Safer Helmet, Safer Head--Michigan Tech Team Takes Its Award-winning Invention to San Francisco Inventors Expo

by Jennifer Donovan, director of public relations

In the heat of a football game, a player is tackled and pounded to the ground. His head takes a mighty sideways whack. What happens next--a concussion or some other kind of traumatic brain injury--is rarely good.

Now a team of inventive engineering students from Michigan Tech has designed a new and promising protective layer for sports and motorcycle helmets. They used the human head itself as a model for building a helmet lining that mimics the body's own tricks for deflecting blows to the head. For example, the scalp, designed for redirecting oblique impacts; the skull, for absorbing normal impacts; and the cerebral spinal fluid, for dampening the final impact on the brain.

The team was one of 16 chosen from more than 200 colleges and universities to introduce their invention at a national inventors conference in San Francisco this week. Michigan Tech undergraduates and graduate students will be demonstrating a prototype Enhanced BioMorphic (EBM) helmet layer at March Madness for the Mind, sponsored by the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA) and Inventors Digest magazine at the Exploratorium science museum.

In their prototype, they simulate the skull with a light composite sandwich shell, the scalp with thin elastic discs, and the spinal fluid with a soft padding system. The protective layer can be inserted into a helmet in addition to the regular helmet liner. It protects the head inside the helmet against both oblique and normal impacts.

"Normal helmets are designed for direct, straight-on impact," explains Wayne Bell, a graduate student at Michigan Tech and helmet team member. "They aren't designed to protect against rotational acceleration, even though 'normal' impacts in football often involve rotation."

In an online competition, viewers have already voted a two-minute video about the helmet produced by Michigan Tech's team one of the top three videos of student inventions. The top three videos will be shown today. A panel of independent reviewers and NCIIA and Inventors Digest staff will choose the winning video, and a People's Choice Award will be presented to the team that receives the most votes from conference attendees.

The Michigan Tech team and advisor Gopal Jayaraman, a professor of mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics at Michigan Tech, have been designing, building, testing and refining prototype helmets for several years. Their latest prototype has passed drop-test standards set by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), preventing damage at 155 times the force of gravity (155 g's), the maximum load the brain can take without sustaining injury. They are also evaluating their invention using a mathematical model that enables them to optimize performance based on the properties of the materials they use.

Michigan Tech's Technology and Economic Development Office is working with the students to patent and license the new helmet technology. They hope to license their invention to a commercial sports equipment manufacturer, paving the way for a full-fledged athletic equipment research center at Michigan Tech.

Sponsors of the helmet research and development are Michigan Tech's Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics, Athletics, and Exercise Science, Health and Physical Education Departments; the Michigan Universities Commercialization Initiative; and NCIIA.

Reminder: Call for 2010 Research Award Nominations

Proposals are being solicited for the 2010 Research Award, an internal recognition of the Office of the Vice President for Research.

Please nominate the outstanding researchers among your department's faculty and research staff. Information, including nomination requirements, can be found online.

Submit your nomination no later than 4 p.m., Monday, April 5, to Laurie Stark, Research Integrity and Compliance, third floor of the Lakeshore Center.

For more information, contact Stark at 487-2902 or at ldstark@mtu.edu .

Khana Khazna Goes Korean

A Korean lunch cooked by Ahyoung Park is on the Khana Khazana menu at the Memorial Union Food Court today. The entree will be bibimbap. This Korean specialty featuring a fried egg on top, will be available with meat or tofu, served on a bed of rice. A full meal includes a fountain soda. Khana Khazana ("food treasure") is served from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Friday. It is a collaborative effort of international students and Dining Services.

CDI Exchange Series Begins Today

The CSERI will sponsor the first in a new series called the "CDI Exchange" at 4 p.m., today, Friday, March 26, in Rekhi G09.

Last year's Strategic Faculty Hiring Initative in Computational Discover and Innovation (CDI) has fueled the increasing use of computation as a component of research and education at Michigan Tech.

The CDI Exchange will provide an informal setting to exchange ideas, pose problems and brainstorm solutions to issues arising from CDI activities across campus.

Laura Brown and Chaoli Wang will lead a discussion on
"Multivariate Analysis: Opportunities and Challenges". For a full abstract, see the CDI webpage or contact Phil Merkey at merk@mtu.edu .

Physics Force Circus Comes to Tech

The Physics Force duo of former physics teachers, Hank Ryan and Jack Netland, brings excitement and wonder to the thousands of K-12 students with their educating and entertaining blend of slapstick comedy and physics at the Physics Force Circus from 7 to 8:15 p.m., Tuesday, April 13, in Fisher 135.

The visual excitement of the Physics Force show brings wonder and scientific enthusiasm to thousands each year. This program comes to the UP for the first time from the University of Minnesota's department of physics and astronomy.

Cost is $1 per person and $5 per family. The even is open to the public.

Sponsored by the Western UP Center for Science, Math and Environmental Education and the Michigan Tech Society of Physics Students.

For more information, contact Joan Chadde at 487-3341 or jchadde@mtu.edu .

Giveaways in the Registrar's

The following furniture is available in the Registrar's Office. All items must be removed by Tuesday, March 30.

two--four-drawer filing cabinets
one--two-drawer filing cabinet
one--three-drawer, under-counter filing cabinet
one--two-drawer lateral filing cabinet, grey with maroon table top
two-–five-drawer lateral filing cabinets
two--metal bookcases
one--metal horizontal cabinet
two--fabric chairs
two--wall pictures
large wooden bookcase
small wooden bookcase
complete green modular office unit
keyboard trays
various modular desk pieces
modular bulletin boards
metal coat closet
many office desks, various sizes, mostly metal
many office tables, various sizes, mostly metal

For more information, visit the first floor of the Admin Building or contact Vicky Roy at 487-1616 or vlroy@mtu.edu .

University property may only be transferred between departments. It may not be given or sold to individuals.

On the Road

Kerri Sleeman, director of COMPASS; Susan Liebau, associate director of COMPASS and director of ExSEL; Karmen Markham, coordinator of ExSEL; and undergraduate student and ExSEL student ambassador Darius Watt presented "Creating an Inclusive, Learner-Centered First Year Seminar" at the 20th Annual Equity in the Classroom Conference in Mt. Pleasant on March 23. This conference is sponsored by Michigan's Department of Labor and Economic Growth.

Teaching at Tech: The Most Valuable Thing in the World

by William Kennedy, director, Center for Teaching, Learning and Faculty Development

I would say that the most valuable thing on Earth is the 10 million tons of interconnected neurons that occupy the heads of the six or seven billion humans living on the planet. I suspect that this assessment will continue to be the case for the next few decades, until these carbon-based storage, processing and retrieval systems, survivors of eons of gradual change in the face of unimaginable challenge, are replaced by faster, more reliable, more efficient and flexible information processing machines already in development. For now, most agree that the squirts and sparks occurring between our ears have the edge.

I'm amused when colleagues argue that successive generations of thinking machines will never be able to outperform the processing capacities of the human brain nor emulate, much less supersede, the mysterious capacity of the human brain to produce that thing we call conscious awareness. In his recent volume "Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind," Professor Gary Marcus, director of the New York University Infant Language Learning Center, argues that evolution has given us brains that are far from perfect and desperately in need of optimization.

"Kluge" is computer jargon for inelegant, ad hoc, suboptimal, jury-rigged fixes akin to Rube Goldberg contraptions (for the benefit of the chronologically challenged). Professor Marcus likens the evolutionary process to a tinkerer laboring with the crudest of tools, endlessly attempting to put to use genetic anomalies and finding that most, but not all, of these aberrations do more harm than good; a tinkerer whose sole advantage is the passage of enormous amounts of time. Evolution is slow, while the potential of human invention is unimaginably more rapid. Hence, the inevitability of catching up and passing by the tinkerer.

Somehow, eons of stumbling into things and being eaten or saying "I'm sorry" have provided us with these state-of-the-art, between-the-ears neural processing clusters that employ highly imprecise and error-prone contextually triggered memory systems that can't begin to match the speed, accuracy and precision of their silicon-based counterparts. What these three-pound balls of mush can do is perform a sort of free-form associative feat that no existing computer has been able to emulate on such a grand scale with such efficiency. So, while you can't remember why you just walked up the stairs, you might spontaneously remember that it was at the top of those stairs that you first became aware that you were losing your hair. But, enough about me.

Perhaps our problem as a species is that we started making computers before we unraveled how our brains actually work. Early computers weren't intended to replace brains. They were really applied logic machines used to quickly and accurately carry out a series of steps using a set of rules, like doing math, or telling another machine how to behave to produce a desired product. So to those of you who say, "But computers can't think,” I would answer, "We haven’t really asked them to." But we are now.

What is the purpose of these brains we've inherited? Unlike digital computers, our powers of recall and invention are profoundly affected by the context within which we find ourselves. Our brains have served the purpose of keeping us alive long enough to breed. My laptop works as well at home as it does at work, but my brain clearly doesn't. My brain still wonders what that bump in the night is all about. My laptop couldn't care less.

We know to a certainty that our unconsciously recorded experiences profoundly influence and routinely trump our best attempts at rationality. Though we pride ourselves on our rationality, most of life's most important decisions are colored by emotional filters. Too often, humans resort to fits of temper or appeals to superstitious fancies as placeholders for these sorts of unresolved internal conflicts. Computers blue screen; humans strike out in anger or get depressed.

Our brains are pre-wired to produce and understand language at a certain age. Similarly, it appears the tinkerer's hammer prepared our brains to entertain questions of morality, as well. We are not blank slates. Our brains come pre-wired in several important ways.

Reverse engineering the tinkerer's handiwork may be one of the major triumphs of this 21st century. Creating machines that benefit from and employ the insights gleaned through this process will surely follow in short order.

According to Professor Marcus, and our accumulated record of experience, there's plenty of room for improvement in that patched-together contraption that's allowing you to read these words.

I wonder what my laptop thinks about all this?