February 2013

Urban Outfitters
How engineers hope to transform congested cities into sustainable homes for half of humanity.

In 1925, Dar es Salaam was a leafy colonial port with 30,000 residents. As recently as 1972, Tanzania’s largest city was home to a mere 396,000 people. Today, the population has swollen to 3 million and a once short drive from downtown to the affluent residential neighborhood now takes two hours. If the head count doubles every 12 years, as the World Health Organization (WHO) projects, Dar es Salaam could join the congested ranks of “megacities” with 10 million or more inhabitants by 2034. The pressure on its already strained infrastructure — electricity is rationed and food supply lines barely keep up with demand — almost certainly will be acute.

Dar es Salaam is just one of many cities experiencing the unprecedented growth —and growing pains — that characterize the world’s first Urban Century. Roughly half the planet’s 6.6 billion people currently live in cities, consuming the bulk of all cars and food produced and spewing 70 percent of global carbon emissions. A million more people move to cities each week. By 2030, an estimated six in 10 humans will dwell in major metropolitan areas, including 29 megacities. (Today, there are 19, up from just two 50 years ago.) While much of this surge is created by desperate refugees from economically depressed rural regions of Africa and south Asia, many cities in wealthy nations are growing fast, too. New York’s population is expected to jump from 8.2 million to 9.1 million by 2030; London’s could skyrocket by 14 percent, to 9 million, within seven years.

For engineers, this flood of humanity presents a host of complex design challenges and opportunities to innovate. Chief among them: how to find workable, cost-effective ways to relieve stresses on vital transportation, energy, and water systems. “If we don’t have good engineering and planning, these cities will come under enormous strain and will not be nice places to live, and they will be disastrous for the environment,” says Mathieu Lefevre, executive director of the New Cities Foundation, a Geneva-based think tank geared toward sustainable metropolises. “The role of the engineer is essential to making sure we can act on the opportunities presented by urban demographics.”

Starting Over vs. Retrofitting

Countries with enough space and deep pockets have a blank canvas to plan their urban futures. China, for instance, intends to spend $1.6 trillion within the next 10 years creating new cities from scratch. Saudi Arabia is building King Abdullah Economic City, with a port and an industrial zone, to house a projected 2 million residents. Even Ghana and Kenya have broken ground on ambitious satellite developments outside their capitals. But the “main show” for engineers will be retrofitting older, struggling cities, like Karachi, Kinshasa, and Manila, “that were not built on solid foundations,” says Lefevre. In some ways, advancing technology allows the developing world’s megacities to “leapfrog ahead” of the costly infrastructure industrialized nations had to develop. For instance, cellphones eliminate the need to string costly landlines; in many African countries, telecommunications networks are already primarily cellular.

Key to making cities work better is knowing how cities work. Engineers “have to be more systems-oriented, and understand all the interactions of a city,” says Jean-Pierre Bardet, engineering dean at the University of Texas, Arlington, and the former head of the Center on Megacities at the University of Southern California. Bardet favors a system-of-systems approach. “When we talk of megacities, it is not just a question of size, but a question of complexity,” he says. The easiest way to grasp that concept, explains Loring F. Nies, a civil engineering professor at Purdue University, is to consider the connections between water, energy, and food, and then overlay such things as transportation, healthcare, finance, and telecommunications. “If one stops working, it impacts the others.”

Whether in a newly built metropolis or centuries-old capital, traffic is every city’s “No.1 problem,” says New Cities Foundation’s Lefevre, who holds degrees in public policy and economics. Clogged transportation arteries not only frustrate commuters and hamper food delivery and commerce; they waste energy. A 2011 study by the Texas A & M Transportation Institute found that congestion caused drivers in America’s 439 metropolitan areas to spend 4.8 billion more hours on the road and to purchase an extra 1.9 billion gallons of gas, for a cost of $101 billion. City traffic is a health issue, too, killing 1.3 million people annually and injuring an additional 50 million, according to the WHO.

Repairing or replacing existing systems is hugely expensive. The American Society of Civil Engineers has put the cost of modernizing bridges, solid waste systems, and other infrastructure in the United States at $2.2 trillion. But technology that improves the use of what we already have pays dividends. London, Singapore, Stockholm, and Milan, for example, have instituted congestion zones in central areas that use CCTV cameras and license-plate recognition systems to charge tolls on vehicles entering the zones. Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and San Francisco are testing sensor-guided smart parking systems.

A study of Boston and San Francisco traffic led by Marta González, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that efforts to encourage the use of mass transit, telecommuting, or car pools aren’t terribly effective. But if just 1 percent of commuters from a few key neighborhoods avoided rush-hour driving, they could cut travel time for all commuters by up to 18 percent. Moreover, that percentage “is very conservative” and scalable, says González, whose team determined which neighborhoods to target by using cellphone data to figure out drivers’ regular routes. “It’s based on routine behavior, and this happens in cities all over the world,” says González. The next step is more difficult, she admits: “How do you provide incentives to get enough people [in the right areas] to adopt” an alternative to rush-hour driving?

If such persuasion fails, clogged city streets are likely soon to become easier to navigate with tiny, highly maneuverable networked electric cars that share information with each other and drive within fast-moving packs. Indeed, at last month’s Consumer Electronics Show, Toyota showed off a prototype of just such a car crammed with high-definition cameras, radar, infrared sensors, and satellite connections, while Audi announced it is testing a self-driving car.

One of the lowest-cost forms of mass transit – buses – can become more convenient through improved planning. In Curitiba, a city of 2.2 million in Brazil, municipal buses travel in special lanes free of other vehicles and stop lights. Passengers pay as they enter the bus stop—many of which have high-tech, tubular designs and are comfortable—so boarding stops last no more than 19 seconds. As a result, 70 percent of Curitiba’s 1.3 million daily commuters use the buses, cutting fuel use to 30 percent below that of similar-size Brazilian cities and producing one of the country’s lowest pollution rates. Meanwhile, international design company frog has been promoting the concept of aerial gondolas as a low-cost means of urban transportation. The firm estimates a mile-long connection would cost between $3 million and $12 million to construct, compared with around $400 million per mile for a subway.

Smart Infrastructure

Sensors, wireless technology, and fiber optics make new or existing bridges, roads, buildings, and tunnels safer and more efficient. “The construction industry has lagged behind others in terms of innovation,” says Robert Mair, a professor of geotechnical engineering at Cambridge University and principal investigator of the school’s Center for Smart Infrastructure and Construction. But that’s clearly changing. His team is developing wireless sensors, powered by energy harvested from the wind and vibrations of passing vehicles that can predict stresses and strains, and thus extend the design life of older infrastructure. Smart infrastructure, says Lucio Soibelman, chair of the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California and an expert on smart facilities and intelligent water grids, is the only affordable way urban America can address what he calls its biggest problem: aging, deteriorating buildings. Fiber optics, for example, can be used to determine how well the deep concrete piles used to anchor skyscrapers are performing; those data can be used to design and construct piles using much less concrete. Currently, civil engineers almost certainly overestimate how much cement is needed for piles because they err on the side of caution for safety reasons. “We have to make assumptions that are very conservative,” Mair says, and that’s wasteful. Reducing the use of concrete, the world’s most popular building material, would also help cut carbon emissions. Cement accounts for 5 percent of human-produced carbon emissions because the materials are baked in superhot kilns.

“Green” cement offers another potential energy-saving construction option. Alex Moseson, a mechanical engineer at Drexel University, has developed an alkali-activated cement that requires no heating and is composed of 68 percent limestone, a common and low-carbon material. Also in the mix are the industrial byproducts slag and fly ash, along with a commercial alkali, which together take the place of the kiln-produced clinker needed to manufacture traditional portland cement. The resulting “green” cement—similar to that made by the ancient Romans—cuts energy use and carbon emissions by 98 percent compared with its conventional counterpart. “That’s a very strong draw for the developed world,” Moseson says. “I would call this a disruptive technology.” Though bringing his product to industrial commercial scale is proving difficult, he believes it is “highly likely” that alkali cement eventually will be widely used.

Water Works

As cities expand, many are draining their water sources dry. “Over-extraction is an ongoing problem,” says Sarah Bell, a senior lecturer in environmental engineering at University College London whose research focuses on water management. Many cities opt to pump water great distances to ensure supplies, but that requires a lot of energy and pipelines. Ultimately, Bell says, cities must use the same technology as desalination to recycle wastewater, forcing it through ultrafine membranes under high pressure to remove micropollutants. A number of cities around the world, including San Diego, have safely and successfully recycled wastewater. Though energy intensive, desalination technology has made great strides over the past five years and eventually should spur demand and lower prices. “It’s gone crazy,” says Bell. “It’s still very expensive, but less expensive than 10 years ago.”

A problem almost as burdensome as traffic and water is solid waste disposal. The answer all too often has been immense dumps outside major cities – and the slightly more civilized Western equivalent, the urban landfill – or belching incinerators. The resulting danger to groundwater and air quality has lately been compounded by disposal of electronic components containing lead. Recycling has proved, at best, a partial solution.

Waste-to-energy systems that capture gas from trash are becoming increasingly sophisticated, but their high start-up costs are impossible for much of the developing world to meet. A small U.S.-Pakistani pilot project could show a low-cost path forward. Co-led by a U.S. Department of Agriculture research engineer, William Orts, and Romana Tabassum, a 2007-8 postdoctoral researcher in biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech, it seeks to develop new technology for converting waste into renewable energy. The team is studying ways of producing biomethane gas and ethanol simultaneously from agricultural biomass, industrial waste – including office waste, newsprint, and packaging – and municipal solid waste. According to the team’s website, its hope ultimately is to transfer the technology developed to the private sector for commercialization. Elsewhere, aid groups are encouraging community-based micro-enterprises for waste separation and recycling, and household compost bins.

Building Downward

Amid a global race to erect ever taller skyscrapers, some cities are also burying less salubrious facilities underground to make room for more attractive properties aboveground. Hong Kong, for instance, is considering plans to build sewage plants, parking lots, and its civic center in bedrock. There is precedent: Norway and Finland have underground municipal water-treatment plants and heating/cooling plants. Oslo, Norway’s cavern-laced capital, has buried its National Archives and transformed old bomb shelters into a huge sports complex, while Montreal is latticed with 20 miles of shop-lined pedestrian tunnels. In Kansas City, Mo., engineers and architects have carved old limestone mines into what Progressive Engineer calls the world’s largest underground business complex. The subtropolis offers a naturally cool, secure environment for storing records, saving on construction costs. And because limestone is three times as strong as concrete per square inch, the vaults can accommodate extremely heavy items. Ventilation remains a concern, however, so engineers use steel doors and industrial fans to circulate air according to each tenant’s needs.

Despite their challenges, cities also offer efficiencies of scale. “Urbanization is a great thing,” contends Purdue’s Loring Nies, whose research areas include urban systems sustainability. Greater density, for example, cuts per-home infrastructure costs by making it easier to supply power and remove garbage. Residents in compact neighborhoods also rely less on cars, improving air quality. Many cities have created bike lanes on major thoroughfares – encouraging a healthy shift away from solo commuting by auto. Efficient systems can be installed or encouraged community wide, as Los Angeles and the District of Columbia are doing with energy-saving LED street lighting. Buildings topped in vegetation to improve heating and cooling, and to filter CO2 and pollutants — are becoming increasingly popular urban fixtures, including atop Chicago’s city hall.

Interdisciplinary thinking is essential in re-engineering cities, says Leidy Klotz, a Clemson University associate professor of civil engineering whose research focuses on sustainability in the built environment: “There are no textbooks to tell us how to fix these problems.” USC’s Soibelman agrees that input from social scientists is critical. He recalls designing a system based on sensor data that showed people how to cut their energy bills up to 25 percent by using their appliances more efficiently, but most folks couldn’t be bothered to employ it, despite the savings. After consulting with psychologists and sociologists, Soibelman’s team pitched the plan as a way to reduce a family’s carbon footprint. And it worked. “They would do it for energy, but not for money,” he says. “But how would an engineer figure that out?”

The interdisciplinary approach is unlikely to diminish the paramount role of engineers from a variety of fields. “For engineers, the 21st century will be the century of the cities,” reckons University of Texas, Arlington’s engineering dean Bardet, who plans to set up an urban research institute at his college. And while the vision and technological progress seen so far are undeniable, much more will be needed in the decades ahead. A number of megacities – New York, Lagos, and Karachi, to name just three – sit on coastlines vulnerable to rising sea levels and climate change-induced storm surges. So does emerging megacity Dar es Salaam.

Engineers have an additional incentive to help make urban areas sustainable and life-enhancing. They are likely to be living in one.

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

Home Sweet Utopia
South Korea’s “ubiquitous cities” aim to improve life with alert – if all-too-knowing – smart buildings.

SEOUL — With his athletic build and snappy letter jacket, Dong-Hwan Lee could pass for a linebacker, but he makes no claim to football prowess. “For $35,” admits the SungKyunKwan University graduate student, “anyone can buy this jacket!” Lee’s real preoccupation is a tricked-out skywalk near his lab that connects two buildings within the engineering department. The cylindrical, stainless-steel-and-tempered-glass passageway contains an elaborate system of embedded accelerometers, strain gauges, tilt meters, thermo-hygrometers, carbon dioxide detectors, kata thermometers, and wind and motion sensors — not to mention GPS and CCTV cameras. As unsuspecting visitors stroll through this trellis of high-tech tools, details about wear and tear and climate conditions are silently monitored at Lee’s desk or on his smartphone.

At another carrel, fellow grad student Ki-Cheol Kim trains his sights on the lab itself. He measures the level of carbon dioxide in the room while monitoring his classmates via remote camera to see how and when they nod off at their seats. If spikes in CO2 are the culprit, it might be time to crack the windows.

Imagine living in an environment designed to promote the health, happiness, and safety of residents, where no one had to wait in the rain for a bus or breathe polluted air. That’s the vision behind “ubiquitous cities,” one of South Korea’s hottest engineering fields. Pioneered by an elite cluster of universities that include SungKyunKwan (SKKU) and its new Department of u-City Design and Engineering, the field is drawing talented students like Lee and Kim with its mix of architecture, technology, and green design. The concept is simple: By outfitting communities with radio frequency identification devices, sensors, smart-card and videoconferencing systems, and other hardware, u-cities promise improvements in administrative efficiency, public health, traffic management, disaster response, education, security, sustainability, and convenience. In short, u-topia.

So-called smart cities have been evolving around the world for years. Yonsei University graduate school of information’s Jung-hoon Lee, who studies intelligent cities, reckons there are a total of 143 such urban outposts. But in the quest for high-wired efficiency, perhaps nowhere else are the tail winds quite as ferocious as in Asia’s fourth-largest economy. Korea’s u-city boom is uniquely government driven, notes Lee. “Changing cities is not easy using a bottom-up approach, unless there’s heavy investment. Ours is more of a big bang.”

At first glance, SKKU seems a surprising hub for the u-city explosion. Founded in the historic city of Suwon six centuries ago as a place of Confucian learning, the school lie a few miles from the well-preserved ruins of a Choson imperial fortress. Like just about everything else in this booming metropolis south of Seoul, however, the campus has plunged headlong into cyberspace. Suwon, a city of about 1 million people that has invested heavily in becoming a high-tech industrial hub, is home to Samsung Electronics, the world’s top technology company by revenue, whose parent, the Samsung Group, also owns the university.

This industrial connection gives SKKU a natural edge in developing ubiquitous-cities programs: Like most South Korean universities, it combines architecture and engineering in a single department. That makes it easier to pool expertise from a variety of fields. “To make a u-city requires multidisciplinary theories and principles,” explains Cheol-Soo Park, an associate professor in SKKU’s u-City department. “It involves so many theories and design aspects.” U-city students, for example, typically hold degrees in civil engineering, computer science, or architectural engineering. SKKU offers them four subspecialties in “green” engineering: u-city planning, infrastructure engineering, construction management, and green facility management

World’s Most Wired

What’s going on at SKKU is a microcosm of the race nationwide to connect citizens with the buildings and infrastructure they inhabit. “Ubiquitous computing,” wrote Jong-Sung Hwang, now assistant mayor of Seoul, “infuses computers into the real world and renders the distinction between the real and the virtual world meaningless.”

Inspired by the late computer scientist Mark Weiser, deemed the “father of ubiquitous computing,” South Korea is trying to brand itself as the mecca for u-city design. The country already ranks as the “connection king.” With more wireless subscriptions than inhabitants, it has the world’s highest rate of mobile broadband penetration. That compares with a U.S. rate of 76.1 percent, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. At 14.2 megabits per second, South Korea also boasts the world’s highest average connection speed, calculates the quarterly State of the Internet report; the next closest is Japan, at 10.7 Mbps, and Hong Kong at 8.9 Mbps. America trails at 6.7 Mbps.

“Korea is trying to find the next growth engine, and we thought convergences were interesting,” says Yonsei’s Lee. One of the most lucrative, it was decided, was melding South Korea’s construction expertise with its information technology savvy. The Korea Times reports that the country ranks fifth in its share of the world construction market, and second in the information and communication technologies business. The global u-city market is valued at $240.8 billion.

No fewer than 28 u-cities are on the drawing board in South Korea, which does not include retrofitting of existing urban centers like the capital city of Seoul and Busan, Korea’s second-largest metropolis. Embedded sensors are now standard on major construction projects, says SKKU’s Park, as are browser-capable wall pads in new apartments. Making buildings smart, Professor Lee reckons, adds about 10 percent to the cost of the structure.

Of the u-cities started from scratch, the most famous internationally is an ambitious development known as Songdo, located on 1,500 acres of land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea, in the city of Incheon. Unlike Suwon, Songdo is a private-sector joint venture between Posco Steel and U.S. developer Gale International. Envisioned as a “multifunctional oasis,” Songdo includes the country’s first salt water canal and its own Manhattan-like green space, called Central Park. But the project, while moving ahead slowly, remains half-finished. Detractors make unflattering comparisons to planned-city debacles like Brasilia. “Incheon expected foreigners to rent the buildings, but it failed to attract them,” says Professor Park. “Songdo is an example of failure.”

But Yonsei’s Professor Lee argues that Songdo will eventually, if belatedly, make good on its pitch to become a tech showplace and global center to match Singapore or Hong Kong. Meanwhile, a smaller-scale community geared exclusively to the domestic market, called Gwanggyo u-city, is rising on what used to be four square miles of rice paddies in Suwon city. It will house about 77,500 residents, and Park says it’s on target to be in the black within five years. The city will have its own optical fiber-cable network, connecting the operations center with government buildings and emergency services. Sensor-saturated buildings and physical structures will allow remote monitoring of bridges, sewage plants, and water quality, giving managers the means to zero in on trouble – be it icy roads, broken lights, or air pollution – and fix it fast.

If u-cities deliver on what boosters promise, municipal services such as obtaining a copy of a birth certificate would become much like stopping at an ATM. Kiosks in neighborhoods throughout the city would offer 24/7 instant access to legal documents. Instead of lining up at the bus stop and being forced to wait no matter what the weather, passengers could simply check exactly when boarding will begin, based on real-time traffic conditions and the bus’s own GPS coordinates – and repair to a coffee shop. Sensor-equipped theater seats would let moviegoers know if there were tickets left for their favorite flick.

Fanciful accounts in the Korea Times talk about 70 becoming the new 50 in a u-city world where nano-robots would automatically filter your bloodstream while keeping your doctor apprised of your vital signs. In this brave new world, elevators won’t need buttons anymore; thanks to RFID tags, a resident could simply step in and sensors will “read” and whisk him to his floor, or direct him to the spot where he left his car in the parking garage. The same technology could coax drivers into leaving their cars at home by awarding redeemable eco-points. RFID tags plus CCTV will offer constant anticrime monitoring – although Park mourns the fact that their budget in Suwon won’t allow for “smart” camera monitoring that can detect suspicious movements.

Could u-cities catch on in other parts of the world? Americans, accustomed to sprawling homes and large yards, might shun unrelenting blocks of 40-story concrete high-rises. But in a densely populated nation like South Korea, where three quarters of its 50 million people live in crowded cities and skyscrapers have become the modern home sweet home, the concept seems tailor made. Seoul alone has about 3,000 skyscrapers; only Hong Kong, New York, and a few other cities have more. The proliferation of megablocks – which designers have spruced up in a lively departure from the grim uniformity of older buildings — has made outfitting residents with state-of-the-art telecommunications relatively cheap. In Suwon city, boasts SKKU’s Park, “I can download a movie in a minute!”

For Americans, the constant and intense monitoring of u-cities residents might conjure up a privacy nightmare from George Orwell’s 1984. But Koreans regard their wired society as inevitable in a country that runs on prodigious amounts of caffeine and where bali bali (fast-paced and stressful) defines the work ethic. “We like quickness,” says Cheol-Soo Park. For better or worse, South Koreans are happily hurtling into the cyberfuture, serving as guinea pigs for the kinds of cities we all may one day inhabit.

Lucille Craft is a freelance journalist based in Tokyo.

Labs on a Shoestring
From donated industrial equipment to homemade parts and student-purchased kits, schools get creative in providing active-learning experiences.

When John Marshall arrived at the University of Southern Maine to teach engineering technology 15 years ago, he found an antiquated lab and no funds to re-equip it. So the Texas A&M transplant loaded a 5-gallon pail with tools, hit the road, and started scavenging. “I was a traveling dismantling machine,” recalls Marshall. At first his search yielded mediocre pumps, controllers, and other common manufacturers’ discards. But local businesses came to realize they had a go-to contact at the university who could supply interns with the relevant skills. In return, they helped Marshall’s lab acquire higher-quality equipment, giving his students exposure to real-world problem solving.

Today, hands-on learning, business partnerships, and motivated students are hallmarks of USM’s revamped engineering technology offerings. Marshall, an associate professor of technology with expertise in hydraulics, pneumatics, and industrial processes, not only carries a full teaching load but also created and now heads his department’s first internship and co-op program. Meanwhile, an industry advisory board ensures classes keep pace with the latest manufacturing and hiring trends while helping develop state-of-the-art curricula.

Many engineering educators struggle to provide students with authentic active-learning experiences on increasingly meager budgets. Some turn to virtual labs that don’t require hefty outlays for specialized components. Others, like faculty members from Louisiana Tech’s College of Engineering Science, have designed lab equipment and enlisted students and machine-shop technicians to fabricate it. Louisiana Tech also developed a first-year projects lab that uses inexpensive components and tools students purchase—an empowering approach that “is changing the way we do engineering education,” reports mechanical engineering Prof. David Hall. Meanwhile, UCLA’s electrical engineering department recently overhauled its circuits lab, easing scheduling headaches by replacing traditional oscilloscopes and signal generators with $100 kits that allow students to do labs at home.

Few, however, leverage industrial collaborations to transform a learning environment the way Marshall has. Consider the power and automation curriculum. Recognizing their need for trained technicians, local manufacturers subsidized the purchase of specialized mechanical-power transmission modules for the learning lab, allowing students to gain hands-on insights into gears, motors, vibration analysis, and other fundamentals. Industry partners also supplied two state-of-the-art hydraulic trainers for the sophomore-level fluid power course — enhancing student understanding of hydraulics and pneumatics through the touch, sound, and motion of pumps, flow-control valves, and other components. “There are no toys in my lab,” declares Marshall, noting that working on real equipment boosts his students’ confidence and comfort levels, giving them a leg up in job interviews. “It’s a two-way street. Everybody wins.”

One of Marshall’s most engaging — and commercially valuable — methods for conveying technical content involves a ubiquitous industrial device called the programmable logic controller, or PLC. Invented in 1969 and now one of the industrial electronics sector’s fastest-growing segments, PLCs are a form of computer that automates the steps in a process or machine operation more reliably than the mechanical timers, drum switches, or other components they have replaced. “This little device is the very heartbeat of the world,” explains Marshall, citing its use in areas from medicine and manufacturing to waste management and the military. “Every time you come to a stop at an intersection and the sensor in the ground tells the light to change, or get into an elevator and push a button, you have legitimate insight on programmable controllers.” Another plus: PLCs can be programmed and operated by plant engineers or maintenance personnel who lack a strong background in computers.

PLCs form the core of Marshall’s junior-level Applied Process Control Engineering course. Students learn such core competencies as programming, wiring, and debugging software in three-hour weekly labs that require them to develop logic programs with the exact sequence of inputs and outputs to solve a problem. Typical projects include controlling traffic lights so pedestrians can cross an intersection safely, and tracking cars entering and exiting a parking garage to illuminate either a “Lot Full” or “Spaces Available” sign. Beyond programming, students must figure out how to make the PLC control tricky components like solenoid directional control valves. Such project-based problem solving “really closes the loop for students,” contends Marshall, adding that without the ability to work on industry equipment, “it’s just surface learning.” By contrast, his students often get so motivated by making headway on their automated cell or getting lights to sequence properly that “dismissal hour comes and goes and nobody leaves.” Marshall lets them linger. “I enjoy just seeing them make progress,” he says.

Civility Rules

Several teaching techniques augment Marshall’s lab activities. For starters, he establishes a “congenial, nonthreatening classroom environment.” His three rules of civility: Turn off laptops, put electronic devices on mute, and permit only one person to speak at a time. “Some students call me a dictator,” acknowledges Marshall, who walks around snapping off computers. “They’re offended! They’re used to sitting in the back of the room texting!”

Frequent, quick assessments help Marshall gauge whether individuals and teams have nailed a lesson. Rather than give pop quizzes that count for or against someone’s GPA, for example, he might ask students to draw a circle on a piece of scrap paper, then divide that “pie” into portions corresponding to the amount of work each member of the team did on the project. The anonymous assessment is then gone over in class. The process “allows natural leaders to evolve,” says Marshall, and makes it “blatantly obvious” to slackers that they’re below par. Students also know that as the internship and co-op director, he places graduates and isn’t going to send employers any “losers.” Marshall also favors the “one-minute paper,” which asks students to jot quick responses to such queries as what was the muddiest point in today’s class. If a student is puzzled enough to write something down, he says, others probably are struggling with the same issue.

The goal is for students to master specific competencies that employers demand. Each skill is mapped back to specific courses that either teach or reinforce those key skills. That way, if an adjunct must teach the course or the instructor takes a leave of absence, there’s a “road map” to follow.

Mastering the latest industrial techniques is crucial for instructors, too. As a result of relationships forged with major Maine companies – including service on the boards of several – Marshall now has carte blanche to sit in on their advanced training courses and attend workshops. “Having a level of competency increases your ability to help students,” explains Marshall. “You can steer students around bear traps better.”

No Strain on the Budget

Strong relationships with manufacturers – and a record of producing graduates who can hit the ground running – means Marshall can now afford to be picky about equipment. Initially forced to take any kind of pneumatic, he has been able to replace a dangerous-to-activate 110-volt model with a safer 24-volt version, providing students with more real-life situations. Last semester, his class was building robots and needed a proximity sensor, a component that costs hundreds of dollars. “I’d be wasting my breath trying to get funding from the department,” says Marshall, noting there are no funds for faculty travel and everything else has been cut to the bone. He mentioned his quest in a casual conversation with an industry partner one afternoon. The next morning, he arrived at his office to find a paper bag with the sensor inside.

Marshall’s approach to engineering technology education is beginning to have an impact beyond the university. The competencies he has spelled out have been adopted by several local community colleges, which have two-plus-two agreements with USM. Students now transfer into the four-year engineering technology program with such a strong background that Marshall has been able to raise standards. With USM’s blessing, he teaches one day a week at a community college and encourages local high school students to visit the learning lab, where Marshall’s students build a PLC or pneumatic module with them. He shows teachers how they can teach algebra, calculus, or physics with the use of compressed air. PLCs are “a good tool to help clarify and take the mystery out of math concepts,” says Marshall.

After a few years in industry, Marshall’s graduates all make more money than he does. Moreover, the industry partnership has become a two-way street: Manufactures now send employees to the program, filling Marshall’s classes with nontraditional and first-generation students who are there for the skill set rather than the degree. “They bring a wealth of knowledge to the table,” observes Marshall. “If the professor has the ability to create a good learning environment, everybody learns from everybody.”

Mary Lord is deputy editor of Prism.

Urban Jumble
By Mark Matthews

Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 Death and Life of Great American Cities influenced a generation of planners, was no fan of the urban re-engineering popular at the time: large-scale demolition in the name of slum clearance, broad open spaces, and freeways. Her prescription, as the New York Times’s 2006 obituary of Jacobs tells it, “was ever more diversity, density and dynamism — in effect, to crowd people and activities together in a jumping, joyous urban jumble.” Such street life may be responsible for the revival of U.S. downtowns as “walkable and bikeable” places to live and work. Cities, it turns out, also offer efficiencies of scale, with lower infrastructure costs per dwelling. But all this crowding compounds the urban ills of traffic, pollution, and garbage. These problems are particularly acute in the 10-million-plus-population “megacities” attracting growing numbers of the world’s poor.

With half of humanity dwelling in cities, engineers have accepted the challenge of making urban centers both livable and sustainable. They’re coming up with creative ways to speed traffic, preserve aging infrastructure, and purify water that often don’t require huge public investment. As the University of Texas, Arlington’s engineering dean, Jean-Pierre Bardet, tells Tom Grose in our cover story, “For engineers, the 21st century will be the century of the cities.”

South Korea’s “ubiquitous cities,” described by Lucy Craft in our second feature, provide a glimpse of our hyperwired and superconvenient urban future, with remote monitoring of everything from air quality to sewage disposal.

For an example of how instructors are doing more with less, be sure to read Mary Lord’s “Lab on a Shoestring” and its account of how the University of Southern Maine’s John Marshall collaborates with local industry to give his students the equipment they need and the skills that companies demand.

We hope you enjoy the February Prism, and would welcome your comments.

Mark Matthews


Global Commerce

We Can Dig It

Designated as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Panama Canal was the moon shot of its day. The $375 million, 34-year project removed enough rubble to bury Manhattan 12 feet deep. Tens of thousands of workers perished from disease or accidents before the 50-mile link between the Pacific and Atlantic finally opened in 1914. Today, the thriving but maxed-out waterway is halfway through an equally ambitious — though far less perilous — $5.25 billion expansion to accommodate huge new “post-Panamax” ships that can carry three times the cargo of the vessels able to squeeze through now. The deeper, wider Panama Canal will include a new lane and two new flights of triple locks, requiring crews to dredge 130 million cubic meters of rock and soil. The upgraded waterway, which doubles existing capacity and aims to recycle 60 percent of the 52 million gallons currently lost to the sea per transit, is expected to open in early 2015. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sees the increased traffic as a potential “game changer” for American ports. In preparation, some are already dredging harbors, purchasing towering new cargo cranes, and improving infrastructure. – Mary Lord


Smart Jammies

Sudden infant death syndrome, or crib death, is responsible in the United States for around 2,225 deaths a year of children from birth to 12 months. But German researchers have developed a stretchable, printed circuit board that could be fitted into a one-piece sleeper and would signal an alarm if a baby stops breathing. Investigators at the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration IZM in Berlin have figured out how to make the flexible, wearable circuit board from polyurethane, a plastic often used as a sealant. They fitted it with sensors that monitor breathing in the chest and stomach areas, and ironed it onto baby-size PJs. The flexible circuit could also be used in pressure bandages for burn wounds; the sensors would help nurses to fit them onto patients with more precision. Meanwhile, a sister organization, the Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communications Systems, has come up with a hardware/software device that would enable patients undergoing physical rehabilitation to do their physiotherapy exercises at home. The “physio box” plugs into a TV and runs videos of training programs developed especially for the patient, based on a 3-D biomechanical computer model of him or her. A video camera records each session and sends the results to a physiotherapist who can monitor a patient’s progress and adapt the exercises, as needed. A set of sensors can be placed in a chest strap, cane, or watch to measure vital signs and send the data to a smartphone. – Thomas K. Grose

Patent Litigation

Big Award to CMU

Semiconductor manufacturer Marvell Technology Group has vowed to seek to overturn a federal jury’s decision to award Carnegie Mellon University $1.17 billion in a patent infringement suit. In 2009, CMU sued Marvell, saying the Bermuda-based company had improperly used technology invented by José Moura, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Aleksandar Kavcic, a former Ph.D. student who is now a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Hawaii. The technology involves how accurately hard disk-drive circuits read data from high-speed magnetic disks. CMU said as many as nine Marvell devices — involving billions of chips — used the patented technology without proper licenses, and in late December the jury agreed. The company sells a billion chips a year to manufacturers ranging from Sony to Dell. CMU said the verdict struck a blow for academic research, and vowed it would always strongly protect discoveries of its faculty and students. But Marvell insists that the methods covered by the patents “cannot practically be built in silicon, even using the most advanced techniques available today.” The award comes at a time when many big-name high-tech companies are filing more and more patents, and rivals are challenging them in court. Last summer, Apple won a $1 billion judgment against Samsung over iPhone patents. – TG 

Wind Turbines

Power to Tote

One day, we may be lugging our own personal wind turbines. International design company frog has unsheathed an umbrella-size, portable wind turbine called Revolver. It can generate 35 watts from a mere breeze, or enough juice to power a laptop, small light, or radio, or recharge a cellphone or other small electronic gadget. The Revolver, which won a 2012 Braun Prize for sustainable design, is housed in a slender tube. Push its outer layer upward, and out pop four curved, flexible blades made of silicone, and a tripod stand. Why would anyone want one? Well, frog says, there are times when power for devices is hard to come by — on camping trips, say, or at outdoor music festivals. Also, as Hurricane Sandy forcefully demonstrated last fall, power outages after storms can last for days or weeks. In that sort of situation, most folks would find that even a small amount of off-grid power is very handy. – TG

Translation Technology

All Eyes and Ears

Say you’re in a foreign land and don’t know the language. You don a pair of glasses, which picks up the unfamiliar phrases spoken to you and then translates them in real time into subtitles on the lenses. Well, that may be coming, but not quite yet. Recent Oxford University engineering graduate Will Powell last year demonstrated a device using Google’s augmented-reality glasses and Microsoft’s API translator software. It was able to understand basic phrases in Spanish and translate them into subtitles, but only after a rather long pause. Getting computers to understand words is tough enough. The basic, smallest units of oral speech are called phonemes, and English has 44 of them. A more robust system being developed by Microsoft uses sequential triplets of phonemes called senones, and there are 9,000 in English. But computers that can understand senones are likely to be more accurate. Microsoft and other translation programs, according to the Economist, use deep neural networks, or software comprising virtual neurons that are arranged like brain neurons — layers. But as the article notes, once a program can understand words, it still has to understand grammar, syntax, colloquialisms, and concepts, and that’s tough. A phone-call translator developed by Japan’s NTT DOCOMO, stumbles — like Powell’s glasses — if someone says anything more complex than, “How are you?” DARPA funded for five years a “speech to speech” translation program for Pashto, Arabic, and Dari called TransTac. It got to an impressive 80 percent accuracy level. That might be Ok if you need to order a pita sandwich in Baghdad. But it’s hardly good enough to use in combat zones. – TG

State Universities

STEM on Sale

It costs more to educate engineers and budding scientists. Accordingly, around 45 percent of large public research schools charge higher tuition for those majors. Given that salaries are higher in STEM fields, complaints are few. But a task force set up by Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott recommends the opposite tack — freezing tuition at state universities for students enrolled in STEM, while letting rates for humanities students — and other majors deemed to have poor job prospects, rise. Will lower STEM-degree prices bring in more students? Probably not, many experts say. As one public policy expert told TIME.com: “Getting humanities majors to become engineering majors is probably a stretch.” Past efforts to entice students into STEM studies with extra grant money have failed, Time notes, and a report last year found that most high schoolers had no expectation of entering STEM fields, largely because they felt unprepared. – TG

Electric Vehicles

Magnetic Yield

Driving an electric car means having to plug it in, and that can be an inconvenience. One answer is wireless recharging using high-frequency electromagnetic fields, but some have questioned possible health risks. Professor Lorne Whitehead from the University of British Columbia has developed an alternative method that uses what he calls “remote magnetic gears.” One magnet is mounted in the car; the other is installed at a parking station connected to the grid. The station’s transmitter magnet creates a magnetic field that turns the in-car receiver magnet, driving a small generator that recharges the battery. Four charging stations have already been installed at UBC’s Vancouver campus, and the charges from each have proved to be more than 90 percent as efficient as a cable charge. David Woodson, managing director of UBC’s building operations, says the feedback from drivers has been very positive. “In particular, the main comment from our drivers is that they don’t have to mess around with plugging the car into the grid on rainy days — definitely a key feature in Vancouver.” – Pierre Home-Douglas

International Development

Tapping New Talent

The U.S. Agency for International Development, which channels economic, development, and humanitarian aid to overseas recipients, has created seven university development labs under a new program called the Higher Education Solutions Network. The goal, it says, is to “harness the intellectual power of great American and international academic institutions” and apply “new science, technology, and engineering approaches and tools to solve some of the world’s most challenging development problems.” Initial funding for the network totals $26 million, but that sum could reach $130 million over five years. The seven colleges — six American, one Ugandan — were selected from 500 applications. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s lab will publish “consumer reports” for policymakers and donors to use to assess which technologies are the most effective for specific needs. Uganda’s Makerere University’s will research how to make African countries more resilient against natural and political stresses. The University of California, Berkeley, will establish a new field in “development engineering.” The center at the College of  William and Mary will create a consortium of researchers ranging from computer scientists to epidemiologists to analyze data to help USAID make evidence-based decisions. Duke University will launch a social entrepreneur accelerator. Michigan State University’s lab will research sustainable food production. And Texas A&M University will have a Center on Conflict and Development. – TG


Clearer Skin

Acne is the scourge of the teen years. Some 75 percent of teens have to deal with the unsightly — and sometimes disfiguring — skin ailment. Popular treatments can have troubling side effects, ranging from irritation and redness to peeling and scaling. Some products have been improved by nanotechnology, which allows treatment agents to be better targeted. And nanotech drugs can also be devised that have strong antimicrobial properties. But the best drugs, says Adam Friedman, an assistant professor of dermatology at the Montefiore-Albert Einstein College of Medicine, would combine both effects. Friedman’s team developed a skin cream that does just that. It includes nanoparticles of benzoyl peroxide, a known acne-fighter, and chitosan, which comes from the shells of crustaceans. Chitosan is well-known for its antimicrobial effects. Indeed, it’s used in food packaging to stop spoilage. In a recent paper, Friedman and his colleagues report that their topical therapy not only killed bacteria that cause acne but also inhibited inflammation. – TG


Climb Right In

Well, it’s clear who was the inspiration for the look of NASA’s new spacesuit prototype, its first in 15 years. The white suit with the lime-green trim looks quite a bit like the one worn by Buzz Lightyear, the stalwart space jockey in Pixar’s Toy Story films. But despite the wink to ol’ Buzz, NASA’s engineers have designed a suit that would allow astronauts to move around more comfortably during space walks or treks on heavenly bodies. In fact, the outfit — called Z1 — has a suit port that allows it to be attached to the outside of a space vehicle. That would allow an astronaut to climb into the rear of the suit from inside the vehicle, whereupon the suit detaches from the craft. So, there’s no need for an airlock. It is a highly flexible one-piece suit — not the trousers, top, helmet design of past suits. NASA has devised a new portable life-support system, PLSS 2.0, that attaches to the suit. And its large bubble helmet affords astronauts a wider view of the next space frontier. – TG

Identification Technology

Wrist Full of Dollars

Each year, more than 121 million people visit Disney theme parks. And come this spring, many of them will be wearing rubber wristbands that will allow them to quickly make purchases, often avoid long lines for popular rides, and reserve great seats for the evening fireworks. The radio frequency identification, RFID, bands can be stored with all sorts of data, from credit card numbers to FastPass codes to the names and birthdates of children. Visitors can opt into the MyMagic+ “vacation management system,” and limit just how much info they want to provide the park. In addition to being able to preschedule no-wait slots for up to three top rides, the bands allow users to make cash- or credit card-free purchases of goodies, from souvenirs to food. If they include their kids’ names and birthdates, when the children run into Mickey or Goofy or Snow White, they’ll get a personal greeting. In areas where wearers do have to wait for rides, the bands can trigger interactive diversions. Disney hopes the new technology will allow its staff to better manage the throngs of visitors to its parks, and it also clearly hopes to use the info gleaned to more precisely target individual visitors with personalized special offers. It’s a Big Data world, after all. – TG

Lone Star Pioneer
By Mark Matthews

An air-quality expert works to put Texas at the forefront of precollege engineering.

After most of a career spent studying smog, engineering Prof. David T. Allen is now intent on blowing some fresh air into high school science.

For more than a dozen years, the University of Texas, Austin, chemical engineer has donned a hard hat and lab coat to lead hundreds of researchers in measuring particulates and ozone spewed by vehicles, refineries, and chemical plants in eastern Texas. Their findings, recorded in scores of papers as part of the 2000 Texas Air Quality Project and later studies, helped secure Allen a prominent role in green engineering, including a seat on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s science advisory board and editorship of a new American Chemical Society journal devoted to sustainability.

Allen still directs the Center for Energy and Environmental Resources at the Cockrell School of Engineering and teaches a popular freshman course on sustainability. But much of his effort nowadays is focused on the precollege years, training high school teachers and developing curricula to ensure that future engineering students enter college better prepared — and in much larger numbers.

A Texas-size opportunity arrived in 2006, when the state mandated four years of high school math and science. That meant a year each of biology, chemistry, and physics, but the fourth year was wider ranging; it could be some combination of physics and chemistry, “principles of technology,” or engineering. “It sparked my interest,” Allen recalls. He saw the chance to create a solid, yearlong course in engineering design.

“Texas has 250,000 high school graduates a year. If one in 10 is interested in engineering, that equals 25,000 kids a year,” he explains. “We could attract thousands to engineering. It struck me as really important for us to be engaged in the implementation of this new course.”

Since engineering only recently entered precollege teaching, many authorities shrink from introducing a full course at that level, and instead advocate integrating engineering within the regular science curriculum. Allen and colleagues Cheryl Farmer, Richard Crawford, and Leema Kuhn Berland don’t reject that approach, but aim for more. Funded by the National Science Foundation’s Mathematics and Science Partnerships, they first added an engineering component to UTeach, the successful graduate-level preservice training program for science teachers. Then, prodded by NSF, they set out to develop and test a high school engineering course. Built on a foundation of learning research, it would be, as they describe, “couched in the context of a rigorous engineering design process, and scaffolded to build engineering skills and habits of mind.”

With no nationwide K-12 engineering standards to guide them, they framed their own: Students should emerge with an understanding of engineering practice, process, skills, and habits of mind, and they should advance in math and science. The team came up with what they call STEM-design challenges “in which students are posed with a design challenge that can only be completed through the purposeful application of engineering principles and relevant math and science concepts.” One unit, Pinholes to Pixels, has students design and build a pinhole camera. They explore early camera technology; find out what needs the camera must fulfill; brainstorm designs; mathematically model camera size, aperture, target object, and distance between the object and the camera; and build, test, and refine their designs. The overall goal is both to teach the engineering design process and get students “excited about the inherent creativity” of engineering, Allen says.

Tested and refined at seven schools, the course is in 25 schools this year and will be in 100 next year, potentially reaching thousands of students. The team is grappling with how to tailor the course for a range of paces so it can successfully be taught in highly rated schools and disadvantaged districts. “We really want to reach students who are going to be top-performing math and science students, and excite and motivate students who may not be attracted to math and science,” Allen says.

If successful, this high school engineering course will mean a change in approach at the college level. Allen says freshman programs will need to adapt to a cohort already grounded in key engineering principles and find new ways of enriching the undergraduate experience.

Mark Matthews is editor of Prism.

A Novel Approach
By Debbie Chachra

What cultural cues do we convey through massive online courses?

In Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel, The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, the eponymous primer is a nano-engineered, interactive, artificially intelligent device in the form of a book that has been custom designed and fabricated to guide the education of a neo-Victorian aristocrat’s daughter. A copy accidentally falls into the hands of an underprivileged girl named Nell, and the plot follows her learning and growth until she becomes a teenager. The bespoke primer tells stories, voiced by an actress elsewhere on the network whom the neglected Nell never meets but senses as an empathic, maternal presence. A second version is commissioned for the express purpose of educating a quarter of a million homeless Chinese girls who had been left to die from exposure as infants. Though their primer is mass-produced, it provides a similarly individualized, interactive education, only at scale. The difference is that no human actor narrates the mass-market clone, which is described throughout the novel as markedly inferior.

While Stephenson’s primer remains far beyond the realm of current technology, it serves as a touchstone for online education, especially massive open online courses (MOOCs). As their name implies, MOOCs have two primary characteristics: Anyone can register for and take them (open), and they can reach large numbers of learners (massive). Like the fictitious primer, MOOCs can provide a customized education, mediated by technology, to a large population that might otherwise lack access, for relatively low cost. Thus, the novel offers some insights into delivering on this laudable real-world goal.

Consider the implicit message about education and social class. Both original and mass-market versions of the primer didn’t just convey content. They also developed their users’ culture — that is, the primers passed along a set of values with the information. In the novel, the effects of the different values inscribed in the two versions are made risibly explicit. Nell, tutored with loving human interaction to succeed in a Western society, is unquestioningly recognized by the masses of nameless, machine-raised Chinese girls as their leader.

At the moment, most MOOCs are technical courses that primarily deliver content through short video lectures and problem sets. It’s likely that their creators don’t see them as transmitting any particular set of values. But urban theorist Adam Greenfield has pointed out the need to think consciously about the values we inscribe in what we design because, whether mindful of them or not, values will be inscribed, and they will inform how people understand and use what we create. As educators, we should ask what values are being incorporated into the design of MOOCs. For a start, most MOOCs embody a particular pedagogical approach: that knowledge is transferred from an expert to a newcomer, rather than something that is constructed by the learner by their engagement. More saliently, two of the main players, Udacity and Coursera, are steeped in Silicon Valley’s start-up culture. The third major player, edX, is a nonprofit backed by MIT, Harvard, and other universities. How will the implicitly different values of these organizations be inscribed in the courses they create, especially as Udacity and Coursera try to create viable business models?

There’s no question that higher education is entering a time of massive change. Engineering educators may never have given much thought to the values embodied in how we teach. But we now have the opportunity — and the responsibility — to consider what more besides content gets incorporated in MOOCs as we participate in their creation or use them in our teaching. It’s time to give our values a voice.

Debbie Chachra is an associate professor of materials science at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. She does research, speaks, and consults on engineering education and the student experience. She can be reached at debbie.chachra@olin.edu or on Twitter as @debcha. This piece was informed by a conversation with Mark Chang of edX.

JEE Selects:
Hype or Help?

Popular media may foster teens’ unrealistic expectations about engineering.

According to the National Academy of Engineering, poor public understanding of what engineers do is undermining adolescents’ interest in engineering. In a 2008 report entitled “Changing the Conversation,” NAE outlined several market-tested messages designed to broaden the profession’s appeal. Though the use of magazines and other popular media was acknowledged as key to reaching a diverse audience, no in-depth study has been conducted into the nature and impact of these media. Thus, researchers currently know very little about the kind of messages being generated about engineering and whether they complement, contradict, or are consistent with the main messages in “Changing the Conversation.”

To address this gap, my study examined out-of-school texts such as magazines, websites, and TV shows that were read or watched by a group of U.S. public high school students. Using multimodal (e.g., linguistic, visual) discourse analysis, I looked at 65 out-of-school texts selected by the students on the basis of their understanding of the texts’ relevance to science and technology. Supporting this textual analysis, I also conducted and analyzed a series of interviews with eight students to determine how their selected texts influenced their knowledge of and disposition toward engineering.

The analyses revealed that out-of-school and engineering texts share many features in terms of representing content related to engineering practices. For instance, automobile magazines frequently illustrate complex technical systems in explaining a test car’s performance. The language and pictorial representations are similar to those found in typical engineering texts. Comparing a Motor Trend article on the Ferrari F430 Scuderia with a chapter from an automobile engineering textbook, I showed that both texts use similar semantic and rhetorical structure in language, power/torque versus revolutions-per-minute graphs, and computational fluid dynamics images. Popular television series such as Mythbusters, which examines lore from a Ming dynasty astronaut to food safety, also contained several readily identified features relevant to engineering inquiry. One of the show’s common themes, for example, highlights the iterative problem-solving process the television hosts follow as they design, build, and test prototypes. Student interviews revealed that such features in out-of-school texts can shape their ideas of engineering and arouse their desire and curiosity to learn how some things work.

However, there also are significant differences in how content is represented by media professionals who produced most of the out-of-school texts. For instance, while auto magazines may include features that introduce students to some facet of engineering, they ultimately portray cars as a materialistic consumer item as opposed to an engineered product that involves precise scientific knowledge, systematic inquiry, and extensive collaboration in its design and development. These differences show up in the way engineers use representations — language and images, for example — as tools to guide their design and problem-solving work, while media professionals use representations rhetorically to generate emotional responses from readers and viewers. This contrast can contravene current efforts to improve public understanding of engineering, since adolescents may develop expectations of the field based on slick or exciting examples they have seen in everyday media. Teens also may gain certain preferences for how engineering content should be presented – as narrative, suspenseful, showy, and trendy.

Recognizing the similarities and differences between out-of-school and engineering texts is important to our goal of understanding the impact and potential use of popular media to improve outreach. On one hand, knowing the similarities can support the use of popular media as an additional channel for engineering education and public communication. However, we should be cautious about fostering unrealistic expectations that students bring when they formally learn engineering in school.

Kok-Sing Tang is an assistant professor of science education at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. This article is excerpted from “Out-of-School Media Representations of Science and Technology and Their Relevance for Engineering Learning” in the January 2013 issue of the Journal of Engineering Education


Letter From the President

The Transfer Option

ASEE should bolster opportunities offered by community colleges.

By Walter Buchanan

One of my goals as ASEE president is to increase our value to faculty at two-year institutions and thereby expand their membership, which currently represents only 4 percent of our total. This can help our students, too. The cost of education at two-year institutions is much less than at four-year schools – in many cases one third as much – because of the almost total emphasis on teaching. With student debt now higher than credit card debt in the United States, it is imperative that we, as a country, deal with the rising cost of higher education. One way is to encourage students to start their academic careers at two-year colleges and then transfer to four-year institutions.

The process could begin with an effort to enhance the reputation of community colleges among high school students. College counselors in high schools could emphasize community colleges as a recognized and respectable college option and provide students with information about transfer-compatible schools and courses. When students are being informed about particular majors at certain colleges and universities, counselors would present them with the option of beginning that major at any of the community colleges that offer it and have transfer agreements with four-year institutions. They could also highlight the advantages of taking the community college route. These include, in addition to lower cost, more emphasis on teaching; a smaller student-faculty ratio, resulting in more personalized education; and a reduced need to work outside school, allowing greater focus on academics in the early years when students are trying to adjust to college.

Credits and Conseling

Next, educational leaders could create standardized agreements for a network of community colleges and four-year institutions that allow certain course credits to be transferred. For instance, a chemical engineering curriculum could be created that would be offered at several community colleges across the nation and would be tenderable to different four-year institutions in several states. The agreements could be regulated by ASEE, ABET, or a related organization.

We must also address the all-too-common difficulty in two-year to four-year transfers of inadequate student counseling. It is not unusual for a transfer student to lose at least a semester of student credit hours because of this problem. In addition to teaching, transfer counseling should become one of the major responsibilities of community college faculty. Experience has shown that when faculty members themselves, as opposed to external counselors, are involved in student transfer advising and articulation, the transfer process becomes smoother and more efficient. Funds and resources should be made available to train faculty and encourage them to participate enthusiastically.

I would like to see ASEE be a player in this and work with our two-year ASEE faculty members toward a solution. A proactive step might be to appoint a community college representative to the ASEE Board of Directors, giving this group of members a voice in the Society and a stronger sense of ownership. The National Science Foundation reports that 46 percent of graduates in science, technology, engineering, and math began their college careers at two-year schools. If only 4 percent of our members are community college faculty, then clearly ASEE needs to increase the recruiting process.

Sharing Best Practices

In addition, one- or two-day workshops could be held at which participants from two- and four-year colleges could share best practices and successful models of transfer articulation between the two types of institutions. A community college could organize, host, and share its own model during one of these conferences. An even more effective approach would be to offer summer fellowships to faculty members at community colleges and four-year institutions to enable them to collaborate on the development of standardized articulation agreements. ASEE could encourage accreditation for pre-engineering programs since ABET currently does not accredit two-year engineering programs.

One problem ASEE members from community colleges face is a lack of money from their institutions for professional membership activity and travel. Our executive director, Norman Fortenberry, recognizes this and is looking for ways that ASEE benefits can become more affordable. For instance, ASEE is working to make its website more useful to two-year faculty, resulting in more “virtual” interactions. We can encourage attendance at sectional meetings and work to make these of increasing value to two-year faculty. New and-or outstanding community college faculty could be sponsored to attend meetings and also recognized during conferences. Publications highlighting community college outreach, teaching, and transfer achievements could be encouraged during the ASEE annual conference. Finally, since ASEE’s two-year division is focused on engineering technology rather than transfer programs, a separate division could be formed that emphasizes transfer articulations and practices.

Accepting these challenges, I believe, will bring lasting advantages to community college faculty, students, ASEE, and the country.

Walter Buchanan is president of ASEE.


Prism to Mark ASEE’s 120th Year

The May-June Prism will be a special issue devoted to the 120-year history of ASEE. Articles will explore how the Society grew alongside the broadening field of engineering and expansion of engineering departments, schools, and colleges; enduring issues in engineering education; ASEE’s international role; and its future outlook.

Tribute to Change Agents

Imagine reinventing undergraduate engineering education from scratch. The revolutionaries who founded the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in 1997 had just such an opportunity. The well-endowed Massachusetts start-up has no tenure or academic departments, and it has generous merit-based scholarships for all admitted students, near parity of males and females, and a singular, interdisciplinary mission to prepare “engineering innovators” who can “engage in creative enterprises for the good of the world.”

Last month, the National Academy of Engineering awarded the $500,000 Gordon Prize to Olin’s president and first employee, Richard K. Miller; founding provost and professor David V. Kerns Jr.; and former vice president and current professor Sherra E. Kerns “for guiding the creation of Olin College and its student-centered approach to developing effective engineering leaders.” Students, for example, helped guide the development of the initial curriculum, which features a strong focus on the design process and team projects throughout all four years, whole-school presentations at the end of every semester, and entrepreneurial and business experiences. “Engineering is a fundamentally creative endeavor and the more perspectives that contribute to a solution, the better the solution,” noted Sherra Kerns in a statement, adding that the school graduates a higher percentage of women than any other co-ed U.S. engineering program. ASEE has several Olin connections: Sherra Kerns served as ASEE president in 2004-5; provost and dean of faculty Vincent Manno gave a keynote at ASEE’s inaugural International Forum in San Antonio two years ago; and associate professor Debbie Chachra writes the Reinventions column in Prism, which chronicled Olin’s progress with features in 2000, 2003, and 2007.

Timmerhaus Bequest Benefits ASEE

ASEE has received a $99,180 bequest from the estate of Klaus Timmerhaus, an esteemed chemical engineer, teacher, and 42-year faculty member at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who died Feb. 11, 2011. He was 86.

A member of the National Academy of Engineering, Timmerhaus was named by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers in 2008 as one of the Top 100 Chemical Engineers of the Modern Era for his work in cryogenics science and practice. Cryogenics is the study of the behavior of materials at extremely low temperatures.

His energetic contributions to ASEE, which he served as a board member from 1985 to 1988, were recognized with the George Westinghouse Award (1968), the  ASEE Chemical Engineering Division Union Carbide Lectureship Award (1980), a Distinguished Service Certificate from the Design and Laboratory Oriented Studies (1991), the Fred Merryfield Design Award (1992), the ASEE Centennial Medallion (1993), election to the grade of Fellow (1994), and the ASEE Chemical Engineering Division Award for Lifetime Achievement in Chemical Engineering Pedagogical Scholarship (2008).

During his career at CU, where he was known as “Dr. T,” Timmerhaus received at least 48 teaching awards and served at different times as an associate engineering dean, director of the Engineering Research Center, acting chair of aerospace engineering, and chair of chemical engineering.

He was a coauthor or contributor to several books published in multiple editions, including Plant Design and Economics for Chemical Engineers (McGraw Hill), Advances in Cryogenic Engineering (Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers), and Cryogenic Process Engineering (International Cryogenics Monograph).

Annual Report

The full FY 2012 Annual Report, with financial reporting, will be available online at http://asee.org/about-us/annual-report starting in March.

Don’t Go It Alone

Single-course innovations rarely produce lasting change in engineering education.

Undergraduate engineering education is at a crossroads. Reports by the National Academy of Engineering (2002), Royal Academy of Engineering (2007), and Australian Institution of Engineers (1996) concur that traditional undergraduate programs are not equipping graduates with the skills needed for the complex challenges of the 21st century. With few dissenters, the case for fundamental change has been won. However, despite mounting pressure from government and industry, widespread transformation of undergraduate education has yet to occur. Instead, change is slow and piecemeal, and examples of innovative and successful reform remain the exception rather than the rule.

An inquiry last year, sponsored by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, turned the spotlight on how to achieve lasting change. Enlisting the support of those involved in major programs of engineering education reform, it interviewed 70 international experts from 15 countries. Case studies of significant educational reform were selected from those identified by this expert group. A further 117 individuals were consulted for these case studies, which provided a spectrum of drivers for reform, change strategies, levels of ambition, geographical locations, and stages in the change process.

The study outcomes cast doubt on the wisdom of continuing down the well-trodden road where individual faculty champions drive educational reform, typically within single, isolated courses and with little or no institutional support. Even though this model is widely used by national and international agencies to promote engineering education reform, the report questions its long-term efficacy.

Indeed, the report suggests that course-level reforms benefiting from significant external funding are difficult to sustain. Once the external income stream stops, so does the protection it afforded against significant internal resistance, and the reform loses momentum. This is not to say that course-level innovations are not essential elements in the design, implementation and championing of the change. They are unlikely, however, to stimulate the process of fundamental, disciplinewide educational reform. The inquiry found numerous ambitious examples that ultimately failed because of their curricular isolation and reliance on one or two faculty members.

An alternative, less-traveled path holds much greater potential. A combination of expert insights and case-study evidence points to a set of features common to successful change that are largely independent of geography or institution type. Experience suggests that the chances of success are maximized when whole departments are motivated to undertake radical and coherent curriculum-wide change. Successful systemic change often springs from a widespread acknowledgement among faculty that educational reform is unavoidable; a shared recognition that forges a sense of common purpose. In the majority of cases, a collective sense of urgency is driven by a threat to the market position of the department or school of sufficient magnitude to be apparent to even the most change-averse faculty.

At University College London (UCL), the driving force behind a significantly redesigned curriculum came from a new chairman of the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering, who won institutional and accreditor backing. As in other examples studied, a common purpose grew out of a shared recognition among faculty that educational reform is unavoidable. At the University of Queensland, the impetus for overhauling the chemical engineering curriculum was faculty inspired but drew on a tradition of innovation within the department, active support from the dean, and a careful curriculum design that won over a majority of faculty. Both reforms have endured, with UCL faculty relishing an influx of talented students and Queensland’s program gaining renewed vigor after a few years of lost momentum.

Once institutions realize the competitive advantages that such fundamental change can bring – through improvements in student recruitment, retention, degree profiles, postgraduation employment, and careers – they are likely to embrace it. Such support could serve to catalyze the international reform effort that will be essential to reshaping engineering education across the world.

Ruth Graham is a consultant in engineering education and author of the report, “Achieving Excellence in Engineering Education: The Ingredients of Successful Change” (www.raeng.org.uk/change.) This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Royal Academy of Engineering or MIT. A previous version appeared in the October, 2012 Journal of Engineering Education.