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ASEE Connections

June 2018




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In this month’s databyte we look at the change of female undergraduate full-time enrollment in engineering schools in 2017 across the United States (including Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico). Most states have a larger female percentage than in 2016; the average is 22 percent and the average percentage increase is around 3 percent. Interestingly, among the top five states with the biggest percentage increases, two of them have a female undergraduate in engineering percentage that is below average. ASEE didn’t collect female undergraduate information from schools in Vermont in 2017, hence it is shown as dark grey.

Figure 1.

Figure 2.




As shown in Figure 1, states with the most females enrolled in engineering programs as a total percentage of all students enrolled in an engineering program are clustered along the east and west coasts. As shown in Figure 2, states with the largest percent increase in females enrolled in an engineering program are scattered throughout the country.



Table 1. U.S. Female Undergraduate Full-time Enrollment, 2017





II. Is Your University Working on Projects That Involve Model-Based Development and Mechatronics?
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The demand for mechatronics engineers is huge across the global manufacturing market. Today’s modern world offers a broad range of products that incorporate software and electronics components, making mechatronic product development a hot commodity.

Most technology-based universities now offer degrees in mechatronics engineering. These programs embrace application projects that fuse mechanical, electronic, computer, systems and control engineering disciplines.

Some examples of the kinds of mechatronic projects engineering students are working on right now at universities around the globe include: Components for hybrid and electric vehicles, robotic systems, driver assistance systems, green technology, electric motors and drives, medical devices, etc.

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Artificial intelligence, online Russian propaganda, autonomous vehicles, gene-editing, virtual reality—these a just a few of the technical issues now regularly before Congress. Many members admit that their own knowledge of science and technology is limited. As the Washington Post recently reported, that ignorance was on display in April, when lawmakers questioned Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, over the site’s failure to protect the personal information of 2 billion users. But a handful of Democratic House members have so far failed in their attempt to relaunch the Office of Technology Assessment, a congressional think tank originally created to give members objective advice on all things science. It lost its funding in 1995, the Post notes, when GOP members balked at continuing to support the office, claiming it was too costly and liberally biased. At its peak in that decade, the OTA had a $20 million budget and a staff of 140 science and tech experts. The effort to resurrect the tech-policy shop has gained the support of 40 House Democrats, but no Republicans. Voting 217-195, the House June 8 rejected an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have revived OTA. Sponsors have, however, taken one small step forward: one of the budget bills would fund a study to determine if a new OTA would be a useful investment, the paper says. Nevertheless, the Post indicates many Republicans remain skeptical. It quotes Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chairman of the Commerce Committee as saying: “I wholly agree that Congress can better its game on technology issues, but initiative, much more than resources or a dedicated office, is the biggest factor limiting expertise.”



In a lengthy analytical piece, the New York Times this month writes that one big change that differentiates the Trump White House from its predecessors is “the marginalization of science in shaping United States policy.” The article notes that President Trump is the first Oval Office occupant since 1941 to not have named a science advisor to counsel him on complex technical issues, ranging from nuclear weapons to global pandemics. It then ticks off examples at many federal agencies where science has been sidelined. There is now no chief scientist at either the State Department or the Department of Agriculture, though both agencies often grapple with knotty scientific issues. The Interior Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have shut down climate-change advisory panels, while the Food and Drug Administration shuttered a committee that provided guidance on food safety. Scott Pruitt, the embattled head of the Environmental Protection Agency, has proposed a regulation that would limit the kinds of research the EPA can use to write public-health policies. Pruitt’s rules would not allow the agency to use studies that don’t use data that’s publicly available. Much health research relies on confidential data from individuals. Pruitt has also altered two EPA science panels by limiting the number of academic researchers they can use, while including scientists from industries the EPA regulates. The White House declined to comment on suggestions that science was taking a backseat in policymaking in the Trump administration, the paper said.





A Canadian company has invented a technology to make potentially cost-competitive liquid fuels—including gasoline, diesel and jet fuel—from carbon dioxide it sucks from the atmosphere, National Geographic reports. Carbon Engineering’s founder is David Keith, a professor of applied physics at Harvard University. He says the technology isn’t so much a breakthrough as the result of combining a budget of $30 million with eight years of engineering and a “million little details” to prefect the process, the magazine says. Capturing CO2 from the atmosphere isn’t new science, but previous efforts cost around $600 per ton—way too expensive to produce an affordable commodity. Carbon Engineering got the cost down to $100 per ton at a pilot plant in British Columbia that’s been operating for three years. A recent paper it published says a full-scale plant could capture a million tons of carbon a year. But even at $100 per ton, the company realized that the sequestered CO2 wouldn’t find too many buyers. So it developed a way to make fuel by combining the carbon with hydrogen made from the electrolysis of water. To be sure, electrolysis requires a lot of electricity, NatGeo says, but the pilot plant gets its power from a nearby renewable hydro plant. The synthetic fuel can be burned on its own or blended with other fuels, and when it burns it emits an amount of carbon equal to what was used to make it, so it’s carbon neutral. The fuel now costs more than a barrel of oil, but it’s competitive in areas that place a cost on carbon of $200 a ton like California, with its Low Carbon Fuel Standard. The company is now building a larger plant that can produce 200 barrels of fuel a day, and is keen to license its technology, the magazine says.


Ever walk into a supermarket aisle where products that need to be kept chilled are on display and you felt so cold that you wished you had worn a jacket or sweater? “Cold Aisle Syndrome” is caused by the cold air emitted from open-display fridges. One British study found that the average temperature in a chiller aisle is around a frosty 51°F. But now a UK company, Aerofoil Energy, has put to use technology licensed from Williams Advanced Engineering, the in-house tech shop for the successful Formula 1 racecar team, to develop profiled strips that keep much of the cold air inside chillers from leaking into aisles. It claims that the temperature in aisles where the technology is used is a much warmer 64.5°. Beyond making shoppers more comfortable, Aerofoil says, the technology can reduce energy used to keep milk, butter and other chilled products cool. In the UK, it’s estimated that 40 percent of energy used by supermarkets and convenience stores goes to keeping chillers running, and Aerofoil claims its in-store tests show that the strips can produce energy savings of 15 percent to 18 percent. The Aerofoil strips were derived from engineering designs Williams uses to make their F1 cars more aerodynamic. One of the UK’s main supermarket chains, Sainsbury’s, plans to used the technology in all of its 1,400 stores by retrofitting existing fridges, according to the Manchester Evening News, and all new chillers it installs will be fitted with the technology. Meanwhile, Aerofoil’s aerodynamic, shelf-edge technology is up for this year’s MacRobert Award, the UK’s most prestigious engineering innovation prize.





For engineers, returning to school to pursue a doctorate comes at a cost.

By Erika A. Mosyjowski, Shanna R. Daly, Diane L. Peters, Steven J. Skerlos and Adam B. Baker

Engineering professionals who return for advanced study after significant time in the workforce are an often overlooked group that can provide diverse perspectives and experiences within engineering programs. In our study, we focused on those who returned for an engineering Ph.D. and potential factors that could shape their decisions to pursue and persist in doctoral study. We examined how returners’ perspectives compared with those of direct-pathway students who pursue an engineering doctorate shortly after completing their undergraduate degree.

Returners begin their doctoral studies with exposure to real-world engineering problems and problem-solving approaches they can draw on. Studies of returning adult students in engineering and other disciplines also suggest these students may be highly motivated, goal-oriented, and well situated to apply their academic work more directly to other contexts. Further, the possibility of integrating experiences from professional and academic engineering contexts can be fertile ground for innovation.

However, little is currently known about engineering returners at the doctoral level. Why do they decide to pursue Ph.D.’s? What barriers might they face in completing their degrees? Do their experiences in their programs differ from their direct-pathway peers? To examine these questions, we drew on Eccles’s expectancy-value theory, which posits that individuals’ achievement-related choices (such as pursuing or remaining in doctoral studies) are motivated by beliefs that they will succeed in their pursuits of this choice, as well as the values they associate with it. Eccles identifies four primary types of values: personal interest/enjoyment, utility, fulfillment of identity-related goals or needs, and the relative cost of pursuing a particular choice.

Recently, though, there have been calls to conceptualize cost as a distinct element of an individual’s decision making.

Our team developed the Graduate Student Experiences and Motivations Survey (GSEMS), which includes questions on students’ personal and academic characteristics; decision to pursue a Ph.D.; and the costs, values, and expectancy of success related to pursuing a Ph.D. Our sample comprised 476 domestic U.S. returning and direct-pathway engineering doctoral students. We explored factors related to students’ expectancy of success prior to enrolling and at the time of the survey using ordinal logistic regressions. We then conducted exploratory factor analyses on scales of students’ perceived values and costs. We used the resulting three value and three cost factors as our dependent outcomes in six regression analyses of the characteristics and experiences related to students’ perceived values and costs associated with pursuing an engineering Ph.D., including their returner status. Our value scale factored in a way that was consistent with Eccles’s original value types (aside from cost), while our cost scale analyses suggested three emergent dimensions: financial, academic, and work/life balance.

Our analyses suggest that while there were no significant differences in returners’ and direct-pathway students’ expectancy of success at the time of the survey, returners’ retrospective assessment of their expectancy of success prior to enrolling was significantly lower. There were no significant differences between the two groups related to the perceived values associated with pursuing a Ph.D. Most notably, however, returners reported significantly higher perceived academic, financial, and work/life balance costs than did their direct-pathway peers.

It is possible that lower pre-Ph.D. expectancy of success and higher perceived costs could negatively shape returners’ decisions to enroll and persist in engineering doctoral programs. In light of this, we recommend that universities track returner status to better understand these students and target interventions to better support their success, potentially broadening the types of pathways available through advanced degree programs in engineering. We also suggest that universities consider the ways existing resources, such as targeted advising, funding opportunities, wellness programs, and childcare services, might be strategically leveraged to support returning students. Additionally, we invite universities to consider other programs, such as a returning student organization, that may be able to help ease returners’ transition back into academia.


Erika A. Mosyjowski is a Ph.D. candidate in higher education at the University of Michigan, where Shanna R. Daly is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and engineering education. Diane L. Peters is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Kettering University. Steven J. Skerlos is an Arthur F. Thurnau professor of mechanical engineering and civil and environmental engineering at the University of Michigan. Adam B. Baker is a research analyst at Texas State University. This article is based on “Engineering Ph.D. Returners and Direct-Pathway Students: Comparing Expectancy, Value, and Cost” in the October 2017 issue of the Journal of Engineering Education. This work was supported by National Science Foundation award EEC-1159345.




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A new study by the National Academies reports that the academic workforce is second only to the military in its rate of sexual harassment. It also cites a survey that found that more than a quarter of female engineering students “experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff.” On June 25, during ASEE’s Annual Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, several members of the committee that prepared the report will hold a panel discussion on its findings and recommendations.




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