Archive for the ‘Global’ Category

Water for People

Getting clean water is a huge issue for billions of people each day. This is a well known issue that engineers and others have attempted to address. While much has been done, much is left to be done. Such a large and critical issue requires many people to help implement and maintain solutions.

Related: Water, sanitation and hygiene links to healthThe PlayPump SystemHigh School Inventor Teams @ MITEngineering a Better World – Water and Electricity for All

Scientists Close to Creating Artificial Human Brain

Model of Human Brain

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Scientists in Switzerland believe they are on the cusp of creating the first, fully functional, artificial human brain. The Blue Brain Project was launched in 2005 by a group of scientists in Switzerland who hope to “reverse engineer” the human brain.

So far the Blue Brain Project has already successfully simulated the elements of a rat brain, however Henry Markram, director of the Blue Brain Project, is confident that his team should now focus all their attention on the human brain, as opposed to recreating the brains of other animals. “It is not impossible to build a human brain and we can do it in 10 years,” exclaimed Markram.

Markram and other scientists have focused on the neocortex of the brain. The neocortex is made up of thousands of neurons which contribute to the higher functions of the brain, such as communication, sensory perception, reasoning, and motor skills.

The project now has a software model of “tens of thousands” of neurons – each one of which is different – which has allowed them to digitally construct an artificial neocortical column. Although each neuron is unique, the team has found the patterns of circuitry in different brains have common patterns.

“Even though your brain may be smaller, bigger, may have different morphologies of neurons – we do actually share the same fabric,” [Markram] said. “And we think this is species specific, which could explain why we can’t communicate across species.”

To recreate the human brain model, Markram and his team use the IBM Blue Gene Machine, which has 10,000 processors (one processors for each neuron of the brain).

Closing the Gap for Good

New research shows that gender disparity in math skills is due to culture, not biology

Photo courtesy of

For as long as girls and boys have been attending co-ed schools, there has been a perceived gender gap in mathematical abilities that has seemingly led to a deficit in the number of women who will go on to study higher levels of math and to pursue careers in mathematically-related fields. This has always been attributed to an innate biological tendency of men to have the capacity to excel at mathematical reasoning, a tendency that was assumed to be lacking in women. However, a recent report from researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison proposes that the reasons for this disparity are in fact purely cultural, suggesting that it may be possible for our society to lessen or even close the gap completely.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Janet Mertz and Janet Hyde, two Wisconsin professors, were puzzled by the fact that a gender disparity in math skills is not present in certain countries and cultures, particularly those in which a large degree of gender equality exists. In analyzing data from various tests and studies of male and female students at various educational levels, �the Wisconsin researchers document a pattern of performance that strongly suggests that the root of gender disparity in math can be pegged to changeable sociocultural factors. Such factors either discourage or encourage girls and young women in the pursuit of the skills required to master the mathematical sciences.� In other words, society is the cause for any and all disparities in skill level, and the commonly held belief that women are less capable in mathematics is a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Much of the evidence for the argument that boys are naturally inclined to be better at math stems from past studies that show greater variability in the skill levels of males, meaning that they are more likely to exhibit extremely high or extremely low skill levels in the subject. However, Mertz and Hyde prove in their research that this is not the case in some countries, several of which can boast of girls scoring in the 99th percentile in math skills at the same rate that boys do.

In the United States, girls are now performing on par with boys at all levels of math and are just as likely to choose advanced math classes in high school. Moreover, the gap is narrowing between the number of mathematically gifted boys and girls, suggesting that we are perhaps moving closer to achieving the results of those countries with a higher measure of gender equality. The number of female doctoral-level mathematics students has climbed to 30% from 5% in 1950, most likely a result of changing perceptions of the role of women in mathematical and scientific research.

Though hopeful, these results appear dim in comparison to statistics regarding gender disparities as well as overall mathematical skill level in other countries, particularly those of East Asia. Here, girls consistently reach the gifted level just as often as boys do, and both sexes exhibit median scores that are higher than those of the top ten percent of US students. In their report, Mertz and Hyde emphasized that �the future of the U.S. economy depends upon American society doing a better job of identifying and nurturing mathematically talented youth, regardless of gender, race or ethnicity.� Leaving women out of the equation will have devastating effects on the growth and development of the United States and will severely hinder our efforts at achieving global economic competitiveness with those countries which foster mathematical abilities in all their students.

For more information on this research, check out the article Culture, Not Biology, Underpins Math Gender Gap at

Related: Looking For Science And Engineering Talent In All The Right PlacesEnhancing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education Act of 2008Senator Proposes Free College Tuition for Math and Science Majors Fun k-12 Science and Engineering Learning

Going Polar

Scientists Bundle Up and Come Together to Study Climate Change

Robotic mini submarines and seals sporting electronic tags may sound like images straight out of a science fiction film, but these are just two of the many projects completed by scientists as part of the 2007 International Polar Year. This collaborative project, which actually spans two years and covers two full annual cycles of both the Arctic and Antarctic regions, incorporates the work of thousands of scientists from over 60 nations and focuses on the study of the biological, physical and social effects of climate change on the polar regions.

Photo courtesy of Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Photo courtesy of Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

The diverse array of projects focus on atmosphere, ice, land, oceans, people, and space, as well as the way in which these individual areas of study relate to global warming and to each other. In one experiment, a small submarine was sent on an undersea mission to track changes in ocean temperature and their effect on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, a 2.2 million kilometer sheet of glacial ice that covers the western part of Antarctica. In another study, elephant seals were unknowingly given a mission of their own – they were equipped with special tags used to study their habits as well as to aid in climatic field research.

The main goal of IPY is to draw attention to the urgency of climate change by demonstrating its effects on the environment as well as on society. These consequences are both direct (as in the decomposition of permafrost in the northern hemisphere) and indirect (as in changes to the food systems of inhabitants of Arctic communities), but all are drastically important to the functioning of our planet as whole in addition to that of its polar regions.

The 2007 IPY, which was the fourth of its kind, finished up in the spring of 2009. For more information, check out the International Polar Year web site.

Read: Remote Environmental Monitoring Units: Mapping the Bottom of Sandy Hook Bay, Underwater Robot Competition Generating Interest Among Students, Geoengineering is Cool!

2Million Minutes: Documentary Film looks at how the American Education System is Preparing Students to Compete in a Global Society

Last week representatives from Drexel University were able to join ASEE for a brown bag luncheon seminar in which they discussed their outreach efforts to K-12 students and the global engineering community. When discussing their ENGR 280: Introduction to Global Engineering they mentioned briefly a film they show students in the class. The film, 2 Million Minuets is a documentary that follows 6 high school students, two in the United States, two in China and two in India through the two million minutes they spend in high school. The main intention of the film is to show how students in each society use this time to prepare themselves for the future. The resulting documentary depicts the American education system as “broken” and shows top American high school students as slackers in comparison to their global peers.

However, the portrayal of students in this film is stereotypical. The American honor student is a pretty blond who wants to join a sorority in college, while the Chinese student wears an over sized sweater and is shown diligently practicing violin. The students are not representative of all American, Chinese and Indian students in the world but rather examples carefully picked to make a point. Yet, even if the film had fewer extremes the message is clear, the American education system lets students off easy and as a result they are not as well prepared to compete with in a global society.

The video above is only a trailer (and as much as I dislike over-dramatized trailers) I could not find the whole length film online. The film is out on video and a DVD can be ordered on the 2 Million Minutes website.

The PlayPump System

Perhaps you noticed that a merry-go-round spins like a motor, except instead of electricity, children provide the torque needed to make it turn. However, unlike a regular motor (which often operate at peak efficiencies of about 20-30%), the merry-go-round is 100% inefficient (in a mechanical sense). Why not harness the power the merry-go-round produces? After all, it’s as close to a free, renewable and waste free energy source as you can get.

Engineers realized this untapped energy source by creating The PlayPump, a simple machine powered by kids at play. The Playpump propels water up from under ground into a water storage system that then provides the children’s community access to clean water. Sustained access to clean drinking water creates a ripple effect that can potentially lead to improvements in other areas of the community, like education, health care and economic development.

* A child dies every 15 seconds from diseases related to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene.
* 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water.
* 40 billion hours each year are spent collecting water in sub-Saharan Africa, equal to over 19 million full-time employees.
* Every $1 invested in water yields an economic return worth $8 in saved time, increased productivity and reduced healthcare costs. (UNDP)
* In many areas of sub-Saharan Africa women and girls often walk an average of five miles to the nearest water source every day. If a woman only had to carry water for one hour a day, she could earn an additional US $100 a year.

Related: via Curious Cat: Water and Electricity for All, Engineering a Better World, Engineers Without Borders

UT-Austin Students Collaborate With Indian Counterparts on Third World E-learning

Engineering Students at the University of Texas at Austin recently worked with students at a university in southwest India on the already well known One Laptop per Child program. Five Seniors in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering (ECE) at UT-Austin collaborated together in two teams with five students at Amrita University in developing a prototypical solar charger for the computer, along with power management software, and in developing a low bandwidth e-learning system for delivering lectures to students in remote areas. The e-learning system will continue to be worked on in the coming year by a new team, while students who participated in the program last year credit it with helping improve communication and teamwork skills.

The senior design sequence is designed to help ensure that students graduating with an ECE degree are adequately prepared to enter an international workforce and become part of teams working on complex projects. This two-semester sequence teaches students skills such as risk and project management and allows them to explore professional-grade tools for capturing their designs and supporting the collaboration. In addition to the multi-institutional option, senior design projects can also be multi-disciplinary, leading, for example, to teams that blend EE and mechanical engineering students.

During the pilot offering of the multi-institutional senior design option, five students at UT and five students at Amrita University in southwest India divided into two cross-institutional teams. Both teams targeted the One Laptop Per Child platform. One team developed the prototype for a solar charger with power management software. The other team developed the prototype of a low-bandwidth e-learning system designed to deliver lectures to remote locations in third-world countries. A new multi-institutional team will continue work on the e-learning system during the 2008-2009 academic year. A participant in the pilot offering reports, “This project taught me how to deal with an international team. Dealing with the cultural, lingual, and time differences made me more confident and improved my communication skills. We got to know the people in India and became a wonderful team with great spirit and enthusiasm.”

Engineering Ethics 101

The decisions engineers make today, what technology they create and how they use those technologies will have far reaching implications for the future. The New York Times recently focused on the importance of ethical engineering in the article, Handle With Care, which highlighted the roles engineers play in solving environmental problems and creating them. The need for public awareness and increased ethical education and standards in science and engineering is also accentuated in the article.

UW-Madison engineering students improve Ecuador water quality

An article recently appeared in the UW-Madison news featuring three civil and environmental engineering students from the University who where able to turn their senior design capstone project into a chance to create a new water pipe-line in Ecuador. These students, Jonathan Blanchard, Kevin Orner and David Tengler designed and implemented the water system after being inspired by their professor, Peter Bosscher. Bosscher had begun work on the pipe-line with UW-Madison Center for Global Health, but passed the project on to his students after being diagnosed with Kidney cancer. Although Bosscher lost his battle to the cancer, his memory will live on in the completed water-system. He was truly a role model to the students who he worked with, motivating them to think about the gloabl implications effective engineering solutions can have.

Related: Going Global in Engineering Education

Nuclear Engineering At Home

France plainly accused Iran today
of pursuing a nuclear program that can only be intended for military purposes, just two days after Iran said it had resumed enrichment for civilian purposes. As global tensions soar over nuclear development, the United States needs to focus on its own nuclear program, ensuring that it is as safe and productive as possible. At home, from threats abroad, worries of global warming, to increased gas prices, recent trends are bringing nuclear power to the energy forefront. And on campus, students are flocking back to nuclear engineering programs.

The public is gradually recognizing nuclear’s potential to mitigate global warming, and that shift has made an impact on students’ career choices. “Students are amazingly sensitive to the overall ethos and opinions of society,” says Ian Hutchinson, chair of the nuclear science and engineering department at MIT. “They’re the first to react.” He adds that the bursting of the Internet bubble in 2000 played a part as well. “Students realized that life is broader than computer science, and this was particularly important for people who had skills and interests in mathematically based sciences.” Read more about the latest trends in nuclear engineering in the U.S. in PRISM.

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