ASEE First Bell – Breaking news in the engineering and technology field

Leading the News

Obama May Extend H-1B Tech-Visa Program By Executive Order.

The International Business Times  (10/14, McDougall) reports President Obama may use executive authority to make it easier for H-1B visa holders to remain in the country, prompting criticisms from Republicans that the program already costs too many American jobs. Senator Charles Grassley cited tech–industry layoffs increased 68% in the first half of 2014, calling for H-1B employers to prove no Americans could fill the position. Obama’s move is compared to Obama’s protection of migrant children. The piece closes on comments from Ron Hira, professor of public policy at Howard University, explaining US works “often do not have the first and legitimate shot at these jobs,” with employers capable of avoiding American hires easily.

ComputerWorld  (10/14, Thibodeau) focuses on Grassley, who would become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee if Republicans take the Senate through mid-term elections. ComputerWorld speculates that Obama’s actions “may be more about green card reforms than the H-1B program itself,” as Obama can’t raise the H-1B cap, but may be able to shorten the transition time between H-1B visas and green cards. Any changes are expected after elections in December.

Higher Education

Teams Set New Records For Silicon Quantum Computing.

R&D Magazine  (10/14, Lerner) reports two research teams at the University of New South Wales have found distinct solutions to the same challenge stifling quantum computing’s practicality; each group created a type of quantum bit processing data with an accuracy above 99%, using purified silcon-28 isotope. One team created an “artificial atom” qubit with a device highly similar to silicon transistors (MOSFETs) in many consumer electronics; the other advanced “natural” phosphorous qubits to store information for over 30 seconds, “an eternity in the quantum world” in the words of associate professor Andrea Morello, paving the way for more complex operations. Future quantum computers will consist of many thousands or millions of qubits, potentially utilizing both natural and artificial atoms.

Analysis: More For-Profit Colleges Fail 90/10 Rule If Veterans Benefits Are Included.

Inside Higher Ed  (10/13, Stratford) reports proposed reauthorizations to the Higher Education Act concerning veteran and active service-member benefits could increase the number of colleges to exceed the 90/10 cap on operating revenue generated from Federal student loans and grants last year. According to US Department of Education data, 29 for-profit colleges exceeded the cap last year, while veteran benefits’ inclusion toward the cap would push an additional 133 colleges over the limit, according to analysis by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Another 292 would come within 5% of the 90% threshold. The article closes on for-profit colleges’ argument that the metric is not meaningful and reduces student access; some veterans’ groups agree, while some student and consumer advocates see the veteran funding exemption as a loophole needing to be closed.

Coding Boot Camps Feed Industry Demand For Programmers.

The New York Times  (10/14, Lewin, Subscription Publication) reports on the increasing popularity and success of coding boot camps, depicted as “the vocational school for the digital age.” The financially-focused piece highlights the programs’ flexibility in meeting industry demands as well as their short duration and high returns, with most taking a percentage of first-year income rather than traditional tuition. Multiple students are interviewed concerning their experiences with them. While the article includes the skepticism of some employers, it also features positive feedback from major companies, many of whom have partnered with coding academies.

Education Policy Analyst: College Completion Is The Best Default Aversion.

Clare McCann, an education policy analyst at the New America Foundation, argues in the pundits blog of The Hill  (10/14, McCann) that completing college may be the best way to avoid defaulting on student loans, according to NAF analysis of the Department of Education’s “Beginning Postsecondary Students” survey. McCann states the analysis found over 60% of those to beginning school in 2003-04 to default on student loans six years later did not have a degree. Of all dropouts, one in four were unemployed in 2009, or twice the rate of those with bachelor’s degrees. The piece closes on the fact that 88% of those to graduate and default held only certificates, arguing colleges offering “low-value certificate programs…are doing the borrowers at their schools a disservice.”

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Research and Development

Scientists Increasingly Use Term “Anthropocene” For Current Epoch.

The AP  (10/14, Borenstein) reports that because of all the changes to Earth tied to human activity, “many scientists” are describing the current period as the “Anthropocene — the age of humans.” John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for science, who was part of last week’s “Living in the Anthropocene” symposium hosted by the Smithsonian, said, “We’re changing the Earth. There is no question about that, I’ve seen it from space.” The article notes that there is a growing movement to adopt the term, with 500 studies this year referring to the period as such.

Flexible Robots Could Have Applications At The ISS, Mars.

SPACE  (10/10, Wall) reported that during a Future In-Space Operations working group back in April, Ian Walker of Clemson University discussed how flexible robots that could adapt their shapes to the environment could have applications at the at the ISS or at Mars. For instance, they could inspect damage outside of the ISS or go into crevices on the moon or Mars. According to Walker, flexible robots have “a bright future” that could be possible in as little as a decade.

U-M Shares In $10.8M Research Grant Involving Mobile Health Sensor.

MLive  (10/10, Allen) reported that the University of Michigan will share a $10.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health “in an effort to develop tools to gather, analyze and interpret health data generated by mobile and wearable sensors.” A group of a dozen centers will work together to make “reliable and actionable health information” come from wearable sensors.

Industry News

Venture Capitalists Again Investing In Science Start-Ups.

The New York Times  (10/13, Tabuchi, Subscription Publication) reported that Silicon Valley venture capitalists, “after years of shying away from science, engineering and clean-technology start-ups,” are investing billions, although still much less than what they are investing in web and mobile service companies. According to the article, venture capitalists are still worried about going through another “clean-tech boom and bust” cycle when most companies they invested in failed. Furthermore, companies looking for money are “pressured from the beginning” to focus on ways to make a profit. For instance, the article noted that XCOR Aerospace had to delay its suborbital spacecraft development plans for a time to make money through building “rocket-engine igniters to sell to NASA and aerospace companies.”

Engineering and Public Policy

NASA Needed Waiver For Upcoming Orion Launch.

Space News  (10/10, Foust, Subscription Publication) reported that the first launch of the Orion spacecraft in December will require “an unusually complex regulatory environment, including the use of commercial launch and re-entry licenses and risk levels several times higher than normally allowed.” Paul Wilde, technical adviser in the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, said, “It’s very complex from a technical and regulatory standpoint. … This is not a NASA mission per se in that NASA does not conduct the mission, but NASA pays for the data.” While the risk is higher than typically allowed, Wilde said, “It was really not possible to modify the mission to reduce the risks any further with the objective of the mission being to achieve as high a speed of re-entry as possible.” The article noted that NASA was also granted a waiver for the casualty limit because of “the U.S. government’s experience in safely launching missions with even higher expected casualty risk levels.”

Orion Requirements Manager Profiled. The Canton (OH) Repository  (10/12, Sautters) profiled Leah McIntyre, an engineer at the Glenn Research Center, requirements and processes manager for the Orion Payload Module. According to the article, McIntyre does think “about the consequences of her work if it fails,” noting, “I do think about it, but there are so many checks and balances along the way. We work on these projects for years and know them inside and out. I don’t take my work lightly. There is some risk.”

Blog Coverage. Jason Torchinsky at Jalopnik  (10/10) wrote that it is “pretty remarkable” that NASA’s Exploration Augmentation Module, “a repurposed automated cargo craft designed to dock to Orion to add more space, consumables, an airlock and more,” is very similar to an idea he wrote about last December. While he does not think he was directly responsible for NASA developing the module because the concept probably pre-dated his article, he is “pretty excited” that the agency is working on it, proving his idea was not “idiotic.”

Demand For Sand Used In Fracking Rising Sharply.

McClatchy  (10/14, Cockerham, Subscription Publication) reports that the fracking boom has created tremendous demand for sand used in the process, “creating a windfall for mines from Texas to Wisconsin but leading to worries about the health impacts of breathing silica dust.” One group of specialists estimate that drillers will use about 95 billion pounds of “frac sand” in 2014, up 30% from 2013. The rising demand could see new mines open around the nation.

Michigan Could See $15 Billion Spent On Carbon Emission Reduction.

The Detroit Free Press  (10/12, Gallagher) reported that CEO of DTE Energy Gerard Anderson estimates $15 billion will be spent on new energy projects in Michigan to properly respond to the EPA’s clean air regulations requiring the state to reduce emissions by 31%. The investments will lead to more jobs in construction of new plants, but Anderson and other industry experts have called on the EPA to extend the timeline for the 31% reduction. Soren Anderson, Professor of Economics at Michigan State University, proposed three alternatives to reduce emissions: make existing plants more efficient, upgrade older plants, and expanding renewable energy.

Elementary/Secondary Education

New York State’s Push For More Technology In Classrooms Fuels Debate.

The Long Island (NY) Press  (10/13, Franchi) reports the Smart Schools Commission called for the $2 billion Smart Schools Bond Act to be put toward faster and more widespread broadband services for all New York state schools, with other recommendations for web-based preparation software and hardware such as laptops and tablets. The article overviews the debate over how funding should be spent before devoting the rest of its attention to Front Row’s free educational gaming software, which inspires students to compete against each other with a leaderboard while reducing lecture time and providing teachers valuable performance data. The piece features criticisms that the app is replacing important conversations between students and teachers, that competition may discourage sensitive students, and that it promotes hasty work without paper calculations.

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