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News Tip


June 21, 1996

For more information on these science news and feature story tips, please contact the public information officer at the end of each item at (703) 292-8070. Editor: Beth Gaston

Contents of this Tipsheet:

Graduates Encouraged to Broaden Career Track

This year's college graduates in science and engineering should celebrate their many career options and should resist a narrow definition of their role in society, emphasized NSF Deputy Director Anne Petersen during a recent commencement address at the University of Maryland College of Computer, Mathematical and Physical Sciences.

"People may say to you, physicists don't go into finance, mathematicians don't enter management, and meteorologists don't pursue public policy. (But) that's exactly where we are most needed," said Petersen.

Petersen and NSF Director Neal Lane have been vocal proponents of a broader career track for S&E graduates which takes into account not only the changing job market, but also society's needs for their skills. In her recent speech, Petersen referred to a Cornell University survey that found that fewer than half of managers in Fortune 1000 companies were viewed as technologically literate by their colleagues. "It's hard to believe...that a corporate manager could get away without knowing the difference between quantum mechanics and auto mechanics, or between a potato chip and a computer chip," said Petersen. "More and more jobs now require technological expertise -- not just skills, but in-depth expertise."

While acknowledging that the new graduates face career uncertainty and constant change, Petersen encouraged them to test their new wisdom. "We display wisdom when we look beyond the limits that others try to place on us," she said.

[Mary Hanson]

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Scientists Study Long-Term Effects of Hurricane Opal

On October 5, 1995, after causing heavy damage along the Gulf of Mexico shoreline, Hurricane Opal moved inland. Damage at NSF's Coweeta Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site near Franklin, North Carolina, involved extensive tree falls and washed-out roads, a result of heavy rains and gale-force winds. Effects were most severe on sites with thin soils and poorly rooted trees.

Though local utilities were out-of-order for more than a week in some locations, Coweeta's main administrative building and most major research locations at the site experienced no significant damage. One research area, however, was decimated by extensive tree falls. But research on the plot, where biologists study rhododendrons, is continuing. Temperature sensors continued to operate beneath the fallen trees, and access to instruments in the soil has been reestablished.

"More than two years of extensive measurements on the plot will allow for unique comparisons between pre- and post-hurricane conditions," said Scott Collins, director of NSF's LTER program.

Research on-going at Coweeta, an Eastern deciduous forest site, involves studies of the long-term dynamics of forests, including the ecosystems of forest streams. [Cheryl Dybas]

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"Wheelesley" Software Helps with Wheelchair Navigation

When you walk down a hallway and turn left into a colleague's office, you don't consciously think of the pace of every step, or of avoiding the box outside her door; nor do you worry about bumping into the doorjam -- you just do it. However, a person operating a wheelchair must be very conscious of every maneuver, which takes intense concentration and fine motor control.

In research supported by the National Science Foundation, five undergraduate students developed software for a wheelchair robot to assist with navigation. The user gives general commands such as "forward" or "turn left at next corner," and the robot executes the commands while taking over "low-level" control such as obstacle avoidance and speed control.

Wheelesley was developed at Wellesley College by a team of women under the direction of Holly Yanco. (Yanco is now at MIT.) Wheelesley was the only system that could navigate doorways without being steered in a competition at the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence last year.

[Beth Gaston]

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