Leading the News
DARPA Seeks To Focus More On Space Tech.
Space News (3/1, Subscription Publication) reports DARPA Director Walker on Thursday said the agency intends to prioritize space-related projects. He said that four or five years ago, it was clear that “space was changing, that things were getting very contested and that the US needed some programs to counter it.” Walker “said it’s time for DoD to shift future spending” from large, complex satellites in geostationary earth orbit “to constellations in low earth orbit made up of dozens or hundreds of small satellites.” According to Space News, the thinking is that the “more satellites in the system, the harder it will be for the enemy to take it down.” DARPA has invited private firms to pitch ideas under a program called Blackjack, Walker revealed, stating, “We are looking at how we leverage the commercial sector at LEO, how we leverage the manufacturing of smaller cheaper satellite buses, and looking at how we put our payloads into those more affordable buses.”
DARPA Chief: US Remains At Fore Of Artificial Intelligence Research. Roll Call (3/1, Ratnam) reports Walker also touted the US government’s efforts in regards to artificial intelligence, “disputing assertions by top U.S. technology executives that China was racing ahead.” Speaking at an event hosted by the Defense Writers Group, Walker said, “I think I’d put our AI, our country’s efforts, up against anybody,” adding that DARPA “helped create the field in the early 1960s” and since then has consistently invested in the three waves of artificial intelligence technologies, Walker said.
Federal News Radio (DC) (3/1) reports Walker “pushed back Thursday on concerns that countries like Russia or China could soon outpace the United States on artificial intelligence developments,” telling reporters the agency “will play a leading role in developing the next-generation of AI breakthroughs.” This piece reports Walker’s comments “come in response to claims made by Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, over the last few months that near-peer adversaries, like Russia or China, could overtake the U.S. when it comes to new AI developments.” Federal News Radio quotes Walker saying, “I don’t think we’re falling behind. DARPA certainly is investing in the next generation of AI pretty heavily.”
Dallas Seeks To Improve College Readiness Trends.
The Dallas Morning News (3/1, Smith) says “hope is on the horizon” in Dallas “that a new college-for-all initiative” and Dallas Independent School District’s “efforts in early college high schools” can reverse the county’s trend in declining college readiness and enrollment, postsecondary persistence, and degree completion. The article describes the initiatives in more detail.
Developmental Education Reform Leaves Lawmakers Torn.
U.S. News & World Report (3/1, Daugherty) reports that more than half of students new to community college “find themselves needing to take a step back to enroll in developmental, or remedial, classes in reading, writing, or math because the college has determined they do not have the skills to be successful in a college-level course.” The article explains that these developmental courses are costly, and “research shows that many students who enroll in developmental courses drop out before ever taking a college-level course.” Policymakers in several states are torn between those pushing to reform developmental education and those worrying that overly-hasty reform will be damaging.
Report Highlights Growing Cost Of Public Post-secondary Institutions In Massachusetts.
The Boston Globe (3/1, Fernandes) says a report released Thursday by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center shows Massachusetts public colleges and universities are “becoming increasingly pricey for students and their families and forcing more of them to borrow ever larger sums of money to graduate, undermining a long-held reputation of public colleges and universities as the cheaper alternative for the middle class.” The report says that between 2004 and 2016, the average student loan debt for graduates of the state’s public colleges and universities rose “faster than in any other state in the country except Delaware.” The article provides further detail on the issue and discusses actions by public university and state officials to address it.
ASEE International Forum
Join international colleagues on June 27 for a ticketed networking luncheon accompanied by a keynote speech from José Carlos Quadrado, immediate-past-president of LACCEI, on issues surrounding international students’ experiences at U.S. institutions and U.S. students’ experiences abroad. A panel session open to all Annual Conference attendees follows; the Forum concludes with a poster session at the President’s Farewell Reception. Separate International Forum registration is also available for anyone not attending the Conference. More information here as it becomes available.
NEW Webinar on Professionalism, Ethics, & Department Climate
This webinar, led by David Mogk (Montana State) and inspired by the National Academies’ Impacts of Sexual Harassment in Academia, explores components of professionalism, introduce topics that contribute to workplace climate, and suggest actions to ensure everyone’s success in your department. The live webinar is March 14 from 1:00 PM – 2:00 PM, ET. Register now!
NEW TUEE II Webinar Series — Preparing Tomorrow’s Engineers (March/April 2018)
This free, NSF-supported webinar series explores activities faculty can implement in the classroom to encourage professional skill development, focusing on leadership, ethics, and critical thinking. This series is inspired by the TUEE Phase II workshop, where students shared insights on education experiences. Read more and register: https://www.asee.org/webinars
Research and Development
SUNY, Indian University Partnership Furthers Cooperation Around Astrophysics Research.
Oswego County (NY) Today (3/1) reports on an exchange of scholars and research between State University of New York (SUNY) Oswego and the University of Delhi and the Inter University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Pune. The exchange is “funded by the Indo-U.S. Science and Technology Forum” and “will fund the ability of student and faculty researchers to travel from India to the U.S. and vice versa.” The research is part of astrophysics project “probing the age and size of the universe.”
University Of Michigan Computer Scientist Sheds Light On Cuban “Sonic Attack” Mystery.
IEEE Spectrum (3/1) reports on the mystery surrounding ailments being experienced by US and Canadian diplomats in Cuba amid speculation “that a high-frequency sonic weapon was to blame. ... The mystery deepened in October, when the Associated Press (AP) released a 6-second audio clip, reportedly a recording of what U.S. embassy staff heard.” The article reports that University of Michigan computer scientist Kevin Fu, whose lab “specializes in analyzing the cybersecurity of devices connected to the Internet of Things, such as sensors, pacemakers, RFIDs, and autonomous vehicles,” “noted some unusual ripples” on a spectral plot of the clip, and “thought he might know what they meant.” Fu’s work “has taught him that modern electronics often behave in unpredictable ways and that such devices can be manipulated—intentionally or inadvertently—using carefully crafted acoustic or radio interference. To Fu, the ripples in the spectral readout suggested some kind of interference.” The article describes at length the research of Fu and his colleagues in trying to unravel the mystery, and relates that they concluded the acoustic signal was the result of an unintentional convergence of technologies. “Fu is careful to offer a caveat: ‘Of course, we don’t know for certain this was the cause. But bad engineering just seems much more likely than a sonic weapon.’”
The Conversation (US) (3/1) reports “Electrical engineering and computer science professors Wenyuan Xu from Zhejiang University and Kevin Fu from the University of Michigan explain their research, which suggests a more likely scenario of sloppy engineering, and what ultrasound frequencies (which can be used to transmit information gathered by listening devices) traveling through the air can – and can’t – do.”
The Economist Looks At Autonomous Vehicles In Six-Part Special Report.
The Economist carries a special report called “Reinventing Wheels,” a series of six articles about the changing automotive industry and the future of mobility and autonomous vehicles.
In one report, The Economist (3/1) focuses on the changes autonomous vehicles will bring to society, from fewer road deaths and accidents to less pollution and less traffic. Furthermore, in autonomous vehicles, people formerly occupied by the task of driving can use that time for other productive activities or consumption, even as delivery services transform the way people think about shopping and dining. At the same time, just as cars were touted in the early 20th century as the clean alternative to transportation by horse, with all the manure, urine, and horse corpses that entailed, autonomous vehicles may have drawbacks, from more surveillance and data collection of passengers and people on the street to “new forms of segregation” if geofencing is used to restrict riders or autonomous vehicle services from gaining access to certain areas.
Another report by The Economist (3/1) focuses on the transformation autonomous vehicles will bring to US cities, where parking and congestion woes are a way of life. According to the story, “the odd thing is that AVs could either reverse or accelerate” several trends founded upon widespread car ownership, as “they could reduce or increase traffic; make affordable transport more or less accessible; and lead to denser cities or more sprawl.” For instance, autonomous ride-sharing services may reduce the number of people who own vehicles, meaning fewer cars on the road, but at the same time lower ridership costs for robotaxi networks could end up encouraging more people to use cars as a means of transport anyway.
Another story from the special report in The Economist (3/1) highlights the explosion in autonomous vehicle technologies since the turn of the century, from early DARPA tests of autonomous vehicles in the Mojave desert in 2004 to the launch of Google’s self-driving car initiative in 2009. Now, there are several commercially available vehicles with “limited forms of autonomy,” although the story examines some of the ongoing challenges in building a fully autonomous vehicle. For now, the main concerns over autonomous vehicles center around concerns over machine ethics and cybersecurity.
Op-Ed: “Space Junk” A Growing Problem.
In a column in the Dallas Morning News (3/1), University of Texas at Austin Associate Professor of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics Moriba Jah argues that “a lot” of “space trash” orbiting the earth threatens the orbital environment. Jah writes, “And if we don’t do anything about it, we will see an increase in collisions to the detriment of space operations, space commerce and space exploration.” The Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t regulate “what stays in orbit.” The US “should create a public-private partnership composed of government, industry, academia, and international partners to focus on space traffic management.” Lawmakers should create a “NASA Space Situational Awareness Institute,” administered by NASA and composed of academic and research institutions, such as the University of Texas at Austin, to be the “scientific and technical frontier for civil and commercial space activities.”
New Study Aims To Understand Why There Are Fewer Women Than Men In STEM Careers.
The Wall Street Journal (3/1, Pinker, Subscription Publication) reports that while recent years have seen an increase in women entering traditionally male-dominated fields, such as medicine, the change has not been seen in STEM fields that encompass science and technology, math, and engineering. Women make up just 20% of the current student population in these fields, the Journal writes. It adds that a new study the Psychological Science, an academic journal, finds that while female students have STEM skills that equal male students, their aptitude for reading is often even higher, a difference on gender lines that tends to push make students towards STEM careers.
RSA Conference Slammed For Having Just One Female Keynote Speaker.
USA Today (3/1, Guynn) reports, “The RSA Conference...is taking heat for having just one female keynote speaker out of 22 this year: anti-bullying activist Monica Lewinsky.” Conference organizers “say the keynote line-up isn’t final – RSA has invited Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to speak, but she hasn’t confirmed,” and “they pin the blame on the technology industry, which skews heavily male, and to the niche field of security, where 11% of positions worldwide are held by women.”
IEEE Fellow: Exploding E-Cigarettes Undermine Health Advantages Over Smoking.
In an IEEE Spectrum (2/26) op-ed, IEEE Fellow and Center for Advanced Life Cycle Engineering Director Michael Pecht wrote that exploding e-cigarettes “are a growing danger to public health.” Pecht explained how the composition and construction of e-cigarettes, as well as the lack of legislation regulating them, is contributing to the high number of explosions, and concluded: “the entire point of e-cigarettes is the health advantages gained by removing tars and other carcinogens from the smoke. It would be a shame if these advantages were undermined by public fears about devices that blow up or burn people instead.”
Engineering and Public Policy
GOP Furious, Investors “Shaken” As Trump Announces Steel, Aluminum Tariffs.
President Trump’s announcement that he is following through on a campaign promise to levy tariffs on aluminum and steel generated extensive – and mostly unfavorable – media coverage, including scathing reports on all three major network newscasts. Media analyses cast the move as risking an all-out trade war and threatening the health of a seemingly resurgent US economy. Bloomberg News (3/1, Chandra, Miller), for example, bemoans the fact that Trump’s announcement came “after data released Thursday morning showed recent tax cuts buoyed Americans’ spending power in January, unemployment claims fell last week to an almost five-decade low and factories expanded in February at the fastest rate since 2004.” Many reports also highlighted the sharp stock sell-off that followed the announcement, and noted that what little support there was for Trump’s move came from Democrats – as Republicans were quite vocal in their opposition. At any rate, NBC Nightly News (3/1, story 3, 2:20, Jackson) reported, Trump’s move “is no surprise,” as “he campaigned on it.”
NBC News (3/1) refers to a “GOP meltdown over Trump plan,” and reports “Republicans pounced” on the President’s proposal “in an unprecedented way.” Roll Call (3/1, Williams) similarly indicated the Republican reaction was “fast, furious and negative,” while The Hill (3/1, Needham) casts Trump as “defying” the GOP. The Washington Post (2/28, Lynch, Paletta), in a similar analysis, remarks on the opposition to the move from “the business community, normally a reliable GOP ally.”
On the other hand, Bloomberg News (3/1, Wasson) reports, “some Democrats are applauding” Trump’s action, an “upside-down reaction” that “comes a day after Trump irked Republicans and pleased many Democrats by backing stricter gun-control measures.” Sen. Sherrod Brown said, “This welcome action is long overdue for shuttered steel plants across Ohio and steelworkers who live in fear that their jobs will be the next victims of Chinese cheating.” Sen. Ron Wyden, meanwhile, is quoted as saying, “I am pleased that the president recognizes the importance of addressing these challenges and finally intends to take action.”
The Hill (3/1, Samuels) reported that Sen. Bob Casey, up for reelection this fall, lauded Trump “for announcing plans to impose steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, saying it will help Pennsylvania workers.” Casey is quoted as tweeting, “It has taken the Administration far too long, but today’s announcement of an intention to act next week is a welcome step. When countries cheat on trade, Pennsylvania workers lose. I urge the Administration to follow through and to take aggressive measures to ensure our workers can compete on a level playing field.” The Hill added that Casey is bidding for another term “in a state Trump narrowly won in 2016.”
EPA Begins Dismantling Obama Methane Rules.
The Washington Examiner (3/1, Siciliano) reports the EPA on Thursday “announced two piecemeal actions” aimed at reducing “costs and regulatory ‘burdens’ imposed on the oil and natural gas industry by the Obama administration’s methane emission rules.” The agency said the two actions would mitigate “‘significant and immediate compliance concerns’ for the industry, while reducing ‘burdens’ on state environmental agencies and saving millions of dollars in compliance costs.” Recently appointed EPA air pollution chief Bill Wehrum said, “The technical amendments to the 2016 oil and gas [new source rule] are meant to alleviate targeted regulatory compliance issues faced by affected sources. While this action addresses an immediate need, it does not deter the ongoing work at the agency to assess the 2016 rule as a whole, including whether it is prudent or necessary to directly regulate methane.”
Wyoming Fights Methane Rule, Again. The Casper (WY) Star-Tribune (3/1, Richards) reports that “Wyoming is trying to bring the methane rule fight back to federal court in the Cowboy State with the aim of scrapping the regulations until the Interior Department gives the country new ones.” Wyoming and “other industry states say compliance is unfair and the rule should be tabled until the Interior is finished with its revision process.” The state counsel argued in court documents filed Wednesday, “Neither the regulated community nor the BLM is capable of switching on compliance with the Waste Prevention Rule overnight.”
EPA Moves To Roll Back Further Clean Air, Water Rules.
The AP (3/1, Biesecker, Brown) reports the EPA announced Thursday “it is rewriting Obama-era rules governing pollution from oil and gas operations and coal ash dumps, moves that opponents say will significantly weaken protections for human health and the environment.” The proposed changes are “the latest in series of actions taken over the last year to roll back regulations opposed by the fossil-fuel industry” and the EPA argues “the revisions would save electric utilities $100 million per year in compliance costs, while oil and gas operators would reap up to $16 million in benefits by 2035.” However, opponents and environmental advocates expect the revisions to “lead to dirtier air and water.” In a statement, EPA Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation Bill Wehrum said the changes will “provide regulatory certainty to one of the largest sectors of the American economy and avoid unnecessary compliance costs to both covered entities and the states.”
Proposed Changes To EPA rule Would Give States More Power To Manage Toxic Coal Ash. According to the Washington Post (3/1, Dennis, Eilperin), the EPA proposed “significant” updates to “an Obama-era initiative to regulate coal ash waste” that will give “states and utilities more latitude in how they dispose of the potentially toxic substance.” The Post reports that the “proposal includes more than a dozen suggested changes regarding the way coal ash is stored at more than 400 coal-fired power plants around the country, namely that it would allow ‘alternative performance standards’ for state and federally permitted facilities.”
Chao Touts Infrastructure Plan Before Senate.
Bloomberg News (3/1, Niquette) reports Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao “defended President Donald Trump’s infrastructure plan” at the first Congressional hearing on the plan on Thursday before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Chao said, “A key element of the proposal is to empower decision making at the state and local level, who know best the infrastructure needs of their communities.” Bloomberg reports Chao also said states that have already approved funding measures will not be penalized by the Trump Administration’s plan, which will credit state and local governments for earlier efforts to generate revenue. However, Senate Democrats criticized the plan for low levels of federal funding and questions about whether the $200 billion in federal spending would actually generate $1.5 trillion in total spending. Bloomberg mentions that there is “no consensus” for how the plan will be funded. Bloomberg mentions that “the administration plan didn’t identify a way to pay for the $200 billion,” adding that “Trump offered support for a 25-cent increase in the federal gas tax during a private meeting Feb. 14, said lawmakers who attended, but he hasn’t publicly endorsed it and key Republicans have rejected the idea.”
The Hill (3/1, Shelbourne) reports Chao told the Senators, “By incentivizing new investment on infrastructure, eliminating overly burdensome regulations, providing support for rural America and streamlining the permitting process, the Department is helping to improve our quality of life and build a better future for all Americans.”
Transport Topics (3/1, Mulero) reports Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) cited a Penn Wharton Budget Model analysis that “estimates that total new infrastructure investment would increase between $20 billion to $230 billion, including the $200 billion federal investment.” TT reports Chao “dismissed the analysis, telling Carper marketplace experts would best understand the White House’s $1.5 trillion claim.” Chao added, “It actually takes people with real-life business experience to know how it works.” TT says Chao “told the committee that administration officials had reviewed the performance of the US Department of Transportation’s loan programs to conclude $1.5 trillion would be achievable under the proposal.” Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) expressed concern that “Wall Street” is going to demand tolls if they contribute to a project, saying, “I have a big problem with the math. I just don’t think it’s going to work.” Circa (3/1) reports Markey also compared the Trump Administration’s math claims to the “miracle of the loaves and fishes,” which he says “did work 2,000 years ago, but I just don’t think it’s going to work here.” Senate EPW Committee Chair John Barrasso expressed some optimism that legislation would materialize, saying, “The time has come to make a significant investment in our roads, bridges, ports and water systems.” He insisted, “I believe we can work in a bipartisan way on legislation that will make our infrastructure even better.”
The Washington (DC) Examiner (3/1) reports Chao “said President Trump’s plan to speed up environmental permitting reviews is a key piece of the administration’s infrastructure proposal.” The Examiner reports Chao “says the Transportation Department removed more regulatory restrictions than any other agency in Trump’s first year, a concept Republican lawmakers support.” Carper admitted there are some “good ideas” in reducing permitting time, but he warned, “simply gutting environmental protections does not achieve time savings. Doing so could potentially put our communities at risk.”
Houston-Area School Takes First Place At State-Level Robotics Competition.
The Houston Chronicle (3/1, Bolton) reports that the Astrobots team from the Clear Creek Independent School District’s Clear Brook High School took first place with its robot at the state level VEX Robotics competition. The team will travel to the annual national championships, VEX Worlds, in April.
World Robotics Competition Comes To Detroit.
The Detroit Free Press (3/1, Higgins) reports on the world robotics championship, which will take place in Detroit in April and “will draw 40,000 robotics enthusiasts to the city and millions of dollars in economic impact.” The event “is creating a buzz across the state – for students, teachers, mentors, and even corporate leaders, who see it as an opportunity to spot talent for future jobs.” The Free-Press provides background on the competition and the increasing participation of schools at all levels.
Thursday's Lead Stories