Virginia Tech Magazine

Volume 15, Number 3
Spring 1993


Hunt for Red October continues

Tom Clancy might have dreamed up the system developed by Virginia Tech researchers to aid underwater surveillance techniques. It's practically out of Hunt for Red October.

Under the system, a state-of-the-art sensor is deployed to scan the oceans, detecting stealthy vessels far below the surface. An analyst interprets the data and relays the information from the ship via satellite to a central command post, where the position of the "enemy"is plotted and tactics are planned. In addition, the system can act as a tutor to instruct its own operator.

Technology, the changing face of geopolitics, and reductions in force of military personnel have led the armed forces to de-emphasize conventional tactics in favor of sophisticated pre-emptive surveillance. So the Office of Naval Technology and Virginia Tech's Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering have joined forces to develop the computerized tutoring system embedded in the Surveillance Towed Array Subsurface Systems (SURTASS). SURTASS is under development by the Navy's Space Warfare Command. Virginia Tech's role was to develop the computer program that will allow the system to act as its own on-board tutor.

Kent Williams, Virginia Tech senior research scientist, explained that the tutor grew from a larger project called the Classroom of the Future that seeks to customize instruction in a computerized environment. Under this program, a computer continuously interacts with its user, determining what sort of instructional strategy and curriculum content best meets the operator's needs. Williams calls the process "intelligent tutoring."

The project's application to SURTASS will allow the elimination of expensive simulators as instructional devices. It will also reduce the need for humans as instructors. "The military doesn't like to take their good people out of the field and put them in a classroom as instructors,"Williams says. "Also, when you're in the field, many times instructors aren't available."

Williams said a trial of the tutorial program resulted in a significant improvement in operational capability and success. Now that this project is ready for prototype development, Williams says, research will continue in the Classroom of the Future to pursue other innovations in educational methods.

Wetlands created from mining areas

Surface-mining areas that collect water can be turned into wetlands to help replace those lost, Virginia Tech researchers have found. More than 40 percent of Virginia's wetlands were filled in before people realized their importance.

Vital to the ecology, wetlands purify water by removing suspended solids and decomposing organic materials such as sewage and manure, says John Cairns, director of Virginia Tech's University Center for Environmental and Hazardous Materials Studies. Wetlands also recharge groundwater, a major source of drinking water in Virginia, and stabilize river flow, reducing flooding.

Cairns, postdoctoral fellow Rob Atkinson, graduate student David Holton Jones, and Lee Daniels of Virginia Tech's Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences, received a grant from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement for their research, part of the Powell River Project. This project attempts to develop solutions to problems in the Appalachian coalfields.

The researchers studied first "accidental wetlands"created by mining and also naturally occurring wetlands in the coalfield region of Wise County to determine if wet areas turned into wetlands and, if so, how they could speed up the process.

They discovered natural wetlands develop too slowly to alleviate the current shortage. Planting certain vegetation, they discovered, encouraged faster wetlands development. The second year of the study is focusing on other ways to speed development.

In related research, Albert Hendricks, associate professor of biology, and master's student Chrys Duddleston are using a constructed wetlands site in Wise County to remove acid-mine drainage and to prevent harmful metals from entering nearby creeks. After two years, they have successfully lowered iron, manganese, and acidity levels. Their research, also part of the Powell River Project, is sponsored by the Westmoreland Coal Co., United Coal Co., and the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology.

Breast feeding best for fine-tuned baby

Bottle-fed babies in some ways resemble an out-of-tune automobile, while breast-fed babies appear to be more alert, perhaps because their bodies simply run better, a Virginia Tech study shows.

Breast-fed babies develop a more energy-efficient and rhythmically functioning autonomic nervous system, which controls infant arousal, than bottle-fed babies, says Philip Zeskind, associate professor of psychology, who studied the sleep-wake patterns and heart rates of breast-fed and bottle-fed newborn infants.

"Although breast-fed babies are perceived to be more irritable than bottle-fed newborns,"Zeskind says, "our results suggest that the behaviors of breast-fed infants are physiologically more desirable. Feeding infants formula may make them sleep more and may disrupt the smooth running of their arousal systems."

Zeskind looked at babies in all stages of behavior´┐Żdeep sleep, dream sleep, drowsy, alert, fussing, and crying. Bottle-fed babies were found more often in the deep-sleep state, and breast-fed babies were more alert. Breast-fed babies also had lower heart rates, indicating better energy efficiency. "This argues against the idea that breast-fed babies are just more aroused and hungry,"Zeskind says. "If they were, they'd have a higher heart rate."

Computer analyses also show that the heart-rate patterns of breast-fed babies are more rhythmically complex, another indication of a more energy-efficient system. Basically, bottle-fed babies are like an automobile engine out of tune, Zeskind says. A less smooth-running arousal system has to work harder and use more fuel.

Virginia Tech Magazine Volume 15, Number 3 Spring 1993