Nicholas Negroponte, founder of One Laptop per Child, and MIT Media Lab, says the laptop project turned kids into change agents. He adds that there’s a difference between education and learning. His newest work, the “edX” project, aims for kids to teach themselves. The first public discussion is being held here at MIT’s EmTech conference today.
Author Archive for John Falcioni
Post from Jean Thilmany
My friend’s nine-year-old son, Jack, is the only boy enrolled in his school’s sewing class. Recently, he brought home his first creation, a pillow case, and his mother reports he was excited to sleep on it that night. Next, he’s turned his attention to pajama pants.
What does this have to do with engineering? Well, everything.
“More boys would take the class if they just realized it was engineering,” Jack told his mother. In fact, many things in this world have civil or electrical or environmental or biomechanical or other types of engineering at their base—including fashion design.
With the underrepresentation of women engineers, and the ongoing discussion of gender roles and gender stereotyping at a young age, I plan to go out of my way to point out to the kids in my life the underpinnings of engineering in the clothes we wear; and the bridge we cross over the Mississippi; and the dams we pass as we travel along the river; and in the car we share the automotive engine that propels us.
I’m sure I’ll think of a million more examples, including a look at the way that nature engineers all plants to allow them to thrive best (for more on this, see the Computing section in the November 2012 issue of Mechanical Engineering magazine).
I’d like to encourage you to have the same conversations with the children and adults in your life that I’ve had with my six-year-old son. By making them more aware of engineers’ efforts and their effects on our everyday life we can boost engineers’ presence in society and increase the young talent within their ranks.
Post from Harry Hutchinson:
I always tell people how cool my job is. I get to talk to all kinds of interesting people—researchers, inventors, regulators, rule-makers, and rebels. I see some very clever stuff and sometimes play with it.
Ahmed Noor is a frequent contributor to Mechanical Engineering magazine. His most recent article, “Intelligent and Connected” in the November issue, is a forward-looking discussion of smart transportation systems.
He also heads a lab, the Center for Advanced Engineering Environments, at Old Dominion University in Hampton, Va. When I was invited to an open house there, I was eager to go.
The lab works with commercial partners to further the development of computers as engineering tools, with a particular emphasis on communication and interfaces.
When I showed up, everyone was standing around talking to a telepresence robot. Michael Clark, from the Institute for Software Research at Carnegie Mellon, had brought it along. He has four of the things, which go by the brand name Anybots, and he studies ways to use them in education.
The robot fits into a box about the size of a nightstand. It rolls around on two wheels like a Segway. It has an adjustable pole for a neck and a head with two eyes that are cameras. One of the eyes contains a laser pointer. The robot’s forehead has a small screen where you can see the operator.
In this case it was Scott Friedman, an M.D. controlling the robot from his home near Pittsburgh, 350 miles away. Through the robot, Friedman could follow us from room to room, see what was going on, and make his presence known.
Another demonstration at the open house was a walk-through of a highly detailed plant simulation developed by Eon Reality. It simulated a petroleum site in Angola.
Mats Johansson, Eon’s president, said it was developed to train technicians. You can open a schematic of the plant, click on the site you want, and the simulation will show you how to get there and what you will see. Then you can walk someone through the steps of what to do. The job checklist shows up in a window on the screen.
Eon also has a prototype of augmented-reality spectacles that work with a smartphone. You can call up an engineering drawing or a CAD model, for example, and see it projected on the lenses while you’re working on the equipment.
There was also a presentation on another emerging technology. Noor’s lab is working with a company called Emotiv on a computer interface that reacts to brain waves.
A student from the lab, Hari Phaneendra Kalyan, showed how the system works. He was able to open Internet Explorer and make Google.com appear on the command line, just by thinking it.
Then I got to try my head at it.
The controller is an EEG headset with 14 contact points. A schematic on the computer screen shows them black (no contact), yellow (getting warm), or green (go).
Kalyan and a fellow student, Ben Cawrse, helped me get ready. We discovered it’s a challenge to make green contact with all the electrodes if you wear a pony tail.
After a bit of trial and error, they worked some electrodes under my hair and put others on my forehead and behind my ears. That gave us 11 green lights out of a possible 14.
Given that many greens, I thought hard to move the cursor, but nothing happened.
The graph of brain activity came on screen. The blue line, which reads frustration level, was very high, so I knew the system was working.
I said I was stymied in trying to move the cursor, so Cawrse moved to another window labeled “mouse” and clicked an icon. Suddenly, wherever I looked on the screen the cursor went with me. The unexpected ease made the experience downright eerie.
Cawrse switched to a page with a list of commands. He selected “push.”
An image on the page showed a box floating in the air. Kalyan told me to think hard about pushing it. So I did, gritting my teeth, even leaning into it.
Nothing happened. I wondered where my blue line was—probably pretty high.
Then the screen changed a little, but not because of anything I did or thought. As usual, I was about a page behind. Nothing was supposed to happen on the screen during that exercise. We were teaching the system to know my “push” brainwaves.
It learned well. When I thought “push” at the right time, that virtual box started to slide into cyberspace.
There is a team at the lab working with Emotiv. They include Kalyan and Cawrse, who are computer science students, and Ajay Gupta of the computer science faculty.
Ahmed Noor estimates that this technology right now is about where voice-recognition was 20 years ago. He told me the lab is moving towards more advanced applications.
You’re not going to create much by pulling or pushing images on a screen. But if you can do that much today just by thinking it, where is this technology going to be in 20 years? Will people now locked silenced by severe physical disabilities be able to share some of their genius with us?
Post from Jean Thilmany:
Last summer, South African runner Oscar Pistorius became the first double-amputee runner to race in the Olympic games. In November, Mechanical Engineering magazine’s Input/Output section will feature C.J. Howard, a Californian who climbs mountains with the help of a specially designed climbing prosthetic that fits his lower leg.
This is additional proof that prosthetic limb design continues to push the bounds of technological prowess with new materials, robotics, and manufacturing methods.
As amazing as today’s advances are, it is startling to realize how long humans have relied on prosthetic limbs. Recently, Jacky Finch, a biomedical Egyptology researcher at the University of Manchester in Manchester, England, found that artificial toes discovered on the foot of an Egyptian mummy are likely to be the world’s first prosthetic body parts.
The three-part wood and leather toe, dating before 600 B.C., had been found on a female mummy buried near Luxor, in Egypt. I could have been used as practical tools to help their owners to walk, Finch said.
All of which has put me in mind to re-read Poster Child, a wonderful memoir by Emily Rapp, about the leg prosthetic she now wears following an operation at the age of four. Rapp detailed the pain (both physical and psychological) of wearing the prosthetic and the need for it to be constantly re-fitted and changed as technology advanced. No matter the technology, the leg often chaffed and left wounds at the site where it attached.
That book was an eye opener for me. For behind the long-time human use of prosthetic limbs, behind the marvels that continue within the field today, prosthetics are still worn by humans who struggle with them and with their appearance. And that, likely, is something not about to change.
My October column in Mechanical Engineering magazine.
I’m writing this month’s column deep past midnight on the eve of what those of us in the publishing world have come to know dreadfully as “drop dead”— or the very last moment when our Midwest printer will accept final page proofs in order for the October issue to be printed, bound, and then shipped to you on time. Some of our key editors will complain that this isn’t the first time I’ve pulled this little stunt. But even as I write this, those same editors and I have yet to finalize the headline that will appear alongside this month’s captivating cover image when you receive the magazine.
Drop dead, as an editorial concept, is not unique to the traditional ink-on-paper printing process, it’s ubiquitous, common to editorial content dissemination on all formats—on a website, on a digital edition for a tablet, or chiseled somewhere in the blogosphere by an indiscriminate scribe.
The reason our cover is giving us headline trouble is that there’s more than an undercurrent of discord among us on how to succinctly and elegantly describe a new form of 3-D printers that are helping to reshape the way designers think about their craft. Hod Lipson, who teaches at Cornell University and is the author of the article, surmises that “years of observing mass-produced objects made subject to traditional manufacturing constraints” may be at play in why some designers occasionally come up empty when given the opportunity to show their design mettle.
In a not-so-subtle nudge at CAD systems, Lipson quips that design creativity may be stunted by the thinking imposed by using conventional software. Conceptually, he says, “CAD software remains today a 3-D drawing board that records our intentions but offers little insight or ideas of its own and offers limited access to the vast new space of geometric complexity.”
Making his case for a new generation of three-dimensional printers that empower designers with the control they never had before over the shape and composition of matter, Lipson argues that new tools democratize design and enable the growth of new types of designers, some of whom may not even have formal engineering training.
Lipson is not suggesting the demise or even a diminished role for the engineer in the design process, per se. What he is offering, however, is the suggestion that certainty is transient. And that being flexible and able to adapt to changing technologies is a key to increasing the probability of one’s long-term success.
In keeping with that sentiment, we here also have adapted and thus adopted distribution methods for the magazine that take advantage of technologies that aren’t reliant on traditional models. For example, you can now access a digital version of the magazine on asme.org and through your mobile or tablet devices.
Not long ago, magazines only came printed on paper, and the engineering designs that came from printers were blueprints. Though change brings uncertainty, in the end, it often helps us be better at the things that we do. And this is progress.
Post from Jeffrey Winters:
From time to time I check in on what the team Open Source Ecology is up to—it’s not cutting edge engineering, but the concept of making modern agriculture and manufacturing accessible to everyone is exciting. Recently they put up an announcement that a pair of high school students from Pasadena used the open-source designs the team published to build their own tractor. It still has its rough edges, but it works.
As a culture, we’re used to teenagers creating stuff out of information—everything from rock songs to computer programs. And certainly modifying machines used to be a common activity, back when high school boys were turning old junkers into hot rods. But with the rise of desktop-size 3-D printers and open-source hardware, it’s not hard to imagine a time in the not too distant future when teenage boys and girls will be showing off homemade machines the way they might trade, say, guitar licks or rap lyrics today. (I hope I’m not showing my age too much here.)
Any time you put powerful tools in the hands of infinitely creative minds, you can expect (some) amazing stuff to happen. Maybe the long-awaited hoverboard will be built by a teen who wanted to make something cool to ride to school.
Post from Harry Hutchinson:
I’ve never been to Nepal, but judging from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the bars could be pretty exciting there. So it could be an interesting trip.
If I’m lucky enough, I might get to visit the factory where they’re going to build the hydropower turbines.
Nepal has its eye on developing what it sees as a vast potential for hydroelectric power. It is a mountainous country full of rivers. The Independent Power Producers’ Association, Nepal, estimates that the country has the potential for 40,000 MW of hydropower. Right now, it has developed about 600 MW.
Hydroelectricity represents about 1 percent of the country’s total energy consumption, and just about all of its electricity.
I came across all this because the Global Window department in the October issue of Mechanical Engineering includes a story about a new venture that is going to set up that turbine factory. A Nepali power company, Glow Tech Solutions, ordered some turbines designed to work in river and tidal currents from a Dutch manufacturer, Tocardo B.V International. Now they are in a partnership to make turbines in Nepal.
But later on, just a few days ago, I read about something closer to home. Another manufacturer, Verdant Power, is testing hydroturbines in the East River, near New York City’s Roosevelt Island. I knew that this kind of turbine, designed to be rotated by natural currents, has been in the river for a while. But it seems they have a history of breaking down in the river’s current.
According to a story in the last week’s New York Times, the company has tested a turbine for 10 days, and has retrieved it unscathed.
According to the newspaper, “After 10 days in the river, the blades gleamed in the September sunlight, showing no obvious signs of wear or damage. The turbine’s pristine appearance brought smiles to the faces of Mr. Corren [Dean Corren, Verdant’s director of technology] and his colleagues. Dean Whatmoor, a logistics manager, who had been monitoring the test from a converted cargo container filled with computer screens and gauges, admitted that he was a little sad to see the test end.
“In about five years, the company hopes to have 30 turbines arrayed in the river, each capable of producing 35 kilowatts of electricity. All told, the project would produce about as much power as one wind turbine, enough to power a few hundred homes.”
That comes to a little more than a megawatt, modest for a power plant in the U.S., and certainly a tiny fraction of what the region uses. But there are places in the world where a contribution like that could make a big difference for a great many people—places like Nepal, for instance.
I’m glad to see they’re working on it.
Post from Harry Hutchinson:
When I was in Ontario in May I did some of my favorite things: I tried some interesting local brews, of course, and also got to talk to people with a different view of the world. As it turns out, it was an interesting time to go because this year is the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.
The U.S. and Canada are good friends now, but there are lots of historical markers and artifacts across the border that reminded me that we weren’t always so. Many Canadians, including a retired judge in Brockville, Ontario, are conversant about the occasions when my ancestors tried to invade their northern neighbor.
More recently, I was reminded of another anniversary. It has been 300 years since Thomas Newcomen gave the first public demonstration of his atmospheric steam engine. I have spoken to engineers who consider that demonstration in 1712 to be the first shot in the Industrial Revolution. Watt came later and improved steam technology, yes, but Newcomen was the first guy to put heat to work—pumping water from mines.
It was a letter to the editor from an ASME member, Stan Jakuba, that brought this to my attention. Stan’s letter appears in the October issue of Mechanical Engineering.
Bob Woods, an ASME Fellow, wrote an article about Newcomen, his engine, and its legacy that ran in the December 2003 issue.
When I was a kid in school, history books would talk about “the Age of Steam,” a phrase that conveyed a sense that steam power was not unlike the War of 1812: off in the past.
After all, vehicles are powered by internal combustion engines—airplanes too, when they aren’t propelled by turbines. They stopped making steam locomotives early in the 1940s. Diesel moves the ships.
But even so, steam is very much with us in our electrified world. Steam carries heat through the pipes of my home, and I believe, of my office building. But most important, steam still keeps most of the lights on and the devices running.
Coal is the fuel that generates 40 percent or more of the electricity consumed in the United States each year. Nuclear reactors account for another 20 percent. In either case, reaction of the fuel heats water to produce steam. Combined cycle plants capture the hot exhaust of gas turbines to generate steam to produce more electricity.
And of course, I don’t think of steam without a nod to the thousands of people over the years who have developed the codes and standards that make the technology affordable and safe.
Electricity is one of the most important commodities supporting our civilization. And most of it comes from steam-driven technology.
Thank you, Newcomen.
Post from Jean Thilmany:
Could children, if given the chance, help create suitable and amusing educational computer games? And, perhaps more important, would they maintain interest in an educational game they had input in designing? Would they want to play it more than once?
Happily, the answer to all those questions seem to be yes, according to Wolmet Barendregt, an assistant professor at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden who conducts research on children’s game playing. She looks at how game makers can support learning and include the children in the design process.
This is a quite relief to me, as I have a child in first grade and another in preschool and sometimes (often) I fear computers and educational software and games are thrown at them willy-nilly. I’m concerned that there is a rush toward online learning without enough thought as to how young students actually learn and what they’re interested in. I’m glad researchers like Barendregt are studying that question.
Many educational games are lessons, with stuff added so that they will resemble a game. Kids can see through that, Barendregt said. She also said that the risk of so-called educational games in general is that they are either too educational and boring, or fun-filled without any learning opportunities.
She and her research team also found game design affects interaction between children and parents, especially when there is a difference in skills. She seeks a deeper understanding of how different game design affects how you play together and what mechanisms can and cannot be used for educational games.
As someone who feels, perhaps wrongly, that too many computer games—and that includes those on iPads and smartphones—are billed as educational, I salute Barendregt and her colleagues on their even-handed research into educational computer games. She’s convinced me they aren’t going away and that I need to be brought around to their necessity and use.
Post from Alan S. Brown
There is no denying the importance of visualization in engineering and science. We have all staggered our bewildered way through textbooks, presentations, and papers, only to come to that one illustration that suddenly clarifies the point for us—or not.
Most engineering communications have plenty of pictures and illustrations, but not all of them make their point in ways that create those “ah-ha” moments. In fact, argues Felice Frankel, a research scientist at MIT’s Center for Materials Science and Engineering, many of those illustrations can be interpreted only by experts in the same sub-disciplines as the researchers who created them. To reach a larger audience—and produce more ah-ha moments—engineers and researchers must rethink how they communicate visually.
Frankel, who is also a photographer and designer, has created an eye-popping little book to help you do just that. It is called Visual Strategies: A Practical Guide to Graphics for Scientists and Engineers. Her co-author is Angela DePace, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Systems Biology.
Designer Steve Heller, last year noted that many scientific illustrations make basic design mistakes that make them harder to understand and actually reduce the amount of information they convey.
Frankel agreed, noting that engineers and scientists never take these type of “design” courses, and thus feel uncomfortable developing something as subjective as a visual style. This is especially true when it strays from what they see in other papers and presentations. So while an engineer might be wildly creative in thinking about a problem, he or she may stick to known recipes when it comes to representing issues visually.
One example in the book involves an explosion. These are often visualized in multiple colors. Frankel and DePace suggest eliminating the color in all but the section where it matters. The result is a graphic that shouts out what is important.
Another example involved showing how water dropped onto a gold surface pattered with hydrophobic lines did not spread across the lines. The original picture was a gold monochrome with several barely perceptible water droplets on it. The authors recreated the picture, dying the water and coloring the surface so that the droplets appeared to pop off the surface.
The authors offer some advice for researchers looking to speak to a broader audience. First, know who you are addressing and how they will use the information. Then decide on whether you want an illustration, chart, sketch, or photo. Organize the illustration to make your point, and reduce or eliminate elements that serve no purpose. Use color to highlight the important part.
The book offers 160 pages of suggestions, but its heart is page after page of original and redesigned illustrations and the rationale behind them. The book’s website also includes some visual classics. It is well worth checking out.