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

Leading the News

Stofan Tells Congress That Mars Water May Not Be “Very Habitable.”

The Hill  (9/29, Neidig) reports NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan told the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Tuesday that “scientists do not expect to find any signs of life in the recently discovered flowing waters on Mars.” Stofan said, “It certainly makes us concerned that that water in particular had a lot of perchlorates in it. Based on what we know about life on Earth, that would not be a very habitable type of water.” However, “while scientists downplayed the idea of life within that water due to the salt concentration, they admitted extraterrestrial life might not need the same conditions to survive.” The Hill  (9/29, Trujillo) says in another story that Stofan did say NASA “could uncover life outside Earth in the next 10 to 20 years.”

NASA Faces Conundrum Over Next Steps In Search For Mars Life. The Guardian (UK)  (9/30, Sample) reports that while NASA is “celebrating their discovery of liquid water on Mars,” the agency now faces “some serious questions about how they can investigate further and look for signs of life on the red planet. The problem is how to find life without contaminating the planet with bugs from Earth.” Quartz  (9/29, Rathi) says “the world’s space powers are bound by rules agreed to under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that forbid anyone from sending a mission, robot or human, close to a water source in the fear of contaminating it with life from Earth.” NPR  (9/29) writes on its website that “the site where the water was found is off-limits to Curiosity” because the rover “may still be carrying some bacterial spores from Earth, and the last thing NASA wants to do is seed Mars with Earth bacteria.”

Nadia Drake writes on the National Geographic  (9/29) website that “finding evidence for flowing water is not the same as finding life. Right now, scientists don’t know where this water is coming from, or if the chemistry in these Martian seeps is even life-friendly. And unfortunately, chances are it will be a long time before we can get there to find out.” Buzz Aldrin writes on the TIME  (9/29) website, “The good news is that there’s water. But the bad news is that it’s poisonous water.”

The New York Times  (9/30, Subscription Publication) editorializes that NASA “said on Monday that instruments aboard a spacecraft orbiting Mars had detected signs of hydrated salts at four locations. … Since liquid water is essential to life on Earth, the findings raised hopes that microscopic life might be found in the four locations or others like them scattered over Mars. … Some experts think that there is scant risk of contamination and that even if contamination occurs, genetic analysis should be able to distinguish between life-forms from the two planets. Others are not so sure. Before NASA ventures into this new world, it will have to decide on what kinds of precautions to take.”

The TIME  (9/29) website runs some of “the mysterious photos of water on Mars.”

NASA Working On 3D-Printed Engine For Mars Mission. Forbes  (9/29, King) reports NASA “is closing in on manufacturing a phenomenal, 3D-printed rocket launch engine, and the lead engineer says it is bringing ever closer the manned journey to Mars.” Marshall Space Flight Center propulsion engineer Elizabeth Robertson says “the megathrust engine, and similar 3D printed metal projects, can now be completed significantly more cheaply and quickly. This is essential as NASA accelerates its production for a manned Mars mission by the 2030s.”

Higher Education

CFPB Explores New Rules On Student Debt Servicers.

The Wall Street Journal  (9/30, Andriotis, Subscription Publication) reports the CFPB is exploring new rules that would change the current practices in the $1.3 trillion student loan industry, adding requirements on student loan servicers to help borrowers lower monthly payments and provide payment options that reduce the chance of default. Additionally, the CFPB is planning to address debt-collection practices when borrowers fall behind on payments. CFPB director Richard Cordray testified in front of the House Financial Services Committee, saying, “We feel there are various practices in [this] industry that are subpar, very much like mortgage servicing practices have been very subpar.” While the CFPB doesn’t have direct oversight over federal student lending, it does have oversight in student debt servicing, an industry made up of fewer than 10 firms. The CFPB also released a 152-page report on student loans identifying problems like poor customer service and routine transfers of student loan servicing rights between companies that have caused setbacks for borrowers.

In the report, “the bureau found servicing practices that ‘may be contributing to student debt stress’ after analyzing more than 30,000 comments from the public as part of an inquiry launched in May,” the AP  (9/30, Kerr) adds. In a statement Cordray asserted, “Cleaning up the servicing market is critical” and he called for “market-wide student loan servicing reforms to halt harmful practices and boost assistance for distressed borrowers.”

Reuters  (9/29, Chiacu) provides additional coverage of the CFPB’s plans to introduce rules against student loan servicers in order to better protect borrowers. The article notes student loans represent the second largest US consumer debt market, doubling from less than $600 billion in 2006 to over $1.2 trillion now. The CFPB is working with the Treasury and Education departments to develop reforms in the student loan-servicing market.

Wertheim Donates $50 Million To University of Florida Engineering School.

The Miami Herald  (9/30) reports optometrist Herbert Wertheim, who “invented the eyeglass tint that blocks UV rays, has pledged $50 million to the University of Florida’s College of Engineering.” School officials say “the gift is the largest cash pledge in UF’s 105-year history.” According to the Herald, Wertheim “said he loves his school and wants to give back.” He added, “This is going to change the way engineering is taught.”

Purdue Polytechnic Institute Students Build Machine To Launch Pumpkin 125 Yards.

The Louisville (KY) Courier-Journal  (9/29) reports three Purdue Polytechnic Institute students “have spent more than 80 hours building a machine to launch a pumpkin across a field.” The team “used its engineering education” to develop “a modern version of a medieval weapon called a trebuchet” that could send a pumpkin 125 yards.

Poll: College Graduates Becoming Less Convinced Education Worth The Cost.

NPR  (9/29) reported on its website that a poll conducted by Gallup and Purdue University found that while half of all college graduates “strongly agreed” that their education was worth the cost, graduates who received a degree in 2006 or later were less convinced. According to the survey, only 38 percent of more recent graduates “strongly agreed” that college was worth the cost. That number dropped to 18 percent with respect to graduates with at least $50,000 of student debt. Reuters  (9/29, Gonzales) notes the survey found that more than 63 percent of recent graduates indicated they took out loans to finance their undergraduate education, with the median loan being $30,000.

US News & World Report  (9/29, Camera) reported about one-third of recent graduates needed more than $25,000 in loans, but the number is “significantly higher for black graduates and those who were first in their family to go to college.” According to US News, “Interestingly, Hispanic alumni are no more likely than white graduates to have incurred high levels of debt,” but “are less likely than white alumni to have taken out no loans at all.”

CFPB Report Blames Student Loan Servicers For Graduates’ Payment Struggles. The Washington Post  (9/30, Douglas-Gabriel) reports the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) released a report on Tuesday indicating that one-in-four people with student loans “is in default or struggling to make payments” and placing blame on loan servicers. According to the Post, the government watchdog’s report highlights “widespread problems in the way servicers manage student loans.” CFPB Director Richard Cordray said, “Today’s report underscores the need for market-wide student loan servicing reforms to halt harmful practices and boost assistance for distressed borrowers.”

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Research and Development

Montana State Receives Grant For Nanotechnology Center.

The Grand Forks (ND) Herald  (9/30) reports Montana State University received a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation “to create a new nanotechnology center, the Montana Nanotechnology Facility.” Montana State professor David Dickensheets said the university will be able to appropriately utilize the funds. Dickensheets said the school has a “three-stooled mission of education, research and outreach” and the new center “really fits into that.”

Researchers Creating App To Help Athletes, Military Recognize Concussion Signs.

KOLD-TV  Tucson, AZ (9/30) reported on its website that University of Arizona researchers “are working to find a way to increase athletes’ awareness and understanding of concussions.” The university’s medical and engineering researchers “are teaming” with the athletics department “to develop a smart phone app that is designed to help athletes and U.S. military personnel recognize the signs of concussion and to understand the importance of reporting” it.

Report: Backscatter X-Ray Machines “Didn’t Overexpose Travelers To Radiation.”

According to USA Today  (9/30, Jansen), a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that “the so-called ‘backscatter’ machines” used by the Transportation Security Administration in airports from 2006 to 2013 “didn’t overexpose travelers to radiation,” possibly allowing for the machines to return to airports. However, Kaiser Health News  (9/30, Appleby) reports that despite the reports findings that the machines “exposed travelers to one-tenth the radiation limit set by the American National Standards Institute and Health Physics Society,” Harry Martz Jr., Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Nondestructive Characterization Center Director, stated that he was not sure the report would end the debate over radiation. Martz noted, “We were not asked if they were safe or not, just whether they meet the standard.”

Modern Healthcare  (9/30, Rice, Subscription Publication) also has coverage.

Industry News

Alion Awarded $49M Navy Contract For ISR Components.

C4ISR & Networks  (9/29) reports Alion has been selected by the Navy for a $49 million contract to “provide rapid design, engineering and fabrication of ISR components for PED, SIGINT and more.” The company will “design systems in processing exploitation and dissemination, mobile signals intelligence, sensitive site exploitation and persistent surveillance systems,” Alion said in a press release. “Under this contract, we can help enhance systems, build software-defined radios and develop effective sensors to support the effort,” said Alion vice president Chris Amos.

GE’s Immelt Details New Industrial Internet Initiatives.

GE CEO Jeff Immelt, in an interview with Fast Company  (9/30, Terdiman), detailed GE’s Industrial Internet offerings unveiled at its annual Minds + Machines event in San Francisco. With Predix.io, a new dedicated cloud environment, GE aims to create “the pre-eminent industrial app marketplace,” and also become a “serious player in the battle for engineering talent” in attracting 20,000 developers to build for the initiative. With its Brilliant Factory program’s new digital manufacturing technology, “GE says can deliver 10% to 20% improvements in unplanned downtime” to plants, and its Digital Power Plant offers resources to “securely digitize physical electricity systems.” Leveraging existing industrial relationships, through the initiatives GE is “going to be one of the players that’s driving both horizontal platforms and vertical applications,” Immelt said.

Corning Leading The Way In Developing Smartphone Glass.

The AP  (9/29) reports that “despite engineering breakthroughs, screen breakage has become a part of life, the leading type of phone damage.” Smartphones “use ion-strengthened glass,” such as Samsung’s use of Corning’s Gorilla Glass 4, “which gets heated in a process that replaces sodium ions on the surface with potassium ions.” Apple also “turned to Corning for a custom glass that goes through two rounds of ion exchange for greater strength.” Scott Forester, director of innovations for Gorilla Glass “said Corning has made strides in withstanding the types of surfaces most likely to puncture glass, including asphalt and concrete. But he said that’s offset by glass getting thinner and screens bigger over the years in response to consumer demand.”

The AP story generated similar coverage on local TV broadcasts, including KABC-TV Los Angeles (9/29), KTVU-TV San Francisco (9/29), WMAR-TV Baltimore (9/29), WMBC-TV Newton, NJ (9/29), WKYT-TV Lexington, KY (9/29), WJAX-TV Jacksonville, FL (9/29) and WTVT-TV Tampa, FL (9/29).

Engineering and Public Policy

TransCanada Looks To Delay Approval Decision On Keystone.

The Wall Street Journal  (9/30, Harder, Subscription Publication) reports that in an attempt to have the decision potentially made by a GOP president in 2017, TransCanada announced a move to delay the approval process of its Keystone XL pipeline project. TransCanada is altering its strategy in Nebraska, a key state where the pipeline would be built, dropping its state legal challenges and instead going through a state review process, likely delaying the project.

EPA Adopts Stricter Rules For Refineries.

The Los Angeles Times  (9/30, Barboza, Penn) reports that on Tuesday, the EPA “adopted new rules” designed to “clean the air around oil refineries across the nation, including communities near six major refineries in Southern California.” The rules require refineries “to monitor and report levels of benzene, a cancer-causing compound, at the boundaries of their properties and to cut emissions if they are too high.” The rules are expected to impact about 150 oil refineries across the nation. The AP  (9/29, Daly) says that the rules “will require for the first time that refineries install air monitors along ‘fence lines’ where pollution enters neighboring communities.”

Reuters  (9/30), meanwhile, reports that the EPA estimates that the capital cost to refiners will be about $283 million, but will have a “negligible impact” on the costs of petroleum products.

After Fiat Chrysler Revelations, Foxx To Discuss Safety Issues With Auto Makers.

USA Today  (9/30, Jansen) reports that Secretary of Transportation Foxx on Tuesday told reporters that he is “calling in major car manufacturers to discuss safety issues after a series of alleged reporting violations involving Toyota, Honda, Fiat Chrysler and others.” The move comes as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration accused Fiat Chrysler of “underreporting the number of deaths involving its vehicles, a revelation that Foxx called ‘obviously troubling.’”

House Seeks More Information On VW’s Emissions Cheating.

Reuters  (9/30, Morgan) reports that on Tuesday, top lawmakers of both parties on the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked Volkswagen AG to turn over documents related to the automaker’s diesel emissions problems. Among their requests were details on the software designed to defeat emissions tests.

The Wall Street Journal  (9/30, Harder, Viswanatha, Subscription Publication) reports that the DOJ’s criminal investigation into whether the company should face criminal charges in the scandal highlights a gap in US environmental law. Essentially, car makers secured a carve-out from criminal penalties in the 1970 Clean Air Act, forcing prosecutors to consider alternative approaches to bringing charges.

Meanwhile, the CBS Evening News (9/29, story 7, 1:55, Pelley) reported that on Tuesday, the new CEO of Volkswagen said that company “will fix 11 million diesel cars that were rigged with software that cheated on emissions tests.” However, CBS (Villafranca) added Volkswagen announced “it’s weeks away from fixing the software. Parts and service departments are bracing for as many as half a million US customer cars needing repair.”

Congress Renews FAA’s Authority For Six Months.

The AP  (9/30, Lowy) reports that on Congress has “temporarily renewed authorization” for the FAA while it considers whether “to take responsibility for air traffic control from the government and place it under the direction of a nonprofit corporation.” The House passed the temporary measure on Sunday, and the Senate followed on Monday, sending the legislation to the President. The extension “provides a window for congressional action on a larger aviation policy bill.”

Elementary/Secondary Education

Indiana Students Learn About Manufacturing At Local Event.

WLFI-TV  Lafayette, IN (9/29, Miller) reports almost 250 junior and senior high school students visited the National Guard Armory in Lafayette, Indiana for a Manufacturing Expo as part of Manufacturing Week in the area. Twenty businesses participated in the event showing students how their firms use manufacturing. Educators and business leaders hope the event will get more students interested in careers in the manufacturing sector.

North Dakota Teacher Advocates School Board Getting Another Grant To Continue Improvement Of STEM Education.

The Jamestown (ND) Sun  (9/30, LaVenture) reports Mari Stilwell, a reading coach at Roosevelt Elementary School in North Dakota, encouraged the Jamestown Public School Board to apply for a second $25,000 grant from Monsanto to further improve STEM instruction in the district. The grants are used to fund hands-on STEM projects using the “Picture-Perfect Science Lessons” developed by the National Science Teachers Association Press. The first grant received from the corporation was used to improve STEM instruction for second and fourth graders. The second grant would be used to improve STEM instruction for third and fifth graders.

New York School Boards Association And SUNY Polytechnic Gives Innovation Awards To Three School Districts.

The AP  (9/30) reports the New York State School Boards Association and SUNY Polytechnic Institute’s Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering awarded “Be the Change For Kids” Innovation Awards to three districts: Coxsackie-Athens, Queensbury Union Free, and Spencerport. The districts will receive $5,000 each for “coming up with innovative ways to prepare students for careers in high-tech jobs.”

Tuesday’s Lead Stories

Shell Halts Efforts To Find Oil, Gas In Arctic.
Treasury’s Raskin Calls For More Accountability In Student Loan Market.
New Optical Mining Technique Could Access Large Amounts Of Asteroid Water.
Gender Employment Gap Widened In Cyber Security Field.
Johns Hopkins Hackathon Results In Production Of Ebola Suit.
Rail Industry Not Expecting To Meet Year-End Safety Technology Deadline.
Dallas District Will Open First All-Girls STEAM School.

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