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

Leading the News

USA Today Investigation: Excessive Lead Levels In Nearly 2,000 Water Systems Nationwide.

In a 3,500-word article, USA Today  (3/16, Young, Nichols) reports that its investigation into US water systems identified nearly 2,000 systems nationwide – collectively supplying six million people – that have shown “excessive levels of lead contamination over the past four years.” Many of the highest reported levels came from 350 systems that provide drinking water to schools or day cares, including a sample at an elementary school in Ithaca, New York that tested at the EPA’s threshold for “hazardous waste.” The investigation found that “tens of millions of homes mostly built before 1986” face the same risks that led to Flint’s water crisis. However, because government-required testing can happen in “as few as five or 10 taps in a year, or even over multiple years,” the magnitude of the lead contamination problem “could be even more widespread.”

Newark Testing Students Following Report On High Lead Levels In Schools. The New York Times  (3/16, McGeehan, Subscription Publication) reports the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection will release a report Thursday showing that high lead levels in school water were found over the past four years, including recent tests that have prompted officials to shut off water at 30 of the city’s 67 schools. Newark Public Schools superintendent Christopher Cerf is working with the state environmental department to create a plan for testing and retesting the water beginning Saturday. He is unsure why his predecessors didn’t respond the way he did, but said the situation in Flint has raised the national consciousness on the issue. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said Tuesday that 17,000 children are potentially affected and that “parents have the opportunity” to get their children tested.

Feds Investigating Health And Safety Conditions In NYC Public Housing. The New York Times  (3/17, A21, Navarro, Rashbaum, Subscription Publication) reports that a letter from the office of US Attorney Preet Bharara and an order from Judge Deborah Batts both disclosed Wednesday that federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating environmental health and safety conditions in public housing, as well as the possibility that the NYC Housing Authority “filed false claims to federal housing officials for payment related to the conditions.” Batts’ order “compels” the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to provide information regarding both “elevated blood lead levels among residents” and complaints of “unsafe, unsanitary or unhealthful conditions” in public housing. NYC Law Department spokesman Nick Paolucci said the health department was “cooperating with the investigation.”

Higher Education

CFPB Moves To Shut Down Student Debt Relief Firm.

The Washington Post  (3/16, Douglas-Gabriel) reports that a Federal judge has cleared the way for “a judgment order to shut down a student debt relief company that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has accused of illegally charging upfront fees before providing any services to unwitting borrowers.” The firm, Student Loan Processing, “has 45 days to cease operations but must immediately stop accepting payments from customers.” The Post reports that Education Secretary John King released a statement praising “CFPB for shutting down ‘a company that was charging borrowers exorbitant fees for services they can access for free through or by calling their servicers.’” King further said, “We are working with the CFPB to make sure these borrowers know where to go to get help enrolling in an income driven repayment plan or consolidating their loans, for free. We are also continuing to work with our enforcement partners to weed out bad actors and with other agencies and advocates to get the word out to borrowers: Don’t be fooled — You never have to pay for help with your student loans.”

King Visits Georgia State To Promote College Completion.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution  (3/16) reports that Education Secretary John King and Under Secretary Ted Mitchell “visited Georgia State University on Wednesday to get a firsthand look at the school’s methods for getting students graduated” as part of his College Opportunity Across America tour. King and Mitchell “heard from Georgia State students and advisers about the intensive advising, student monitoring and data-tracking system that has helped keep students on track and become a national and statewide model.”

Australians Compare College Debt Repayment To American System.

The Hechinger Report  (3/16, Marcus) reports on the differences between college debt repayment in America and Australia. In Australia, it is “almost impossible to default on college debt,” because the monthly repayment amount is fixed to the borrower’s current income. In the US, the existing income-based repayment plan requires the remaining forgiven balance to be taxed as income, whereas the Australian plan requires the borrowers to continue paying at an income-adjusted rate until the entire balance is paid.

Critics Urge New York Against State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement.

The New York Times  (3/16, Taylor, Subscription Publication) reports that consumer advocates, legal aid organizations, and labor unions are calling for the education commissioner state of New York not to sign the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, which “creates a shared system for regulating online higher education programs.” Critics of this agreement say that it would “put poor students at serious risk from for-profit schools,” as representatives of for-profit and online colleges took part in the negotiation process of this agreement. Opponents also cite the requirement that student complaints about educational quality and costs must also go through the institution before taking the complaints to the state.

I-Corps for Learning Webinar
Are you an engineering educator with an entrepreneurial mindset (or you’d like to be one)? The ASEE-managed I-Corps for Learning is seeking participants for the next cohort of this exciting project. NSF is holding a webinar this Friday to explain how you can join.

Safe Zone Ally Workhsops
With funding from NSF, ASEE is offering online workshops to become a Safe Zone Ally.

$25K E4U3 Video Contest
The National Academy of Engineering has announced a video contest on Mega Engineering! Most of humankind’s biggest endeavors are mega engineering projects that provide solutions that span disciplines, geographies, and cultural boundaries.

Research and Development

Automakers Support AI Research At UC Berkeley To Foster Autonomous Vehicle Progress.

Bloomberg News  (3/16, Clark) reports that major automakers including Ford, Toyota, and Volkswagen are joining with Nvidia, Samsung, Qualcomm, and Panasonic, in each “giving $300,000 to the University of California at Berkeley to fund artificial intelligence research.” They are trying to speed the research necessary to make autonomous vehicles successful. The partnership is called DeepDrive.

US Army Develops Energy-Harvesting Rucksack.

Defense Systems  (3/16, Pomerleau) reports the US Army’s Communications-Electronics Research Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) is working on a new Energy Harvester Assault Pack (EHAP) that would store energy from a soldier’s normal kinetic movement and use it to power devices that would normally need batteries such as night-vision goggles or radios. The EHAP includes a “rack-and-pinion generator” with a “spring-loaded double-frame suspension system” attached to a rucksack that glides up and down with each step.

Nanowires Could Make Privacy Glass Affordable.

Engadget  (3/16, Dent) reports that researchers at Harvard’s engineering school have developed a new type of “glass that changes from transparent to translucent at the flick of a switch.” The “tunable windows” are composed of glass or plastic sandwiched “between soft elastomers that are sprayed with silver nanowires,” which react to electric current and distort light. According to Engadget, the windows “should be cheap to produce” but require too much voltage, so researchers are working to “make the elastomers thinner to reduce the draw.”

Sandia, MSU Publish Report On Trends for Wind Turbine Blade Materials.

Windpower Engineering & Development  (3/15, Dvorak) reports on the collaboration between Sandia National Laboratories and researchers at Montana State University (MSU) since 1989, with the most recent partnership coming in the form of the recently published “Analysis of SNL/MSU/DOE Fatigue Database Trends for Wind Turbine Blade Materials, 2010-2015,” which gives “valuable insights from the past five years of wind-blade material testing [that] will help supply-chain decision makers procure materials that improve the performance of wind turbine blades.”

Industry News

Leidos To Sell Heavy Construction Capability To Haskell.

Media outlets report that Leidos said Wednesday it has concluded a deal to sell its heavy construction capability to Haskell in order to refocus on its core infrastructure engineering business. Reuters  (3/16) reports the deal will close in the second quarter of 2016 and allows the company to solidify its strategic focus.

Defense Daily  (3/16) reports Leidos chairman and CEO Roger Krone said, “Our strategic engineering capabilities have shifted over the past 18 to 24 months.” He added, “That shift, coupled with our observation of infrastructure market conditions, challenged us to adjust our core focus” and to concentrate “efforts on the new market opportunities created by the convergence of the physical, digital, and data worlds.” Krone deemed the company’s heavy construction capability “not critical to this direction” and concluded, “Our engineering and technology experts are now better positioned to push beyond traditional engineering in infrastructure markets.” The terms of the deal were not released publicly, though Leidos “said its sales guidance for this year includes about $175 million from the heavy construction business.” Leidos Constructors “will be rebranded under its original name, Benham.”

James Bach writes in a post for the Washington Business Journal ’s (3/16, Bach, Subscription Publication) “Fedbiz” blog that the deal follows the merger with Lockheed Martin’s government services IT division, which created “a $10 billion government services company— the largest in a space where the second largest player is around $5.5 billion.” Bach adds that while the move follows the Lockheed deal, “Leidos has been shedding assets for some time since it split off from Science Applications International Corp. (NYSE: SAIC) in 2013,” with the “most notable” divestiture being the Plainfield waste-to-energy plant.

The Jacksonville (FL) Business Journal  (3/16, Gilliam, Subscription Publication) reports the decision will bring Leidos Constructors LLC “under the purview” of Haskell, a “Jacksonville-based design, engineering and construction firm that generates about $600 million of annual revenue.” Haskell CEO Steve Halverson said, “This partnership presents a strategic growth opportunity to leverage abundant talent and expertise to produce creative solutions that meet the demands of the AEC industry.”

GovCon Wire  (3/16, Edwards) reports Leidos Constructors president Michael Gwyn will “transition to Benham and serve in the same capacity.” Leidos itself will retain its engineering work for the “government, utility, energy, manufacturing, aviation and lender/developer markets.”

Engineering and Public Policy

US Opens Up New York Coast For Wind Development.

The AP  (3/16, Long) reports that on Wednesday the US government dedicated 125 square miles off New York’s coast to develop wind energy, “pushing forward a renewable energy proposal” created in 2011 by New York utilities. The AP writes that at least five companies expressed an interest in developing wind farms in the area. The New York Times  (3/16, Schlossberg, Subscription Publication) adds that “New Yorkers will not be seeing offshore turbines anytime soon,” given the leases are 11 nautical miles from the shoreline, and the several-year process of planning the wind farm which includes environmental assessments, an auction and submitting plans for public comment.

POLITICO New York  (3/16, Waldman) reports that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the state has “tremendous” offshore wind potential, adding that opening these leases “marks another important step in the president’s strategy to tap clean, renewable energy from the nation’s vast wind and solar resources.” Politico writes that the “wind currents off of Long Island” are some of the best in the world, and that large wind farms “will be essential” for New York to meet “Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s push to power half of the electrical grid with renewable energy by 2030.” But, Newsday (NY)  (3/16, Harrington) reports construction isn’t expected to begin until 2022 according to federal officials, “if the site is ultimately approved at all.” Newsday writes that busy shipping lanes will complicate the wind development and “commercial fishing interests widely oppose the site.” Fisheries Survival Fund Attorney Drew Minkiewicz said “We’re disappointed to say the least,” given the prospects of losing $5 million a year if the site becomes a wind resource and limits fishing, and added that the group was committed to stopping the effort, according to Newsday.

California Solar Plant May Be Shut Down, Producing Inadequate Electricity.

The Wall Street Journal  (3/16, Sweet, Subscription Publication) reports that the $2.2 billion unconventional solar project, Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, is failing to meet electricity commitments to PG&E Corp., and may shut down unless California regulators grant an extension on Thursday. Ivanpah is owned by BrightSource Energy Inc., NRG Energy Inc., and Alphabet Inc.’s Google and was financed with $1.5 billion in US loans, the Journal writes, adding that PG&E is asking California’s Public Utilities Commission to give the solar project another year to improve operations, but consumers complain that the electricity costs from the troubled plant are too expensive. The Energy Department has said it supports giving the project additional time. Bloomberg News  (3/17, Chediak) adds that although “Production levels have been below the guaranteed…requirements” the NRG-run plant has substantially improved its performance and the company expects improvements to continue, according to “a draft resolution filed in advance of the commission’s meeting.”

Google, GM Urge Congress To Standardize Autonomous Car Testing.

CBS News  (3/16) reports that officials from Google and GM testified in Congress Tuesday urging lawmakers “to create legislation that would standardize testing for self-driving cars,” arguing “that although self-driving vehicles are only a few years from being on the market, inconsistent laws and testing rules across the country could impede that progress.”

Senior Engineer Said He Was “Not Happy” With Interior Department Report On Gold King Mine.

The Washington Times  (3/16, Richardson) reports US Army Corps of Engineers senior geotechnical engineer Richard Olsen, who was in charge of “reviewing the Interior Department’s report on the Gold King Mine spill, said he had misgivings about it but felt under pressure to sign off, according to emails released Tuesday.” In an October 14 email, he wrote, “I’m not happy with the report.” He also “implied that the department may have been too close to the EPA to conduct a truly independent probe, saying, ‘The issue is that they work a lot with EPA on mining issues.’”

Environmental Groups File Lawsuit To Halt Colorado Interstate Expansion.

The Denver Post  (3/16, Whaley) reports that opponents of Colorado’s $1.2 billion Interstate 70 expansion in Denver have joined with Sierra Club to halt the project via a federal lawsuit. The Post writes that this coalition filed a lawsuit with the US Court of Appeals in DC against the EPA, in an effort to get state transportation officials to “rethink the I-70 proposal,” said Becky English of the Sierra Club’s Rocky Mountain Chapter. The suit takes issue with the EPA’s new Clean Air Act requirements which the Colorado Department of Transportation uses to “claim that increased emissions from traffic…would not violate national air quality standards,” because several high pollution days no longer count against the project, according to the Post.

EIA: Natural Gas To Overtake Coal In US Power Sector.

The Hill (DC)  (3/16, Cama) reports that the “EIA is predicting that when 2016 ends, natural gas will have generated 33 percent of the country’s electricity, compared to 32 percent for coal.” The switch is driven primarily by historically low natural gas prices, according to the EIA. NPR  (3/16, Cusick) also covers this story on its website.

Consumer Advocate, Green Groups Ask FERC For Public Participation Office.

As part of its “State Impact Pennsylvania” project, NPR  (3/16, Cusick) reports that more than 30 consumer advocate and environmental groups filed a petition for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to establish “an office of public participation,” adding that Congress directed FERC to create the office in 1978, “but it never happened.” NPR writes that if FERC opens the office, this would establish “intervenor compensation” which provides payments to entities which contribute significantly to proceedings, to cover legal costs. Public Citizen’s Energy Program Director Tyson Slocum says this would be “groundbreaking,” and would allow “public interest groups like his to get a seat at the table,” but adds, “You can’t spam FERC and then say you’d like to be paid. Your intervention has to impact a final order,” according to NPR.

Elementary/Secondary Education

Kaine Introduces Bipartisan Funding Legislation For High School Career, Technical Education.

The Richmond (VA) Times-Dispatch  (3/16, Nolan) reports that on Wednesday Virginia Senator Timothy Kaine “will introduce the CTE Excellence and Equity Act” that allots $500 million in federal funding to be distributed in grants to “encourage integration of CTE programs.” The proposal intends to “recalibrate” the way high schools prepare “children to meet… career and technical education demands,” and has garnered bipartisan support. The bill seeks to amend the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006 and has “a good chance of getting to the Senate floor later this year.”

Intel Competition Names Three Teenagers For First Prize Winners.

The Washington Post  (3/16, Brown) profiles Maya Varma a 17 year-old California high school student who on Tuesday “won the top prize for innovation” at the Intel Science Talent Search competition for creating a new device and a corresponding smartphone app that diagnoses chronic pulmonary illnesses. First place winners receive $150,000 and two other 17 year-olds Amol Punjabi and Paige Brown each also won first place, Punjabi for “basic research” to develop “software for pharmaceutical companies” to help “develop new drugs to treat cancer and heart disease,” and Brown for “developing a water filter to remove phosphate from stormwater systems.” The article points out that two of the three winners are female.

Wednesday’s Lead Stories

Administration Abandons Plan To Allow Drilling Off Atlantic Coast.
Report Points To Rising Popularity Of College Savings Plans.
MIT Engineers Developing Nontoxic Battery.
Chaffetz Blasts EPA’s Handling Of Flint Water Crisis.
New Journal For STEM Educators Launches.

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