Messenger - Vol. 4, No. 3, Page T-8 1995 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 workstations. 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 programs. "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 necessary." 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.