AIP | Matters
-- -- October 28, 2013

Director's Matters

Cathy O'Riordan grinding coffee on an Engineers Without Boarders trip to Ethiopia.

Guest column by Catherine O'Riordan, Vice President, Physics Resources (BS in Mechanical Engineering and MS, PhD in Civil Engineering)

Using science and engineering to find solutions

When I think about what originally drew me to science and engineering, it was coming up with ideas that led to solutions. As a child, I was always looking for ways to fix things and improve processes to make them more efficient. There were always things that needed improving in the chaotic household that I shared with very busy physician parents and five siblings. When the energy crisis hit in the 1970s, my father, who was also trained in math and physics, got creative with new ways to save energy. He showed us how to build homemade solar heating boxes (Plexiglas-covered wooden boxes attached to the roof then painted black with forced air flowing through them) and inexpensive heat-sink insulation (several hundred water-filled plastic milk cartons lined our enclosed front porch as an air lock against the cold). We even recycled old venetian blinds and painted one side black to capture heat in the windows during the day. One of my favorite “solutions” was taking a pick ax to the basement floor to dig a well and reach the water table (down only a few feet) so that we could water the lawn and vegetable garden.

Since those early childhood memories, I have been fortunate to share my search for solutions with communities in different settings. My engineering and research career has taken me to a small-town factory in Ohio, to water treatment facilities in the United States and Europe, and to other places where science and engineering can be applied to make systems more effective and improve lives.

EWB team member Ed Elder with children in the town marketplace. Credit: Catherine O'Riordan

Earlier this year, I was fortunate to become involved with a remarkable program that teaches undergraduate students in science and engineering how to work with communities in the developing world to help them find solutions for their challenges. I worked with a team of engineers (students and professionals) from the University of Maryland chapter of Engineers without Borders (EWB) to advance engineering solutions in a small town in Ethiopia.The chapter has been working with this particular town for over three years and is now preparing to launch its fourth town infrastructure improvement project.

Each project is conceived of jointly—the volunteers work only on solutions that the town leaders feel is a high priority. The project must be limited in scope so that the students can complete construction during a several-week period, and the town must also participate in the construction and commit to taking on future maintenance. Once the need is identified, the volunteers get to work, coming up with simple design solutions that can be constructed at low cost using local materials. The UMD-EWB chapter has worked on projects in Burkina Faso, Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, and Thailand.

EWB team members inspecting the bridge that was constructed in 2012 to replace a wooden bridge and provide access to the Addis Alem marketplace. Credit: Catherine O'Riordan Addis Alem market on a busy day. Animal waste and heavy rain mix together to create unsanitary conditions.

Teams of students and their mentors have built water purification systems, solar power stations, and basic civil infrastructure (bridges, etc). Through these projects, the chapter has worked to build capacity and improve the lives of many thousands of people. You can learn more about the work of this chapter here:

EWB team members at an outreach program about engineering solutions delivered to children in the local school. Credit: Catherine O'Riordan

The week that I spent in Ethiopia, working with the community to assess past projects and future needs, reminded me again of why I went into engineering—finding good solutions takes an understanding of the environment and the constraints, and often, the simplest solutions are the best ones. Working with such energetic and creative undergraduate engineering students gives me hope for the future. You can read an account of my recent trip to Ethiopia to assess some of these projects in the Points of View section of Physics Today online (PTOL):

“Our Engineers Without Borders team arrived in Ethiopia on a rainy Monday morning. Summer rainfall in the Horn of Africa is driven by the southwesterly winds from the South Atlantic Ocean. The rainy season starts in May, so by mid-July, there has already been considerable precipitation: Approximately 1100 mm falls on the country’s capital, Addis Ababa, each year; 800 mm between June and September. . . Continue reading at PTOL.

Physics Resource Matters

SPS National Council meets

The 2013-14 SPS National Council.

SPS held its 2013 National Council meeting last month at the American Center for Physics, bookended by activities at the hotel in Crystal City, VA. The council is composed of two representatives from each of the 18 geographic zones, along with the seven-member Executive Committee. The group is tasked with examining SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma programs, initiatives, and activities, considering potential new directions that best carry out the mission of the societies. Council meetings are generally filled with exuberant energy, with many of the council members visiting the DC area for the first time and looking forward to their first visit to ACP. This year’s group was no exception, and applied themselves to gathering information, exchanging ideas, and committee work.

For the past several years, the council has undertaken an outreach project as part of the meeting. This year, for the first time, SPS hosted a booth at a mainstream street festival, the H-Street Festival on H Street Northeast, a true downtown DC street festival with several live music stages, multiple vendors, and a range of culinary and entertainment attractions. The SPS outreach was appropriately situated in the children and families section, where SPS council members spent the afternoon teaching lessons on the physics of diffraction (with glasses), thin films (bubbles), and non-Newtonian fluids (cornstarch and water). When faced with a late-afternoon downpour, the group donned plastic bag rain ponchos and continued with their promotion of physics to the soggy but eager crowd.

SPS National Council members demonstrated the properties of thin films with soap bubbles at the H Street Festival in Washington, DC.

Outreach and service were cited as the most important priority in a vote by chapters attending the 2012 Quadrennial Physics Congress last November in Orlando. And this year, the council adopted the following statement on outreach:

“The Society of Physics Students recognizes that outreach inspires scientific literacy while promoting public understanding of the benefits of physics education and research. Community and educational partnerships also foster curiosity and passion in the next generation. These activities enrich the experience of the participating undergraduate students as ambassadors of science by promoting a deeper commitment to their discipline. We are committed to providing programs, resources, and opportunities that highlight physics and encourage community outreach partnerships.”

The council also recommended that SPS focus attention and resources on zone-level interactions to more fully engage larger numbers of undergraduate students and to increase focus on career resources.

Sheldon Cooper to be featured in Physics Today article?

According to The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, Physics Today wants to write an article about his developing a method for synthesizing a new, stable, super-heavy element. He announces the news nearly eight minutes into the online video of the episode, “The Romance Resonance,” which broadcast on October 24.

Physics Resource Matters

Grolier Club features extraordinary women in science

Check out the current exhibit at the Grolier Club on 47 East 60th Street in New York City. “Extraordinary Women in Science & Medicine: Four Centuries of Achievement” features the contributions of 32 accomplished women in physics, chemistry, astronomy, mathematics, computing, and medicine. “More than 150 original items are on view, including books, manuscripts, periodicals, offprints, dissertations, and laboratory apparatus (such as that used by Marie Curie during her earliest work on radioactivity), providing a remarkable overview of the lives and activities of this eminent group.” The exhibit will run through November 23.

Coming Up

October 27-November 1

  • AVS International Symposium & Exhibition (Long Beach, CA)

November 7-10

  • AAPT New Faculty Workshop (College Park)

November 11

  • AIP Executive Committee meeting (College Park)

November 12

  • AIP Governing Board meeting (College Park)
  • (Note: The previously announced Trimble Science Heritage Lecture has been postponed.)

November 13

  • Birthday breakfasts (Melville and College Park)

Through November 15

  • Open Enrollment for health and flexible spending benefit programs (Melville and College Park)

November 20

  • Brown bag lunch, 12 pm, given by Charlie McMillan, Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory (College Park)

November 28-29

  • AIP and AIP Publishing closed for Thanksgiving holiday