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ASEE Connections

December 2017




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The top chart presents doctoral enrollment for the past 10 years, highlighting an increase in doctoral engineering student enrollment that coincided with the Great Recession, which started in 2008. While enrollment increased from 2005-2008, there was a sharp increase in doctoral engineering enrollment from 2008–2010, from 59,445 to 67,351. The bottom chart shows doctoral enrollment of engineering disciplines that also showed a decrease in degrees awarded in 2008-2009. We suspect for some of these engineering disciplines, students were either delaying graduation due to poor job prospects during the Great Recession and/or they continued their doctoral studies due to an increase in state and federal research funding to universities in their engineering disciplines.

Source: The annual ASEE survey, Profiles of Engineering and Engineering Technology Colleges.





Historically, some medical researchers have altered viruses to make them more deadly as a means of figuring out how easily the germs can mutate and find ways to create stronger vaccines. But three years ago, following several mishaps, the federal government placed a moratorium on that type of research. In those incidents, as the New York Times reports, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention accidentally exposed workers to anthrax and sent a lethal flu virus to a lab that sought a benign strain. The National Institutes of Health also discovered 50-year-old vials of smallpox that had been left in a freezer and forgotten. But the NIH has now lifted the moratorium. Francis Collins, NIH director, told reporters that only a handful of facilities would qualify the conduct the research, the Washington Post says. Moreover, any research would first need to win the approval of a scientific panel that would determine if the benefits justify the risk, the Times explains. To meet that requirement, several criteria will have to be met: The panel will require researchers to prove their work will be conducted in a high-security lab; the pathogens to be altered must pose a major health threat; the research must produce insights helpful to humans; and researchers must show there’s no safer way to do the study. Critics gave mixed reactions to the new rule, the Times adds. While the creation of review panels was welcomed, one expert says he would prefer independent panels, not government ones. Another would like to see restrictions on what researchers could publish: “We want to keep some of this stuff on a need-to-know basis.”


President Trump unveiled his national security strategy this month, and the plan merged two themes from his successful 2016 election campaign: the need to place “America first” in conducting foreign policy, and an eagerness to downgrade the importance of climate change. As The Hill newspaper reports, Trump removed climate change from the list of security threats created by President Obama, his predecessor. Obama’s security blueprint mentioned climate at least a dozen times, the paper notes. Trump has in the past called climate change a hoax, and has also claimed efforts to mitigate it were a detriment to U.S. security and economics. He used that rationale earlier this year when he pulled the country out of the Paris climate accord. Trump’s plan instead calls for American “energy dominance,” The Hill says, and in his speech he boasted how he’s removed barriers to the production and use of fossil fuels. Michael Brune, Sierra Club executive director, told the paper: “Trump is not just ignoring science and public opinion about the dangers of the climate crisis, he’s ignoring American generals and the Pentagon about what it takes to keep our military and our country safe.” The Hill noted that Defense Secretary James Mattis has told senators he believes climate to be a security threat.





Not Always a Force for Good

By Debbie Chachra

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Thus did J. Robert Oppenheimer, quoting the Bhagavad Gita, register the enormity of the Trinity test, the first detonation of a nuclear weapon. It was a singular moment, when scientists and engineers unleashed something with globe-spanning repercussions for humanity. Oppenheimer grimly noted later that “physicists have known sin, and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.” In some ways, this marked the beginning of an erosion of the standing of scientists and engineers as an unalloyed force for good; with isotopes from nuclear testing appearing in species worldwide, it’s a striking example of how localized technologies can have a planetwide effect. Since then, our society has become increasingly aware that Earth is a finite volume to dissolve waste into, whether it’s carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or plastic in the oceans.

As the evidence of the human costs of engineering decisions has mounted, we’ve also become more aware of how these costs (and risks) are borne unequally, often by the people who benefit the least. The vaunted Victorian triumphs of infrastructural engineering, including London’s pioneering sewer system, were financed from public coffers filled with the spoils of empire, leaving the former colonies economically denuded. This past summer, one of these countries, Bangladesh, suffered through historic flooding that affected a third of the country. While it’s difficult to attribute specific events to anthropogenic climate change, it’s certainly a harbinger of the effect of rising sea levels on people who haven’t benefited at all from the fossil-fuel consumption—in part because of its low GDP, Bangladesh has one of the lowest rates of energy consumption per capita.

The past few decades have brought us global-scale communication systems in the form of the Internet, with new, unintended consequences at far remove from the creators and beneficiaries. As I write this, researchers have just announced new facial-recognition software that can identify individual faces even when they are covered by a scarf or a mask. A doctoral student who was one of the researchers behind the study has said that he was just thinking about criminals when he developed the software; he didn’t consider how this technology could be used by authoritarian states to identify protesters. Stories like this—a new technology that is likely to have disproportionately negative consequences for non-majority or underprivileged groups—seem to surface monthly.

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1992 novel, Red Mars, one of the characters describes a group of scientists: “[y]oung men and women, educated very carefully to be apolitical, to be technicians who thought they disliked politics, making them putty in the hands of their rulers, just like always.” Here in 2017, with the unintended but not unforeseeable consequences of technology all around us, we’ve lost the luxury of considering engineering education to be politically neutral. To be politically “neutral” means only that you are aligned with the status quo. We need to ask our students to at least begin to consider the larger social and environmental consequences of the technologies they are devising, whether it’s a smartphone app or a hydroelectric power plant. It’s not that they will be able to change everything about the world that they’re in, but if they aren’t thinking about these consequences—or worse, if they think that it’s not their responsibility to think about these larger contexts—it means the people who are perhaps most equipped to consider the impacts of novel technologies are recusing themselves from doing so. To help our students and graduates consider the context of their work means that we, as educators, need to recognize that nearly everything we teach has a social dimension, and we need to start addressing and presenting it as integral to the engineering content, not just siloed off in the odd “Engineering and Society” class. Our students will be building the world of the future; it’s our responsibility to help them think about the world they will be building.


Debbie Chachra is a professor of engineering at Olin College.




Poetic License

Sonnets, comics, and videos show that teaching creatively can foster students’ creativity along with conceptual knowledge—even in core courses like thermodynamics.

By Diana Bairaktarova and Michele Eodice

Over the past 50 years or more, creativity has moved from the narrow definition of “self-expression” to become a prominent concept in learning and teaching. Although many instructors avoid the risks associated with creative assignments and continue to evaluate students using traditional exams, essays, or lab reports, many others are attracted to contemporary views of creative ways of knowing and doing. Engineers have always approached problem solving with a creative energy, sometimes whether they know that or not. So in thinking about how best to develop future engineers, we advocate teaching creatively and teaching to foster creativity.

Thermodynamics is a foundational course in nearly every engineering program. In a traditional classroom, instructors focus on the analysis of thermodynamic energy systems and their application to real-world contexts. Because these complex systems can be difficult to understand, some instructors encourage students to tap into their creative side and translate thermodynamics into a language they can clearly understand. In this study, we assessed the effectiveness of developing a creative project to demonstrate the learning of a thermodynamics concept.

The project was introduced to more than 150 engineering students enrolled in a sophomore level, semester-long, introductory thermodynamics course. Each student submitted an entry, which was an original poem, short story, comic, short movie or video, or other format, that they believed epitomized an important course concept of their choosing. Then in a tournament-style contest, the creative products were presented and winners were chosen. The presentations were high-energy events in rhythms and rhymes, encompassing odes to thermodynamics, comics featuring Batman throwing a punch to demonstrate conservation of mass, and even a board game. The creative entries can be found at http://ouopentextbooks.org/thermodynamics.

Our study focused on the impact of developing a creative product (for example, a poem about the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics) on students’ performance on a final exam question related to the creative presentation topic. The results of the study show that the creative assignment made the learning process more visible and measured the learning of thermodynamics in a different way. Students indicated that participation in the contest helped clarify course concepts and increased their appreciation of the Laws of Thermodynamics and the engineering profession. The students also claimed the contest encouraged them to think about the concepts in novel ways and stimulated their creativity.

The study results provide evidence of the benefits of our creative project, suggesting that if students chose a creative medium to present thermodynamics concepts, they attained significantly better scores on the final exam. The full analysis of the data is included in our AEE article. Primarily, we are suggesting that designing assignments that encourage student creativity in learning engineering concepts can potentially strengthen their understanding of fundamental concepts. We recommend that instructors randomly assign students to specific concepts to ensure more diversity in terms of material coverage. We implemented the creative assignment in a traditional classroom, but instructors can assign it in both online and blended courses by utilizing the class website. The flexibility of this type of creative project, coupled with its ease of implementation, makes it an exciting assessment for educators and students in multiple topic areas, across disciplines or class formats.

We advocate for more instructors to value creativity as a way of knowing. Both of us try to teach creatively and also teach to foster creativity. What does that mean for preparing engineers? Solving the well-understood and ill-structured problems that make up the core of engineering thinking would be enhanced by showing an openness to creative approaches. Our time with students is limited, but we all share the goal of teaching them to become adept with diverse peoples and ideas, to collaborate, and to contribute more and better ideas through creative ways of knowing in engineering.


Diana Bairaktarova is an assistant professor in the department of engineering education at Virginia Tech and director of the Abilities, Creativity, and Ethics in Design Lab. Michele Eodice is the associate provost for academic engagement and director of the OU Writing Center at the University of Oklahoma. This article is excerpted from “Thermodynamics in High Rhythms and Rhymes: Creative Ways of Knowing in Engineering,” published in the fall 2017 Advances in Engineering Education. Bairaktarova and Eodice are also the editors of the book Creative Ways of Knowing in Engineering (Springer).




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COVER:   CYBER SCHOOL—Engineering schools are responding to exploding demand for cybersecurity specialists, but their approaches differ.

FEATURE: PARTNERING WITH VIETNAM—A California university trains an elite corps of chemical engineers in Hanoi.

FEATURE: ACADEMIC TOOLBOX—Tips of the trade on securing tenure.





The conference is scheduled for June 4-6, 2018, in Rochester, New York. The call for papers and workshops is  available on the conference website: www.capstoneconf.org/callforpapers. The deadline for papers and workshops is January 8, 2018. Submissions are welcome.



ASEE is co-hosting the First Annual CoNECD (Collaborative Network for Engineering and Computing Diversity - pronounced “connected”). Conference next April 29 to May 1. It will be a forum on enhancing diversity and inclusion of underrepresented groups in engineering and computing. CoNECD will encompass many diverse groups, including those based on gender (including gender identity and gender expression), race and ethnicity, disability, veterans, LGBTQ+, 1st generation and socio-economic status. It's a collaboration of ASEE's Minorities in Engineering and Women in Engineering divisions and several outside groups. ASEE members can submit an abstract here (login required.)


ASEE ED Norman Fortenberry presents rationale on a proposed reorganization of the ASEE Board of Directors. Watch a video and leave your feedback (ASEE member login required; Firefox works best.).


ASEE's free monthly newsletter for undergraduate and graduate students has resumed publication with a wide array of resources: scholarship and internship/co-op listings, student news and essays, podcasts, professional development resources (e.g., advice on how to get an internship and how to make the most of it), and academic advice - plus entertaining engineering videos. Tell your students! Click here to sign up. Click here to advertise. Send content to Jennifer Pocock at j.pocock@asee.org.


ASEE is offering two two-week courses in the spring of 2018 for researchers and innovators who want to take their STEM education vision to the next level. The application period is now open. For more information click here.


Filled with engaging features, gorgeous graphics, and useful information about engineering colleges and careers, the latest edition of ASEE's award-winning Engineering, Go For It is sure to get your students excited about learning - and doing - engineering!




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