Global News Michigan



EYE ON EDUCATION                   David N. Goodman

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March 7, 2010
Oak Park, Michigan _ Many people are saying Michigan should look outside the auto industry for the jobs of the future. The loss since 2000 of 1 million jobs, or about a fifth of the state's work force, is one measure of how urgent it is to create new employment opportunities in Michigan.

So what should we think of plans by the state's Big 3 universities to make transportation research a focus of their coordinated activities?

It could be the old hair of the dog -- taking a swig from the same bottle that got the state hung over in the first place. But those behind the initiative say it's both natural and shrewd to draw on Michigan's history and expertise in trying to rebuild from the economic earthquake wrought by the Great Recession.

Put a Post-It note on the October calendar for the University Research Corridor's transportation summit in Detroit.

The consortium created by the University of Michigan, Wayne State and Michigan State universities has launched an initiative called "Transforming Transportation: Economies & Communities."
    General Motors Co.'s Orion Township assembly plant. Charles                                          Tines, Detroit News.

Between now and October, each campus will be bringing its own researchers together to develop plans for a region-wide focus on transportation studies.

"Sitting at the historic epicenter of transportation innovation, Michigan is right now strategically placed to reclaim that role," said Susan Zielinski of the University of Michigan's Transport Research Institute.

The test will be in the execution. Neither success nor failure is written in stone.  

February 21,2010

Oak Park, Michigan _ With my Significant Other out of town for a shower for her soon-to-be grandson, I've made it through a big chunk of my current bedside reading, a book that looks at the development of U.S. research universities.

In "The Great American University," ex-Columbia University provost Jonathan Cole writes several chapters skimming the many technical, scientific and medical advances that have come out of American universities in the past half-century plus. It's amazing to see them described, one after one, and realize the tremendous change they've brought about. There's so much to say that Cole doesn't have much space time to spend on any one breakthrough. But here's one that really caught mye eye: fewer babies dying.

"In the second half of the twentieth century ... the U.S. infant mortality rate declined by 76 percent," Cole writes, crediting ultrasound techgnology, improved nutrition and improved care for preemies. He mentions a treatment for immature lungs that aren't making the soapy coating "surfactant" needed to easily inflate. Approved by the FDA in 1990, the drug Exosurf cut deaths from neonatal respiratory distress by half.

There's a long way to go in making state-of-the-art health care to all Americans, but it's worth remembering how far we've come. 


February 8, 2010

Oak Park, Michigan _ A solar-powered sensor packed into 9 cubic millimeters debuts February 9 at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference in San Francisco. It's being presented by Greg Chen, a University of Michigan computer science and engineering grad student.

The sensor is about 1,000 times smaller than what's commercially available today.

Beyond the "wow" factor, the work by the U-M team could make it possible to more efficiently monitor the conditions of bridges or other infrastructure. The ultra-small, ultra-low power monitors also could have biomedical uses. The biggest challenge, associate professor Dennis Sylvester says, was power management.
                   photo by Daeyeon Kim, University of Michigan
It's said that success has many parents. Certainly, this project does, with backing from the National Science Foundation, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA),  National Institute of Standards and Technology, Focus Center Research Program and ARM.


February 7, 2010

Oak Park, Michigan _ Probably more than enough's been said about the Toyota accelerator pedal recall. Cars aren't really my thing. I drive a 10-year-old Ford Focus with lots of dings and a dented rear end. It keeps moving, and I'm happy.

Anyway, as happens, I went to visit a suburban Detroit Toyota dealership to interview the hordes of people certain to be lining up to get the problem fixed. I showed up and found the showroom almost empty and the shop doing half its normal business. The reason: A template needed to make a corrective cut in the pedals  hadn't arrived yet, and people who would have scheduled other repair work were waiting till the recall fix could be done in the same visit.

Dealer Bob McInerney projected confidence when asked about how the recall publicity would affect his business. General Motors and Chrysler are the ones that should be sweating, he said. They're shedding models and whole brands, giving Toyota a chance to grab their business. He said those customers who called in seemed to be comfortable with his "don't worry, no need to rush" advice.

Now University of Michigan engineering professor Jeffrey Liker takes the view that Toyota's goof is not in engineering but rather in PR. In fact, he contends in a video interview, Toyota has been tightening up its quality standards lately, using assembly plant slowdowns to improve production.

My conclusion, as a non-car person is this: Today's cars are extremely reliable, go a 100,000 miles with limited maintenance and have lots of safety and convenience features only dreamed of a generation ago. I'm talking all manufacturers. That gives me the freedom to hang onto my ride for a long time -- not great for car sales, maybe, but better for my wallet.


January 30, 2010

Oak Park, Michigan _ Oh, to be young and brilliant. My whiz kid nephew Danny is looking to his future after working with a tech startup company for a while following his graduation from Harvard. He recently Tweeted a link to a TED Talks interview with inventor Pranav Mistry.This is a guy who developed a head cam that lets people turn a piece of paper into a virtual computer screen.

Danny's take: "Amazing! Reason number 2 for a CS PhD."

In the interview,  Mistry shows tools that, in an understatement, " help the physical world interact with the world of data." 

In another tech note, a New York Times blogger Nick Bilton says some people's "so what?" reaction to the launch of Apple's much-hyped iPad may have been premature. Instead of looking at the iPad as a laptop with deficits, think of it as a Kindle with interactive features and that shows videos.


January 28, 2010

Detroit _ If you're driving and see mountains in the distance ahead, you can guess the road will take you to them, even if you can't see the line it takes. When I think about today's computing power and software design accomplishments, and how fast they have grown in a relatively short time, it seems inevitable that the machines we make will exceed our own abilities, one by one.

The big question I see is whether there will be a meaningful place for human beings in the world of the future, or whether we will be left behind, perhaps like animals in a zoo or protected wilderness, while robotic, digitally based life forges its own evolutionary path.

I'm pretty confident there's a future for digital life. I hope there's one for human life, too. Perhaps the best hope for us as a species is to gradually embed ourselves in a digitally powered augmented reality, where we are at least partners with the machines to which we gave birth.

Take a look at this report from the New Media Consortium's 2009 symposium "The Future is What We Make It," and thanks to Wayne State University new media guru Karen McDevitt for revealing it to me.


January 27, 2010

Oak Park, Michigan _ Two very different exhibits are opening at two very different musems about 15 miles apart.

At theHolocaust Memorial Center in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills, a collection of photos preserved by a young woman who survived Nazi concentration and labor camps went on display this week.  "Auschwitz Album" shows pictures taken by a German SS guard whose job was to identify and catalog the arriving prisoners.  Lili Jacob  later stumbled on the hidden photos showing her Hungarian Jewish family and friends as they arrived at the death camp. She later presented the photos to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem.

In Dearborn,  the subject is coffee in an exhibit that opens January 28 at the  Arab American National Museum. It's titled "From Mocha to Latte: Coffee, the Arab World and the $4 Cup" and tells of the history of the coffee culture that spread from the Arab Middle East around the globe.

Both museums are architecturally impressive and represent big investments of money and pride by their communities.

The Arab American museum reflects the growing numbers and confidence of southeastern Michigan's vibrant Arab community, fueled by successive waves of immigration and standing at perhaps 300,000 people.  The Holocaust center grew out of a decades-long effort by  its founder, the late Rabbi Charles Rosenzveig, himself a Holocaust survivor.   He worked tirelessly to raise money for its construction from among members of the areas 70,000 or so Jews, as well as other donors.

Both museums are labors of love, reflecting the pride and loyalty of their respective communities.


January 17, 2010

Oak Park, Michigan _ Times are tough in Michigan these days. Can research universities make a difference in whether the state is able to find new sources of jobs in the face of a shrinking U.S. auto industry? 

A new book by former Columbia University Provost Jonathan R. Cole may offer some signs of hope.

"The Great American University" states flat out that America dominates the world in university-based research. Cole lays out the case for U.S. pre-eminence in higher education, explains why it came to be and talks about why he thinks it matters.

According to Cole, universities not only are powerful instutions by themselves, they also are drivers of new industries and technologies that raise our standard of living.

He points to a number of threats to U.S. universities, including attacks on academic freedom, post 9/11 visa crackdowns that have kept bright students and faculty out, recession-reduced endowments and state aid cuts.  But he also highlights the social factors that led to the development of these institutions starting in the early 20th century, suggesting America's leadership in higher education may have some staying power.

In Cole's analysis, the University of Michigan is among the top public research institutions in the country. Indeed, the Ann Arbor school's research budget recently crossed the $1 billion annual threshold. Michigan State, Wayne State and Michigan Technological universities also are ranked highly.  

Michigan's governor has focused on research and technology as engines for the state's reindustrialization, with a particular emphasis on green transportation and power.

What stands in the way of Jennifer Granholm's vision for Michigan's rebirth? University of Michigan Research Vice President Stephen Forrest acknowledged to me last year that there has been a gap between research and business application in the state, a shortage of new tech entrepreneurship.   That's something U-M is seeking to overcome by creating a welcome place for businesses as it assimilates the former Pfizer labs into its North Campus research complex.

At Wayne State, the TechTown project that started in 2000 seeks to do the same thing and can point to a number of successful start-ups from university-based discoveries.

Will the force of innovation be enough to overcome the outflow of economic activity from the downsizing of the U.S.-based automakers? We can only hope.