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Engineering at Smith College: Bit of Hope for the Future?

There is an interesting article in the Christian Science Monitor (CSM) this week on the introduction of the first engineering program at a women's college. It is particularly relevant to some of the discussion (here and here, for example) on the potential future state of US high-tech.

The article says,

"The first women's college to offer an engineering degree, Smith is forging new paths in a field that's eager to swell its ranks in the United States. Women receive only 20 percent of bachelor's degrees in engineering, according to a new report by the National Science Board (NSB). Like a handful of other liberal arts colleges, Smith is producing graduates who've had a different type of engineering education â'' one that goes beyond technical training to focus on a broader context for finding solutions to humanity's problems; one that emphasizes ethics and communication; one so flexible that about half the students study abroad, which is rare, despite the multinational nature of many engineering jobs."

It also sounds like Smith has gone and hired some very gifted instructors, such as Professor Glen Ellis, who the CSM writes arrived "at his engineering class dressed as a mountain climber. He hooks a rope to the ceiling, projects snow-capped scenery on the wall, and asks a volunteer to join him in a mock ascent." Needless to say, the students pay attention to the lecture and get a broader view of what engineering as a subject means.

Ellis makes the point in a speech in accepting his US Professor of the Year award last November from Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education that,

"It is just not good enough to teach the way that we were taught. We know that doing so in engineering will surely exclude many of the young people we need to attract."

Amen to that.

The CSM article goes on to state that, "Much research in recent years points to the idea that the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and math, known collectively as STEM, is crying out for improvement. ... The NSB report says that 83 percent of professors still use lecture and discussion as their primary methods in undergraduate classes."

The trick is, of course, how to compete for the attention of young minds among all the other possibilities and get them interested in STEM without dumbing it down into becoming a clown college atmosphere. I don't think there are a lot of extroverted, innovative or self-confident STEM professors like Glenn Ellis's out there, or STEM departments that encourage this approach either. Maybe what is needed is a graduate school for STEM professors (and their Deans) to learn how to teach these subjects more interestingly to students who are increasingly skeptical of the value of these fields.

BTW, the NSB has several reports on the state of STEM education and the workforce that may be of interest. The reports are the above referenced Science and Engineering Indicators, Moving Forward to Improve Engineering Education, A National Action Plan for Addressing the Critical Needs of the U.S. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education System, and The Science and Engineering Workforce: Realizing America's Potential.

A lot of good thoughts in the NSB reports; unfortunately, not a lot of movement, money or care that I can see from those in position to make a lasting difference on the ground.

Smith is to be congratulated for its approach, but it is only a small college in Massachusetts. A lot more needs to be done.

GPS Unintended Consequences


When I used to live in the UK, having an A - Z guide was mandatory for getting around. The UK is one of those countries that seems to have an attitude that if you are lost, you deserve to be. My memory is that I could always find a sign telling you were leaving a county, town or village, but not that you were ever entering one.

The UK attitude towards (not) providing clear directions on road signs seems to have extended to some of its former colonies like Virginia where I now live, where having an ADC map is absolutely vital if you want to get around without wandering in circles.

Anyway, IEEE Spectrum Associate Editor Joshua Romero pointed me to a story in the London Telegraph about the proliferation of GPS navigation in the UK, and the problems they are creating in the UK. It seems that Network Rail claims that 2,000 railroad crossing and bridges are hit annually - some 6 or 7 a day - by trucks that have been directed along inappropriate roads for their size. Network Rail said that it was now mapping the UKâ''s low bridges and level crossings so that information could be fed into GPS navigation software.

Part of the reason is that many of the trucks are being driven by non-English speaking drivers, who rely almost exclusively on the navigation system for guidance. Network Rails says that, "We are now trialling smart signs complete with laser detectors which will tell oncoming vehicles that they won't clear the bridge ahead."

It is not only Network Rail that is having problems. Small towns and villages are finding that trucks and coaches driving down roads and country lanes are also smacking into buildings and cottages, or getting stuck and blocking local traffic. Some village councils are now posting anti-satellite navigation system signs up.

Back in 2006, the UK Department for Transport supposedly was going to develop a "star rating system" that would tell consumers how reliable GPS navigation systems were, but I am not sure of its status. Still too soon to throw out those A -Z guides just yet, I reckon.

US Aerospace Industry Doomed?

spruce-goose.gif There was a story in last Sunday's Seattle Times about the fact that nearly 25% of the 637,000 aerospace workers in the US can retire next year, possibly posing a severe skills shortage in the commercial and defense aviation. In addition, the article notes that the demand for "aerospace, electrical, mechanical and computer engineering disciplines is expected to be double what it was 10 years ago."

The story goes on to say that many younger workers view aerospace plants as "old fashion industries."

As I noted a few weeks ago, there is a controversy raging about whether universities and colleges are teaching future IT workers inappropriate skills, and that it is becoming increasingly hard to attract students into science and technology. Given this and the looming retirement situation, is the US poised to lose its aerospace dominance?

Also, with US is pouring more money into advance defense systems than any time since World War II, can these systems even be built, given the high-tech resource scarcity that will hit in the next decade?

Who is likely to dominate the aerospace field in the future? Is it automatically the Pac Rim, given Europe looks in even worse shape than the US, given its demographics and inability to attract high tech students into their universities as well?

And how much does it matter to the US, if at all? And if does matter, what can realistically be done about it?

I would like to hear your thoughts on the subject.

So Much for Weather Models


The Turing Test may be how a machine demonstrates artificial intelligence, but my own test is: can a machine interpret correctly the US Tax Code, and can one predict accurately winter weather in Northern Virginia three hours ahead of time?

Yesterday, an unpredicted ice storm hit Washington D.C. and its suburbs leading to accidents and severe icing that shut-down at rush hour I-95 south at the Springfield Mixing Bowl for over 8 hours. The storm was expected to hit well west and north of the Washington area, even as late as noon. This was the second "surprise" ice-storm to hit the DC metropolitan area this winter.

Those of you who know the location can image the mess - there is a nice photo from the Washington Post here.

Yup, I'll believe in AI when my two tests are met.

You Can Be Your Own Hamster on a Wheel


Want to power your cell phone or iPod on a camping trip? Then you need the biomechanical energy harvester. As described here and here at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) website and discussed in the Washington Post:

"A new, knee-mounted device harvests energy from the end of a walkerâ''s step, in the same way that hybrid-electric cars recycle power from braking. With a device on each leg, volunteers generated about 5 Watts of electricity, while using little additional energy. Thatâ''s enough power to run 10 cell phones at the same time, and twice the power needed for computers in developing regions."

There is some interesting graphics and video at the site as well.

I can hardly wait until these things become mandatory in Europe in an effort to reduce global warming. I wonder if they will be designed to be fashion accessories?

Déjà Vu for Blackberry Users


The New York Times reports that the Blackberry outage was caused by - drum roll please - "a flawed software upgrade." A very short communique that Research in Motion (RIM) released to the press via email (but didn't post on its website) said that there "was a problem with an internal data routing system" that had recently been upgraded, and that the "upgrade was part of RIM's routine and ongoing efforts to increase overall capacity for longer term growth." No further explanation was given.

RIM is setting up a team to investigate the problem and to avoid a future recurrence; just like last year.

Anatomy of a Software Project Fiasco: LAUSD Payroll System


A very sad, but very unsurprising, story appeared in yesterday's Los Angeles Times about the LA Unified School District (LAUSD) payroll system fiasco that I have been blogging about for the past several months. The story shows how the system was in trouble from the start, tells of the warnings of trouble along the way, and how the warnings were ignored anyway until it was too late.

"In the weeks leading up to the launch of a new payroll system, Los Angeles Unified School District officials had plenty of warning that the $95-million technology project would have serious problems."

"Critical hardware had failed numerous times. Flawed data collected over decades proved difficult to clean up and input into the new system. Payroll clerks complained that training had fallen far short -- more than 60 schools didn't have a single staff member who'd received any training."

"Still, consultants hired to implement the system urged the district to proceed as scheduled in early January 2007. Three days before the system was to begin, they urged the district in a report to 'Go! Proceed . . . and go-live on January 1!' "

The story goes on to say that LAUSD officials admitted that they were too inexperienced - I say incompetent - to understand the issues, risks, and problems popping up all around them.

"Supt. David L. Brewer oversaw the district's clumsy recovery effort. It has taken a year to stabilize the system. The ordeal has weakened the superintendent, opening him to criticism that he has been ineffective."

" 'We were not ready to go live with this system, but we didn't have the internal expertise to know that,' Brewer said in a recent interview."

The LAUSD chief operating officer responsible for pushing through the payroll system also admitted that "he knows little about computer systems."

Helping matter along, the original payroll data was not cleansed before it was put into the new system, so the new system used inaccurate information. "The dirty data had produced bogus employee rosters. How, clerks wondered, do you cut a paycheck for a person the computer system says does not exist?"

The contractor responsible for the payroll, however, maintains that "throughout the project we not only did our part, but we in fact went above and beyond." I am sure, therefore, that they are going to use the project as a proud customer reference site in their future proposals.

All one can say is, sad, sad, sad, and another software project to add to the case study pile of what not to do - not that anyone will read it.

London 777 Crash - Likely Caused by Ice in Fuel System?


In today's Wall Street Journal, there is a story about American and United Airlines taking precautions against the possibility ice accumulation in the fuel systems of Boeing 777s, which seems to be the leading theory for the crash of the British Airways 777 on 17 January. According to the paper, "The moves come amid growing indications that a buildup of ice crystals or slush simultaneously restricted fuel flow and reduced the thrust of both engines of the Boeing 777."

The paper goes on, "U.S. and British investigators are focusing on whether ice crystals may have clogged the plane's dual oil-cooler systems, according to people familiar with the details. The radiator-like devices use fuel flow from each of the wing tanks to cool engine oil, and fuel then flows from there to the nearby engine during flight. .... [it is] believed to be the first time ice contamination in fuel brought down a large, state-of-the-art jetliner with no apparent mechanical or computer malfunctions."

So much for it being software.

Crackberry, err, Blackberry Users Get Their Juice Back


For the second time in 10 months, Research in Motion's (RIM) Blackberry network suffered another outage affecting some 8 million of its customers. This one lasted only about 3 hours, while the one last April lasted more than 12 hours.

While many Blackberry users were forgiving of the first outage (a typical comment of the time was ""These things happen. Life goes on."), this time, Blackberry owners seem more irritated ("I don't know what happened, I don't care what happened. They need to save their excuses for someone who cares").

Part of the reason for the angst, other than the Blackberry addiction theory, is that RIM promised after the April fiasco - which was caused by poor software testing - that something like this wouldn't happen again claiming that it would put in back-up systems. So user expectations were naturally raised.

RIM also said that they would be more open about any problems in the future. Some of you may remember that RIM was very closed-mouth about the April outage, providing the press with a constant stream of "no comments," not only about its cause but during the event itself. Surprisingly, there is nothing about this latest one on their website this time either. Not a smart move, guys.

RIM now has two strikes against it, and if a third outage hits soon, expect the company to take a big share hit as it will get tagged with a reputation for unreliability. Not a good thing for a device that health, safety and security professionals and government officials depend on, nor with alternatives available to tempt Blackberry users.

I recently traveled around the world without either a cell phone or a laptop. It was very refreshing, with the only downside being a boatload of emails when I got back that I had to wade through. Still, it was a good trade.

Silver-lining to Boeing 787 Schedule Slip


" 'We have taken advantage of the delays to make sure our system level maturity is coming along at a rate that will avoid problems as we enter flight test.' " So said Boeing's Scott Carson, chief executive officer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes last Wednesday in regard to the year-long slip in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner's flight testing. As I noted a few months back, the software folks were praying for some other part of the aircraft's development to be blamed for the slip, and not them. They got their wish - and they better make the most of it.

Carson says that the 787 is now on track - although we've heard that a couple of times before. There still has been no public disclosure of the penalties Boeing will have to pay airlines such as All Nippon Airways for the late delivery of the 787, but I doubt it will be minimal.

On a side note, I had a chance to see Boeing's major competitor the Airbus 380 arriving in Singapore last week. Others may disagree, but it looked to me like a cargo plane on steroids. It definitely looks better in pictures than up close.

Unfortunately - or maybe fortunately - I was outbound to Germany and did not get to see how baggage, customs and immigration handled the plane's passenger volume. The newly opened and spectacular terminal at Changi Airport (which I'll blog about soon) has been designed to handle Singapore Airline's future fleet of A380's (Singapore Airlines currently has two A380s in service, a further 17 on firm order and options on six more), but even though the new terminal is spacious, I don't think I would want to be around when a couple of A380s off-load at the same time.

It is not known how much Airbus had to pay in penalty costs to Singapore Airline for delivering the A380 two years late (operations started last October), but given that Singapore Air had very publicly committed its future business around it, the amount had to be pretty high.


Risk Factor

IEEE Spectrum's risk analysis blog, featuring daily news, updates and analysis on computing and IT projects, software and systems failures, successes and innovations, security threats, and more.

Willie D. Jones
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