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ASEE Connections

March 2017




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The period 2011-2015 saw steady growth in engineering degrees awarded to male and female international students at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels. Table 1 highlights how the numbers have increased for each category under review for 2011-2015. Table 2 highlights the number of degrees awarded to foreign nationals out of the total number of degrees awarded for each category. There were higher percentages of males for each category. There were higher rates of males for master’s degrees and doctorates than for bachelor’s degrees.

Table 1.

Table 2.



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Smart Training: Researchers from Cleveland State University Developing Advanced Exercise Machines

Researchers from Cleveland State University are developing new kinds of exercise machines for athletic conditioning, rehabilitation and exercise in space.

The motivation for this research project is that fixed impedances are not the best option for efficient training. Rehabilitation machines should not merely resist motion, but also assist it. Moreover, therapists and doctors should be able to program machines to customize the balance between assistance and resistance within a single motion cycle, within a single session, or as part of a longer-term rehabilitation program.

The research team is running data collection trials in a lab that features a 10-camera motion capture system, a wireless EMG / accelerometer system to collect muscle activation data, and software tools for musculoskeletal modeling and simulation.

Model-based control algorithms are being created to test and evaluate potential solutions in real time. The data collected from these trials will be used to build and validate biomechanical models and to design optimal performance motorized machines.

The research team is utilizing a dSPACE MicroLabBox to collect measurement data and operate the machine prototypes in real time. The MicroLabBox is an all-in-one development system that lets you set up your control, test or measurement applications quickly and easily, and helps you turn your new control concepts into reality.

“With dSPACE MicroLabBox, it was easy to collect initial data and operate machine prototypes in real time,” said Dr. Hanz Richter, Associate Professor, Mechanical Engineering, Cleveland State University. “This made it possible to focus on the control algorithms themselves, rather than the details of their implementation.”

The compact size, high performance and versatility of the MicroLabBox makes it ideal for university and research-based projects. To learn more about MicroLabBox, request brochure.





In a 2009 legal opinion, the Environmental Protection Agency called carbon dioxide a danger to human health as a leading contributor to global warming and therefore subject to regulation as a pollutant. That led to a legal battle, but the EPA was upheld by a federal court, and the Supreme Court let that ruling stand. Asked about the ruling during his Senate confirmation hearings, the new EPA director, Scott Pruitt, said he would respect and enforce it. But now, the New York Times reports that industry lobbyists are urging Pruitt to put together a legal case to challenge the endangerment finding. A likely signal that he intends to do so, the sources claim, came in remarks broadcast earlier this month on CNBC. Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general who sued the EPA 17 times in efforts to loosen environmental regulations, said that he didn’t think human activity was the primary contributor to global warming, despite scientific consensus that it is.


An annual survey of college presidents by Inside Higher Ed found that the campus leaders are worried about the aftershocks of last year’s divisive presidential campaign and the potential impact of Trump administration policies on higher education. The survey polled 706 campus leaders. Fifty-four percent said the election showed that academe is disconnected from much of American society. Nearly 70 percent said they feared that anti-intellectual sentiment is growing in the country. Three-quarters believe that President Trump doesn’t accept scientific consensus on issues like global warming, and a similar number worried that undocumented students may lose rights gained during the Obama administration. Three-fifths said that Trump’s tougher stance on immigration could result in fewer international students enrolling at U.S. colleges. There was also widespread concern that Trump’s White House will dilute regulations aimed at for-profit colleges: 69 percent said that’s a worry. Two-thirds of the college presidents said that they support the tougher regulations. Nearly half said they doubt that the Republican Congress will maintain current levels of funding for academic research and student aid. At the same time, two-thirds of the college leaders said that anti-Trump protests at some schools are amplifying an image of higher education as intolerant of conservative views.




Am I My Machine's Keeper?

Devices that Learn From and Influence Users Pose New Ethical Dilemmas

By Aditya Johri

The prospect of autonomous vehicles presents a variation on an old philosophy question: “You are in your driverless car and a child stumbles on to the road. What action should your car take? Should it run into a wall, possibly killing you, or run over the child?” The new ethical twist, of course, is this: Should the choice be programmed into the car—engineered—or should a button be provided so the driver can choose the setting? This is just one instance of innumerable choices that are coming up for engineers as even more software with artificial intelligence makes its way into engineered objects.

Another instance of how software applications are raising ethical questions is behavioral programming—using technology to change people’s behavior. We see this in devices such as the FitBit™ that are designed to improve the human condition, in this case by providing users with information about their physical activity that in turn motivates them to exercise more and take better care of their health. In the household, the Nest™ energy consumption monitoring device allows users to live more sustainably.

Other programmable technology is not so innocuous. A major example is the programming of slot machines in casinos to encourage high-risk, addicted gamblers to play even more. By making it seem as if they have almost won a jackpot, or by providing them easier access to loans, these machines target humans’ vulnerability. A less drastic but still questionable example is Facebook’s use of algorithms to manipulate your news feed so that you spend even more time on the site.

Dartmouth College philosophy professor James H. Moor anticipated this phenomenon in 1985 in his seminal paper, “What Is Computer Ethics?” He wrote, “The essence of the Computer Revolution is found in the nature of a computer itself. What is revolutionary about computers is logical malleability. Computers are logically malleable in that they can be shaped and molded to do any activity that can be characterized in terms of inputs, outputs, and connecting logical operations...The logic of computers can be massaged and shaped in endless ways through changes in hardware and software.” What we do with this property of logic malleability as engineers is of course up to us, but are we prepared for it? More critically, are we preparing our students for this new era?

Ethics education in engineering has looked primarily at the larger social context within which engineers work and to some extent has focused on the ethics of designing objects that might have harmful effects, either intentionally or as a result of unintended consequences. For the most part, engineered objects have lacked programmable agency in the manner that is possible via software code. Now, however, machines can learn from their users, change their functionality, and in turn change how users respond. This raises important questions about what role engineers need to play. Are they or should they be gatekeepers to a machine’s actions? Now that actions are programmable, should it be the job of the engineers to do so? Should designers be made to test and use their inventions before unleashing them onto the public? Should users be involved more in the design? What are the boundaries? In turn, what do we tell new engineers is their responsibility? How do we train them to better understand the impact of their design decisions?

In “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute political theorist Langdon Winner cites the example of highways built around Long Island by master builder Robert Moses. The overpasses were constructed so low that buses couldn’t pass under them. As a consequence, poor people dependent on public transit, many of them black, were kept off Jones Beach, an acclaimed public park designed by Moses. Imagine a similar design decision today that prevents a certain population from being able to use a device to improve health, or one that prods them to spend money they do not have. And now imagine that the machine decides that it can make those decisions for the users because it’s “intelligent” enough to do so.

We are entering a new world of ethics, one where ethics can be programmed into engineered objects. Should it be?


Aditya Johri is an associate professor of electrical engineering at George Mason University.




Problem Solving in Class and the Workplace

Students Strongly Differentiate Between the Two

By Nathan J. McNeill, Elliot P. Douglas, Mirka Koro-Ljungberg, David J. Therriault and Ilana Krause

Solving problems that are complex and ill-structured is a central activity of engineering practice. Graduates of engineering programs accredited by ABET are expected to be able to solve problems requiring consideration of “realistic constraints,” including: “economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health and safety, manufacturability, and sustainability.” However, in their core classes undergraduate engineering students most often encounter well-constrained problems that lack real-world contextualization. Common classroom problems are those at the end of textbook chapters which are designed to test knowledge of important concepts but are limited in scope.

Although various kinds of beliefs, such as self-efficacy (belief in one’s abilities) and epistemic beliefs (beliefs about the nature of knowledge), have been found to play a role in one’s problem-solving abilities, we felt that it was important to examine more broadly the beliefs and assumptions that engineering students hold about problem solving within the context of an engineering curriculum. We conducted interviews with 19 junior and senior materials engineering students following a problem-solving task. This task involved four engineering problems which varied in terms of both their structure and complexity. In the interviews, we asked students about the problem-solving processes that they used and the assumptions and beliefs that guided their problem-solving processes. We analyzed transcripts from nine of the interviews using grounded theory to construct a conceptual model of students’ beliefs about problem solving. The nine transcripts that we analyzed were selected to represent as wide a range of problem-solving beliefs as possible.

The conceptual model that resulted from our analysis has five major components: the problem-solving process itself, the role of classroom problems, the role of “real” workplace problems, personal characteristics that affect problem solving, and resources that assist problem solving. Students believed that the problem-solving process leads to an attainable solution and that it requires assumption making, justification of decisions, and visualizations. Students made a sharp distinction between classroom problems and workplace problems. They strongly believed that the two types of problems have different goals. Classroom problems are for the purpose of obtaining a grade, while workplace problems are for the purpose of solving an engineering problem. As one student explained:

“One of my best friends is doing a co-op right now … he uses very little from his … classes. They teach you everything there [on the job], you learn everything from experience.”

Students believed that personal characteristics such as conceptual understanding, intuition, and confidence play important roles in success at problem solving. And students described how successful problem solvers access a wide range of resources, including textbooks, software tools, Internet resources, other people, representations of various types, as well as memory. One student explained:

“When you’re solving problems you always need to make sure that you have appropriate resources before you attempt to try and solve the problem.”

Previous studies have used stage models to describe a progressive development of beliefs about problem solving. In contrast, our conceptual model indicates that students’ beliefs depend on the contexts in which problems are encountered. Students in our study believed that the approaches they take to problem solving, as well as the resources that they access, are limited within the academic context, whereas the problems encountered in the “real world” can be solved using a variety of approaches that require accessing a wider range of resources.

Our prior work has demonstrated that students have difficulty solving open-ended problems requiring multiple decisions to reach a solution. In combination with the conceptual model from this study, our findings suggest that the types of problems students solve in their classes should be expanded. Students need to encounter early in their education problems that allow them to grapple with competing constraints, assumptions, and multiple solutions, even in introductory courses such as statics or thermodynamics. Some scaffolding will be needed to develop students’ abilities to solve these kinds of problems, but doing so will better prepare them both for the capstone design experience and engineering practice.


Nathan J. McNeill is an instructor in the University of Colorado, Boulder and Colorado Mesa University Mechanical Engineering Partnership Program; Elliot P. Douglas is associate professor in the Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences, University of Florida; Mirka Koro-Ljungberg is professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University; David J. Therriault is associate professor in the School of Human Development & Organizational Studies in Education, University of Florida; Ilana Krause is an undergraduate student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, University of Florida. This is excerpted from “Undergraduate Students’ Beliefs about Engineering Problem-solving” In the October, 2016 Journal of Engineering Education. (National Science Foundation grant DRL-0909976)




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Founded by Harvard University and MIT in 2012, edX is an online learning destination and MOOC provider, offering high-quality courses from the world’s best universities and institutions to learners everywhere. With NSF and Teagle Foundation support, Professor Louis Bucciarelli, MIT, has posted four Liberal Studies in Engineering modules on the edX Edge platform, which can be accessed here. ASEE hosts a number of case studies on this topic, a project also supported by Teagle. View them here.


Click here for all materials from the two-day meeting of engineering deans.




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