October 8, 2012

On the Road Again…

Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend Convocation/First Year Experience last Friday.  I hear that Ian Schreiber did a fabulous job speaking, our students asked insightful questions, and that it was a great event.   Big thanks to Jon Preston for organizing the festivities.

The reason I couldn’t attend was that on Friday, I was on the road, heading up to Greensboro, North Carolina to attend the Engineering Technology Leadership Institute Conference.  Jill and Mark were getting a bit claustrophobic in Marietta, so they decided to join me on the trip up.   Other than some construction on I-85 by Salisbury, NC, the trip was uneventful and the weather and traffic were fine, but the traffic was backed up on the other side of the highway for miles by the construction.  We had supper in Charlotte, saw the daughter of a good friend in a play at the Children’s Theatre, and rolled into Greensboro at 11:30 PM, collapsing into bed. 

On Saturday, I was part of a three-person panel, moderated by our own Dean Jeff Ray, on the subject of“The Future of Engineering Technology”.  The panel was well received, and there were lots of questions about what we’re doing (and planning on doing) at SPSU.  My own view is that Engineering Technology (both at SPSU and more broadly) has the potential of having a great future—one that by far can outshine the past.  

One step to realize this future is to recognize that nature of engineering technology is exactly what much of the world needs, especially countries in the third-world.  There are lots of opportunities for programs in the US to form partnerships with universities in third world (such as we’ve done with a college in Cameroon), to offer students an education in ET, thereby producing the kind of ultra-applied, hands-on, “can do” graduates that those countries desperately need.  Much of the world is covered with grand development projects that never panned out, because the projects involved the implementation of high technology that there was no basic infrastructure (human, financial, or physical) to support.  The result was a lot of graft going to high government officials and lots of high technology left rusting in the fields.  Implementation and optimization of existing technology to address human needs is an area that engineering technology programs, students, and graduates are ideally suited for—the rubble house project at SPSU last year led by both ET and engineering faculty (where a house was constructed from rubble and tested to see how well it could withstand earthquake-like stresses) is an excellent example of the sort of thing I’m talking about. 

There are lots of successful implementations of projects where existing technologies have been modified to fit third-world needs, with the modifications focusing on making the technology sustainable within the local circumstances.  Rotary International (I’m a member of the Marietta chapter) sponsors a number of “high-tech/low tech” clean water projects, including funding solar-powered water pumps, distribution of LifeStraws (a one-foot long, 2 inch diameter, plastic “straw” personal water purification systems that one can suck impure water into and obtain purified water from the other end—it lasts for about a year and costs $6.50), distribution of water vessels designed to stop the spread of cholera, installation of grey water filters (to separate grease and oil from wash water), and many other such projects.  Rotary has even developed a handbook on developing sustainable water projects, which can be accessed by clicking here.   The development of “high-tech/low tech” products for water purification, as medical devices, for use in agriculture, etc., are all ideal student research projects in engineering technology.

Another important step is to recognize that ET’s nature lends itself to specialization, and these days, lots of students want to specialize.  Development of more specialized ET programs, such as the ones we’re currently planning at SPSU (Environmental Engineering Technology and Biomedical Engineering Technology) will lead to greater student awareness, interest, and enrollment.

A final critical step for Engineering Technology’s future is marketing.  Since most people have no idea what ET is, it’s important to capture the story of what engineering technology students and graduates do.  This is obviously critical in attracting students to the field, but it’s also critical to expanding opportunities for ET graduates.  There was an interesting article published in the Journal of Engineering Technology (“Engineering Technologists Are Engineers”, by Ronald E. Land, Journal of Engineering Technology, Spring 2012, p. 32) that surveyed engineering companies as to their hiring practices.  While the majority of companies hired both engineering and ET graduates for a broad range of roles, some (including agencies in the federal government) will not hire ET graduates at all, presumably due in part to a lack of understanding of what ET graduates can do.  Capturing the story can obviously help inform these companies and agencies, as well as help inform legislators in states where ET graduates cannot achieve licensure. 

As to the conference itself, I got to meet a lot of interesting people (several of whom wanted to follow up in one way or another with us) and engage in some interesting discussions.  The food was only OK for breakfast and lunch, but dinner was excellent and followed by a gospel choir composed of current NC A&T students and some graduates.  Jill and Mark had found the local shopping mall, with Mark coming home a video game and a DVD richer.  The weather had turned quite cold, only reaching into the 50’s on Saturday, and by Saturday night I was regretting not having brought a jacket.

Sunday morning began with some heavy rain, but it was only sprinkling when we went out for breakfast at the local eatery (the Smith Street Diner—a constant line of people trying to get in and quite good all around, with first-class potato pancakes!), and the rain had stopped completely when we drove home.  We didn’t get far (two blocks to be exact), when we saw the Greensboro ballpark, home of the Greensboro Grasshoppers (a single A farm team of the Miami Marlins in the South Atlantic league).  Naturally, we had to stop and take a picture of Mark posing with their mascot. 


Next, we stopped in Salisbury, NC to have lunch with the same friends we saw the play with on Friday and to meet their new grandchild—nine months old and cute as a button.  The rest of the ride home was smooth and uneventful.  Did you know that gasoline prices in South Carolina are 20 cents below here (and below North Carolina, for that matter).  What’s up with that?  Our final stop was at the “Largest Flea Market in Georgia”, which was pretty much a commercial operation and of little interest.  Ah well…I much prefer flea markets where people are emptying out their attics and basements, but haven’t seen any of this type down south—they’re pretty common in New England.  We arrived home at about 7:30 PM, and that was it for the weekend.


We’re Number Four!

The Chronicle of Higher Education points out, in a headline article in its October 5 issue, that Georgia is #4 in the nation in the category of largest cuts in funding to its public research universities.  Colorado leads the pack, with a 48% cut in state support per student from 2002-2010, followed by Rhode Island (47%), South Carolina (38%), and Georgia and Illinois (both 37%).  Only six states showed increases over this time period: Alaska, Delaware, Louisiana (!), New York, North Dakota, and Wyoming.  

Lists like this are somewhat deceptive for several reasons.  One, which was stated in the article, is that some of the increases (New York’s apparent increase was 72%!) are a function of other factors—SUNY’s spokesman, David Belsky, stated that the increase was because of mandatory increases in fringe benefits, and that per student funding had remained flat aside from this.  Another factor, not stated in the article, is that different states give wildly different amounts of support to their state universities.  New Hampshire had a massive cut two years ago (on the order of 50%), but the amount of state support is tiny—the state universities there are practically private with UNH having the highest tuition of any state flagship (or at least it used to).

Still, flaws and all, the situation isn’t good.  If anyone is wondering why we’re pushing to do things more efficiently at SPSU and focusing on graduation rates, the above should provide a pretty clear explanation.


And in the Sporting News…

While many in Georgia were disappointed by this weekend’s sports developments, there was no gloom in Mudville due to wins by the University of South Carolina (my grad-school alma mater) over UGA in football, and by Chelsea over Norwich in real football (otherwise known as soccer).  Chelsea remains in first place in the premiere league, by a reasonably healthy four points.  Manchester United won too, proving that nothing is perfect.


I Was a Welfare Mother

On Sunday mornings, I like to read the newspaper along with breakfast, a habit I got into long ago.  The only difference was since I was in North Carolina, instead of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I was reading the Greensboro News-Record.  My favorite part is always the editorial pages and I ran into an article titled “I Was a Welfare Mother” that I thought was written by a local author, but turned out to be from the New York Times Sunday Review when I was hunting around for an electronic copy.

The article kinda sums up a number of issues in this year’s presidential election in an interesting way.  It’s the story of Larkin Warren, who had “flunked out, gotten pregnant, eloped, had a child, divorced and then fumbled my first few do-overs of jobs and relationships”.  On coming home late one night, she found her mother furiously filling in application forms to get her readmitted to college.  “She said she’d write the essay, too, if I wouldn’t. You have to get back on track, she told me. I sat down with her and began writing.”  And so, it was back to college at the University of New Hampshire as an undergraduate.  Using educational loans and grants and subsidized housing, she was able to barely keep her and her son’s heads above water, but at the end of the first semester, she knew she couldn’t survive this way.  A friend suggested she apply for food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children.  Her response?

Me, a welfare mother? I’d been earning paychecks since the seventh grade. My parents were Great Depression children, both ex-Marines. They’d always taught self-reliance. And I had grown up hearing that anyone “on the dole” was scum. But my friend pointed out I was below the poverty line and sliding. I had a small child. Tuition was due.  So I went to my dad. He listened, did the calculations with me, and finally said: “I never used the G.I. Bill. I wish I had. Go ahead, do this.” My mother had already voted. “Do not quit. Do. Not.”  ”

She encountered lots of different kinds of people in the welfare bureaucracy, some helpful, some spiteful.  Eventually, she graduated, got off welfare, got a job, got remarried, and worked her way up.  “My husband and I have paid big taxes and raised a hard-working son who pays a chunk of change as well. We pay for sidewalks, streetlights, sanitation trucks, the military (we have three nephews in uniform, two deployed), police and fire departments, open emergency rooms, teachers, bus drivers, museums, libraries and campuses where people’s lives are saved, enriched and raised up every day. My country gave me the chance to rebuild my life — paying my tax tab is the only thing it’s asked of me in return.

The article concludes: “We never believed we were “victims” or felt “entitled”; if anything, we felt determined. Wouldn’t any decent person throw a rope to a drowning person? Wouldn’t any drowning person take it?  Judge-and-punish-the-poor is not a demonstration of American values. It is, simply, mean. My parents saved me and then — on the dole, in the classroom or crying deep in the night, in love with a little boy who needed everything I could give him — I learned to save myself. I do not apologize. I was not ashamed then; I am not ashamed now. I was, and will always be, profoundly grateful.

When I read the article, I found the story to be quite touching, and a wonderful example of how education can turn someone’s life around.  When tax time rolls around I can’t say that I’m eager to pay, but I remember that (at least some) of my money goes to support people like Larkin Warren who use it successfully to turn their lives around, and that makes it easier.  It’s critically important to have a social safety net to help folks who are in bad straits, and there are thousands if not millions of success stories like this one that you never hear about.

A little further reflection brought up some other more disturbing thoughts.  While Larkin Warren’s story ended well, the beginning wasn’t quite so uplifting.  She didn’t dwell much on the part of the story where she was in college and flunked out.  Or on the man she married and divorced who apparently didn’t help support their child.  Or on the subsequent fumbling of her “first do-overs of jobs or relationships.”  Is it unreasonable for taxpayers to ask: “Why should my taxes be used to help someone who had so many opportunities and squandered them through bad choices?”

Looking only at the end of the story, who wouldn’t want to have contributed to the wonderful outcome?  Looking only at the beginning of the story, who would have wanted to bet on her success? A lot of times in politics and in life, we tend to look at situations as being all one thing or all another.  We call people “on the dole” scum, until they are our own children, when we want the government to support them.  We vilify one candidate for being a bleeding-heart who wants to waste money on undeserving multigenerational “bums on welfare”, and vilify the other for having no heart, abandoning the poor, and only wanting to grant favors to the undeserving rich.  The candidates respond with oversimplified “solutions” that fail to address the complexities of real peoples’ lives, and gratuitous attacks on the other’s position.  We respond by electing candidates on the basis of these oversimplifications.

What’s the real solution to this—a solution that could bring us together as a country to address our real problems in ways that are keeping with American values?  You’ll have to give me at least until next week to figure out the answer to that question.


Last Week’s Trivia Contest

Last week’s questions all had something to do with the word “short”, and the winner is Rich Halstead-Nussloch (IT), with a fabulous five correct.  He wins a duplicate jazz CD from the bottomless Szafran archive.  Here are the answers:

  1. It can give you a shock.  Short circuit
  2. Originated in the British Army for use in desert or tropical climates.  Bermuda shorts
  3. One part sugar, two parts butter, three parts flour.  Recipe for shortbread
  4. It’s one of four in Monopoly.  The Short Line Railroad
  5. Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues.   Shortest player ever in the NBA


This Week’s Trivia Challenge

To prove that the BLAB is always fair and balanced, since last week’s contest focused on the word “short”, our trivia challenge this week focuses on the word “long”.  First with the most takes the prize, and no looking up the answers!

  1. University of Texas team name.
  2. Winner of the 2006 Golden Globe Award for Best Actress, in Desperate Housewives.
  3. Criminals are caught because of it.
  4. Military retreat undertaken by Mao Tse Tung in 1934.
  5. Longest (timewise) Beatles song on an officially released album. 
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One Response to October 8, 2012

  1. paul howley says:

    We really enjoyed your visit(s) with us! Thanks for coming!…Paul and Mal

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