There are a million different applications for engineering out of this stuff.”
What these researchers are producing, however, rarely bears any resemblance to a Japanese paper crane. Engineers typically fold sheets of shape-memory alloys or polymers into three-dimensional devices. The differences between these materials and paper highlight both the challenges and the possibilities of origami engineering. Unlike paper, these sheets can be coated in semiconductors and programmed to fold themselves. “We envision smart sheets, so that if you need anything you just tell the sheets, ‘Make me a plate or make me a cup; make me a chair or make me a tool,’ whatever that tool is,” says Daniela Rus, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Rus, along with engineering and math colleagues at MIT and Harvard, has already produced a small, hinged sheet that can fold itself into a boat and then into a paper-airplane shape.
But also unlike paper, most of these materials have meaningful — and troublesome — thickness. Paper creases; a polymer or a metal can at best make a tight bend. MIT mathematician Erik Demaine has been modeling origami math for more than 15 years and even earned a MacArthur “genius grant” for “solving difficult problems related to folding.” One of his early publications proved that “everything is foldable,” according to Demaine. “If you have a large enough sheet of material, you can bend it into any shape you want.” But, Demaine admits, “almost all the math models assume no thickness — we need algorithms to model thickness and minimize it in folding.”
Still, engineers are finding they have much to learn from the artists who work in paper. Shtein’s desk in Ann Arbor, Mich., is scattered with folded paper forms created by a collaborator from U of M’s School of Art and Design, Matt Shlian. “Watch this!” the engineer exclaims as he stretches a tessellated sheet of mountains and valleys that undulates in the air and then collapses between his palms. Shtein says that his own expertise in engineering materials had flattened his worldview until he began working with the artist. “He had three dimensions kind of hard-wired into him,” according to Shtein. Now he heads a $2 million NSF-funded research project, collaborating with four other engineers and Shlian to explore the folding of thin films into photonic devices.
The ODISSEI grant prospectus compelled engineering teams to find artistic coinvestigators, which was a mental stretch for some. “I was skeptical about stepping outside of our sandbox,” confesses chemical engineer Michael Dickey of North Carolina State University. Then he spent an afternoon touring the College of Design on campus. “I was surrounded on every side by 40 or 50 artistic costumes, each folded out of a single sheet of paper,” Dickey recalls. He snapped photographs on his phone and returned to the lab with three or four new ideas to apply to NC State’s ODISSEI research project. “I’m a convert,” he adds.
Science with a Toy
The eight groups funded by the NSF take a wide range of approaches toward folding. The NCSU team uses light to heat ink-jet-printed lines on prestressed polymer sheets. The ridiculously cheap and simple process, discovered through serendipity by a team of undergraduate and grad students, leads to forms that appear to be assembled by magic, like a time-lapse film of a flower folding up for the night. At present, their raw material is a children’s craft kit, Shrinky Dinks. The researchers fold Shrinky Dinks in order to test models for the scaling laws and mechanics of folding. “It’s basic science with a toy,” says Jan Genzer, the NC State engineer in charge of the project.
At the other end of the spectrum, Texas A&M is working with a material so complex that the engineers occasionally have to laugh at the difficulty of the task before them. In fact, they still have to invent it. But the computer models developed by aerospace engineer Darren Hartl show great promise for a sandwich of two sheets of shape-memory alloy — prestressed to fold in opposing directions — separated by an insulator. A switched resistor network pattern, like a programmable version of the defrosting wires embedded in an automobile’s rear window, will trigger the bending action. With no hinges limiting the position of creases, the massively foldable sheet could theoretically take one of an infinite variety of shapes, unfold, and then refold into something completely different. In a simulation recently published by Hartl, mechanical engineer Richard Malak, and their colleagues, the sheet becomes an airfoil to steer a spacecraft to a landing on Venus, and then curls into a cylinder to roll on the planet’s surface.
Which of the many technologies will prevail in origami engineering remains a very open question. Penn State’s Mary Frecker has an ODISSEI grant to develop the Dagwood of origami sandwiches: layers of different materials that respond to magnetic, electrical, and thermal stimuli. Each layer will be preprogrammed to assume particular shapes. In Cambridge, Mass., Rus of MIT and Harvard’s Robert Wood use hinges of shape-memory alloys actuated by electrical signals. The hinges are arranged in a pattern known to origami artists as a box pleat, a grid of squares divided by alternating diagonals. Rus, Wood, Demaine, and their students have developed an algorithm that can approximate any three-dimensional shape out of a single box-pleated sheet. “I view this as the next frontier in programming,” says Rus. “Not programming bits and bytes, but shape.”
Another Harvard-MIT collaboration is folding entirely new concepts into the framework of origami. The Buckliball caused quite a stir when it was announced in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012. This soft-rubber sphere with 24 precisely spaced dimples can collapse to approximately half its volume without fundamentally changing shape. The secret is a cascade of folding ligaments between the dimples. The technology was inspired by a toy, the Twist-O, brought to MIT’s Pedro Reis by a student. The Twist-O accomplishes the same trick, but with 26 structural parts and 48 rotating hinges, manipulated by hand. The Buckliball is of one piece, printed on a 3-D printer, and transformed automatically by air pressure. Unlike paper folding, this technology bypasses 2-D entirely. But, says Reis, “origami is a language that helps us explore the new framework.”
Katia Bertoldi of Harvard’s engineering school sees broad potential for what she and Reis call “Buckligami.” She is currently determining the optimal packing structure that would turn thousands of buckling balls into a new impact-absorbing material. Reis is exploring an asymmetrical version that could operate as a soft robot without motors or hinges. At the nano scale, a Buckliball with holes instead of dimples could be triggered to release medicine inside the body exactly where it is needed.
Many origami engineers are pointing their folds toward the market for medical devices. Origami has two virtues that make it well-suited to surgery. The first is that by folding compactly, origami-based devices can be minimally invasive en route to their destination in the body, expanding on arrival. This is the idea behind an origami stent that went into animal trials in 2012. Developed by Oxford University engineer Zhong You, the stent is a one-piece cylinder of titanium-nickel foil that collapses along helical and cross folds to half its full diameter for insertion. Existing stents are made of wire mesh, and their porosity complicates their function inside the arteries, according to You.
The second advantage of folding surgical structures is their Swiss-Army-knife potential to accomplish more than a single task without having to withdraw one device and insert another. “The challenge in surgery is access,” explains Gracias of Johns Hopkins. “The ultimate frontier is to have small robotic structures,” he adds, “to ‘swallow the surgeon.’”
Origami carries the exact same advantages to another frontier: outer space. When the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) came up with the idea of a space telescope that would dwarf Hubble, they approached Robert Lang, a trailblazer in origami art and science. Lang has nearly 50 patents in lasers and optoelectronics, but he left his research position at high-tech JDS Uniphase Corp. in 2001 to devote himself full time to origami. Today he rotates between folding commissioned artworks and consulting as an origami engineer. The same mathematical algorithms he developed to fold an elk from paper also worked when he consulted for a German automotive engineering company to improve its simulations of airbag folding.
The LLNL’s design for the Eyeglass telescope called for a lens 100 meters in diameter — larger than a baseball field — but it needed to fit into a spacecraft payload only 4 meters wide. With the lens divided into panes, Lang helped the laboratory devise a way to fold the lens for transport and unfold it for deployment. “If you have something big and flat and it needs to get smaller, or to take on particular shape, that problem is already pretty similar to the origami problem,” says Lang. “Engineers faced with similar problems can find solutions that already exist in origami.”
The Eyeglass team built a prototype nearly as high as a two-story house that worked as predicted, but the giant space telescope has not been funded. Lang sees this process being equally useful on Earth, however. For example, he questions why people should have to carry both an iPad and an iPhone when an origami smart phone could unfold into a tablet.
Shtein at Michigan sees new markets for materials composed of microscopic folds that manipulate light. He grabs a large, yellow sheet of paper, scored with slits, and begins to tug at the edges. “Woo-hoo!” he cries as the strips of paper rotate into a honeycomb-like lattice. He envisions similar structures in nanoscale films. “If the folds were sized to correspond with the wavelength of light, it becomes a photonic material,” he notes. Or if somewhat larger, such a material could act as a Fresnel lens and might focus the moving sun onto solar cells, “like a myriad of sunflowers a millimeter or smaller,” Shtein says.
He also predicts that folded nanofilms will create colors without pigments or paints, an attractive proposition for nearby automobile companies. Butterflies and mother-of-pearl get their colors exclusively from microscopic structures that reflect and refract light, he explains. “If we could create surface features that give colors without paint, we might save a lot of the energy involved in making a car,” Shtein adds.
In manufacturing, origami’s new frontier is to create devices — particularly very small ones — that self-assemble from rollstock, leveraging the electronics industry’s expertise in patterning minute two-dimensional detail. “This is a paradigm shift,” says Gracias. “No company is currently manufacturing things by making them assemble themselves.”
Some of the first experiments take their cue more from pop-up books than from origami. Brigham Young University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering has spun off a company to market an injector they developed to insert DNA into a single mouse zygote cell. BYU’s prototype is composed of two micromachined layers of polycrystalline silicon. In operation, the hinged needle assembly rises from the base structure onto supports and then projects forward into the egg, powered by torsion stored in the structure. The entire device could fit through the eye of a sewing needle. Because it pops up out of flat layers, Larry Howell and his BYU colleagues have termed such a machine a Laminate Emergent Mechanism, or LEM, but the coinventor of the nanoinjector also refers to it as “kinetic origami.”
Pratheev Sreetharan believes that one day everyone will use products made with pop-up manufacturing. Sreetharan, who received an ASEE-administered National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate fellowship, recently completed his Ph.D. at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He has founded what may become the first major origami engineering company, Vibrant Research. The venture was spawned by his work in Professor Wood’s robotics lab, building miniature flying robots. Assembling these RoboBees, just 18 millimeters from head to tail, was a “horrible, horrible, horrible process,” according to Sreetharan, that took a year of training and weeks of assembly. He would create 22 folds on a dozen parts, using tweezers under a microscope, and then glue them together. Most of the results ended up in the trash.
Out of this frustration, he developed a system that put all of the parts into a single sheet, laminated from 18 laser-cut layers. The key innovation was to incorporate a scaffolding structure that could act like a host of tweezers lifting and folding the layers into position in a single motion that takes less than a second. Suddenly it was conceivable to mass-produce RoboBees using standard technology in a circuit-board foundry.
Sreetharan has now set his sights on the electronics market, and his five-person company already has corporate funding. He says the pop-up folding process fills a gap between semiconductor-based micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) manufacturing, which works well up to 1 millimeter, and conventional assembly, which becomes practical for products 1 centimeter and larger. “I call it ‘mesoscale manufacturing,’” he says, “for things that are too big for semiconductor techniques but too small for tweezers.” Sreetharan adds, “There are a lot of devices that people haven’t even considered building because they did not seem feasible.”
None of these origami-engineered devices is actually in commercial production yet. And engineering researchers working on the ODISSEI projects caution that years of basic research lie between the current state of technology and the day when origami-inspired products will become common in our homes and hospitals. Referring to self-folding systems, Malak of Texas A&M says, “I see a 20-year arc of understanding systems better, understanding what the limitations are, and then getting them into engineering practice.” But the long road ahead does not dampen the enthusiasm of origami engineers at all. Says BYU’s Howell, “If we can exploit the knowledge of origami artists in other materials, it will lead to very powerful systems with unprecedented performance; we will do things no one has ever done before.”
Don Boroughs is a regular Prism correspondent.
When university engineering departments advertise vacancies these days, they can expect “100 to many hundred applications for every tenure-track faculty opening. That’s true in engineering nationally,” says Joseph Helble, dean of Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering. Where a doctorate once served as a passport to a comfortable faculty career, the majority of today’s new Ph.D. engineers face a tough choice: They can seek temporary and comparatively low-paid postdoctoral fellowships, or look to industry, which has tended to view research-trained doctoral graduates as destined for academe and therefore an unlikely fit. “There’s always been this hesitation in business — ‘Do we really want to take a Ph.D. right off the bat, [when] we have to train them for three or four years?’ ” says Steven Casper, dean of faculty development at the Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, Calif.
But now, a number of institutions have begun to prepare Ph.D. engineers to grasp opportunities and thrive in the industrial, commercial, and business worlds, either as employees of large or small enterprises or as entrepreneurs seeking to turn their own research into marketable products. They include both Dartmouth and Keck, a specialized graduate school that has pioneered preparation of engineers and scientists for the biomedical industry, along with Purdue, Georgia Tech, and the University of California, Davis.
More schools may follow, responding both to the demands of a knowledge economy powered by research-based innovation and to the dynamic career aspirations of people like Shaili Sharma, one of a new generation of highly trained, entrepreneurial engineers. “I knew from the first day I started [graduate school] that I was never going to be in academia,” says Sharma, now on the verge of completing a bioengineering doctorate at Purdue. Still, she saw a Ph.D. as essential to her goal of leading the development of new products. She hopes eventually to help patients susceptible to arthritis, including her own father.
“With a Ph.D. you gain a new set of skills,” Sharma says. “You think about a problem, think about designing solutions that nobody has actually looked at before.” She hopes the solid academic grounding of a doctorate will enable her to move quickly into a leadership role, “heading organizations or departments or research offices that solve problems. That is key. I wanted to be at that position; I could not have done that with just a bachelor’s.”
A Range of Models
Offerings that teach industry and business skills to Ph.D. engineers vary widely in scope, goals, and content, ranging from multiday intensives, through yearlong fellowships and degrees, to an entire Ph.D. program. All, however, aim to retain the special advantages of research-based doctoral studies while providing additional elements appropriate to business and industry.
Among the most important of those often-missing skills, Casper says, is effective teamwork. When Casper and his Keck colleagues began planning to train Ph.D.’s, however, they initially thought that the doctoral graduates “would be great on teamwork because they collaborate all the time on publications,” he says. Yet while researchers are organized to work in groups at university labs, “everybody in the group has their own responsibility and they each own something fundamentally, and they need to get credit for it on publication.” Ph.D.’s fresh from academe find it difficult “to delegate something that is important to a project” to someone else. Teamwork involves a far greater division of labor and sharing of credit. “There’s more of a reliance on others to brainstorm and figure out what they have to do fundamentally,” Casper continues. Functions are much more likely to be delegated and credit for a project’s merits to accrue to the group at large rather than to any individual member. Team projects with participants of differing backgrounds and degree status are a major element in Keck programs, along with company internships and coursework that can include management, finance, law, intellectual property, regulatory affairs, and more.
Business and Research Skills
U.S. universities are not the only ones looking to prepare Ph.D.’s for working lives outside the academy. Germany, Ireland, and other European countries have begun offering newly designed “structured” Ph.D. curricula intended to produce graduates suited to “modern business, commercial, and industrial environments as well as the more traditional careers in academia and research,” as Ireland’s Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) puts it. At DIT and Technische Universität München in Germany, students not only pursue their academic discipline but also acquire a range of “generic skills” considered relevant to a wide range of careers, including communication, ethics, leadership and teamwork, career management, and the basics of entrepreneurship and innovation.
Such specific preparation for nonacademic careers does not typically appear in American Ph.D. programs. An exception is Thayer School’s Ph.D. Innovation Program, the first of its kind in the nation, according to Helble. Its curriculum shares a common core with Thayer’s Ph.D. program: applied math and engineering coursework, a multiyear research project, professional skill-building, an oral qualifying examination, and a Ph.D. thesis defense. But it also includes courses from Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business in “corporate finance,… law, technology, and entrepreneurship, an elective such as accounting, and Thayer School’s unique Introduction to Innovation course,” Helble explains. An internship, “preferably in a start-up, which could be the student’s own venture,” completes the requirements.
Other institutions offer Ph.D. engineering students or postdocs a year devoted to skills relevant to commercializing research. The Purdue Realization and Entrepreneurship Ph.D. and Postdoctoral Fellows (PREPP) program, where Shaili Sharma studied, includes workshops and mentored programs exploring the realities of moving a research idea to the market as a product or service. The program, an addition to graduate work, seeks to “educate, mentor, train [candidates] so that when they finish their Ph.D., they have a head start on technology transfer,” says Candiss Vibbert, Purdue’s assistant vice president for engagement. “Even if they don’t start a company right away, they really believe that this is added value to the doctoral degree and really makes them a more attractive candidate for academic and industrial jobs.”
At the University of California-Davis, meanwhile, the year-long Business Development Certificate fellowship program at the university’s Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship “provides UC Davis science and engineering graduate and post-doctoral students hands-on experience in developing business skills for a career in industry and the opportunity to develop new business ventures,” according to the program’s website. The institute’s mission, says its director, L. Wilton Agatstein, “is to help science and engineering academics as well as other researchers go through the steps necessary to determine how to commercialize their research.”
Throughout the year, the UC-Davis innovation and entrepreneurship institute offers a number of “entrepreneurship academies,” which provide engineering graduate students, postdocs, and faculty from any university an intensive three-day introduction that starts them toward “the knowledge and the skills and the network and ultimately the confidence to commercialize their research,” Agatstein says. “Clearly they don’t complete all the steps necessary, but they get the beginning of the knowledge and the beginning of the skills so that they can determine the next steps.”
At the Keck Graduate Institute, engineers and scientists who have completed their doctorates can take a year of graduate study that culminates in an additional degree, the Postdoctoral Professional Master (PPM) in Biosciences Management. This program draws on KGI’s experience as a pioneer in developing the Professional Science Master’s (PSM) degree – now offered at more than 125 institutions – that combines a year of master’s-level science or engineering study with a year of business management, regulatory affairs, and other industry-oriented courses, an internship, and a team project. The one-year PPM provides the business and management elements of the PSM, including an industry-sponsored team project in which students collaborate to solve real problems for a real company.
Other programs take less time. This summer, KGI will launch a new “Bridging the Gap” Summer Boot Camp to provide engineers and scientists who are working on or have received their Ph.D.’s “an introduction to the transferable skills and industry experiences not afforded during their graduate studies [but] required to obtain positions in the life sciences industry.” Supported by a grant from the Burroughs-Wellcome Fund, the ambitious 12-day workshop will include “MBA-style case-based teaching,” finance, decision analysis, and even a teaching project, Casper says. Another relatively short option is Georgia Tech’s 12-credit Graduate Certificate in Engineering Entrepreneurship, in which Ph.D. candidates interested in becoming entrepreneurs or joining a start-up can take a minor consisting of courses offered by the business school.
Bridges to Industry
In both the United States and Europe, business-oriented doctoral programs generally cultivate close ties with industry. These relationships inform their students’ or fellows’ studies; help guide the design, content, and structure of the programs; and provide the students concrete opportunities for networking and employment. Advisers from industry played important roles in planning many of the programs and generally continue to provide them up-to-date information on current business conditions and needs and, in some cases, financial support both for students and elements of the program. Mentors and speakers from industry provide program content and help maintain the bonds that feed students into industrial positions, both as interns and, in many cases, as employees.
For minorities seeking business experience after completing a Ph.D. in engineering or another STEM field, ASEE and the National Science Foundation have teamed up to offer Small Business Postdoctoral Research Diversity Fellowships at firms that receive NSF Small Business Innovation Research funding.
Once hired, graduates are proving their value, say administrators of the new university programs. Helble says representatives of large corporations, such as IBM, have told him that “these are exactly the skills we’d like our engineers to have.” Keck Graduate Institute’s Casper says companies “come back for more.” Every member of Keck’s recent PPM graduating classes is employed in industry, he says, except for one 2012 alumnus who chose to travel after graduation and has just begun a job search. Vibbert, of Purdue, likewise says PREPP graduates are “quite successful in the job market.” Davis’s Entrepreneurship Academies and Business Development fellows have thus far founded more than 100 companies, 45 of which are currently in operation, according to Agatstein.
The prospect of real-world success holds strong appeal for students. More than 800 participants have attended the 19 short academies that Davis has run to date, and 57 graduate students – about one-fourth of the applicant pool – have been year-long Business Development fellows. The Keck PPM program has gone from six students in its first year to 30. Thayer’s Innovation Ph.D. is kept small by design in order to “assure that we can provide good mentorship,” Helble explains, but gets eight applications for each of five available spaces and is “the most highly selective program within Thayer school.” Purdue’s PREPP attracts several times more applicants than the program can accommodate, Vibbert says. And these students possess an entrepreneurial drive that is “not just a matter of making money, we find.” Instead, “a lot of them feel that they have an innovative technology that they’re developing that can really make a difference to people and they want to do that.” And isn’t that, after all, what engineering is all about?
Beryl Lieff Benderly is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
With a Dr. Seuss ode painted on the wall, the smell of pizza in the air, and freshmen sprawled across couches or hunched over laptops, the fifth-floor lounge of Easton Hall at the University of Maryland, College Park, could be any campus dorm on a busy school night. But looks can be deceiving. The students on this floor and the one above it live in a special community, where residents have homework parties in the hallway, cheer each other on during classroom presentations, and huddle together for movie nights. They also bond like soldiers in a foxhole because of a singular shared experience: All are female first- and second-year engineering students, slogging through the same tough course load.
First-year electrical engineering student Lauren Berman learned the value of having a support network of classmates, resident mentors, and professional skill-building classes after failing a recent project. “I remember being extremely shocked because [flunking] would never happen to me,” she says. With the help of her freshman seminar instructor, who acts as a guide to academic support resources, Berman managed to work things out with her professor.
Formed in 2007 as a way to retain women engineers in the male-dominated discipline, Maryland’s Flexus program is just one example of how engineering schools across the country are creating villages that emphasize informal interactions with faculty, peer mentoring, and shared learning experiences. And experiences like Berman’s are repeated elsewhere. Kayla Huddleston, a second-year computer science student at Mississippi State University, for instance, says if it weren’t for the Bagley College of Engineering’s women-only residential program, “I think I would have changed my major to math.”
Known as living and learning communities (LLCs), these themed residential programs make a big community feel small, explains S. Patrick Walton, director of the College of Engineering’s LLC at Michigan State University in East Lansing. And it is the sense of belonging they tend to inspire that engineering schools hope will boost degree completion among women and underrepresented minorities, who have languished for years at 20 percent and 3 to 4 percent, respectively, of engineering graduates.
Sharing classes, struggling over the same problem sets, and having resident upperclassmen as mentors encourage freshmen to forge engineering identities along with friendships. The personalized support is particularly important for first-generation students and underrepresented groups struggling to adjust to that first lonely year in college, Walton says. Indeed, breaking big research universities into smaller communities of learners was among the top recommendations of the 1998 Boyer Commission report on improving undergraduate education.
All Together Now
LLCs are the latest twist in a centuries-old tradition of residential colleges. Islamic in origin, the model first took hold in the Western world in the 12th century at the universities of Paris and Oxford. America’s first higher-education learning community dates back to the 1920s, when the University of Wisconsin introduced a short-lived “experimental college” program. The concept re-emerged in the 1960s as a way to “humanize the learning environment,” according to a 2004 study, “Adding Value: Learning Communities and Student Engagement,” and again in the 1980s in response to complaints that undergraduate classes were too big, teaching strategies were too staid, and students were getting lost in the shuffle.
In the mid-1990s, LLCs began to address the low numbers of females and underrepresented minorities in science and engineering. Texas A & M, one of the pioneers, established an engineering living and learning community for women in 1992, and another for underrepresented minorities in 2001. These programs had such “a positive influence on student success and retention,” university officials say, that in 2006 the college established an engineering LLC for 600 first-year students, including a women-only floor that houses 120 freshmen, and actively promotes it as an option for all first-generation college-goers and low-income students.
Since the mid-2000s, the number of engineering LLCs has grown, particularly for women students, says University of Virginia higher education researcher Karen Inkelas, author of the 2007 National Study of Living-Learning Programs. Ranging in size from 20 women undergraduates to more than 100, these female engineering or STEM LLCs combine residential living—either on the same floor or in a separate dorm—with academic and social programming. The aim: Build a student’s social network to reinforce the academic work. Talking to peers about homework or class projects, interacting with faculty via mentorships, and supportive residence hall environments all correlate with higher retention rates, Inkelas says.
Buddies, Mentors, Role Models
“Apparently, 2 a.m. is the best time to do your homework, according to our engineering students,” says Susan Arnold Christian, assistant director of the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity (CEED) at Virginia Tech. CEED oversees an all-woman engineering LLC for women dubbed Hypatia—after a female mathematician and philosopher in fourth-century Alexandria, Egypt. Realizing that everyone around them is in the same situation, Christian explains, gives students a level of support they can’t find in a help center elsewhere on campus. The best part about living in the all-female LLC, says third-year civil engineering student Doreen Ng-Sui-Hing, “is having the opportunity to walk down the hall, two doors, three doors down and knock on a fellow Hypatian’s door” to talk about problems in class, eat ice cream, or just hang out.
Such bonds endure. “Kristen [Long] and I, we were two doors down from each other last year and still to this day we sign up for the same sections of classes so that we can study together,” says Flexus resident Catherine “Cara” Hamel. “I’m in her room probably every night studying.” Janice Cunningham, now a biological engineering senior at Mississippi State, entered as a first-generation college student and knew she would need all the help she could get. She found “automatic study buddies” in her coeducational LLC. “I still study with the same groups today.”
Two former students in Iowa State University’s all-female science and engineering LLC still bounce ideas off each other, though they work for different companies, says Lora Leigh Chrystal, on-campus coordinator for the school’s Women in Science and Engineering LLC.
Many programs include resident upperclassmen who have gone through the same courses and problems their fledgling dorm-mates face. Programs also make a point of bringing in working engineers to talk to the students. Maryland’s Flexus program, more formally known as the Dr. Marilyn Berman Pollans Women in Engineering Living & Learning Community, has a required course that includes regular sessions with practicing female engineers. First-year students also must write a short paper outlining their career plans and attend at least two professional society meetings.
For the younger women, this career focus “gives them a sense of where they could go,” says Rachelle Reisberg, director of Northeastern University’s women in engineering program. Recent examples include two women engineering graduates from Northeastern who worked on the Curiosity Mars rover at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “It’s not just about having role models that are academically successful but (ones who) do things that are interesting,” she says.
“Anyone who’s been successful in life has had mentors, whether they were purposefully looking for one or not,” agrees George J. Pierson, president and CEO of the international engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, who donated the seed money to start a learning community for underrepresented engineering majors at his alma mater, Bucknell University. “If you look at the numbers, while there is a tremendous focus on getting minority students interested and admitted to engineering programs, there isn’t an effort to keep them in the programs,” Pierson told Bucknell’s news service. Launched in 2010, Bucknell’s Engineering Success Alliance provides group study sessions, weekly math labs, peer advisers, and internship opportunities for engineering majors from poorly resourced high schools. The program, which now includes nine sophomores and 13 first-year students, already has helped students like Jasmine Joyner, a first-year biomedical engineering major, overcome self-doubt and remain in engineering. The idea is to help students make the leap from “surviving to thriving,” says Bucknell engineering dean Keith Buffinton.
While the long-term impact is hard to gauge, early evidence provided to ASEE’s retention survey suggests LLCs improve student success and retention, at least through the first year. At the University of Colorado, Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, for instance, an in-depth look at the 715 first-year students in the 2010 cohort revealed greater persistence — 86 percent — for students in engineering-oriented residential programs, compared with 78 percent for students in other campus residential programs. They earned higher GPAs as well. The college has two engineering LLCs: an honors program housed in Andrews Hall, and the Quadrangle, which offers supplementary calculus work groups, free drop-in tutoring every weeknight, late breakfasts before key midterms, and academic-support workshops.
Michigan State University initiatives have helped boost five-year graduation rates by about 50 percent, from 33 percent for the 1993-97 cohort to 49 percent a decade later. The school redesigned its first-year engineering program in 2009 into the Cornerstone and Residential Experience (CoRe), which integrates first-year courses, design projects, evening presentations by faculty and industry partners, corporate trips, walk-in academic advising, and peer tutoring. Today, over half the 1,100 incoming engineering students live in the CoRe LLC, with many non-LLC peers participating in the residential activities.
Studies indicate that LLCs also increase student engagement and satisfaction. Colorado State University, Pueblo researchers looked at the impact on learning of a first-year LLC, opened in 2009, that included two introductory courses with shared homework and a robotics lab. Participants not only reported increased satisfaction, but their pass rates and retention were higher, too. A 2010 study of the first-year experience in a new coed engineering and computer science LLC by Virginia Tech’s Frank Shushok and Rishi Sriram of Baylor University found that those in themed residential programs were seven times more likely to have met informally with a faculty member, four times more likely to have discussed academic issues with a professor outside of class, and 2.5 times more likely to have participated in a study group to work on a class assignment.
Women who participate in engineering and STEM LLCs are far more likely to persist than are classmates in traditional dorms, available evidence suggests. Of the female engineering majors who entered Iowa State University, Ames as freshmen in 2006, the most recent year for which data are available, 65 percent in the science and engineering LLC graduated with an engineering degree. That compares with just 41 percent of the female engineering graduates who didn’t participate in any type of learning community. Some 80 percent of the women in Virginia Tech’s Hypatia LLC who graduated within five years emerged with an engineering degree, versus 69 percent of non-LLC students. At Michigan Tech, 85 percent of the female undergraduates in the engineering LLC stick with the major after their first year, says Jean Kampe, chair of engineering fundamentals. By contrast, the two-year retention rate in engineering for their non-LLC peers is about 81 percent.
Beyond their impact on retention, LLCs clearly have caught on with students. After Virginia Tech started its residential program and career skill-building course for first-year women in engineering, no one wanted to leave at year’s end. Most of the pioneers remained in engineering, and word spread. Last year, a record 1 in 3 first-year female engineering students applied to be in the Hypatia program.
As a freshman, Callie Zawaski initially wasn’t sure she wanted to surround herself with “nerdy engineers” in an all-women dorm. But a talk by CEED director Bevlee Watford persuaded her “there would be others just like me.” Looking back from the perspective of a fourth-year mechanical engineering student, Zawaski is happy about her decision. “Once you leave home, the people you live with can become your family. I couldn’t have designed a better one myself.”
Jane J. Lee is a science writer based in Washington, D.C.
Subra Suresh took over as director of the National Science Foundation intent on “tearing down disciplinary barriers,” as he told Prism in 2011. It’s hard to find a more vivid example than origami engineering, a new initiative that NSF is funding to the tune of $16 million, with more expected. Inspired by traditional Japanese artistry, it has pulled together engineers, medical researchers, computer scientists, mathematicians, and yes, even artists, to develop materials that self-fold into all manner of shapes and sizes. This exciting new field is a long way from yielding commercial products, Don Boroughs writes in our cover story, but possibilities range from infinitely small medical devices to giant collapsible telescopes.
Some research breakthroughs never make it out of the lab – not for lack of commercial potential, but because industry never hears about them. One reason for this has been the lack of a pathway into industry for graduate engineering researchers. Now some engineering schools are creating one. Amid a weak academic job market and a growing recognition that a knowledge economy depends on research-based innovations, they’ve developed Ph.D. programs that combine lab research with training in business skills. As Beryl Benderly reports in our feature “The New Ph.D.,” students are responding with enthusiasm.
As this is written, Washington is just a few weeks away from the “fiscal cliff,” barring an 11th-hour tax-and-spending deal between the White House and Congress. ASEE, for its part, is determined to finish the current fiscal year in the black. So as not to reduce the quality of Prism’s features or illustrations, we’ve decided – as in 2011 – to reduce the number of issues this year from nine to eight and combine the March and April issues. Also, Henry Petroski’s regular column won’t appear in February. Fortunately, it will resume in the combined issue and again in our summer issue.
We hope you enjoy the January Prism. As always, your comments are welcome.
Thomas Grose’s article “Hand Signals” (First Look, Nov. Prism, Page 17), gives the impression that QuadSquad, on its very own, “invented” a new device to aid the speech- and hearing-impaired. While the “invention” does extend previous state of the art, the original concept for a glove interface was developed by Dr. Gary J. Grimes. A simple patent search reveals that U.S. Patent 4414537, titled “Digital Data Entry Glove Interface Device,” was filed on 15 September 1981 and issued on 8 November 1983 to Dr. Grimes. Dr. Grimes’s glove specifically addresses the issue described in the article… with technology available at the time. Prism would do well to set the record straight on this matter.
Footnote: I wonder how the six engineering ethics programs cited on Page 38 (“Grave New World”) would address this issue as a case study.
David A. Conner
Professor Emeritus and Chair Emeritus
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
University of Alabama at Birmingham
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New Shuttle Service
Though its mission remains shrouded in mystery, the unmanned spacecraft that hurtled into orbit from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in December is no engineering secret. Launched like a satellite and just as versatile, the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) has the same lifting-body design as the now retired space shuttle but is a quarter the size, measuring a mere 29 feet from nose to tail with a 15-foot wingspan. The solar-powered autonomous drone, developed in partnership with Boeing over the past decade, uses composites lighter than traditional aluminum and has a new generation of high-temperature, oxidation-resistant ceramic leading-edge wing tiles. It also has no crew or hydraulics; everything from de-orbiting to landing is automated, with electromechanical flight controls and brakes. The recent launch marks the second time in orbit for OTV-1; two years ago, after spending 224 days in space, it became the first unmanned vehicle in U.S. history to return from space and land on its own. A second spacecraft, OTV-2, shattered records for the longest space shuttle mission when it returned last June from 469 days aloft. Speculation about these missions ranges from developing a satellite killer to a nuclear bomber to a spy camera. The Air Force suggests a more prosaic purpose: proving the utility and affordability of reusable autonomous spacecraft. – Mary Lord
Skylon, a spaceplane that can leap from runway to orbit without the need for multistage, disposable rockets, is one step closer to soaring into the stratosphere. The European Space Agency (ESA) has certified that Skylon’s core technology works. As one ESA engineer put it: “The gateway is now open to move beyond the jet age.” Skylon’s Sabre engine starts out in jet mode, sucking in oxygen from the atmosphere that mixes with hydrogen to propel it. That lets Skylon avoid the need for expendable rockets, making it lighter and giving it a larger thrust-to-weight ratio. Today’s jet engines also suck oxygen from the atmosphere, but because the air must be compressed before entering the combustion chamber, the process generates a lot of heat and limits today’s jets to a top speed of 2.5 times the speed of sound. Any faster and the amount of heat generated melts the engine. To overcome that hurdle, Reaction Engines—the small U.K. company behind Skylon—designed a heat exchanger that can cool air from 1,000 degrees Celsius to minus 150 degrees in a hundredth of a second without creating a frost build-up that would shut down the engine. That allows Skylon to fly at the hypersonic speed of Mach 5, up to an altitude of 25 kilometers, where the Sabre engine switches into rocket mode. The technology could enable superfast airliners to one day reach any destination on Earth within four hours. Or, affixed to current engines, it could cut airline fuel bills dramatically. Reaction wants to raise $400 million to build a small-scale prototype with the aim of having an operational engine ready within 10 years. – Thomas K. Grose
California start-up Scanadu wants to send your smartphone to med school. The digital home healthcare company has unveiled its first three products, all tied to its Scanadu app. Scout is a handset device that, when held to the temple for around 10 seconds, sends data via Bluetooth to the phone app, displaying a variety of vital signs, including pulse rate, electrical heart activity, temperature, and blood oxygenation. The data can be forwarded to the user’s physician. Scout is expected to retail for less than $150 when released late this year. The other two products are disposable cartridges. ScanaFlo, geared toward pregnant women, analyzes urine for complications. ScanaFlu tests saliva for early diagnosis of viral infections, such as strep and influenza. Over time, the app will give users the ability to track trends in their vital signs, says Scanadu, which is located at the NASA-Ames Research Center. CEO Walter de Brouwer says the app-based devices should help people make better decisions about when they need to go to the doctor. – TG
Of the more than 1,570 U.S. service members who have lost limbs, hands, or feet while serving in Afghanistan or Iraq, around 280 are missing arms. But prosthetic devices for upper limbs are very difficult to engineer, because arms are more complex apparatuses than legs and have a greater reliance on the sense of touch. Until recent years, the technology used for prosthetic arms was almost archaic. The devices were so cumbersome and uncomfortable that many amputees shunned them. But bold advances are being made. Todd Kuiken, a neurosurgeon at Northwestern University’s school of engineering, has pioneered a surgical procedure called targeted muscle. It improves the functionality of myoelectric prosthesis control by moving residual arm nerves to other muscles in the chest, where it’s easier for electrodes to pick up their signals. The surgery enables upper-limb amputees to control a robotic arm with their thoughts. Newer versions of the procedure redirect hand-sensation nerves to reinnervate spare skin near the device, allowing users to regain some sense of touch. DEKA, the company founded by entrepreneurial engineer and serial inventor Dean Kamen, has been working for several years on “Luke,” a DARPA-funded robotic arm that would be much more functional than current versions. And at Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology, researchers early this year plan to test a new type of surgery that will connect a thought-controlled mechanical arm directly to nerves and bone of volunteers with titanium screws. The premise is that it will be much more effective in reading nerve impulses than electrodes attached to skin. – TG
Izhar Gafni’s eureka moment came a few years ago when he heard about a cardboard canoe and wondered: “Why not a cardboard bicycle?” The challenge proved harder than the Israeli systems engineer and biking enthusiast originally thought. It took several years of trial-and-error work before he finally succeeded in building a reliable model. The adult version of Gafni’s bike weighs a mere 20 pounds, but it’s stronger than carbon fiber, costs only about $10 to make, and is water- and fireproof. (A kids’ version weighs 8 pounds.) Its strength—it can hold a 485-pound rider—comes from folding recycled cardboard origami-style, reinforced with glues, resins, and recycled car tires. There are no metal parts. With a possible retail price of around $20, the cardboard bike has the potential to revolutionize travel in congested developing-world cities. Gafni, 50, has created a company called Cardboard Technologies to market the bike and develop other wheeled contraptions. Cardboard wheelchairs or strollers, anyone? – TG
The idea behind green walls, or vertical gardens, can be traced back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. In modern times, they’ve become a way to bring more greenery to cityscapes while also making urban areas more environmentally friendly. A new project at the University of Washington’s College of Built Environment aims to “show the capacity of building skins to ecologically contribute to the urban environment.” Called the Biodiversity Green Wall, Edible Green Screen and Water Harvesting Demonstration Project, the $86,000 effort was the brainchild of Nancy Rottle, an associate professor of landscape architecture. The idea, she says, is to discover just how effective green walls and screens can be to “promote biodiversity, produce food, and reduce energy use.” The project’s two 10-foot-by-10-foot green walls are home to more than 500 plants from 23 species, growing on a permeable fabric attached to an aluminum frame. The screen is essentially a giant trellis on which hops and kiwi vines, grown from the ground, attach themselves. Two 750-gallon cisterns hold harvested roof water for irrigation. Students monitor such things as plant growth rates, effects on building and local air temperatures, and water use. So it’s a wall-to-wall learning experience, too. – TG
Leukemia, the most prevalent childhood cancer, causes nearly a third of all cancer-related deaths in youngsters. The side effects of treatments can be harsh. But Mounir Laroussi, who heads a laser and plasma engineering institute at Old Dominion University, has developed a room-temperature plasma that, within 10 minutes, can kill more than 90 percent of leukemia cells while leaving healthy cells unmolested. The treatment is delivered via a laser-like beam that’s almost cool to the touch. Plasma is created by injecting ultrafast electrons into helium and air, creating so much energy that it cooks up a brew of free electrons and ions. Laroussi tells the Inside Science News Service (ISNS) that the effects are not immediate, but after four to eight hours the cancer cells begin to essentially commit suicide. Michael Keidar, a George Washington University mechanical and aerospace engineer who also works on plasma cancer treatments, told ISNS that the reason it works might be ozone, which is part of the cold plasma soup. Ozone has long been recognized as a disinfectant that can kill bacteria. Cancer cells already have high levels of ozone, so additional amounts of the gas may be more than they can handle, Keidar suggests. Healthy cells have lower metabolisms, with lower ozone levels, and thus are unaffected by the addition of more ozone. Laroussi thinks that eventually cold plasma may also be used to treat bacterial infections and the plaque that builds up in the brains of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s sufferers. – TG
The Titlis Cliff Walk Bridge spans a gorge some 1,500 feet above a glacier like a thin, gossamer ribbon. Perched 9,800 feet above sea level on Mount Titlis in central Switzerland, it is Europe’s highest suspension bridge. Like its less dramatic counterparts, the 320-foot-long, 3-foot-wide walkway also—gulp—sways. The $1.6 million tourist destination opened in December to mark the 100th anniversary of the mountain’s Engelberg-Gerschnialp cable car link. Engineers managed to complete construction in just five months despite having to deal with occasional snowstorms—even in summer—as well as winds sometimes gusting to 120 mph and other logistical challenges. Cable cars transported 90 percent of the materials, but some had to be helicoptered in. Given the year-round wintery conditions, the bridge was built to handle 500 tons of snow. Want to trek across it? At $90, which includes a round-trip cable car ticket, the journey’s hardly cheap. The panoramic view, however, is priceless. – TG
Minecraft, an engineering-oriented online game created by Swedish video-game developer Markus “Notch” Persson, has grown in just three short years to become a global gaming phenomenon that’s sold more than 8 million copies for Macs and PCs, and over 3 million more for smartphone and console platforms. In this sandbox, or “open world,” game, players use virtual textured blocks—a bit like Legos—to construct anything from buildings to cities to mines to… whatever. Players are free to roam, collect resources, and engage in combat. Increasingly, Minecraft is being used as a teaching resource. New York computer teacher Joel Levin spotted its educational potential and began blogging about it. He eventually set up MinecraftEdu with Mojang, Persson’s publishing company. MinecraftEdu offers discounted, official versions of the game tailored for the classroom. Da Vinci Schools, which runs a group of charter schools in Los Angeles, worked with MinecraftEdu and Pepperdine University grad students to create Electrical Engineering & Minecraft to teach circuitry and computing to students. Brentwood School, also in L.A., has a program called Middle School Minecraft. Science teacher Bob Khan tells online magazine Quartz that it allows students to have unlimited resources to test designs without risk. “It is a great platform for experimentation that couldn’t happen in the real world.” – TG
A Ph.D. student at MIT’s Media Lab has developed a device that turns a desktop into, well, a desktop computer. Natan Linder’s LuminAR screws into a lamp fixture just like a light bulb. Stuffed inside is a Pico-projector, a camera, and a tiny-but-powerful wireless computer. The augmented-reality device can turn any object into an interactive touch-screen. Need a keyboard? It can project one onto your desk. Its beam can track not only hands and fingers but objects as well. Touch a can of soda, say, and LuminAR will display product information about the drink. Beyond in-store marketing, the device has potential uses for video calls that project the person you’re talking to onto a wall. Need to scan a document? You could literally do that from your desk and then email it with a few finger taps. Call it computing with a light touch. – TG
Shutter shades, novelty sunglasses fitted with slats like window shutters, have been around since the 1980s. They became cool again in recent years after rapper Kanye West sported a pair in videos and on stage. Now a London start-up hopes that coolness factor will also act as an incentive for youngsters to learn computer coding. Technology Will Save Us says it “exists to educate and enable people to make and experiment creatively with technology.” And its main product is Bright Eyes, a do-it-yourself kit that lets users assemble a pair of shutter shades that are studded with 174 LED lights. With a bit of coding, the lights can be made to do all sorts of fun things, from scrolling text to making moving images. Bright Eyes offers users three levels of coding. The first is just copying, the second requires a bit of coding, while the third is what cofounder Daniel Hirschmann calls the “hard-core level.” Level 3 coders, he says, are limited only by their imaginations. – TG
Federal funding of research at engineering schools has nearly doubled over the past 10 years, reaching nearly $6 billion in 2011. More than 75 percent of engineering research money now comes from federal sources, compared with about 12 percent from industry and less than 6 percent from state governments. Electrical and computer engineering drew the largest share of federal funds in 2011, while civil engineering research attracted the most state money. Other disciplines in the top five were mechanical, biomedical, and chemical. The figures come from data collected by ASEE on externally funded engineering research by engineering schools. Schools follow expenditure reporting guidelines, ensuring that reported research expenditures at different universities can be compared.
NSF’s “potpourri of programs” to boost diversity isn’t working, a division director finds.
Theresa Maldonado vividly recalls her first encounter with male dominance in technical subjects. She was one of three women in a Georgia community college calculus course. When the professor called on a female classmate and she couldn’t answer his question, he excoriated all three of them, shouting, “You women belong in the kitchen!” By the next time the class met, the other two women were gone. The instructor and other students all looked at her as if they couldn’t believe she was still there.
Maldonado stuck with math, getting straight A’s, and the same professor later steered her toward Georgia Tech, where she eventually earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and embarked on an academic career. But the experience showed her how the culture in some college departments works against helping female, minority, or first-generation college students persist in a challenging field. And now, as director of the Division of Engineering Education and Centers (EEC) at the National Science Foundation, she is in a position to tackle the problem at a national level.
“Since I have some experience with the issue, it would be a shame not to look into it,” says Maldonado, the first in her Mexican-American family to go to college. The EEC, which accounts for about 14 percent of the Engineering Directorate’s budget, funds university engineering research centers as well as a range of education programs. In addition to diversity, it stresses expanding engineering opportunities for veterans.
Maldonado knows things are better now than when she was a student in the late 1970s and the 1980s. More women are going into certain engineering fields, such as environmental and biomedical engineering. Some universities are doing a good job increasing the number of women and people of color on their faculties. And there are programs dedicated to increasing underrepresented groups in science and math.
But despite the millions already spent to increase diversity, national statistics on the number of women and minorities in engineering have changed very little. Meanwhile, security-related industries are calling for more American engineers, she says, and if the profession doesn’t figure out how to attract and retain women or people of color, who will soon be the majority, “we are going to be in trouble.”
“I think we need to break down the approach we’re taking,” Maldonado says. Rather than the “potpourri of programs” to boost female and minority representation that exist now, Maldonado believes a unified, more holistic strategy might show better results. “I don’t know what that strategy is,” Maldonado says. But her own journey from first-generation college student to engineering professor, associate dean at Texas A&M, and NSF division director is testimony to the importance of mentors in helping women and minorities succeed in engineering, both as students and as junior faculty members.
Besides the community college professor who pointed her toward Georgia Tech and engineering, Maldonado credits a registrar at Georgia Tech who helped make sure almost all of her coursework from the community college transferred, as well as a friendly undergraduate adviser who helped her feel more comfortable.
“Students need information and need to feel like they belong there,” she says. “It sounds simple, but it’s really important.”
At Georgia Tech, she made three good friends, all male – two African-American and one white – with whom she studied. She also found a mentor in a white electrical engineering professor who kept writing letters urging her to come back to Georgia Tech and earn a Ph.D. after she left to work at Bell Laboratories. She did. And when she had a baby while completing her dissertation, he held the child during their meetings.
“I tell minority students, you don’t have to find somebody who looks like you [as a suitable mentor],” she says. “You may wait a long time.” That advice says a lot about how far U.S. engineering needs to go before reaching Maldonado’s definition of success — when diversity “is second nature and we don’t even think about it anymore.”
Kathryn Masterson is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
A flawed illustration blurs the Grand Challenges vision.
Not too long ago I came across an article titled “Engineering Solutions” that appeared in a magazine published by a professional engineering society. The article was about the Grand Challenges for the 21st Century put forth by the National Academy of Engineering, and about how the list had developed into “a rallying cry to launch initiatives uniting academia, industry, government, and entertainment” and “to excite students about engineering.”
What caught my eye first was the graphic image used to illustrate the article — a full-page drawing of an incomplete stone arch, whose keystone is being lowered into place by a handful of well-dressed people who, by implication, are young engineers or engineering students. Any engineer or potential engineer who looks more than cursorily at this image is likely to be more confused than convinced that engineering solutions will work for any problem, let alone the grandest challenges of our day.
Since ancient times, true stone arches have been erected on timber scaffolding, usually called centering or falsework, because the individual wedge-shaped stones, known as voussoirs, cannot support each other as an arch until it is complete. It is the placing of the keystone that marks the completion, at which time the centering is knocked down to leave the arch gracefully spanning otherwise empty space.
In the magazine image, there is no falsework at all, leaving the two sides of the incomplete arch cantilevered out from the piers, with no visible means of support. Although modern reinforced concrete bridges are constructed without falsework by a so-called balanced cantilever method, the method relies upon steel cables that tie concrete segments together to form a pair of monolithic cantilevers that will be united midspan by a keystonelike final segment. The magazine image gives no indication that such a method is being used.
Not only is the incomplete stone arch as impossible structurally as an Escher drawing of stairways going nowhere is architecturally, but also the depiction of the placing of the keystone is not consistent with current reality. The people involved are probably not wearing steel-toed shoes, and they clearly are not wearing hard hats or safety harnesses. Nevertheless, assuming that everything is drawn to scale, the volume of the stone is about 200 cubic feet. Assuming further that it is made of limestone or some similar material, the keystone weighs about 16 tons. The handful of people about to install it must then each be capable of lifting in excess of 5,000 pounds.
In other words, if a bright high school student ponders this image as symbolic of what engineers do, he or she can only conclude that they must perform superhuman feats that defy the laws of physics. While it may be desirable to depict engineers as capable of overcoming the greatest of challenges, it serves no good purpose to suggest that they can ignore the laws of nature and the limitations of humans.
The graphically striking image can certainly be interpreted metaphorically, as the editors must have intended, but engineers and engineering students tend to think literally. They are less likely to be inspired than confused by the depiction of an impossible situation. The purported solution itself becomes the problem.
The drawing of the keystone placement can, in short, raise more questions about how realistic engineers and engineering solutions are. The students that we might wish most to attract to the profession — those who are critical thinkers able to see intuitively a difficulty with a design, whether a technical or artistic one — might very well be turned off by this cartoon of an engineering solution that has no connection to a real problem.
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.
Students can’t aspire to be engineers if they don’t know the meaning of the term.
People frequently ask me why I decided to pursue engineering in college. Simple – I didn’t want to be a forklift operator. Seriously, those were two paths that a career assessment suggested for me based on my personality and interests in high school. I had a clear vision of what a forklift operator did, but little desire to move crates for the rest of my life. Despite having only a faint notion of what engineers did for a living, I gave consideration to this unknown vocation out of an aversion to forklifts.
As it turns out, I was not alone. Many studies show that children and adults alike have no idea what engineers do, and their perceptions of engineering are often narrow or inaccurate. The National Academy of Engineering’s Changing the Conversation report, for instance, found that many students believe engineering work is sedentary, performed in isolation at the computer. Moreover, few enjoyed math and science enough to become engineers.
Why do so many people misunderstand engineering? One problem is vocabulary.
Consider how vocabulary limited how people thought in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. In that fictitious totalitarian world, freedom and individualism were unthinkable simply because society lacked the language for these concepts. If children have no concept of engineering, how can they imagine becoming an engineer someday? It is easy for children to imagine being a teacher or a doctor because they regularly interact with them. But unless a student has an engineer in the family, most never encounter one. For many, the word engineer is likely to conjure up visions of a train conductor. Their incomplete understanding of engineer prevents them from seeing that engineers span a broad spectrum of problem solvers who bring exciting things into everyday life—from video-game systems to self-driving cars to lifesaving medical devices.
Once students become more aware of what engineering entails, the technical vocabulary of the field can yield the perception that it is too complicated — a pursuit reserved for geeks. In fact, most students I encounter cite their interest in math and science as their reason for majoring in engineering, though these interests could just as easily have led them to accounting or nursing. Does this imply that many students fall into engineering by chance?
Our vocabulary and perception of engineering are influenced by the mass media. Popular culture rarely puts engineering in the limelight, and when it does, engineers are not usually presented as heroes. How many TV shows have a character who’s an engineer? The list is short. Even The Big Bang Theory, arguably the current hit with the most love for technology, features a nerdy trio of physicist Ph.D.’s who routinely mock their engineer friend because he is seen as less intelligent, having only a master’s degree. Indeed, it is entertaining and profitable to parade the mundane facets of engineering, as evident in the cult classic Office Space.
The misinformation about engineers is problematic for society because the technical challenges of the 21st century demand fresh ideas and new approaches. We cannot expect our innovative potential to expand if we continue to recruit from the same pool of students who stumble into engineering. If the first time a student hears about engineering is during the college application process, then a number of creative students already may have missed the boat.
We cannot change how Hollywood casts the engineer, but professional engineers can be more visible to young students. Interacting with a real engineer might make it easier for youngsters to add engineer to their vocabulary. Elementary school students should have the opportunity to meet a diverse group of engineers, to learn what excites them and what their jobs entail. There is growing interest in introducing young students to engineering, through programs like the Boston Museum of Science’s Engineering is Elementary program and the Future City Competition. While these are steps in the right direction, more involvement is needed. It is an engineer’s duty to serve the public interest, so it behooves all engineers to define the word engineer in the public’s vocabulary.
Mark Raleigh is a doctoral candidate in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington.
Short video tutorials and minilectures can boost student performance.
Michael, an undergraduate taking a technical elective outside of his major, has a common problem. Since he studies late at night, he can’t ask the professor to explain the homework problem he solved incorrectly. His professor created a series of supplemental screencasts—short videos in which she works through homework problems and explains difficult concepts. Will watching these videos help students like Michael?
In prior work, we reported that students who view screencasts are more likely to earn higher grades, even after controlling for such academic characteristics as prior grade-point averages. However, screencasts tend to help some groups more than others. Gender, race, ethnicity, academic level, and citizenship status were not significantly related to any benefits of screencast use. By contrast, incoming familiarity with course topics, which depends in part on a student’s major, was most salient. Among students with similar academic characteristics, those with less prior exposure to the course material had more to gain by viewing screencasts.
Given the tangible improvements in student performance, we sought to answer the following research questions: How do students use the screencasts and perceive their helpfulness? Do students’ perceptions of screencast helpfulness match the reality of student performance? Given the benefits of screencast use, why would students choose not to use them?
In an introductory course in materials science and engineering, we collected data for two semesters on how often students used screencasts. We surveyed 397 students before the end of each semester (262 respondents, 66 percent response rate) to learn why they used screencasts and whether they gained a deeper understanding by viewing them.
Most students felt screencasts were helpful; nearly 80 percent used them to study for exams. Students tended to use minilectures that explained specific concepts to fill in gaps in their notes. The majority of students watched screencasts from start to finish—approximately 20 minutes for homework explanations and seven minutes for minilectures. Those who reported doing so were also significantly more likely to report understanding those concepts more deeply. This finding has the potential to support self-efficacy and the related “expectancy value” theory by exploring whether students value screencasts and whether they are motivated to use these resources to perform well in a given course.
We explored the relationship between this deeper understanding and perform-ance on one specific exam question. For students like Michael with less prior exposure to course concepts, we found that those who reported a deeper understanding tended to perform better on this exam problem. They also received higher final course grades; final letter grades improved by up to one third, rising to an A minus from a B plus, for example. These students with less prior exposure had a more significant positive correlation between screencast use and final course grade when compared with students who entered the course more familiar with these concepts.
Some students chose not to use the screencasts. Those who said they didn’t need extra help correctly assessed their situation and received higher grades than students who expressed any other reason for not using screencasts. In contrast, students who forgot or ran out of time received lower course grades. The forgetful students included a subset who also reported they did not need the additional assistance. It is unclear whether these trends demonstrate the value of screencasting or simply reflect the students’ own poor time management.
Our research affirms the benefits of screencasting for particular students. These tools offer additional exposure to important concepts, and because they are brief, easy to use, and optional, they are manageable for busy students who may feel overwhelmed. Screencasts have the potential to level the playing field for those who enter a course at a disadvantage because of less prior exposure to the material.
Tershia Pinder-Grover is an assistant director at University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) and CRLT in Engineering (CRLT-Engin). Joanna Mirecki Millunchick is a professor of materials science and engineering and a faculty associate at CRLT-Engin. Katie R. Green is currently a research associate at the University of Michigan. This article is based on “Impact of Screencast Technology: Connecting the Perceptions of Usefulness and the Reality of Performance” in the October 2012 Journal of Engineering Education. (Supported by the University of Michigan’s CRLT, Investigating Student Learning grants program, and the College of Engineering)
Nerve patterns may be more revealing than genetic structure.
Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are
by Sebastian Seung, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012, 359 pages
Given the emergence of biomedical as a rapidly growing engineering discipline, it should come as no surprise that researchers in this field are making inroads into a crucial yet still mysterious part of the human body – the brain. In recent months, Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineers have announced success in producing 3-D brain tissue in the lab, while at Brown University engineers are teaming with physicists to create more precise maps of our gray matter. For readers intrigued by such developments, Sebastian Seung’s Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are serves as an excellent primer on past, present, and future brain research.
A professor of computational neuroscience in the departments of Physics and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, Seung believes that the key to unlocking the brain’s secrets lies in its neural connections, collectively known as the connectome. In the past, emphasis was placed on classifying regions of the brain to determine their functions – most of us remember the biology class exercise of labeling the cerebrum’s left and right hemispheres into the frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes, for example. Today, aided by increasingly sophisticated technology, Seung and others are shifting their attention to not only individual neural cells of the brain but also the complex patterns of their connections.
For readers hazy about the specifics of that biology class, Seung devotes early chapters to reviewing the basics, including how neural synaptic firings, refirings, and reweightings form the links of this intricate map. The theory of connectomics recognizes the importance of the brain’s structure but emphasizes that each person’s neural map develops in unique ways, based on his or her experiences. Those differences can provide more information than basic genetic structure, Seung argues. And if researchers can successfully locate, and track, and understand the connectome, it will enable them to tackle neurological disorders, improve everyday functions, and perhaps one day lead to supercharged versions of ourselves.
The author acknowledges in no uncertain terms the enormity of the work ahead. A pilot study to map the nervous system of the lowly earthworm – a creature possessing a mere 300 uniform neurons and 7,000 standardized synaptic connections – required 12 years. With 100 billion neurons, each forming multiple and far less uniform connections, the human brain presents a formidable, some would say impossible, undertaking. Indeed, mapping the human connectome is only the first step; the much greater work will involve analyzing its functions. “Connectomes are like vast books written in letters that we barely see,” he writes, “in a language that we do not yet comprehend. Once our technology makes the writing visible, the next challenge will be to understand what it means.”
Seung is nonetheless optimistic about future research, arguing that technology will provide much-needed assistance. The machines used to image the brain are becoming much more precise, producing slices “tens of thousands of times thinner than your typical prosciutto,” he writes. Moreover, computer programs now being developed can analyze enormous tracts of information that would have taken years, if not decades, if handled solely by humans. Discussion of these technologies may be of particular interest to Prism readers, who will most likely agree with Seung that “connectomics will ride on the back of the computer industry.”
The chapters in the latter sections of the book elaborate upon connectome theory, underscoring Seung’s conviction that these synaptic chains will reveal the “memory,” or record of past activity, with crucial information about how the brain and the body work. Comparing commonalities and differences will help identify abnormalities linked to neurological disorders, while the next steps will be to determine how to rewire and reweight problematic connections. The closing chapters of the book, which delve into futuristic possibilities of preserved brains and merging human brains with computers, may strike some readers as far too speculative. Overall, however, most will enjoy Sebastian Seung’s exuberant presentation of this cutting-edge research.
Robin Tatu is Prism’s senior editorial consultant.
We need structures that support, not discourage, lifelong learning.
Yesterday’s structures for postdegree engineering education aren’t working for today’s world, and they certainly won’t work for tomorrow’s. That’s the lesson I took away from reading “Lifelong Learning Imperative in Engineering,” the recent monograph by University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana Associate Provost Debasish Dutta and his colleagues on lifelong learning for engineers. (Full disclosure: I wrote the monograph’s Foreword.) The publication, available on the National Academy of Engineering’s website, is the product of two conferences organized by the University of Illinois in partnership with the NAE, plus some strategic research. It clearly explains why today’s engineering profession needs more than just the standard graduate-degree approach and makes a compelling case for radically overhauling the system. Nothing less than a new infrastructure will do.
We all know that much of an engineer’s learning will occur outside academia — no matter how much we cram into our degree programs. I don’t mean learning so-called practical skills like navigating corporate politics or dealing with contractors and government officials. I mean real engineering knowledge: what works, what’s being studied, and how to combine knowledge from different fields.
To acquire that knowledge, engineers need to be lifelong learners. That is hardly a controversial statement. Nor is it controversial to say that our country’s short-term and long-term competitiveness depends on broadening the base of engineering graduates and improving the depth of learning at every stage of an engineer’s career. While much has been done and written about broadening the engineering base, very little attention has been paid to helping engineers become lifelong learners.
To get a sense of what’s needed, imagine you’re an engineer who wants to learn more about a new technology that could help your company develop a new product. How do you do that? Besides trolling through complicated literature, the only option is to take some graduate-level class near you or online. You may have to enroll in a degree program to take the course, and the course will more than likely contain far more information than you need to know. Then there’s the lack of professional incentive. If the course isn’t part of pursuing a degree, your employer probably won’t support it or even recognize your accomplishment when you complete it. How odd! At a time when it’s easy for an expert in academia or industry to teach a short class to engineers around the globe via the Internet, it’s hard for an engineer to find such a class, and even harder to be recognized, as a matter of professional development, for taking the class.
We need a cultural shift in the engineering world, which means every stakeholder must play a part. Specifically, national engineering associations such as IEEE, ASCE, AIChE, ASME, and others should lead the way, developing new expectations, standards, and paradigms for lifelong learning. To do this as quickly as possible, partnership with ABET is essential. Universities and colleges must stress the importance of lifelong learning to their engineering students, include a hands-on training component in every undergraduate and graduate course, and develop new courses, seminars, webinars, and other programs to support lifelong learning for practicing engineers.
Businesses should foster a learning-friendly culture for their engineers that includes expectations for ongoing study, material support for lifelong learning, and recognition of all educational achievements. Industry also should work closely with engineering societies and universities to develop courses that meet the needs of their engineers.
Policymakers should enact tax credits and other policies that encourage businesses, especially small- and medium-sized firms, to support lifelong learning for engineers. Policy makers should encourage agencies like NSF and the U.S. Department of Energy to work with universities, professional societies, and businesses to develop a robust lifelong learning infrastructure. Finally, engineers must embrace lifelong learning as the norm and urge employers and universities to offer courses, webinars, and other programs that meet their needs.
Dutta and his colleagues make it clear that engineers definitely are interested in lifelong learning and that the tools for a new infrastructure exist. Where they don’t, let’s think like engineers and invent those tools. So read the monograph, then do your part to radically improve postdegree learning for current and future engineers.
Charles M. Vest is president of the National Academy of Engineering and president emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Dutta report can be found at www.llproject.org.