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

Leading the News

Penn State Discloses Intrusion Of Engineering Computers By Chinese Hackers.

Bloomberg News  (5/16, Riley) reports that Penn State University disclosed Friday “that Chinese hackers have been sifting through the computers of its engineering school for more than two years,” a revelation that Bloomberg says “suggests that foreign spies could be using universities as a backdoor to U.S. commercial and defense secrets,” as Penn State also develops “sensitive technology for the U.S. Navy.”

The Hill  (5/18, Viebeck) notes that Penn State’s disclosure follows an alert to unusual activity sent to the school by the FBI in November. “The subsequent investigation revealed that two groups of hackers had been inside the school’s networks — one linked to the Chinese government, one likely state-sponsored,” The Hill says. Penn State President Eric Barron wrote in a letter to faculty and students that, “this was an advanced attack against our College of Engineering by very sophisticated threat actors.” The Hill notes that the university has hired a top cybersecurity firm to investigate the attack.

The Wall Street Journal  (5/16, Schwartz, Subscription Publication), the Miami Herald  (5/18, Falce), and Reuters  (5/15, Kumar) also reports on this story.

Higher Education

University Of Vermont Begins STEM Building Construction.

The AP  (5/17) reports that the University of Vermont has started construction of a $104 million STEM facility that will host two buildings for classrooms, science labs, and meetings. The project is UVM’s largest capital expenditure in its history. UVM President Tom Sullivan is paraphrased calling the project “transformative,” and Governor Peter Shumlin expressed his gratitude that the project was made a priority. UVM hopes to grow its STEM majors by 50 percent over 10 years.

ED Releases New Rules On Student Debit Cards.

The Washington Post  (5/15, Douglas-Gabriel) reports that ED issued new rules on Friday that would stop colleges from forcing student borrowers to have federal loans and grants “dispersed on prepaid or debit cards that charge fees for overdrawing the accounts.” According to the Post, these cards allow schools to disburse money left over after tuition and fees are paid, and often schools outsource the processing of this money “to banks and other financial firms in exchange for millions of dollars in contracts.” The new rules would disallow overdraft fees for these accounts. Consumer Bankers Association President Richard Hunt said that the rules “will ultimately be paid for by students,” while US Public Interest Research Group advocate Chris Lindstrom said “students on campus are exposed to tactics that don’t exist in the larger banking marketplace.” The Education Department, said Lindstrom, “just drew a very clear line in the sand.” The Post notes that U.S. Bank holds less than a 10-percent share in the campus card market. The Post quotes Under Secretary Ted Mitchell saying, “Students should be able to choose to receive deposits to their own checking accounts and not be forced to utilize debit cards with obscure and unreasonable fees. Students need objective, neutral information about their account options.”

California Assembly Passes Bill Helping Corinthian College Students.

The AP  (5/15) reports that the California State Assembly passed a bill Thursday that will provide community college fee waivers for 13,000 California students hit by the “sudden closure” of Corinthian Colleges as well as money for colleges that receive them as transfers. The ED fined the system $30 million in April for misrepresentation, leading to the closure of 28 campuses. The bill also gives $100 in legal aid to students that seek to have their student debt erased and will restore $10 million in Cal Grant funding for Heald College students.

Attorney Generals Request Information From Secretary Duncan. Legal Newsline  (5/17) reports that 11 state attorney generals requested more information for former Corinthian College students from Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a letter Wednesday. Students may have their student loans forgiven, according to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, but would lose their right to reimbursement if they transfer credits to another school. The letter calls on the ED to inform students of the tradeoff and mail loan forgiveness applications to students themselves.

College Students Build Solid Fuel Rockets For Competition.

The Houston Chronicle  (5/15, Criscione) reported Northwest Indian College students have built “high-powered, solid-fuel rockets that compete against some of the best colleges in the country.” What’s more, as the students “attend more competitions, the program they started for fun has propelled them to opportunities uncommon for a college of its size.”

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Research and Development

Military Develops Emergency Robots, Bringing Weaponization Fears.

In a 1,586-word article about an upcoming Robotics Conference organized by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Washington Post  (5/17, Davenport) explains “the Pentagon’s band of mad scientists…has invested nearly $100 million into developing robots that could head into disaster zones off limits to humans.” The Post adds, however, that “some fear that the technological advancements in weapons systems are outpacing the policy that should guide their use.”

ORNL Researchers Pushing Boundaries Of Facial Analysis.

The Knoxville (TN) News Sentinel  (5/17, Munger) reported that “Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers are pushing the boundaries of facial analysis, using 3-D face scans to provide a broadly accurate tool for determining such things as a person’s age, race and gender.” ORNL engineer Ryan Tokola, who is “scheduled to present some of the preliminary findings next week at the International Conference on Biometrics in Thailand,” stated: “We’re not doing anything that nobody’s done before, but we’re making it a lot easier to do a bunch of things that people have done before. We want to show there’s a set of features that work very well for a number of biometric problems.”

National Laboratory Director Advocates Physics Research.

In a column in the Tri-City Herald (WA)  (5/17), Steve Ashby, director of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, claims that physics research “seeks to answer some of humankind’s most fundamental questions,” and details research into fields such as dark matter and cyclotron radiation. He argues that the investigations matter because they “give evidence of new physics” that can “help us understand the origins of the universe” or help create tools for national security, such as trafficking of nuclear material.


Report: Asians Underrepresented In Tech Sector Management.

NPR’s All Things Considered  (5/18) broadcast that a New York-based Asian-American professional organization called Ascend has released a report showing that there is a disproportionately low number of Asian-Americans in management and executive positions at “five large, established tech companies,” even though the group is “well-represented in lower-level positions.” Ascend reported that “although 27 percent of professionals working at those companies are Asian or Asian-American, fewer than 19 percent of managers, and just under 14 percent of executives, are.” The remainder of this segment can be heard here  (5/18) and a text version can be seen here  (5/17).

Global Developments

Panama Canal Expansion To Double Its Capacity.

TIME  (5/15, Vick) reports on the $5.25 billion expansion project that is forecast to double the Panama canal’s capacity by increasing the size of container ship that can pass through its locks. Originally, the maximum width a ship could be to pass through the locks was 106 feet, but after “accepting control of the canal from the US in 2000, Panamanian officials surveyed shipbuilders’ intentions and glimpsed a future that spelled the canal’s obsolescence.” After its retrofit, expected to be completed in early 2016, the canal will be able to handle container ships that are 160 feet wide and 1,200 feet long.

Pakistani Students Shine At Intel Sponsored Talent Fair.

The Pakistan Observer  (5/18) reports that Canadian Raymond Wang landed in “first place for engineering a new air inlet system for airplane cabins to improve air quality and curb disease transmission at this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, a program of Society for Science & the Public.” Pakistani student Habab Idress placed third the Physical Energy category and received an “honorable mention from the US Agency for International Development for the project ‘Multi-Purpose Smart Solar Device.’”

Industry News

WPost: Driver-less Cars Offer “Tantalizing” Possibilities.

In an editorial, the Washington Post  (5/17, Board) asserts driver-less cars “are about to become far more capable, and soon, revolutionizing the way people get around” adding, “the possibilities are tantalizing.”

Engineering and Public Policy

Johnson: Security Related To Drones “Definitely An Issue” In 2016 Presidential Race.

The Hill  (5/15, Hensch) “Briefing Room” blog reported that on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Johnson responded to a question on the “proliferation of drones” as it related to campaign security, stating that “it is definitely an issue” that law enforcement must address during the 2016 presidential campaigns. Johnson added that the agencies involved in District of Columbia security “need to refine our protocols for airborne stuff in the national capital region to deal with what we’re referring to as the low and slow stuff.”

Farmers Eye Commercial Clearance For Drone Use. The New York Times  (5/16, Turkewitz, Subscription Publication) reports that as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) continues to seek comment over proposed rules on the commercial use of unmanned aircraft, “few are as excited about this technology as farmers.” The Times notes that agriculture will “make up 80 percent of the market for unmanned aircraft” once commercial use if approved, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. However, individuals such as those in the National Agricultural Aviation Association are “worried about pilots crashing into drones” because the believe rules proposed by the FAA are “too lax.”

WSJournal Praises Decision To Grant Shell Approval To Drill Off Alaska’s Coast.

In an editorial, the Wall Street Journal  (5/16, Board, Subscription Publication) calls the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s decision to finally grant conditional approval to Royal Dutch Shell for exploratory drilling off the coast of Alaska good news and criticizes the lengthy bureaucratic delays and the opposition from environmental groups to Arctic oil.

Deadly Amtrak Crash Raises Questions About Infrastructure Investment.

TIME  (5/15, Edwards) reports the May 12 Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia that killed eight people came the day before a House appropriations subcommittee hearing where the agency’s funding was cut by $250 million to $1.13 billion. Democrats, who “have long been Amtrak’s lonely champions, seized on the crash as a reason to increase federal funding for rail projects.” But many Republicans, “long suspicious of a government-run train service that is for-profit but has never turned one, pushed back,” saying it was not “immediately apparent that the accident was related to failing or aging infrastructure.”

Energy Lawyer: Utility-Scale Solar Plants Better Option Than Rooftop Panels.

In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal  (5/18, Subscription Publication), Brian H. Potts, a partner and member of the Energy Industry Team at Foley & Lardner, writes that the push for rooftop solar panels may save homeowners money, but only because they are heavily subsidized in a variety of ways. He argues that a greener and more efficient method is the development of utility-scale solar power plants, which can generate electricity far more cheaply.

Elementary/Secondary Education

Corning Engineers Help Students In Elementary School Egg Drop Contest.

The Corning (NY) Leader  (5/15, Post) reported that “a group of engineers from” Corning’s Environmental Technologies division helped students at Calvin U. Smith Elementary School design “contraptions” to protect eggs dropped from the roof of the school in its annual “egg drop.” The Corning engineers offered one-on-one critiques to the students to improve their designs. Engineer Dave Tracy compared the egg drop challenge to the difficulty of “putting a complex piece of engineered ceramic under a moving vehicle,” while the Leader noted that such experiments when young helped the Corning engineers get to “where they are today,” quoting materials engineer Dan McCauley as saying, “when I was your age, I was always trying to make things that hadn’t been made before.”

Google, NASA, Disney Collaborate To Inspire Girls To Pursue Science Education.

The Washington Post  (5/15, Kang) reported last year, Disney Junior approached Google and NASA to discuss a “new series about a space adventure-seeking boy, his smart sister who codes and mother who drives the family spaceship.” The goal was to bury the stereotypes that computer coders are “sun-starved and soft-bellied nerds who spend long hours alone in front of their computers. And almost always, those TV characters are male.” The group “agreed that done right, the show could help get girls interested in the sciences at an early age” since a 2014 Google report showed “that the media can play a huge factor in girls’ decisions to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.”

University Of Arkansas Hosts FIRST Lego League Competition.

Northwest Arkansas Online  (5/16, Bernet) reported that the FIRST Lego League Razorback Invitational hosted 1,200 students and supporters Thursday through Sunday at the University of Arkansas. The competition is for students between 9 and 16, with teams scored on their adherence to values including teamwork, following instructions, and valuing discovery. The article then details projects that include Braille assistance and music instruction.

Friday’s Lead Stories

Researchers Develop Buoyant Metal Matrix Composite.
CFPB Launches Public Inquiry Into Student Loan Servicers.
University Of Hawaii Taking Part In Data Network Research Project.
Female Tech Entrepreneur Cites Success Stories.
Lower Gas Prices Hurt Hybrid And EV Sales.
Oil Industry Begins Ad Fight Against EPA Ozone Regulation.
Colorado BOE Begrudgingly Releases State Science Tests.

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