Tuesday, February 13, 2018

SpaceX's car in space

Image: Elon Musk/SpaceX via Instagram

This month SpaceX, Elon Musk's company, launched its Falcon Heavy rocket successfully, which is big enough news to discuss with my students. However, making it even more interesting is that the rocket launched a car into space. The car is a Tesla Roadster and it has a "starman" sitting in the driver's seat.

This topic is interesting for my engineering students for a number of reasons. First, they find Elon Musk to be an interesting entrepreneur and innovator - young, dynamic and not tainted by a bad corporate image. Then, this is about rockets, space, technology and cars - all things my students like to learn about. And this idea seems a bit crazy, unconventional. Finally, there are many implications for the future of the technology used and the successful launch of a non-government rocket. 

There are many articles on all sorts of websites about the successful launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. The one I have chosen is written in a fairly conversational register, but also has useful technical vocabulary and collocations.

The article is from The Guardian, titled SpaceX oddity: how Elon Musk sent a car towards Mars. The subheading is, "A Starman sitting in a tin can is currently navigating the heavens, soundtracked by David Bowie. How did it -- and we -- get there?

Link:  https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/feb/07/space-oddity-elon-musk-spacex-car-mars-falcon-heavy 

In addition to the article, there are two further links; one to a video (1:37) "watch the launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket"; and to a graphic showing the path of the Falcon Heavy rocket (which is useful for description). 

The language material that seems useful is also related to description: adjectives, descriptive phrases, and expressions.

Since it is describing the sequence of events, there are also useful phrases of time:

  • now the most powerful rocket
  • during the Apollo era
  • on Tuesday
  • on launch day
  • delayed for over three hours
  • minutes before countdown
  • (don't clap) until you see
  • in the end
  • moments later
  • after that
  • not seen since the 60s
  • before liftoff
  • when (mission CRS-7) was lost
  • for more than a year
  • last February
  • as soon as this year
  • in the meantime
Students can not only notice these phrases, but consider how they could be put in order so that they can relate the events differently.

For relating the information, students can also notice useful collocations, such as:
  • navigating the heavens
  • (be) at the wheel
  • beam down
  • imprinted on (the circuit board)
  • in orbit around
  • music playing on (the speakers)
  • (high-energy radiation belts that) circuit Earth
  • projected path
  • crash into (the planet)
  • stay on course
  • drift through space
  • forcing (it) to close
  • propel into orbit

Finally, there is material for discussion about the future impact of this launch. Elon Musk is quoted in the article as saying,
  • "If we are successful, it's game over for other operators of heavy-lift rockets." 
He goes on to explain:
  • “It’s like where one aircraft company has reusable aircraft and all the other aircraft companies had aircraft that were single-use, and you’d sort of parachute out at your destination and the plane would crash land somewhere. Crazy as it sounds, that’s how the rocket business works.”

And the article concludes with the observation:
  • "The Falcon Heavy's successful launch propels the dream into a new orbit. Plans include building a new space station above the moon, carrying new telecom or spy satellites, and shuttling people to deep space destinations."
Students could have a lot of ideas about the impacts of these changes.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Who is responsible?

Visual from FRR website poll
In my last post,I focused on the question, "What does 'responsible robotics' mean to you?" The answers presented were from seven members of the Foundation of Responsible Robotics (FRR). Taking into account those answers, as well as the input from students, the next step could be having students consider specific situations.

On the website of the FRR there is a "poll" in which participants decide who or what is responsible for the error made.

FRR home page: http://responsiblerobotics.org/

Take the FRR poll: https://responsiblerobotics.org/frr-polls/

Two different situations are shown; each has 3 pictures, cartoon-strip style (see visual above). The reader must choose who/what is responsible from 5 possibilities. It isn't possible to choose more than one  (e.g., shared responsibility). After a choice is made, the cumulative results of choices are shown.

An activity for speaking or writing could be to have students - alone or in pairs - relate each situation in words, based on the pictures shown.

And, of course, they could each decide which choice they would make and give a short explanation of that choice. This would promote a lot of discussion if students disagree about who or what is responsible in each case.

Here are the two situations:

Example 1:  The 3 pictures show the owner of a self-driving car at a repair shop. The car is repaired, and then when the driver is back on the road, he has an accident. Who/what is responsible:
  • Self-driving car
  • Self-driving car manufacturer
  • Person in car
  • Repair shop workers
  • Repair shop

After the choice is made (only one choice is possible), the screen indicates the percentage of people who have chosen each one. Of course, these numbers change as other readers take the poll and choose differently. Check the link to take the survey to find out which options were chosen most.

Example 2:  The 3 pictures show a male and female worker in an auto factory with a robotic assembly line. They are drinking alcohol. The second picture shows the female worker sleeping (passed out?) at the control panel, while the male colleague (also apparently drunk) is having an accident with an industrial robot. In the third picture they are at the hospital, and the male worker has serious injuries. Who/what is responsible (with percentages on the day I made my choices):
  • Robot (1.85%)
  • Female worker (39.35%)
  • Male worker (22.22%)
  • Robot manufacturer (9.49%)
  • Factory/employer (27.08%)

It is interesting to me that the male worker is considered to be less responsible than both his colleague and his employer, even though he must have known that he shouldn't be drinking on the job. Also, considering that his colleague was not conscious at the time of his accident, why did the majority consider her the most responsible of the list? Would the answers have been different if the workers were both male or both female, or if the genders were reversed?

At a recent meeting with my colleagues, I presented the poll to them and made note of the results. The activity generated a lot of animated discussion, and a lot of disagreement about who was responsible in each situation. It was interesting to hear their explanations of their choices, since it gave me further understanding of how different students might interpret the situations.

  • The first thing that became clear is that people interpret the information in the pictures differently. This, of course, would have an impact on what they think is happening and therefore who is responsible for what happened.

  • The second thing is that everyone was limited in their decision by the lack of further information. There was a lot of "it depends...". For example, in the first situation, it is not known whether the need for repair was due to a fault by the car manufacturer or whether the repair shop workers did not repair the car well. This can be used to an advantage in the classroom, however, if students have to relate which further information they would need in order to make a decision.

I plan to have my robotics students take the survey to see how their choices compare with the results - and how they compare with my English-teacher colleagues. I'll also have my engineering students in other fields take the survey to see if students who are not studying robotics would answer differently from robotics engineers.

Some possible further activities:
  • Explain in words what is happening in the 3 pictures (speaking or writing).
  • Prepare this explanation for 2 different audiences (e.g., a formal memo to the boss about what happened; an informal email to a friend/colleague).
  • Class 'debate' in five groups; each group supports one of the choices.
  • Negotiation role play; teacher prepares role play cards. For example, for the first situation: self-driving car manufacturer; repair shop owner; repair shop workers; robotics ethicist; consumer action group representative; etc.

At the end of the explanation after the survey, it is stated, "We hope to add many more questions to this survey," so it will be interesting to keep checking this website.

If readers of this blog post take the survey, or have their students take it, I would be interested to know what the majority choose, and how you react to those choices. Please upload your comments below.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

What is 'responsible robotics'?

The website of the Foundation of Responsible Robotics has a variety of material that is useful for lessons - and not only for robotics engineering students. The FRR's focus is on robotics, but their philosophy and mission are relevant for other areas of technology and engineering as well.

From the What We Do section:

"Mission: To promote the responsible design, development, implementation, and policy of robots embedded in our society. Our goal is to influence the future development and application of robotics such that it embeds the standards, methods, principles, capabilities, and policy points, as they relate to the responsible design and deployment of robotic systems.

We see both the definition of responsible robotics and the means for achieving it as on-going tasks that will evolve alongside the technology of robotics. Of great significance is that the FRR aims to be proactive and assistive to the robotic industry in a way that allows for the ethical, legal, and societal issues to be incorporated into design, development, and policy."

The link: http://responsiblerobotics.org/

Of particular interest to me (since I am teaching a humanities subject to engineers) is the emphasis on the joint input from non-engineering fields.

From the Who We Are section (in part):

"The FRR is the only foundation dedicated to responsible robotics that relies heavily on the humanities to work together with robot designers and developers. We are a not-for-profit foundation established in Twente, the Netherlands. The FRR is comprised of ethicists, philosophers, legal scholars, roboticists, journalists, scientists, companies and others interested in investing in our goals." [my emphasis]

In the About Us section is the area "Responsible Robotics." Seven members of the FRR answer the question, "What does 'responsible robotics' mean to you?" (in a video) in less than 50 seconds each (except for one speaker who speaks for 1 minute, 28 seconds). There are a variety of accents that include American, British, Italian and German.

Before listening, students could first consider how they would answer the question. Students in engineering disciplines other than robotics could also answer the question - or adapt it to their own field (e.g., what does 'responsible information technology' mean to you?). They could then compare their answers with those given. Many of these answers could also refer to the concept of 'responsibility' in other fields of engineering.

Since it's spoken (spontaneously?), it's not always perfect - grammar, repetitions, etc. So these are good examples of 'real' speech (i.e., not from films or from professional presenters) for students' listening practice.

The following is my own transcript (after listening to the answers many times!), so if there are any errors, it's my fault. The speakers are not identified on the FRR website, but for each speaker there is a link to youtube.com, and there I found each speaker's name and affiliation. The number in parentheses before each name is the length of time of the speaking.

FRR members answering the question, "What does 'responsible robotics' mean to you?"

  1. (0.28)  Mark Coeckelbergh, Professor of Philosophy of Media and Technology at the University of Vienna.  RR means to me that you don't think about the ethics of technology afterwards, when the technology is already there, but you think about it beforehand. And you make sure that the designers, engineers, scientists, that they're aware of the ethical issues at the time when they're actually developing the technology.
  2. (0:27)  Amanda Sharkey, Senior Lecturer and Associate Professor at the University of Sheffield.  Well, for me RR means looking into the benefits and the risks of robotics. So trying to anticipate what the risks might be so that we can avoid them. But also making sure that we don't miss out on the benefits.
  3. (1:28)  David Gunkel, an American academic and Presidential Teaching Professor of Communication Studies at Northern Illinois University.  So RR to me means the following: I would take the word "responsible" and sort of break it up into its two components, which is "response" and "able." So when I think of RR I think of something that is responsible in that it can have the ability to respond to us and we in turn can have the ability to respond to it. And so responsibleness is not just about being accountable for something, but it's about being able to be social and about being able to take a certain kind of stance with regards to the sociality and your involvement in the sociality. And so we're looking now at a future and even a present where our machines are becoming more and more responsive. And they are listening to us, they are taking commands from us and they are doing things that we didn't anticipate them doing in the past. So, for example, the Tay AI, which was created by Microsoft, that was a responsible robot in that it was able to respond, but it had some difficulties with the assignment of responsibility because of the sort of racist tweets that it had circulated on the internet. So there is a difference there that I think is important that you actually hear in the word "responsible" that I think we have to mobilize and begin to think about in much more creative ways and much more critical ways.
  4. (0:37)  Filippo Santoni de Sio, Assistant Professor in Ethics of Technology at TU Delft.  RR to me means robotics that keeps human values into account (sic). So traditionally robotics has been seen as a technical enterprise focusing on the efficiency and the technical quality of the artifacts. We think that robotics should promote also values like justice, responsibility, inclusion, privacy and whatnot. And this is particularly important in an age in which robotics is accelerating in a significant way.
  5. (0:40)  Wendy Ju, Executive Director at the Center for Design Research at Stanford University and Assistant Professor of Information Science at Cornell Tech.  For me RR is really about thinking about all the different aspects of human culture and human life and taking that into account when we're designing a robot. So that the robot ... we're not constantly accommodating the technology, but technology is accommodating us and supporting us. And I think that's difficult to do because people, just are people ... you know, people are really different and we operate differently in all these different circumstances and there's all these interesting aspects of culture and behavior that need to be taken into account for (sic).
  6. (0:44)  John Sullins, Professor of Philosophy at Sonoma State University.  RR means to me the responsible design, use and deployment of robotics technologies in the various ways that they're going to be entering into society in the next generation, as things are going to really be changing and we need to really think through exactly how we're going to utilize these technologies and deploy these technologies and have them disrupt the things we want disrupted and keep safe the things that we want to preserve about our society.
  7. (0:44)  Shannon Vallor, Professor of Philosophy of Technology at Santa Clara University, as well as president of the Society for Philosophy of Technology.  RR means to me a certain kind of practice, a way of thinking about robotics in which it's not about so much what we build, but what we're doing when we build robots, when we design them, when we think about who we're designing them for. So I think RR is about being responsible to others, being responsible for others through the practice of robotic design and engineering that seeks to develop technologies that can actually enrich human lives. 

After listening to the speakers (and/or after reading the transcript), students could prepare a short explanation of their answer to the question - and present it impromptu to the class. This would give rise to further discussion about the different 'meanings,' including their response to each speaker's comment. What do most answers have in common? Which answer(s) are different from the others. Do the answers reflect in some way the speaker's position or place of work?

For students who will one day be engineers, it is extremely important that they develop a clear idea of what 'responsibility' means to them.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Which engineering degree?

In my last post, The travelling engineer, I suggested that the topic of engineering travel destinations would be good for discussion at the beginning of an academic semester that follows the summer holiday. A recent article I read provides a good topic of discussion for the beginning of semester - specifically, engineering students' first semester in their field of study. Why did they choose to study engineering, and how did they choose which particular field of engineering to enter? The article, Which Engineering Degree Should You Choose?, is on the website "Interesting Engineering."

The link: http://www.interestingtechnology.net/which-engineering-degree-choose/

The introduction states, "The key to success in engineering is figuring out which degree path suits you best and which one will eventually lead you into a sustainable career." Presumably, students considered this when deciding which engineering degree they wanted to pursue. Incidentally, it would be interesting to have them explain what they think is meant here by a "sustainable" career (since the word has a number of meanings and connotations).

The article then gives a brief description (one paragraph) of 6 engineering fields:
  • biomedical engineering
  • chemical engineering
  • civil engineering
  • electrical engineering
  • manufacturing engineering
  • mechanical engineering

The descriptions generally include an explanation of what the field involves, the various industries it works in or with, examples of what engineers in this field do, and some positive aspects of the work.

For engineering students who are beginning to study in one of these six fields, they could discuss such questions as:
  • Why did they choose their particular discipline?
  • Do they agree with the description of their field in this article?
  • What would they change or add to this description?

Students who have chosen a field different from the six mentioned could write a short paragraph about their engineering field that follows the pattern of those in the article. Focus on:
  • Common fields this type of engineer works in;
  • Description of what the discipline does or how it's used in the real world;
  • Some examples of what engineers in this discipline do;
  • Positive aspects of this discipline in particular.

To focus students on the correct use of verb tenses in their descriptions, they can notice the tenses used in the descriptions in the article. Mostly the present tense is used (to explain what is true about each field), but there is also the use of will to refer to the future (what students will be able to do as engineers). But there are also other phrases used that refer to the future. For example:
  • This degree path could involve
  • If you decide to choose
  • If you want to
  • ... you could always choose
  • ... is forecasted to be
  • ... you could end up working in
  • ... where you can see yourself working for the rest of your life

The few uses of other tenses provide a contrast to the two tenses already mentioned.
  • You will likely be working inside of a lab
  •  Chemical engineering has seen huge growth
  • ... electrical engineering is fast paced and is constantly innovating
  • ... a manufacturing engineer likely had something to do with it
  • While the manufacturing industry in many places has hurt in recent years
  • ... students feeling like they haven't focused in on anything
  • ... if you haven't made it that far

In the students' discussions or writing, it would be particularly empowering for them to notice the comment in the article's introduction:

"Each specialty of engineering cumulatively contributes to nearly every aspect of our physical world."

That thought should certainly assure them that they have made the best decision for themselves.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The traveling engineer

What would students consider to be the world's top engineering destinations? This could be an interesting question to ask at the beginning of the academic winter semester, when we often ask colleagues and students what they did over the summer holidays. Where would students choose to travel to see engineering wonders if they could go anywhere - and why the particular choice? Would it depend on which area of engineering they are specializing in? Where have they already been? After the students brainstorm answers, which destinations would they choose as the top five?

This is the theme of the article, Top 5 Engineering Destinations to See Before You Die, on the website Interesting Engineering:

Link: http://interestingengineering.com/top-engineering-destinations-to-see-before-you-die

As the introduction to the article states, "Whether they're world wonders or feats of modern engineering, all of these places possess certain awe-inspiring qualities sure to make your trip worth it."

These are the five destinations chosen in the article (all images are from the Interesting Engineering article):

 The Palm Islands, UAE
These islands are described as an "incredible feat of engineering," but they also have negative effects on the environment. "The area surrounding the islands has seen increased coastal erosion and odd wave patterns. Sediment from the construction ultimately suffocated and injured many of the marine life around the area and reduced the sunlight allowed through the water." Students can research what effect this has had on the environment, compared with the benefits of residential development. In addition, the article mentions that since these islands are near Dubai, engineers should also see Burj Kalifa (but without giving specific information).

Taj Mahal, India
I thought it was curious that the Taj Mahal was on this list, since I think of it as more of an architectural wonder and a highlight of Muslim art; but perhaps the engineering focus is on how it was constructed. "Construction of the giant stone structure required earthen ramps over a mile long leading up to the tomb in order to lift the large stones into place." This information could be compared to other structures that were constructed before the use of modern machinery.

The Great Wall of China, China
This would probably be on many students' list. In the article, it is referred to as "one of the most prolific engineering feats of all time." Students could research how it was built, noticing that it was constructed in different sections over a period of about 1000 years. So there were many different types of construction methods used.

The Panama Canal, Panama
This canal has quite a dramatic history. "At the time and even up to modern standards, the canal was one of the most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken." Students can research what, specifically, these difficulties were - and how they were overcome. The article claims that "One of the most surprising facts about this engineering marvel is just how long it takes to traverse it." Looking at a map of Panama, students could speculate how long it takes a ship to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean (6-8 hours). What other "surprising facts" would they find in their research?

The Hoover Dam, USA
Students might not be as aware of this construction as they are of the other destinations on this list. As the article claimes, "While not presently anything to marvel over, the history surrounding the construction and documentation of the engineering places it at great importance to the history of engineering." This is rather tantalizing! Since there is no further explanation, students can find out themselves what makes this dam so important. This is also another example of an engineering feat that has had an impact on engineering.

The description of each destination is rather short, but focuses on the reason it is on the list. Students could write short descriptions in similar style for other destinations they might have chosen. Special focus could be put on the top engineering destinations in students' own countries. And, of course, if students (or teachers) have visited any of these destinations, their further impressions could be added to the discussion.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Two-bladed wind turbines - continued

Photo by Clark (on flickr)
In my last post (Two-bladed offshore turbines, 12 August) I wrote about an article that claimed two-bladed offshore turbines were more efficient and more economical than three-bladed turbines. I looked for further information, and found an article from the MIT Technology Review website that had been written earlier - in June 2014. It also presents support for the advantages of two-bladed turbines, particulary those offshore.

The article is Two-Bladed Wind Turbines Make a Comeback.

Link: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/528581/two-bladed-wind-turbines-make-a-comeback/

Interestingly, despite the title, the article does not refer to two-bladed turbines having been used before, so it doesn't really focus on a "comeback." It focuses instead on the two-bladed model as being a recent "alternative." As a cross reference to the two-bladed turbine as being an earlier model, see the article by Martin Jakubowski in my last post.

What makes this Technology Review article interesting for me is that it has much of the same support as the first article, as well as many of the same language features. Students could read the articles, then find the advantages that are mentioned in both. They can also compare the way the advantages are described in a cause-and-effect (or "impact") style. For example:

From Jakubowski's article:
  • "...two-bladed rotors are better suited for wind turbines because of their flexible configuration -- namely, their attachement to the shaft by a flexible hinge. This allows the rotor to have a second degree of freedom. ... This flexible hinge reduces the impact of cyclic loading (fluctuating stresses and strains from the wind), and strongly reduces wear and tear -- fatigue -- on the components, thus extending the lifetime of the turbine."

From the Technology Review article:
  • "Two-bladed turbines cost less because they use fewer materials. The removal of one blade makes the rotor lighter, which in turn makes it possible to place the rotor on the downwind side of the tower. ... Light, flexible rotors translate into further materials savings in the turbine's gearbox, tower and foundation."

The advantages of the two-bladed wind turbine mentioned in both articles are:
  • reduced weight of rotor
  • lower material costs
  • lower operations and maintenance costs
  • easier to install
  • costs less to build

The articles mention a total of five disadvantages, and the one disadvantage they have in common is the louder noise:
  • "slightly higher tipspeed noise"
  • It's louder, for one thing, in part because the blades spin faster"
but both articles mention that this disadvantage is not important for offshore turbines:
  • "The only relevant disadvantages of the two-blade design ... are unimportant offshore."
  • "... although this isn't a problem offshore."
The language features I highlighted in my last post are also found in this article. By comparing the two articles, a number of the same features and phrases can be found in both.

Phrases for argumentation:
  • By some estimates,
  • More importantly,
  • In fact,
  • According to,
  • For that reason,
Collocations of technical advantages:
  • grow faster
  • costs can be brought down
  • greatly improve the economics
  • cost twice as much as
  • generate as much power as
  • costing twice as much as
  • less than those of
  • etc.

The linking and transition terms are also useful for students to highlight, since there are many in common in both articles, or terms that serve the same function. Just a few examples from the Technology Review article:
  • same as
  • as much as
  • but
  • which in turn
  • in part because
  • because of
  • however
  • for that reason
  • rather than

There are also words of comparison, superlatives, as well as adverbs.

I think that each article, or both articles compared, are good sources of information about two-bladed turbines as well as useful examples of argumentation and support, with relevant language features. It would be interesting for students to find further articles and sources of information about this turbine design for other comparisons.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Two-bladed offshore turbines

Photo from Seawind Ocean Technology
Wind turbines have become very common across landscapes all over the world, and they all have three blades. I have never thought about why there are three blades, but I would have assumed that it's because there is a technical advantage to that particular configuration. In a recent article I read, however, the CEO of Seawind Ocean Technology, a wind turbine system development company, argues that for offshore wind turbines, two blades would be more economical and efficient.

The article (June 2017) is an opinion piece on the website Recharge, which describes itself as "The global source for renewable energy news & intelligence." This website is a good source of material for engineers (and teachers of those engineers) who are working in renewable-energy industries. However, one must subscribe to the website to gain access to the articles. The author of the article, Martin Jakubowski, has fortunately also uploaded his article on LinkedIn, where I was able to access it.

The article, "Two-bladed offshore turbines could cut the cost of energy by 50%":

It would be interesting to start a discussion with students about why they think wind turbines have three blades. Jakubowski says that, "Three blades did not become the standard due to technical considerations or a systemic approach to the fundamentals of wind turbines, but because of the trial-and-error approach of the industry's 'garage' pioneers in 1970s Denmark. The three-blade configuration simply worked, so was used repeatedly."

He then goes on to explain why the two-bladed turbine is a better choice, particularly for offshore turbines. In this way, the article follows the conventions of an opinion essay, including many of the phrases used for presenting an argument, making a concession, and giving a rebuttal:
  • And perhaps more importantly ...
  • ..., but this shortfall is more than offset by ...
  • In fact, recent university studies have found that ...
  • It is also worth noting that ...
  • The only relevant disadvantages, ..., are unimportant offshore.
  • Studies show that ...
And a clear conclusion:
  • While developers, financiers and insurers might initially be more wary of two-bladed offshore machines, the potential for increased reliability and LCoE reduction will be hard to ignore. The future will have two blades, not three.

In making his arguments, he uses many comparisons and phrases of cause and effect. Again, these phrases are very useful for students to notice when either writing or presenting support for opinion.

Some examples (with my emphasis):
  • ...two-bladed rotors are better suited for wind turbines because of their flexible configuration - namely, their attachment to the shaft by a flexible hinge.
  • This allows the rotor to have a second degree of freedom: to both rotate (first degree) and to teeter around the axis of the hinge like a seesaw (second degree).
  • This flexible hinge reduces the impact of cyclic loading (fluctuating stresses and strains from the wind), and strongly reduces wear and tear - fatigue - on the components, thus extending the lifetime of the turbine
  • The elasticity of this teetering hinge also removes the need for the blade pitch mechanism - the number-one source of failure in wind turbines - which controls the angle of the blades. Power output can instead be closely controlled by simply yawing (turning) the turbine into or away from the wind.

These are only a few examples; most of the article is written in this way, and is therefore a great source of such material. Notice, also, how the writing focuses on audience by explaining or defining terms that might not be known outside this particular field, e.g., flexible configuration, cyclic loading, yawing.

There are also many collocations that are useful for writing or speaking about other type of technical advantages (with repetitions of produce, reduce, create:
  • produce energy from
  • created a market for
  • reduces the impact of
  • reduces wear and tear
  • extending the lifetime of
  • removes the need for
  • source of failure
  • controlled by
  • reduces the cost of
  • removes the need for
  • potential for increased reliability

Finally, there are many adverbs used in the article, which I particularly like to make my students aware of, since they tend not to use adverbs much in their writing (or confuse them grammatically with adjectives):
  • simply
  • repeatedly
  • likely
  • arguably
  • largely
  • namely
  • strongly
  • closely
  • substantially
  • importantly
  • dramatically
  • costly
  • virtually
  • relatively
  • slightly
  • initially

There are also many useful linking and transition words, including those common to stating arguments (rather than, due to, not ... but because of, yet, however, such as, namely, in fact), but I will leave that to readers to identify.

The only language aspect of the article that I wasn't happy with was the incorrect use of less instead of using fewer in the phrase with less parts. This, in fact, is the same kind of error my students make - using less for both count and noncount nouns. In this case, what would be the best course of action:
  1. change the error before giving the text to the students (good model)
  2. leave the text as it is (authentic source)
  3. tell students there is an error in the use of less/fewer and have them find it (raise awareness)
  4. other choice?

It would be interesting for readers of this blog to give their point of view in the comments - whether engineers, engineering students, or teachers of engineering students.

Friday, August 4, 2017

SpaceX Falcon failure

SpaceX Falcon ready for takeoff
I have written many posts about spacecraft launches; they're interesting topics for my students and they provide a lot of material for language used in technical subjects. A recent event - although an interesting technical topic - has, however, ended in failure.

SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) is a private American aerospace manufacturer and space transport service company. In June it successfully launched two space missions. But the third planned launch on 3 July, the Falcon 9 rocket, was cancelled moments before the engines were to be fired up.

There are, of course, many articles relating to this event. The two I will mention here come from the website "interesting engineering." The first article "SpaceX Scrubs Falcon Launch Due to Computer Issues" includes a webcast of the launch as it happened.

The Link:  http://interestingengineering.com/spacex-scrubs-falcon-launch-due-computer-issues

The webcast is noted to be 22 minutes long, but it doesn't actually start until the 4:26 mark. During the webcast, commentary is provided by John Insprucker, Principal Integration Engineer, who speaks clearly (and seems to have a mid-western American accent).

It includes a bit of waiting at certain points, since it was filmed live. For example, at about the 15 minute mark, the launch is halted. It isn't until the 19 minute mark that some explanation is given, but merely that it was a "GNC-abort," which is described as an automatic computer abort. Further information will have to be used (students can gather this information as homework) to find out exactly what happened.

Since the mission was aborted, there is a lot of vocabulary referring to aspects of this situation, including dfferent ways to indicate that the mission was halted. For example:
  • scrubs the launch
  • due to computer issues
  • looked to continue its streak
  • got scrubbed
  • it was an issue with
  • computers halted the countdown
  • the mission was forced into a 24-hour scrub
  • plans to attempt it again
  • there won't be enough propellant left
  • losing a rocket for the sake of the payload
  • the frustrating scrubbed launch

There are also many different vocabulary items to indicate times and timing:
  • in just nine days
  • at the last minute
  • just moments before
  • at that point
  • attempt it again tomorrow around 7:37
  • ever put into orbit
  • after this launch
  • neither location is set to have launches until
  • scheduled to
  • in a little over a week
  • is planned for August 10
  • when SpaceX will make a supply run
  • tomorrow's launch
  • after takeoff
  • this isn't the company's first time
  • around the 15-minute mark

The second article, "SpaceX Will Try to Launch the Intelsat 35e Satellite Again Today," gives more specific information about the mission and its payload, and has useful collocations.

The link:  http://www.interestingtechnology.net/watch-live-spacex-will-try-launch-intelsat-35e-satellite-today

Some examples of vocabulary that relates well to the first article:
  • abort its mission
  • a technical glitch
  • set to deliver
  • attempt to land
  • ensure it reaches
  • a stabilized landing
  • stripped of its landing hardware
  • maximize its performance
  • reduce the overall weight
  • be launched from
  • be deployed

And vocabulary related to the description of the satellite's payload:
  • deliver high-performance services
  • serve customers
  • placed into service
  • be redeployed to another ... location
  • conditioned to work
  • enables higher efficiency
  • improved throughput
  • composed of
  • manufactured by
  • take ... to the next level

The vocabulary describing aspects of the payload is simply "business" vocabulary, which connects well to this aspect of technology and engineering. It can be useful to recycle such vocabulary when reading or discussing any type of engineering business.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Jupiter's amazing Red Spot

NASA handout / Getty images
The latest news about the Juno space probe (see my last two posts, Juno's mission to Jupter and Juno's science instruments) is that it recently flew over Jupiter's giant red spot and took amazing images of the storm it represents. An article in The Guardian reports the news using very enthusiastic language.

The headline is "Jupiter's great red spot: Juno probe captures closest images yet of huge storm." The phrasing "closest ... yet" and "huge storm" reveals the importance of the development, and this phrasing continues in the article.

Link to the article:  https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jul/13/jupiter-great-red-spot-nasa-juno-probe-images-storm

Here are some of the examples in the text that indicate the journalist and the people interviewed see this event as a great experience (with my emphasis):
  • captured stunning images
  • the huge storm
  • not only the size of the tempest but also its extraordinary colour
  • stunning detail
  • vast, swirling feature
  • the beauty of them
  • works of natural art
  • the closest a spacecraft has ever flown
  • great red spot
  • passing as close as
  • the giant storm
  • probe fundamental questions
  • and even the nature of the great red spot itself
  • a lot of mysteries
  • This is actually really neat
  • will particularly allow us to look and see what is underneath
  • in particular we want to
  • we get a little more insight
Students can be made aware of these examples to see how subjective language can be included in writing that is reporting news (objectively?).

Further examples of such language is even found on NASA's website.


The first sentence of the article about Juno's flyby over Jupiter's red spot is:

"Images of Jupiter's Great Red Spot reveal a tangle of dark, veinous clouds weaving their way through a massive crimson oval."

Doesn't that sound rather poetic for a space agency? I plan to share this with my engineering students to see how they react - and then show them some of the images so that they can write their own descriptions.

The Guardian article indicates that "Nasa releases raw data to public, enabling citizen scientists and experts to share their own processed versions of the images."

One of the "citizen scientists" who processed images is Jason Major, a graphic designer from Rhode Island, USA. His comment on the NASA website:

"It is always exciting to see these new raw images of Jupiter as they arrive. But it is even more thrilling to take the raw images and turn them into something that people can appreciate. That is what I live for."

That is certainly enthusiastic!

I like the idea of enabling my students to see what passion they can have for their interests and professional field - and this material enables them to see what language can be used to express that passion.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Juno's science instruments

The image from NASA's Juno website (Image credit NASA/JPL)

My last post was on July 5, 2016 ("Juno's mission to Jupiter"). I know that it has been quite a while, but I'm now back to keeping in touch with other ESP teachers through this blog. I hope to - once again - post an idea about once a week.

In that last post, I wrote about the Juno spacecraft mission that is orbiting the planet Jupiter until summer 2017. On NASA's website for the Juno mission there is a lot of specific information about the technical aspects of the spacecraft and of the mission.

NASA's Juno mission website:

Section of website Spacecraft and Instruments:

The information from this section about what Juno's scientific payload consists of:
  • a gravity/radio science system
  • a six-wavelength microwave radiometer for atmospheric sounding and composition
  • a vector magnetometer
  • plasma and energetic particle detectors (JADE and JEDI)
  • a radio/plasma wave experiment (Waves)
  • an ultraviolet imager/spectrometer (UVS)
  • an infrared imager/spectrometer (JIRAM)
  • a color camera (JunoCam) to provide the public with the first detailed glimpse of Jupiter's poles

Interesting practice for students would be to describe what these instruments do and/or how they work.

The descriptions on the website section are short, but are good examples of how to succinctly explain the purpose/function of a scientific instrument. In addition, there are useful verb-noun collocations (which I have highlighted in boldface).
  • Gravity Science and Magnetometers: Study Jupiter's deep structure by mapping the planet's gravity field and magnetic field
  • Microwave Radiometer: Probe Jupiter's deep atmosphere and measure how much water (and hence oxygen) is there.
  • JEDI, JADE and Waves: Sample electric fields, plasma waves and particles around Jupiter to determine how the magnetic field is connected to the atmosphere, and especially the auroras (northern and southern lights).
  • UVS and JIRAM: Using ultraviolet and infrared cameras, take images of the atmosphere and auroras, including chemical fingerprints of the gases present.
  • JunoCam: Take spectacular close-up, color images.

There are also good examples of explaining the purpose or reason for certain features of the instruments' design. Some examples:
  • ... spinning makes the spacecraft's ppointing extremely stable and easy to control.
  • Juno will be the first solar-powered spacecraft designed by NASA to operate at such a great distance from the sun, thus the surface area of solar panels required to generate adequate power is quite large.
  • Before launch, the solar panels will be folded into four-hinged segments so that the spacecraft can fit into the launch vehicle.
  • Juno will avoid Jupiter's highest radiation regions by approaching over the north, ...
  • With a mission design that avoids any eclipses by Jupiter, minimizes damaging radiation exposure and allows all science instruments to be taken with the solar panels facing the sun, solar power is a perfect fit for Juno.
  • To protect sensitive spacecraft electronics, Juno will carry the first radiation shielded electronics vault, a critical feature for enabling sustained exploration in such a heavy radiation environment.
  • This feature of the mission is relevant to NASA's Vision for Space Exploration, which addresses the need for protection against harsh radiation in space environments beyond the safety of low-Earth orbit.

While I tend to focus on useful language features of this information, my students find the information itself most interesting. And that, of course, increases their motivation to read the material.