Fall 2004 l Capital University Journal
Talk about efficient. At the same time chemistry professor Susan Crawford is tracking the cause of a toxin lurking in drinking water from the Sacramento Delta, a second experiment she’s conducting with absorbent materials called zeolites may turn out to be a possible solution.
More than 22 million people depend on Delta water, but before it can be used it gets chlorinated. Unfortunately, Crawford says, the good work of chlorination sometimes results in another problem. “When you chlorinate Delta water, dissolved organic or DOC—carbons associated with peat and other remnants of the land around the Delta—form trihaolmethanes or THMs, such as chloroform, which is considered a carcinogen.”
Working with the U.S. Geological Survey, Crawford uses a variety of sophisticated equipment including nuclear magnetic resonance and infrared spectroscopy to test water samples. She looks at the samples before and after chlorination to see what happens when the THMs form, looking for a link. “We’re trying to determine if there’s something similar between the DOC and the amount of THMs formed,” she says. “Can it be traced to a site, such as near a peat island? Does it happen at a certain time of year, such as during tilling, during flooding or when irrigation takes place?
“There’s a tendency to blame agriculture. But it may be something that occurs in the Delta naturally such as plant decomposition,” Crawford says, noting that before taking a radical, disruptive step such as modifying farming practices in the region, scientists need to be pretty sure of the culprit.
If the source turns out to be a naturally occurring process, Crawford thinks she has a possible solution. Zeolites.
Crawford has been studying the filtering qualities of zeolites for years, including the ability of some zeolites to transform harmful materials into less dangerous ones. The porous rock materials are extremely absorbent, grabbing and holding waste products sort of like a molecular sponge.
If it turns out that the carbon in the Delta can’t be controlled at the source, Crawford thinks zeolites might be an effective way to absorb the chloroform from the water.
In yet another project with Sac State’s Office of Water Programs, Crawford is also looking at whether zeolites might be able to play a role in removing metals from storm water that runs off area roads.
(back to top)
Learning by building
Specialized parts aren’t the only things coming out of Akihiko Kumagai’s lab.
The mechanical engineering professor is also turning out specialized graduates—engineers able to marry machines to computers so machines can work smarter. The students utilize both mechanical and electronic engineering, areas that are usually taught separately.
“There’s a growing demand for machines that are controlled by electronics and computers,” Kumagai says. “So teaching students to combine mechanical and electronic engineering gives them a big advantage in their careers.”
For the most part, the teaching takes place in a lab Kumagai has equipped over his four years at Sac State.
The most current projects are an automated liquid handling system and an inexpensive way to manufacture a water pasteurization indicator.
Two graduate students have been working on the liquid handling system for scientific labs, which transfers liquid from a reservoir to 96 well plates. Such automation has been getting more attention in scientific labs, and Kumagai says it has the potential to make them much more efficient.
It’s exactly the sort of project Kumagai seeks for his students. Better yet, it was funded by Reflect Scientific, which plans to bring the final product to market.
Kumagai usually has three to five graduate students working with him on similar projects. He is also the faculty advisor for the student Formula SAE club (in which students design and build a formula-style race car), the student Competitive Robotics club, and Sac State’s chapter of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. With all the students, he stresses the need for practical, usable products.
“Many things will work well for five minutes or so, and then break. The challenge is building something that is reliable and will last a long time—and of course that’s our goal,” he says.
(back to top)
‘em and keep ‘em
words are familiar to anyone who’s watched a cop show: “You
‘Stars’ shun teaching
A Sac State economics professor has entered the national fray over teacher quality with research that finds fewer
“academic stars” are choosing to teach.
Sean Corcoran says the top 10 percent of high school students are now much less likely to become teachers than in the 1950s. That means today’s students have a lower chance of learning from the high achievers.
On the flip side, he also says there has been just a slight decline in average teacher quality. The findings are based on math and verbal tests the teachers took while still in high school. Prior research links these standardized measures of the cognitive abilities of future teachers to their students’ achievement.
“Wages have gone up since the 1950s in professions other than teaching—in particular in high-skilled professions like law and medicine—and it appears that top performing women have taken advantage of new opportunities to enter those higher paying professions,” he says. Because 75 percent of all teachers are women, he says, that has meant a sharp drop in high achievers who teach.
“Society needs to decide how much we need these high achievers in the classroom,” Corcoran says. “Do we want to pay enough to lure them back? Or are we better off with them doing other things, like finding cures for diseases?”
The research appears in recent issues of the American Economic Review, and the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Both were co-written with University of Maryland professors William Evans and Robert Schwab. Corcoran used long-term studies—some more than five decades old—that follow students from high school through their careers. He looked at the scores on standardized high school math and verbal tests of those who became teachers.
(back to top)
Math by any other name…
Daniel Orey sees a bonus benefit in California’s diversity–it may help students with math.
Comparable populations worldwide have fewer diffi culties with mathematics than students in the United States, says Orey, a professor in the teacher education department and Learning Skills Center. He suggests it’s because American children often think there’s only one way to solve problems.
“The way people look at language in the U.S. is echoed in math,” he says. “We tend to think there’s only one language to learn.”
But children who learn more than one language fi nd it easier to learn math, he says. To them, Orey says, algebra is just
one more language.
For the past several years, Orey has been a proponent of ethnomathematics, which identifies the techniques used by members of distinct cultural groups.
Orey has developed the Algorithm Collection Project to give his students, many of whom are future teachers, a sense of how math works in other countries.
Part of the project involved making a vocabulary “wall” on Orey’s website. Orey’s students interview newly arrived immigrants and compile a list of words used for common mathematical functions—addition, subtraction, multiplication, division—as well as visual examples of how they carry out the function. It’s grown into a collection representing more than 20 languages currently spoken in the Sacramento region and confirms that other countries do the same math but use different patterns.
There are subtle differences linked to language. For example, Latin-based countries put the modifier after the noun while North Americans put the modifi er fi rst. So when students from Latin-based countries do long division they don’t have to do the mental reversing North Ameri-
cans do—they already think “four into 20” rather than “20 divided by four.”
(back to top)
India’s timeless tales
All the world is a stage for professor Roberto Pomo, chair of Sac State’s theatre and dance department.
Recognizing a gap in Western understanding of Indian theater following his work on a multicultural drama anthology, Pomo set out to do something about it. “What I wanted to do was immerse myself in the religious and philosophical principles of Indian culture to learn its relationship to theater,” he says.
That’s hard to do from his campus office, so last summer Pomo made his way to India. He joined a month-long program on contemporary Indian religions at Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram, a university in Bangalore. It was his first time in the country and he dove headlong into research. “I don’t think I slept while I was there,” he says.
Much of Pomo’s time outside the university was spent inside theaters and temples watching productions. India drama is often presented through dance, and Pomo’s fi rst task was to learn the meaning of the stylized movements used in place of dialogue.
“Everything in Indian theater means something, I mean everything. Not one movement is left to chance.” Studying dancers depicted on ancient temple walls was one way to decipher the motions. Pomo says the kinetic expressions used by Indian dancers have been the same for centuries. By the end of the trip, he was able to pick up most of the unspoken dialogue.
He plans to put his newfound insights to use in upcoming papers. “I wanted to make sure my
assertions were not uninformed,” he says, adding that he plans to return to India next year and focus his research. “I needed a foundation… Now I need to look at specifics.”
(back to top)