Virginia Tech Magazine

Volume 14, Number 1
Fall 1991


Remedial social skills

Children hit and hide because they haven't developed the social skills to get their needs met other ways, a Virginia Tech psychologist suggests.

Thomas Ollendick's two-year program helping aggressive and withdrawn children develop these skills has garnered him the Jeannie P. Baliles Child Mental Health Research Award.

Both aggressive and withdrawn children tend to believe they have little control over their destinies, hold low estimations of their own abilities, and have lower assertiveness skills than average children, Ollendick found in a survey of fourth graders. He also found that, without intervention, aggressive children by the ninth grade are more likely to be unpopular with their peers, do poorly academically, drop-out of school, and have more serious behavior problems than average children. Withdrawn children have less serious problems, but tend to be loners isolated from their peers. Ollendick predicts even greater problems will show up in these groups later—problems such as depression and thoughts of suicide, assaultive acting out, truancy, and teen pregnancy.

To remedy this situation, he set up structured social-skill competency groups in the fourth and fifth grades to help the children learn to deal with problem situations, give and accept compliments, refuse unreasonable requests, ask another person to change behavior, and perceive how others are feeling.

He found that his intervention program improved the children's feelings of control and effectiveness. Follow-ups show that the majority of the withdrawn children (85-90 percent) and a significant minority (35-40 percent) of the aggressive children showed a marked decrease in behavior problems after participating in the program.

Students excel in racy designs

A car called Foops, designed and built by Virginia Tech engineering undergraduates, outraced competitors from 59 other universities and won the 1991 Formula SAE car competition in Detroit recently. Meanwhile other Virginia Tech students placed second in two other recent national car contests—the Mini-Baja East in Montreal and the American Tour de Sol, a solar-powered car race in New England.

The competitions were all designed to give engineering students a chance to apply what they learned in class, said mechanical engineering department head Bob Comparin. Participating students included business, computer science, and electrical, mechanical, and aerospace engineering majors.

In the SAE competition, sponsored by General Motors and the Society of Automotive Engineers, students were required to design and build small "formula-style" race cars with 600 c.c. motorcycle-type engines to meet certain cost, design, and performance goals. Students had to assume that they were producing a prototype car for possible production by a car manufacturer.

In addition to high performance acceleration, braking, and handling, the car had to be low in cost, easy to maintain, and reliable. The cars were judged in three categories: design, solo performance trials, and an endurance event.

"It is an engineering design competition more than a race," stressed faculty advisor Rick Roby. "Engineers have to be able to operate what they've designed and built."

Like their SAE counterparts, the Mini-Baja East competitors also had to assume that they were making a prototype for possible manufacture. The gasoline-burning 8 horsepower vehicle had to be able to handle rough terrain and deep water without damage, and be safe, fun to drive, and easily maintained. It would be judged for its design, safety, cost, and performance in a series of field events.

"Our car was particularly good in water maneuverability, endurance events, and suspension and traction over rough terrain," said faculty advisor Hal Moses. Placing second overall, the car was among the top contenders in almost all the events against 35 other schools, Moses added.

The Tour de Sol was a 250-mile, five-day race of solar-powered race cars. Tech's entry, named Solaray, was a rebuilt version of the vehicle that participated in the 1990 GM Sunrayce USA, a race from Florida to Michigan. Two successive teams of students made various mechanical, electrical, and aerodynamic improvements to the car. They modified the solar array, transmission, and suspension.

The changes paid off. Being second out of a field of 24 is a long way from being 27th out of 32 in the Sunrayce, said chief faculty advisor Charles Hurst.

The car has a maximum speed of 55 mph and an average cruising speed of 20-25 mph.

Crawly stream monitors

Insects living in or around rivers and lakes may tell us more about pollution than sophisticated laboratory tests, Virginia Tech scientists using "biomonitoring" are saying. Steve Hiner and J. Reese Voshell, entomologists in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, are taking field measurements of tiny aquatic insects to get a holistic measure of pollution and its effect on living organisms.

Laboratory chemical analyses, Voshell says, are conducted in non-natural conditions, can be confounded by chemical bonding, and show how the pollutant affects only a few species.

"Aquatic insects are excellent indicators for protecting fish, waterfowl, and the overall integrity of ecosystems," Voshell says. "For biomonitoring, they offer a number of advantages. They are abundant in most freshwater environments; they don't move around much, so they are relatively easy to sample; and most can be reliably identified. These insects grow from immature stages to adulthood in a few months to a year, so specimens are indicative of environmental conditions that prevailed for several months."

Voshell and Hiner have been taking samples at different locations over several years to determine if pollution has occurred and what type. Pollution from improper sewage treatment, for example, causes mayfly and stonefly populations to decrease, while species such as caddisflies and true flies become more abundant. Toxic pollutants such as insecticides cause a general decrease in the abundance of all species.

Now that the Environmental Protection Agency is recommending that every state use their biomonitoring protocol for measuring pollution, Virginia Tech entomologists are assisting the Virginia Water Control Board in implementing these new techniques.

Curing "sick" well water

Almost half of the 1.5 million Virginians who get their water from wells or other individual systems may be drinking bacteriologically contaminated water, if a four-county study by Virginia Tech Extension specialists Blake Ross and Janice Woodard is any indication.

Forty-four percent of the 1,064 household water samples tested in northwestern Virginia were found to be coliform positive, an indication of the possible presence of disease-causing bacteria. Problems that may develop include short term gastrointestinal disorders, such as cramps and diarrhea, or more serious salmonella infections, dysentery, or hepatitis.

Blake and Woodard headed a water testing program through the local Cooperative Extension offices. They held local meetings to explain likely sources of contamination, the nature of household water quality problems, and management practices that might reduce water contamination.

Turning kids on to math and science

How do you help American kids perform better in math and science? Get them to build things, say Virginia Tech professors Jim LaPorte and Mark Sanders.

Children have to see how math and science relate to real life if they are to become more interested in these subjects, say the technology education professors.

"When kids are given a technological problem to solve by designing and building something, they become personally engaged in the problem," says Sanders. "They may also become more curious about the scientific or mathematical ideas behind the problem."

With over $400,000 from the National Science Foundation, the two are working with Virginia middle-school teachers to integrate hands-on activities in technology education courses with the math and science curricula.

Math, science, and technology education are currently taught as "separate little boxes," says LaPorte. He and Sanders want to put "glass walls" around those boxes so students can see the interrelationships among the subjects.

Student create their own solutions to technological problems. For example, students are asked to design and construct a model of a better transportation device for transporting toxic materials that is pneumatically or hydraulically controlled by syringes and plastic tubes. After students have built their devices, either individually or in teams, the teacher can challenge them to further apply math and science principles, Sanders says.

A watermark study

A study of antique books and their watermark labels by a Virginia Tech German professor may cause revisions to the accepted history of printing, including the chronology of the first German books printed using Johann Gutenberg's process of movable type. What he needs is a little help from his friends in the Virginia Tech Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics.

Old books can be dated in many ways; two of the most successful are investigating historical records of the published work or identifying the paper mold trademark or watermark on the manuscript, though this is often invisible. Because the ink in the watermark has often oxidized over the years, expensive X-ray processes, beta- or electronradiographs, often are used.

James C. Thomas was in Germany to work on a facsimile edition of 16 manuscripts of the 15th century and two incunabula (books printed from movable type before 1501). To complete the edition, he needed to identify the watermarks on the pages of the original manuscripts and the two printed editions; both editions are held in the Duke August Library in Wolfenbuettel, Germany. Historians had put the publishing date for these editions at 1460.

Thomas noticed that the recorded dates of the watermarks did not reflect that date, and the paper itself had not been produced until the 1470s. He used 15th century tax records, which have accurate dates recorded on paper with the same watermarks. Radiographs provided him with the image of the trademark on the paper, which he was then able to match to the imprint. "I literally spent a week with a magnifying glass studying the pages. I knew I had to be wrong," Thomas says.

But he was not. However, to make a thorough reevaluation of the chronological relationship of the other eight editions traditionally assigned to the same German writer, Pfister, he would have to examine fragments of editions kept at 10 different European and three U.S. libraries. He would also have to arrange for nine libraries to take their valuable editions to Berlin to be radiographed. (The insured value of the first four books investigated was over $15 million; the cost of the required insurance premiums was covered by the Duke August Library.)

His concern to find a less cumbersome and less expensive procedure led Thomas to a materials engineering graduate student working for Tech professor Kenneth Reifsnider. The student, Kami Razvan, is developing a highly mobile, specific X-ray cabinet to duplicate the accuracy of the process used in Berlin, but at a fraction of the cost.

Virginia Tech Magazine, Volume 14, Number 1, Fall 1991