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

Leading the News

Volkswagen: CO2 Problem Far Less Widespread Than Originally Thought.

Volkswagen said on Wednesday that the problem with understated CO2 emissions (which came to light following the diesel emissions scandal) is, in fact, far less serious than the company originally believed. Volkswagen said that the problem only impacts 36,000 vehicles in Europe at most, rather than the 800,000 originally estimated. In a piece from Fortune, TIME  (12/10, Smith) said that it had uncovered “no unlawful change to the stated fuel consumption and CO2 figures…to date,” and added that “it will only need to make small adjustments to its catalog of marketing materials, affecting ‘only a small number of the model variants.’”

The New York Times  (12/10, Ewing, Subscription Publication) says that German transportation officials “have not yet confirmed the revised, smaller number,” but “if it is accurate, it means that Volkswagen would have to repay only a small fraction of the 2 billion euros, or $2.2 billion, in tax incentives that the company originally estimated customers in Europe had improperly received from their governments for driving cars with” with low emissions. Reuters  (12/10) adds that Volkswagen said, “The negative impact on earnings… has not been confirmed. Whether we will have a minor economic impact, depends on the results of the remeasurement exercise.” The Wall Street Journal  (12/10, Sloat, Subscription Publication) reports that the exercise will be conducted this month. The AP  (12/10) reports that Volkswagen said that “no technical modifications to vehicles will be needed.” The Hill  (12/10, Cama) also reports.

CNBC  (12/10, Hulgrave) calls the statement “a rare bit of good news.” USA Today  (12/9) says that the carbon emissions issue “is unrelated to the company’s ongoing diesel emissions scandal, but the news was still encouraging for investors.” Bloomberg News  (12/9, Rauwald) says that the news “provides a welcome backdrop for Chief Executive Officer Matthias Mueller as he prepares for his first extended press conference on the matter,” expected on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Reuters  (12/10) reports that Frank Welsch, the lead engineer at Skoda, will become head of technical development at the VW brand, while Ralf Brandstaetter will take over program at that unit.

Higher Education

Justices Again Divided Over Affirmative Action Program At University Of Texas.

The Los Angeles Times  (12/10, Savage) reports that “the future of affirmative action at public universities appeared in some doubt” on Wednesday as the Supreme Court “debated for a second time whether to strike down a race-based admissions policy at the University of Texas.” According to the Times, “it was clear that the court’s conservatives, including Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., believe that using affirmative action in admission decisions is unneeded and unconstitutional,” while “the liberals, led by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, spent much of the hour arguing in defense of the university’s policy.”

The Washington Post  (12/10, Barnes) reports that the court “once again displayed its deep divide over when race can be considered in college admission decisions,” The Post adds that “there seemed little doubt that the decision would come down to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy,” who “has never voted to uphold an affirmative action program but seemed less convinced than the court’s other conservatives that he had all the information needed to pass judgment on UT’s program.”

The New York Times  (12/10, Liptak, Subscription Publication) reports that the majority of the justices “seemed unpersuaded” that the university’s affirmative action plan “was constitutional,” but Justice Kennedy “devoted almost all of his questions to exploring whether the case should be returned to the trial court to allow the university to submit more evidence to justify its use of race in deciding which students to admit.” Justice Kennedy “indicated that the Supreme Court might have all the evidence needed to decide the case,” which “could mean that the Texas admissions plan is in peril and that affirmative action at colleges and universities around the nation may be in trouble as well.”

USA Today  (12/9, Wolf) reports that “the court’s conservative justices said programs that accept students because of their race or ethnicity – rather than high school rankings, test scores, talents and character – must be limited and temporary,” but the justices “stopped short” of “urging an end to all affirmative action programs, or even the Texas plan under review,” and “for the second time in three years, in fact, they indicated that they might send the case back for additional fact-finding.”

The AP  (12/10, Sherman) reports that “several justices asked about the value of ordering more hearings in a case from Texas that was before them for the second time.” The justices “rehashed many of the same arguments they discussed three years ago in the case of Abigail Fisher.” Fisher “has been out of college since 2012, but the justices’ renewed interest in her case appeared to be a sign that the court’s conservative majority is poised to cut back, or even end, affirmative action in higher education.” The AP notes that, “potentially complicating the outcome, Justice Elena Kagan is sitting out the case because she worked on it at an earlier stage at the Justice Department, before joining the court,” and “her absence creates the possibility of a 4-4 split,” which “would resolve the case in Texas’ favor, but say nothing about the issue nationally.” Reuters  (12/10, Hurley) reports that a ruling in the case is expected by the end of June.

Scalia Appears To Question Ability Of Minority Students. Bloomberg Politics  (12/9, Stohr) reports that Justice Antonin Scalia “grabbed the spotlight during Wednesday’s debate over college affirmative action programs when he said that perhaps the University of Texas ‘ought to have fewer’ racial minorities. ‘One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas,’ Scalia said. ‘They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them.’” Justice Scalia “was apparently making reference to a brief filed by Gail Heriot and Peter Kirsanow, opponents of racial preferences who serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.” The brief “argued that affirmative action discourages beneficiaries from pursuing science and engineering degrees.” Justice Scalia “said black students might do better at ‘slower-track’ schools.”

The Huffington Post  (12/9, Farias) reports that Scalia “seemed to call” the abilities of black students “into question. ‘There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well,’ Scalia said, ‘as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school … a slower-track school where they do well.’”

The New York Times  (12/10, Subscription Publication) editorializes that “racial diversity is essential in carrying out the missions of institutions like universities, corporations and the United States military,” and affirmative action “is one tool that’s useful in achieving that diversity,” but some Supreme Court justices “seem unable to accept this fact, despite decades of experience and evidence showing its value.” Justice Scalia “proposed that rather than place unprepared black students in a top state school ‘where they do not do well,’ they should be sent ‘to a less-advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well.’” Attorney Gregory Garre, representing the university, “rejected that offensive premise, which has not gotten such a full airing at the Supreme Court since the 1950s. ‘Frankly,’ Mr. Garre said, ‘I don’t think the solution to the problems with student body diversity can be to set up a system in which not only are minorities going to separate schools, they’re going to inferior schools.’”

College Awarded $1.2 Million Grant For Science-Education Scholarships.

The Richmond (VA) BizSense  (12/9, Spiers) reports that Randolph-Macon College has won a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Chemistry professor April Marchetti will use the grant, the largest in the college’s history, to launch a new program to recruit, train, and support chemistry, biology, and physics teachers, providing full scholarships to students pursuing a major in one of those fields and a minor in education. Scholarship recipients will also agree to participate in a summer internship or STEM camp for middle schoolers and to work in a high-needs school district for four years after graduation.

November Prism Now Online
Cover story: Industrial RX for Healthcare. Systems engineers are out to show they can make medical practice cheaper while improving quality.

Read ASEE’s Capitol Shorts
This weekly newsletter keeps our members informed of important developments in Congress and federal agencies affecting engineering education and research.

Research and Development

Researchers Study Laser-Triggered Pain Management Techniques.

Photonics  (12/9) reports that researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are conducting preclinical studies on the use of lasers to release local anesthetics at the site of injuries and block pain signals with the goal of providing patients with “localized and personalized control of surgical, traumatic or chronic pain” without side effects or the risk of tolerance or addiction. Both methods use lipid microspheres to carry a local anesthetic and a laser to produce a near-infrared beam that can penetrate tissues without causing damage.

MIT Developes “Smart Bandage” To Automatically Detect, Treat Infection.

The Boston Herald  (12/10, Graham) reports that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is developing a “smart bandage” made of hydrogel that can detect infection and automatically release drugs. Xuanhe Zhao, a professor at MIT’s department of mechanical engineering, said, “We are trying to design long-term, high-efficiency interfaces between the body and electronics.” The bandage will sense temperature changes and bacteria levels and release the appropriate medicine on-demand.

Industry News

Moniz: Mini-Reactors Could Solve Nuclear Industry Financing Problems.

Reuters  (12/10, De Clercq) reports that Energy Secretary Moniz said Wednesday that “small modular reactors,” mini-versions of current nuclear reactors, could solve the industry’s difficulty finding financing for new power plants. Speaking to reporters in Paris at the New York Times Energy for Tomorrow conference, Moniz said, “SMRs could lead to better financing terms, because right now there is a big risk premium if you are going to finance a 1200 megawatt nuclear plant,” adding that he anticipates the first SMR concepts will apply for design certification to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission next year. Moniz noted, “Assuming that goes smoothly, we are talking 2022-2023 as a credible time for having some of those built.”

Engineering and Public Policy

NRC Considering Revisions To “Linear No-Threshold” Radiation Standard.

E&E Publishing  (12/10) reports on experts’ warnings that the outdated model for health risks from radiation known as the “linear no-threshold” model “is hampering the nuclear energy industry.” The experts “want rules that recognize new scientific findings to help speed the arrival of a new generation of fission power plants.” Much of the “time and money involved in building a nuclear power plant goes toward keeping radiation in check at much lower levels,” which some scientists say is not supported by their research. “Mary Lou Dunzik-Gougar, chairwoman of the nuclear engineering and health physics program at Idaho State University, said the current radiation limits are too restrictive for the nuclear energy industry, adding time and costs to reactor designs and raising personnel costs.” NRC spokesman Maureen Conley “acknowledged that the linear no-threshold model for radiation was cautious.” Conley “said the agency is taking…comments and…petitions under advisement and is reviewing comments on the proposal for a new radiation rule.”

Jewell: No One At EPA Disciplined Over Mine Spill.

Interior Secretary Jewell told a House Natural Resources Committee hearing on Wednesday that she is “unaware of anyone being fired, fined or even demoted for the Gold King Mine spill,” the Washington Times  (12/10, Richardson) reports. According to the Times, Jewell’s comments prompted accusations from Republicans that she is “taking the EPA off the hook for the toxic blowout.” Jewell “defended the Interior investigation, saying it was confined to a technical review of the incident to determine its cause, not to assign blame.”

Gov. Brown Touts California’s Environmental Policies As Example For Nation.

The New York Times  (12/10, Eddy, Subscription Publication) reports that California Gov. Jerry Brown said he has become “impatient” with the political process in Washington, and believes that the federal government should take notice of “his state’s success in reducing pollution and carbon emissions.”

EPA Haze Rules Target Seven Coal Plants.

The Dallas Morning News  (12/10, Osborne) reports on its “Biz Beat Blog” that the EPA on Wednesday released new air pollution standards for Texas which “will force seven of Texas’ oldest coal plants to make costly upgrades to their smokestacks.” The “biggest loser” under the new rules is Luminant, a unit of Energy Future Holdings, which owns nine of the 14 coal-fired units named. Plants owned by NRG Energy and Excel Energy were also named. The Morning News adds that “Luminant said it was still reviewing the rules Wednesday but attacked the EPA as overstepping its authority.”

Florida Solar Choice Backers Say Competing FPL, Duke Measure Slows Signature Gathering.

The Tampa Bay (FL) Times  (12/10) reports in its “The Buzz Florida Politics” blog that Floridians for Solar Choice is “far from hitting the 683,149-signature threshold” by December 31 for its ballot measure. According to the state’s Division of Elections, the group has 253,497 signatures and hasn’t hit the minimum requirements in any of the state’s 27 congressional districts. ReThink Energy Florida said Wednesday that the amendment’s slow pace is due to a competing solar energy initiative backed largely by Florida Power and Light, Duke Energy, and others. The Miami Herald  (12/10) adds that Kim Ross of ReThink Energy Florida said that opponents are trying to sow confusion, expressing confidence that were it not for the competing utility measure, the group would have already passed the threshold.

Elementary/Secondary Education

Foundation That Funded Temporary STEM Education Program Shares Final Report With Findings.

Education Week  (12/10, Cooper) reports the Noyce Foundation has released a final report on what it has learned from its “Strengthening STEM in ELT Schools” program, which aimed to help five elementary schools improve their STEM education in anticipation that they will soon be required to teach the Next Generation Science Standards. The foundation had to end the program after only operating for six months earlier this year. Previous research has shown that many elementary school teachers are not well-trained at science education, so the Noyce Foundation’s program sought to improve teachers’ ability and confidence in teaching science. The final report profiles the five schools that participated in the program and how educators were able to improve their science teaching skills.

Iowa Elementary School Students Demonstrate Their Programming Skills For Visiting Adults.

On its website, KTIV-TV  Sioux City, IA (12/9, Lane) reports Loess Hills Elementary School second-graders in Sioux City, Iowa demonstrated their computer programming skills to local leaders. The students showed visitors different projects they had worked on during the “Hour of Code”, the minimum of one hour per week they spend coding at the school. Local business people and elected leaders visited the school to be taught by the students.

Twin Cities Schools Participate In “Hour Of Code.”

The Minneapolis Star Tribune  (12/10, Raghavendran) reports about 50 schools in the Twin Cities area are participating in the “Hour of Code”, a national challenge to schools to give students at least one hour of experience writing computer code. Advocates of the program say that more students need to be exposed to computer programming at a young age so they can decide whether they are interested in the growing STEM field. Such opportunities can also improve students’ problem solving skills, which are valuable in many fields. While Minnesota has not adopted a computer science requirement for the whole state, several school districts are moving forward on their own.

Apple CEO Teaches Coding Class To New York City Students.

The AP  (12/9) reports Apple CEO Tim Cook helped teach a coding class to a group of New York City third graders at an Apple store in Manhattan as part of Computer Science Education Week’s “Hour of Code” initiative. Cook said learning to code was just as important as learning a foreign language and that he hopes one day computer science will be a required class for all students.

NSF Grant Funds Program To Train College Students As STEM Teachers.

The West Hartford (CT) News  (12/9) reports a National Science Foundation grant is funding a new summer program called “STEM Teaching Experiences for Undergraduates from Liberal Arts Institutions.” The program will host 12 undergraduate students from around the US and aims to boost the number of liberal arts colleges students that become STEM teachers.

University Of New Mexico Professor Fighting To Save Science Class For Future Educators Amid Budget Cuts.

The Albuquerque (NM) Journal  (12/10, Shepard) reports the University of New Mexico’s Natural Science Program leader Mel Strong is asking members of the university community to save a class that helps education majors learn how to teach science. The university is currently facing a $3.5 million budget deficit and is planning to cut the class as part of a broader effort to cut costs.

Wednesday’s Lead Stories

US, Japan Conduct Second Test Of Raytheon SM-3 Missile.
Reporters Consider Supreme Court’s Views On Affirmative Action Case.
MIT Team Develops Technique Greatly Improving 3-D Imaging Resolution.
Demand For Cybersecurity Professionals Growing.
Software Engineer Arrested For Trade Secret Theft.
Wall Street Expresses Interest In Quantum Supercomputers.
NHTSA Raises Scrutiny Of Jeep Wrangler Electrical Issue.

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