Messenger - Vol. 4, No. 3, Page T-8
On Technology
Engineering new ideas

     On engineering student Jamie Alesi's computer screen, the city of
Los Angeles appears as a mountainous, green landscape beside a deep
blue sea. By checking a small chart beneath the image, he knows that
land elevations for this section of the city range from zero to 2,000
meters above sea level.
     Alesi, a senior from Blackwood, N.J., is helping to develop a
realistic, three-dimensional model that will simulate the dynamics of
tropospheric pollution-caused by ground-based contaminants from cars,
industry, power plants and natural sources. The project was launched
after the IBM Corp. Environmental Research Program awarded a $1.24
million grant to Anthony S. Wexler, an assistant professor of
mechanical engineering at UD, and John Seinfeld of the California
Institute of Technology.
     Unlike previous air pollution models, the new simulation will
describe the complex reactions of aerosols and droplets, as well as
gaseous substances such as carbon monoxide. But first, Alesi must
program data points corresponding with land elevations into a graphics
software. Once the city's topography has been mapped, Alesi and Wexler
say they hope to enhance the image with digitized photographs, so that
they can "fly" over Los Angeles while sitting at a computer. Finally,
environmental characteristics, such as wind-flow patterns, will be
added to help Wexler analyze the city's smog problem using advanced
     Engineering students like Alesi routinely use computers to tackle
a variety of complex, real-world problems-from air pollution to muscle
control for disabled individuals. "It's hard to study certain problems
on paper, or with calculus," Wexler notes. "When you're trying to
develop a mathematical model of certain physical events such as heat
transfer, the problem can be intractable without a computer. Because
our students learn to use the latest systems and programming
techniques, they have a great leg up in solving problems once they
enter the job market."
     Two computer work-sites in the Department of Mechanical
Engineering are equipped with dozens of workstations and laser
printers. For projects requiring super-fast computing capabilities,
students make use of advanced systems at UD, or they schedule time on
supercomputers maintained by the National Science Foundation. All
students have an account on the University's mainframe computer.
     Training in computer technologies for engineers includes basic
Fortran programming for sophomores plus a drafting course that
incorporates Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software. This training
prepares students to design machines in their higher-level courses.
Since commercially available software packages are often limited, many
engineering students also are asked to develop their own computer
     "There are many programs you can buy that solve problems you
can't solve on paper," Wexler says. "But, unless the problem is
extremely trivial, the software probably won't solve every mechanical
engineering problem a student may encounter. That's why we teach
students to customize existing programs and to develop their own when
     Senior Wade Trexler of Wilmington, Del., is using computers to
generate a mathematical model that will simulate the "firing pattern"
of neurological signals sent from the brain to various muscle groups.
Someday, Trexler says, such studies may help researchers develop
microelectronic devices that let paraplegics and other disabled
individuals regain some use of their muscles. "I like the idea of
doing research that could really benefit somebody if it works out,"
says Trexler.