29 April 2013

Paper cranes reach the final frontier

Last week Robert J. Lang gave a talk for the computer science department at my university. He has a Ted Talk that presented a very accessible version of his talk to a lay audience, versus the emphasis on algorithm development and its applications to origami that he shared with us on Wednesday.

I've always preferred modular origami and tessellations  I found the symmetry and elegance much more immediate, and I loved seeing how repeating units could be built up:

I haven't done much origami in years, except the occasional piece as a gift or decoration for someone. However, seeing the interface between algorithm, art, and engineering that Lang presented (like the up and coming Eyeglass Telescope, or Miura's folding solar panel for Japanese satellite) refreshed my interest. I need to see if I still have paper around...

16 April 2013

What can a student say to Congress about engineering education?

One of my projects over the last several months has been organizing a small delegation of undergraduate students from the university IEEE section to attend the Congressional Visits Day in Washington, DC. CVD is an opportunity for technical professionals to speak to their representatives about the importance of funding education and research in science, engineering and technology fields.

I attended a couple years ago, and I was struck that the bulk of participants were men, either in senior positions in their careers or retired. I think that's a strong demographic to speak on the need for developing engineers and technical capability, but I think it's important for students, actively engaged in their engineering education, to speak up about their experiences. The first hand perspective of someone going through an engineering curriculum offers an insight into what students are experiencing now, rather than a rehash of more, shall we say, historic time frames.

Another reason I think taking the students is to make sure they're exposed to the realities outside their field. In the 112th Congressional Class, there are six engineers and three other scientists out of all the representatives on the Hill, and they're all in the House. That's the same number of accountants, and less than a third of the lawyers. (Stats here.) Without no science background, there's a tremendous amount of information that's easy to glaze over and misunderstand. As engineers, we have a responsibility to look at the factors that feed our technical capacity and recognize the impact that decisions for the short term will have years down the line. We need to make the technological contributions accessible and show the impact clearly, in terms of jobs, money and the metrics that our representatives are interested in.

IEEE has some great resources, and I'm pleased that the students I took did so well. However, the budget changes every year, and things only seem to be getting more expensive. It's critical to remember that this isn't a one-shot effort.


05 April 2013

Firefly butts for better plasma screens...

As I've been continuously aggregating prior art and other background information for my research, I've really enjoyed tracking one specific thread on biomimicry and bioinspiration. A couple of my favorites:

Fish cloaking - Some silver scaled fish have crystals inside their scales which affect how light reflects off their bodies, making them much harder for predators to see.

Firefly lanterns - The pattern of a firefly "lantern" (the apparently correct name for glowing insectoid hindquarters) couples light out very effectively, and might make LEDs and displays more efficient.

Butterfly scales - More well known...the scales of butterfly wings are capable of incredible color mixing.