Our Single-Celled Ancestors

Posted on December 19, 2005  Comments (0)

choanoflagellates in water (photo by Melissa Mott)

Our Single-Celled Ancestors by David Pescovitz, ScienceMatters@Berkeley. Photo: propelled by their flagella, choanoflagellates move through water collecting bacteria on a collar of tentacles at the base of the cell body. (photo by Melissa Mott)

Six-hundred million years ago, a pivotal turning point in the history of life occurred. In the ancient sea, multicellular organisms evolved that are now recognized as the world’s first animals. But what was the biology of the single-celled organism that made the transition? And how did it become the common progenitor of all animals?

As always this issue of ScienceMatters@Berkeley includes excellent articles. Other articles from this issue: Extreme Biomaterials and Machines That Learn.

Science and Engineering Innovation Legislation

Posted on December 18, 2005  Comments (5)

Ensign, Lieberman Introduce Major Bipartisan Innovation Legislation – the press release from Senator Lieberman’s office indicates Science and Engineering Fellowships Legislation we mentioned previously, has been introduced:

Our legislation will significantly increase federal support for graduate fellowship and traineeship programs in science, math, and engineering fields in order to attract more students to these fields and to create a more competitive and innovative American workforce.

China and India alone graduate 6.4 million from college each year and over 950,000 engineers. The United States turns out 1.3 million college graduates and 70,000 engineers.

Expands existing educational programs in the physical sciences and engineering by increasing funding for NSF graduate research fellowship programs as well as Department of Defense science and engineering scholarship programs.

The recent report from Duke, explains that the figures on science and engineering graduates used are not accurate (see below). Still, this seems like a good idea. The press release also includes a list of organizations supporting the legislation including: Athena Alliance, Business Roundtable, Council on Competitiveness, Council of Scientific Society Presidents. From the section by section details included on the web site:

The Director of NSF will expand the agency’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program by 250 fellowships per year and extend the length of each fellowship to five years. Program by 250 fellowships per year and extend the length of each fellowship to five years. The bill authorizes $34 million/year for FY 2007- FY 2011 to support these additional fellowships. In addition, funding in the amount of $57 million/year is authorized for a similar expansion of the Integrated Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program by 250 new traineeships per year over five years.
The Tech Talent expansion program encourages American universities to increase the number of graduates with degrees in mathematics and science. The bill authorizes $335 million from Fiscal Year 2007 to Fiscal Year 2010 for continued support of this program.
This section extends the Department of Defense’s Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarships program through September 30, 2011, and authorizes $41.3 million/year over 5 years for the SMART program to support additional participants pursuing doctoral degrees and master’s degrees in relevant fields. This section also authorizes $45 million/year over 5 years to be appropriated to the Department of Defense through 2011 to support the expansion of the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship program to additional participants.

Related posts:

“Fluid” State of Matter

Posted on December 18, 2005  Comments (0)

photos of granular jets forming

Physicists Describe a New “Fluid” State of Matter, photo – granular jets forming at atmospheric pressure (top) and in a vacuum (bottom), see larger photo.

Using nothing more than a container of loosely packed sand and a falling marble, a research team led by University of Chicago physicist Heinrich Jaeger has discovered a new state of fluid matter.

Why doesn’t air pressure just blow the sand grains apart? “One of the biggest questions that we have still not solved is why this jet is so sharply delineated,” says Jaeger. “Why are there these beautiful boundaries?”

Physicists describe strange new fluid-like state of matter, University of Chicago news release.

See more science and engineering research related posts.

Science to Preschoolers

Posted on December 18, 2005  Comments (1)

Children balancing on a seesaw

PEEP and the Big Wide World, science activities for young children. Over 40 simple activities with a short description of what can be learned. Each also suggests resources for further information.

The web site also includes interactive games and information on the TV show which aims to teach science to preschoolers.

Nanotechnology Research

Posted on December 17, 2005  Comments (2)

Nanotech’s super salesman by Darin Barney, Globe and Mail (Canada), review of
The Dance of Molecules: How Nanotechnology is Changing Our Lives by Ted Sargent.:

As one might expect, the biggest prizes are medical. Nanoscale “chips that merge computer technologies with cells and genes and proteins” will act as early warning beacons in the detection of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Spread of these diseases will be checked at the earliest stages by pharmacies on a chip, implanted in our bodies and programmed remotely by our physician’s cellphone to deliver “a veritable cocktail of drugs.” And if this doesn’t work (or even if we are just overcome by “our unquenchable thirst for self-improvement”), nanoscale tissue engineering will provide a ready supply of replacement parts.

Panel looks at ways to clean up nanotech’s act:

But nanotech may also introduce unwanted side effects that, if not managed effectively, might prompt bans on useful nanomaterials.

Nanotech pioneers can look at asbestos and DDT as examples of materials that solved critical long-standing problems, but caused health and environmental problems so severe as to nullify the materials’ benefits. Nanotechnology is setting out on the same road, promising effective medical treatments and “miracle” consumer products, but also posing threats that must be neutralized if the technology is to be accepted.

Nanotechnology provides great promise. The dangers cannot be ignored, however. Managing those dangers is not an easy task. Those promoting moving forward quickly often ignore potential problems. And given the way the scientific and engineering landscape is changing worldwide, if any country creates to many barriers to research that research will likely move elsewhere, along with many high paying jobs.

$71 Million for Texas STEM Initiative

Posted on December 17, 2005  Comments (0)

$71 Million Committed to Launch the Texas Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (TSTEM) Initiative:

The $71 million public-private partnership, a new effort of the THSP, will establish 35 small schools that offer focused teaching and learning opportunities in STEM subject areas and five to six STEM Centers to develop high-quality teachers and schools. The highest-quality education in these subjects is critical to workforce development in Texas and to ensuring that the United States keeps its competitive edge as a world leader in scientific and technological innovation.

Google opens research office near CMU

Posted on December 17, 2005  Comments (0)

Google to open new research facility in Pittsburgh:

Google Inc., the leading online search engine company, will open a new engineering and research office in Pittsburgh next year to be headed by a Carnegie Mellon University professor, the company announced Thursday.

The facility will be charged with creating software search tools for Google. It is expected to create as many as 100 new high-tech jobs in the Pittsburgh area over the next few years, said Craig Nevill-Manning, director of Google’s New York engineering office.

This is another specific example how higher education in engineering and science can create jobs. Obviously, there are many cheaper places for Google to start new offices.

Related posts:

USA Under-counting Engineering Graduates

Posted on December 13, 2005  Comments (20)

How accurately the data reflects the situation is something that must always be considered: data is a proxy for something. All models are wrong, some are useful – George Box.

A very interesting report has been published by Duke’s Pratt Engineering School: Framing the Engineering Outsourcing Debate by: Dr. Gary Gereffi and Vivek Wadhwa – Primary Student Researchers: Ben Rissing, Kiran Kalakuntla, Soomi Cheong, Qi Weng, Nishanth Lingamneni. I strongly recommend reading this report. Report Appendix with data:

Typical articles have stated that in 2004 the United States graduated roughly 70,000 undergraduate engineers, while China graduated 600,000 and India 350,000.

The report puts the 2004 figures, based on their operational definition of a engineering degree at:

USA: 222,335
India: 215,000
China: 644,106

The fact that there are fewer equivalent degrees in India and China doesn’t amaze me. Tripling the degrees in America does surprise me. If I understand the report this is due to including IT and computer science degrees (that are included in China and India counts) and including subbaccalaureate degrees (also included by China and India). In practice, US data includes some IT and CS degrees as engineering and some not (depending on how the school classifies them I believe).

These massive numbers of Indian and Chinese engineering graduates include not only four-year degrees, but also three-year training programs and diploma holders. These numbers have been compared against the annual production of accredited four-year engineering degrees in the United States. In addition to the lack of nuanced analysis around the type of graduates (transactional or dynamic) and quality of degrees being awarded, these articles also tend not to ground the numbers in the larger demographics of each country.

These types of distinctions are exactly the type of additional information that can be very important to consider when drawing conclusions based on data. While agree that looking at the percentage of the population is worthwhile, I think the report may over emphasis this measure. If looking at how much engineering ability China and India are bringing online what is most interesting is the absolute measure of that capability. Read more

Engineers in the Workplace

Posted on December 12, 2005  Comments (3)

The engineers are feeling gloomy by Aliza Earnshaw:

Engineers interviewed in depth for the survey went so far as to say they would not recommend that their children follow them into the profession.

“There’s no money in it, there’s nothing but layoffs, and it’s all being outsourced to India,” said one engineer.

“There’s no respect,” comparable to that accorded lawyers or physicians, said another. “Someone with a bachelor’s or master’s in electrical engineering or software, he’s just a flunky.”

It is true some jobs are being moved overseas. But the unemployment rate for engineers is still very low (under 3%). Also the pay for engineering graduates is very high.

The status (respect) accorded to engineers may well indicate a long term trend in the United States to value those who work with money (salesmen, managers, finance…) over those who work on things (engineers, skilled workers, software…). I think this is a significant problem that does require that management improvement. In my view companies that realize that engineers, other knowledge workers, should be the focus of their management (not playing games with quarterly earnings) will outperform those that try to manage companies through financial measures alone.

In a post on our Curious Cat Management Articles blog, Google: Ten Golden Rules, we quoted a Business Week article, Googling for Gold:

The suits inside Google don’t fare much better than the outside pros. Several current and former insiders say there’s a caste system, in which business types are second-class citizens to Google’s valued code jockeys

with engineers and product managers tending to carry more clout than salesmen and dealmakers.

Maybe the suits shouldn’t complain too loudly. They may get others to look at why Google is doing so well and decide it is due to placing more respect on engineers and less on suits (not that suits don’t deserve respect but I question the current balance of respect in most companies). I believe the success of Google will eventually get more “suits” to realize they need to do everything they can to allow the engineers in their companies to innovate. At this time, it is easy for most to see this concept for software engineers but similar potential exists for many engineers.

Here is some data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (which has some great data but the web site could be much better).

Hourly Rates for Engineers in the USA
Field 1997

2000 2004
Aerospace 30.44 33.34 41.15
Chemical 30.65 36.39 37.97
Electrical 29.24 33.94 37.32.15
Petroleum 35.44 36.75 43.26
Other 29.00 33.52 36.59

Some additional data from IEEE, Employment Data Paints a Disturbing Picture:

In the first quarter of 2005, electrical engineers (EE) faced an unemployment rate that by fell to 2.1 percent, just about its historic average. The rate has been declining since 2003 when electrical engineers faced an unemployment rate of 6.3 percent — the highest ever recorded for EEs.

Between 2003 and the first quarter of this year, unemployment fell along with total employment, which declined from 363,000 in 2003 to 335,000 in March of 2005, almost 8 percent. The only way the number of unemployed engineers and the number of employed engineers can both fall at the same time is if a large number of engineers are simply leaving the profession.

While the situation is difficult there are positive and negative trends. We will continue to post on this topic.

Related posts:

Engineers Trained in Lean Manufacturing

Posted on December 12, 2005  Comments (1)

14 engineers trained in ‘lean manufacturing’

One North East is investing £9.4m into the North East Productivity Alliance (NEPA) to ensure its acclaimed work with regional companies continues until at least 2009.

The cash will allow 14 new engineers, handpicked from regional firms, to be trained under the NEPA programme, to work with management and shopfloor staff to engrain best practice ‘lean manufacturing’ into companies and raise their productivity.

The funding will also ensure the future of NEPA’s Digital Factory project – which helps firms adopt new technologies to boost productivity.

One NorthEast is a Regional Development Agency helping to create and sustain jobs, prosperity and a higher quality of life. The mission: ‘To transform England through sustainable economic development.’

David Allison, One North East Director of Business and Industry, said: “This further investment by One NorthEast in the NEPA programme is proof positive of the importance the regional development agency attaches to manufacturing.

”The NEPA programme is held up as a shining example nationally of how the public sector can work with private manufacturers to raise productivity and help them compete in a fierce global marketplace.

“Manufacturing continues to be a cornerstone of the North East economy, employing 169,000 people, contributing 25% of its GDP and generating £2.6bn in wages every year.”

The NEPA team is keen to work with regional companies to identify new engineers to work in the project. Employees will gain valuable new qualifications, boosting their worth to their parent companies by bringing best practice technique into the workplace.

More articles on lean manufacturing

Joint Singapore MIT Degree Programs

Posted on December 11, 2005  Comments (1)

The Singapore–MIT Alliance offers joint degrees from Singapore’s Nanyang Technical University (NTU), National University of Singapore (NUS) (where my father taught for a year and a half when I was a kid) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Programs are offered in:

  • Advanced Materials for Micro- and Nano-Systems (AMM&NS)
  • Chemical and Pharmaceutical Engineering (CPE)
  • Computational Engineering (CE)
  • Manufacturing Systems and Technology (MST)

Students study in Singapore and while in residence at MIT and distance coursework from MIT while in Singapore. The students earn masters degrees from MIT and a masters from NUS/NTU and possibly a doctorate from NUS/NTU. As an example, An MIT Masters and an NTU Masters details:

The Dual Masters will comprise a Master of Engineering Degree in Manufacturing from MIT and a Master of Science Degree from NTU. This programme combines a broad based approach with independent research and concentrate on problems of emerging industries. Students will combine industry-based project experience with a university-based research derived from that experience. Depending upon the student’s progress the programme may be completed in 1.5 years, but no more than 2.0 years. The MIT degree will be taken partly in residence at MIT and by distance at NTU, and will be primarily coursework-based with a group project in industry supervised by MIT. The NTU degree will include coursework and independent research with NTU faculty supervision.