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

Leading the News

Ford Announces Plan To Produce 13 New Electric Car Models.

Reuters  (12/11) reports that Ford CEO Mark Fields announced on Thursday that it will spend $4.5 billion to introduce 13 electric and hybrid vehicles by 2020, including an electric Ford Focus with a 100-mile range and 30 minute battery recharge. The investment will result in electrified cars comprising over 40 percent of its stock.

Bloomberg News  (12/10, Naughton) reports that Auto Trader senior analysis Michelle Krebs stated that the car industry is moving toward electrified vehicles because of stringent 2025 emission standards. In another statement released Thursday, Ford announced that also hired 120 more engineers, expanding its Dearborn Electrified Powertrain Engineering program.

The Detroit Free Press  (12/10, Priddle) reports that Ford head of global product development Raj Nair said he expects Ford will receive the same return on investment for this project as it would if it invested in gasoline-only vehicles, and added that all new vehicle platforms will come equipped with engine- and battery-powered capabilities. Nair also stated that consumers are still skeptical of battery-powered vehicles and need to be informed about the advantages of electric cars.

The Wall Street Journal  (12/11, Rogers, Subscription Publication) reports that Ford’s announcement follows its’ rivals transition to offer more electric cars. According to Ford global product development head Raj Nair, the Ford Focus and other proposed vehicles will be competitive with electric cars produced by GM, Tesla, and other competitors. Ford CEO Mark Field also added that its decision to increase electric-powered car is in response to customers’ needs and regulations. MarketWatch  (12/11, Rogers) also covers this story.

Higher Education

Scalia Comments On Affirmative Action Ignite Criticism.

The AP  (12/11, Hananel) reports that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is facing “controversy” after “suggesting that some black students might belong at ‘slower-track’ universities.” His remarks, made during oral arguments in an affirmative action case on Wednesday, “have drawn rebukes from civil rights leaders, top Democrats and even the White House.” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that the comments “stand in ‘quite stark contrast’ to the priorities and values” the President has promoted. The Hill  (12/10, Carney) reports in its “Ballot Box” blog that Senate Minority Leader Reid “slammed” Scalia for the comments, saying, “These ideas that he pronounced yesterday are racist in application if not intent. I don’t know about his intent but it is deeply disturbing to hear a Supreme Court justice endorse racist ideas from the bench on the nation’s highest court.”

Still, the Washington Post  (12/11, Wang) reports that while “many dismissed Scalia’s statements as a classic provocation from one of the Supreme Court’s most vocal conservative judges, his argument has roots.” Scalia was “referring to a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the case, which details a notion popular among affirmative action opponents: the ‘mismatch’ theory,” which argues that affirmative action can put students in situations that their prior education has not prepared them for. The CBS Evening News (12/10, story 6, 1:55, Pelley) says that Scalia is “under fire” for the comments, noting Reid’s criticism in particular. However, the piece also carries an interview with Stuart Taylor, who “co-authored the book that pioneered the mismatch theory.”

The New York Times  (12/11, Hartocollis, Subscription Publication) reports that proponents of the mismatch theory argue that “large allowances based on a student’s race are harmful to those who receive them, that they learn less than they would if they attended a college more closely matched to their level of academic preparation, receive lower grades, become academically discouraged and socially segregated.” Critics, however, believe it is “based on flawed assumptions that cannot be validated by other researchers.”

WSJournal Dismisses Breyer’s Race-Based Admissions Arguments. In an editorial, the Wall Street Journal  (12/11, Subscription Publication) dismisses arguments in favor of race-weighted college admissions made by Justice Stephen Breyer during oral arguments this week. The Journal says that Breyer was attempting to convince the Court to again send the case back to lower courts in a desperate ploy to prevent a strong ruling against race-based admissions.

Demographics Point To Less Families Being Able To Afford College.

The Washington Post  (12/10, Selingo) reports that, according to an analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education, “of the 450 counties in the United States with significantly more younger children than older ones right now, all but 100 of them have median incomes below the national average,” which, given the weight finances have on determining college enrollment, suggests that less families will be able to afford college in the coming decades.

Haslam: New Board Of Regents Plan Prompted By Growing Community College Enrollment.

The Knoxville (TN) News Sentinel  (12/10, Locker) reports that, according to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, the state Board of Regent’s plan to cease oversight of six university’s outside of the University of Tennessee system was prompted by the need to focus on community and technical colleges, at which freshman enrollment has grown 25 percent. Haslam stated that such increased demand “calls for a new focus on our community colleges and TCATs. I think with a board that’s more focused on them, I think we can help take advantage of distinctiveness of programs at both of those institutions.”

From ASEE
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

MIT Researchers Create Computer Program That Learns Like Humans Do.

The Washington Post  (12/11, Achenbach) reports a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers published a study in the Science journal concerning a computer program that learns the way that humans do. MIT Professor Joshua Tenenbaum, the senior author of the paper, said, “For the first time we think we have a machine system that can learn a large class of visual concepts in ways that are hard to distinguish from human learners.” Reuters  (12/11, Dunham) reports the new program is a huge advance for artificial intelligence. In the study, the computers were only shown one example of a letter before being able to replicate it and identify another example of it in many cases. Previous algorithms required hundreds or even thousands of examples before a computer could replicate or identify a letter. Computers might be able to recognize objects or sounds with similar algorithms. The Los Angeles Times  (12/11, Khan) adds that the computer algorithm has passed a “Turing test” where humans were unable to distinguish between the work of the human participants and the computer. The researchers found the program performed slightly better at learning the letters than humans with a lower error rate. The program uses “Bayesian Program Learning” to infer rules about the graphical representation of letters in different alphabets.

Johns Hopkins University Remains Biggest Recipient Of Federal Research Funding.

The AP  (12/11) reports Johns Hopkins University issued a statement announcing that the institution received $1.95 billion in federal funding for research marking its 36th year as the recipient of the most federal research funding. Johns Hopkins received research funding from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, NASA, and other agencies.

Virginia Tech Students Fire First Electromagnetic Railgun Shot.

Military  (12/10, Sisk) reports that “Virginia Tech students fired the university’s electromagnetic railgun for the first time as their U.S. Navy railgun advisors observed the demonstration here Dec. 4.” Military explains that “the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) railgun experts mentored the students throughout the electromagnetic railgun development cycle.” Military says that “the collaboration began in 2011 when Naval Engineering Education Center (NEEC) and NSWCDD worked with Virginia Tech professor Hardus Odendaal and his graduate and undergraduate engineering students in their efforts to build a reduced-scale railgun with a novel energy recovery feature.” Meanwhile, NSWCDD officials said that while “the energy recovery circuit is not complete, the conventional capabilities of Virginia Tech’s railgun were proven at the demonstration.”

Industry News

VW Says Emissions Cheating Began In 2005.

In a 1,250-word article, the New York Times  (12/11, Ewing, Subscription Publication) reports that Hans-Dieter Pötsch, the chairman of Volkswagen’s supervisory board, acknowledged on Thursday that the decision to cheat on emissions tests began in 2005, because the company’s ambitions in the US conflicted with air quality rules that were more stringent than Europe’s. VW opted to install a technology called lean NOX traps over a more expensive technology called selective catalytic reduction (SCR), and even “sidelined” some of its executives who had argued for SCR. However, the lean NOX traps were less reliable at controlling emissions, so engineers introduced software that would lower emissions during testing after realizing that the diesel vehicles could not meet US standards. Pötsch said, “It proves not to have been a one-time error, but rather a chain of errors that were allowed to happen.”

The Wall Street Journal  (12/11, Boston, Varnholt, Sloat, Subscription Publication) reports that Pötsch added that the investigation showed the need for change in testing procedures in engine development department, because the department allowed individuals who designed the procedures to sign off on the results without a second opinion. Despite Thursday’s admission, the Journal says VW failed to answer who ordered the software to be installed, when the order was made, and who was behind the long term cover-up. The company believes only a select few carried out the deception, and said that nine managers have been suspended in relation to the fraud, though it remains unclear whether they were actually involved in the wrongdoing.

Engineering and Public Policy

Pumped Water Storage Is Growing Renewable Energy Source.

The Christian Science Monitor  (12/10, Roach) reports that energy systems engineer Vladimir Koritarov at the DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory stated that over 98 percent of installed storage capacity worldwide is pumped hydropower, the only energy storage “that is mature, reliable, proven, and commercially available to provide large utility scale energy storage.” According to the DOE’s Global Energy Storage Database, 292 pumped storage hydropower facilities worldwide provide 142 gigawatts of power, and an additional 46 projects capable of providing 34 gigawatts are being developed. Public and private chemical battery supporters, construction costs and times, environmental factors all are all obstacles to pumped storage hydropower facility growth, but the technology is still growing in the US and other countries. Center on Global Change at Duke University research scientist Chi-Jen Yang stated that pumped storage hydropower is rapidly growing in China, with 10 to 15 stations under construction, each capable of producing at least one gigawatt.

Solar energy installations increasing, may not counteract fossil fuel damage.

The Washington Post  (12/11, Mooney) reports that on Wednesday, GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association announced that 2015 is projected to have more solar installations than any prior year at 7.4 gigawatts of solar energy capacity, from 6.2 gigawatts in 2014. In the third quarter of 2015, utility scale installations made up 42 percent of all installations, and residential or rooftop installations made up 41 percent. Additionally, reports The Post, African leaders stated that the continent will have 300 gigawatts by 2030, India said it will install 100 by 2022, and China is anticipating 200 gigawatts by 2020, although whether the rate of growth of the global transition to clean energy sources is enough to counter the damage resulting from continued use of fossil fuels is uncertain.

Utility sector shifting to cleaner energy. The New York Times  (12/11, Reed, Subscription Publication) reports, “Officials around the globe are grappling with a contradiction that is implicit in the Paris climate discussion: Even as the world tries to adopt cleaner forms of energy, the global demand for electricity is becoming increasingly voracious.” To adapt, some big European energy companies buy power from customers with their own solar panels or wind turbines. Meanwhile, “Western governments are using mixes of penalties and incentives to steer big power producers down the public-policy paths that regulators deem best.” The article focuses on a Drax power plant in the UK that is converting from burning coal to wood because the latter, as a renewable fuel, is subsidized.

Debate Continues Over Drone Risk To Aircraft.

The New York Times  (12/11, Mouawad, Subscription Publication) reports that with the number of drones rapidly growing, debate over their impact on flight safety remains a topic of debate. Drone enthusiasts criticized the FAA for sensationalizing such risk, but Hulsey Smith the chief executive of Aero Kinetics, a maker of commercial drones, said it is “just a matter of time” before a drone accidentally flies in the path of a plane or helicopter. Meanwhile, on Friday, the Center for the Study of the Drone, at Bard College is set to release a study detailing a “more comprehensive overview of the risks.” The study looked at 922 incidents involving drones and manned aircraft, finding that 35% of cases involved “close encounters” – when the two objects come within 500 feet of each other.

Elementary/Secondary Education

Future Education Secretary John King Jr. Visits Washington DC High School For Computer Science Education Week.

The Washington Post  (12/11, Stein) reports incoming Education Secretary John King Jr. visited McKinley Technology High School in Northeast Washington DC to encourage students to pursue careers in computer science as part of Computer Science Education Week. After asking students to raise their hands if they were interested in the field, King said, “You are all the future of computer science. You can all be part of a different tech future. A more diverse tech future.” ED’s chief US digital service officer Lisa Gelobter, who previously worked at BET and Hulu, accompanied King and told students, “You should figure out what you’re passionate about and there will be a computer science job for you. I never thought I’d be using computer science to help figure out how to get people to watch TV.” The article notes Education Secretary Arne Duncan will officially leave his position at the end of the year, then King will replace him.

More Businesses Working To Get Young People Interested In STEM.

The AP  (12/10, Colombo) reports more businesses are using youth programs to recruit young people into the technology industry in order to address what ED describes as an “inadequate pipeline” for STEM majors and teachers. The article shares the story of Matthew McCain who learned about mechanical engineering as a Boy Scout when he visited Raytheon in Indianapolis, and now works for the company and teaches other young people about engineering. The article highlights Change the Equation, “a coalition of Fortune 500 companies dedicated to increasing the number of qualified STEM majors and teachers” and quotes representatives from participating companies about the importance of drawing more young people into STEM fields.

Charities Raise Money To Build 10 “Makerspaces” At Elementary Schools In Missouri School District.

The Columbia (MO) Daily Tribune  (12/10, McKinney) reports the Columbia Public Schools Foundation and the Veterans United Foundation donated money to the Missouri school district to create “makerspaces” at 10 elementary schools. A makerspace is a “work area with technology equipment, tools and supplies in which people can experiment and work hands-on to create things.” Students can use 3-D printers, Legos, Play-Doh, and many other devices and supplies to build things and work on projects.

Texas School Hosting FIRST Lego League Regional Qualifier.

The Waco (TX) Tribune-Herald  (12/11, Butts) reports Harmony Science Academy in Waco, Texas is hosting its second FIRST Lego League Regional Qualifier this Saturday. Elementary school and middle school students at the school will be competing in the event. This year’s theme is Trash Trek so students will be competing to complete tasks related to recycling such as sorting or transporting garbage.

Thursday’s Lead Stories

Volkswagen: CO2 Problem Far Less Widespread Than Originally Thought.
Justices Again Divided Over Affirmative Action Program At University Of Texas.
Researchers Study Laser-Triggered Pain Management Techniques.
Moniz: Mini-Reactors Could Solve Nuclear Industry Financing Problems.
NRC Considering Revisions To “Linear No-Threshold” Radiation Standard.
Foundation That Funded Temporary STEM Education Program Shares Final Report With Findings.

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