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Students Serenade the President with Handcrafted, Engineered Instruments

Fri, 2014-12-19 15:57
Matt Kelly

A clatter filled Madison Hall on a late-semester evening as the student performers worked on the final tuning of their instruments. Their audience, University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan, sipped her coffee and chatted with some of the students who clustered around her.

A closer look revealed something unusual about the instruments the “performers” were tuning: All were built as engineering projects out of cigar boxes, wire strings and pieces fabricated on three-dimensional printers.

School of Engineering and Applied Science instructor Keith Williams, who devised the instrument-making exercise for his first-year “Introduction to Engineering” students, introduced the ensemble and announced that tonight they would be performing “The Good Ol’ Song.” He noted that the instruments – a motley collection resembling violins, ukuleles, guitars and banjos – had not received government certification and that the audience listened at its own risk.

The players started feebly and then built up a tempo, resting on the foundation built by an actual cello brought in to supplement the class’s handiwork and a hand drum. After they had drifted through the number, the engineers received a round of applause from the president and from other engineering students. Williams noted that the band was pressed for time because of another engagement and could not take requests. The players, however, did “The Good Ol’ Song” for an encore.

“I think it is impressive that they made the instruments themselves,” Sullivan said. “I am sure they learned a lot of things this way, though I don’t think musical theory was one of them.”

Williams, a faculty member in the Department of Engineering and Society, noted that most of the students, who had divided into teams to design and fabricate their instruments, were not musicians, though many made a valiant effort to play.

“I think this was the perfect challenge for them,” Williams said. “They have been working hard on this and they needed closure.”

David Gaulton, 18, of Richmond, worked with a team that designed a violin, with the neck off-center on the sound box and with a Fibonacci spiral as the sound hole, giving the instrument a greater range of sound. Gaulton said the instrument was originally designed for three strings.

“Then we decided it only needed two strings and in the end I only played one string,” he said.

Muriel Sandel, 18, from Switzerland, played a three-string banjo she designed with Ying Lai, 19, of Smithfield, and Suhaib Radwan, 17, of Gaza. None of the designers were familiar with banjos, which gave them a certain confidence in designing a square one, with wooden blocks around the box to hold the leather soundboard in place. 

“The leather is stretched over the cigar box, and held in place by the pieces of wood that are bolted together,” Radwan said. “We put it together without using any glue.”

About 40 of Williams’ 120 students attended the dusk performance for the president.

Daniel Meador, 18, from Clifton, had never played an instrument prior to this project, though his perspective has begun to change.

“Once I started to get my hands on making my own from the cigar box and started to test the resonance, craft the bridge and carefully position the fingerboard, I began to realize how articulate the design of a violin is, and how unique one can be,” he said.

Lucy Fitzgerald, 18, from Virginia Beach, played violin for years, which influenced her group’s instrument selection. 

“The instrument actually ended up having a really good sound, especially once we closed the back and drilled sound holes,” Fitzgerald said. “This project taught me that just about anything is possible through engineering.”

She looked upon this project as a combination of the technical and the artistic.

“I thought there was no way in the world we could make a string instrument out of a cigar box and have it be anything more than dull and flat sounding, but I was wrong,” she said. “Music and instrument-making are artistic skills, requiring a lot of finesse and personal judgment in their execution, but it was cool to see how a lot of the same objectives could be accomplished through data collection, analysis and engineering.”

What Can Russia Do to Save the Ruble? Russia Expert Allen C. Lynch has Some Answers

Thu, 2014-12-18 16:37

Russia’s currency has taken a beating this week, at one point falling to nearly 75 rubles to the U.S. dollar. The Wall Street Journal says the ruble steadied to around 61 to the dollar Thursday after President Vladimir Putin tried to reassure the country in his annual year-end address.

Experts say the economic crisis is caused, in part, by Western sanctions linked to Moscow’s incursion into Ukraine and by falling oil prices.

Russia expert Allen C. Lynch, a University of Virginia professor of politics, offers the following insights into the situation.

Q. Is the economic crisis putting President Putin at risk politically?

A. Putin’s power is not in question for the immediate future. What is in question in the medium-term future is the basic economic and political model that Putin has constructed, i.e., a petro state fueling a quasi-authoritarian political machine that has not reformed the petro-fuels model of the Russian political economy in the 15 years that Putin has been in power.

Q. What does Putin need to do to bring the economy around?

A. The collapse of oil in 2014 from $115 a barrel to now less than $60 a barrel, reinforced by a so far 50 percent decline in the ruble for 2014, implies a much more challenging political environment for Putin, as he will now – if this crisis lasts long, which I think it will – have to make difficult choices among central pillars of his regime: A, the military; B, the energy sector; and C, society, which has become accustomed to rising incomes and more reliable social security under Putin.

What matters is the length of this crisis. If it passes in six months, Putin can survive without making changes (the state still has some $430 billion in reserves in its coffers). But if it lasts longer than a year or so, the Putin model as we have known it can no longer be sustained.

In the short-term, nationalist mobilization can reinforce Putin’s positions (his popularity is still in the mid-70 percent range, of course with controlled media).

Q. Why is the ruble in such trouble?

A. The bulk of Russia’s economic problems are independent of Western sanctions. The Russian economy had declined to virtually zero-percent growth before the Ukrainian crisis began in very late 2013. Sanctions have hit Russian firms’ access to refinancing (some $650 billion in private debt in the West), but the most important impact has come from the decline in oil prices, which has to do with Saudi-U.S. economic issues (i.e., Saudi concern about U.S. shale oil and gas production) but which has exposed Russia’s major vulnerability to volatile energy prices.

There has been no true structural reform of the Russian economy throughout Putin’s tenure. Fuels account for 25 percent of Russian GDP directly and 50 percent of state budget revenues. Almost half of each comes from export revenues.

Q. Part of the economic turmoil stems from Western sanctions imposed because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Do you see Russia withdrawing to ease those sanctions?

 A. I am skeptical about a real compromise on Ukraine. For Putin, Ukraine transcends economics and security. It’s about Russian identity. Any stable solution must involve two elements: Russia must show convincingly that it respects the implications of Ukrainian sovereignty, and Europe and the United States must assure Russia that Ukraine can never be a member of NATO and that Ukraine’s move toward the EU will not damage Russia’s economic interests.

The problem is that even if the West were able to provide such assurances, Putin would not believe them, after the history of Russian-NATO relations over the past 17 years. Keep in mind that Russia still has access to European energy markets. It’s the denial of access to financial markets that matters in the sanctions.

Q. What are Russia’s options for ending the economic crisis?

A. If Russia cannot find a solution to the Ukraine crisis that the West agrees to, it has no good options. It clearly has no Western option for the foreseeable future. Russia will never agree to become a vassal of China, which is the alternative to Westernization; in that case, Russia will sink into a quiet oblivion as a vast Eurasia ghetto, with allies like South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Trans-dnistria and Armenia – to which we can add a vast “Cuba” on its western borderlands, in the form of Ukraine. Ironically, Putin may turn out to be the greatest state-builder in Ukrainian history.

Lynch is former director of U.Va.’s Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies (1993-2008), former assistant director of the W. Averell Harriman Institute for Advanced Study of the Soviet Union at Columbia University and the author of several books, including “Vladimir Putin and Russian Statecraft” (2011) and “How Russia Is Not Ruled: Reflections on Russian Political Development” (2005).

U.Va. President, Rector Discuss Path Forward During Faculty Town Hall

Wed, 2014-12-17 20:55
McGregor McCance

University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan and Rector George Keith Martin met Wednesday with faculty members in a town hall discussion focused on next steps for U.Va. on the issues of sexual assault and student safety.

Sullivan told faculty members that the fall semester has been difficult for the entire University community, and thanked them for their continued focus on students and their interest in discussing potential solutions.

“What all of us want for our students is for them to be safe,” Sullivan said at the event organized and hosted by the University’s Faculty Senate. “Physically safe, emotionally safe, mentally safe – safe in every other way.”

The just-concluded academic semester was marked by the disappearance and homicide of student Hannah Graham, intense attention and introspection following publication of a now largely discredited Rolling Stone article, and the deaths of two other students.

“Student deaths are especially tragic for us,” Sullivan said. “Sexual assault is also tragic because it doesn’t just harm the survivor once. The harm can last for a lifetime.”

Martin told faculty members gathered in the Caplin Theater that he and others are often frustrated by what they cannot say due to an ongoing investigation related to the events described in the magazine article, but he also strongly defended the University’s staff responsible for assisting students and handling cases involving sexual assault.

“I personally know their dedication to the University,” he said.

In the wake of the article, Sullivan requested that Charlottesville Police investigate Rolling Stone’s depiction of a horrific rape in 2012 – reporting under scrutiny now that the magazine has conceded contains errors, for which its editors apologized.

Martin also asked the state attorney general to appoint an independent counsel to review the policy, practices and procedures of the University’s handling of sexual assault. Martin told faculty members the work of independent counsel O’Melveny & Myers would be released as a public record, to the extent allowed under federal and state laws regarding student privacy and confidentiality.

“We need to have an objective, outside assessment of our policies and practices, and how we can strengthen student safety on Grounds. The safety of our students is our first and foremost priority,” Martin said in a statement released after the faculty session. “We stand ready to take decisive action based on what we learn, and to share that with our University community.”

Sullivan also outlined early efforts of the recently appointed Ad Hoc Group on University Climate and Culture. The group is charged with exploring policies, practices and organizational structure, as well as the resources necessary to support the ultimate goal of providing an outstanding education while ensuring the safety and well-being of students. A separate administrative task force is charged with implementing the advisory group’s recommendations.

Some early recommendations already are in place or in motion, including the hiring of additional counseling and trauma response personnel in the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center and in U.Va.’s Counseling and Psychological Services. Next semester, students will see a new police substation serving the Corner area, and increased patrols. Also planned are enhancements to on-Grounds lighting and improvements to the University’s camera system.

Sullivan said the ad hoc group will include three working groups focused on prevention, response and culture. Progress will be tracked in the short-, medium- and long-term.

Faculty Senate Chair Joe Garofalo said University faculty had responded robustly to the recent events and to the call for a review of U.Va.’s culture and practices.

“You all want actions to be taken to make this a safer place,” he said.

During the extended question-and-answer period, faculty members shared a number of ideas on potential areas of emphasis. Some spoke forcefully about U.Va.’s oversight of Greek life, and others urged the president and rector to place as much emphasis on education and prevention as on adjudication or processes that follow incidents and complaints.

School of Law professor Anne M. Coughlin urged the audience and University leadership to also focus on advocating change in Virginia rape laws, which she said are antiquated and, by their structure and language, can make it difficult to successfully prosecute cases.

“We cannot protect our students until we have a criminal code that does that,” she said.

Martin encouraged faculty members to continue to engage in the discussion and submit recommendations.

“This is obviously an opportunity for the University of Virginia to be a national leader, and I don’t say that lightly. This is a very serious subject,” Martin said. “President Sullivan has done a tremendous job in a short period of time. We support her, and we are working as a team, and we thank you for your contribution helping the University address this very critical issue.”

Cavalier Fans Defend Waste Diversion, Recycling Titles at Football Game

Wed, 2014-12-17 19:06
Matt Kelly

The University of Virginia has defended its title in the Game Day Challenge, coming in first in the Atlantic Coast Conference for recycling, waste reduction and greenhouse gas reduction. It also placed seventh in the nation in these categories.

The Game Day Challenge is a nationwide contest, sponsored by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, to promote waste diversion at college football games. This year’s challenge fell on Oct. 25, during Homecoming Weekend and the Cavaliers’ heartbreaking 28-27 loss to University of North Carolina.  

Fans at Scott Stadium recycled 0.816 pounds of material per person and diverted 70 percent of the waste material from the game away from landfills. U.Va. attendees also composted 0.088 pounds of material per person.

“We were able to defend our title because of the impressive efforts of volunteers and the athletics department,” said Nina Morris, outreach and engagement program manager with U.Va.’s Office for Sustainability.

U.Va.’s Department of Athletics, U.Va. Sustainability and U.Va. Dining worked together for this year’s competition, in which the University has participated since 2010.

“We had more than 100 volunteers this year and an aggressive composting effort in the suites and with the back-of-the-house concessions,” Morris said. “U.Va. Dining switched all disposable plates, cups and utensils used in the suites to plant-based products that could easily be composted.”

U.Va. Sustainability targeted a “zero-waste” result from the suites this season, which the challenge guidelines define as diverting about 90 percent of the waste from landfills. This season, about 80 percent of the debris from the suites was diverted, including about 7.6 tons of compost. These efforts were reflected in the Game Day numbers.

“We’re getting close to that ‘zero-waste’ level in the suites with the help of student volunteers who sort through the compost and the recyclables,” Morris said.

The concession stands recycled and composted all their waste during the Oct. 25 game, she said, adding that there was a strong effort from the tailgating parties.

“We couldn’t have done it without the fans, especially the ones who were tailgating,” Morris said. “Some tailgates, like the Engineering Alumni Homecoming Weekend Tailgate, went zero-waste in support of the Game Day Challenge effort. They took the time to ensure all their waste could be either composted or recycled and made it easy for fans to properly dispose of their waste. That shows how committed U.Va. fans are to sustainability.”

Rector: Independent Counsel’s Report Will be Made Public

Wed, 2014-12-17 18:58

A statement from George Keith Martin, Rector of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors:

At the Board of Visitors’ request, the Virginia Attorney General selected an independent counsel to review the University’s policy, practices and procedures with regard to sexual assault. The Attorney General’s office anticipates completing a formal agreement with O’Melveny & Myers soon.

We need to have an objective, outside assessment of our policies and practices, and how we can strengthen student safety on Grounds. The safety of our students is our first and foremost priority.

The Charlottesville Police Department also is conducting an investigation, at the request of President Sullivan, into the incident reported by Rolling Stone magazine.

The University is cooperating fully with each. We expect to learn from these reviews and we will improve as a result. We stand ready to take decisive action based on what we learn, and to share that with our University community.

The findings of the independent counsel’s work will be made publicly available. As we begin this review, we’re mindful that what can be disclosed is affected by laws designed to protect student privacy and the confidentiality of investigations by law enforcement agencies.

At no point during the work of the independent counsel will the University distribute information from, or publicly comment on, the ongoing review. However, as a public university, we serve the citizens of the commonwealth, and I am committed to sharing the independent counsel’s findings as a public record.

Kiplinger’s Again Rates U.Va. as No. 2 ‘Best Value’ Among Public Universities

Wed, 2014-12-17 17:29
Dan Heuchert

The University of Virginia continues to offer one of the best educational values in the country, according to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine’s annual ranking of 300 colleges and universities around the country, announced Wednesday.

The 2015 list ranks U.Va. as the No. 2 value in the country among public institutions, as it has for the previous two years, and cited the University’s 86 percent four-year graduation rate as the best among the nation’s public colleges and universities. U.Va. ranks No. 42 overall, putting it among the top 100 every year since the magazine began its rankings in 2008.

The University rates as the No. 2 value among public institutions for both in-state and out-of-state students.

“We salute this year’s top schools,” Kiplinger’s editor Janet Bodnar said. “Balancing top-quality education with affordable cost is a challenge for families in today’s economy, which is why Kiplinger’s rankings are such a valuable resource. The schools on the 2015 list offer students the best of both worlds.”

Kiplinger calculates its ratings using a combination of academic quality measures, including competitiveness of admissions, four-year graduation rates and academic support, together weighted 55 percent; and cost criteria, including tuition, financial aid and student indebtedness, weighted 45 percent.

U.Va. scores highly in both spheres, with its top-of-class 86 percent four-year graduation rate and its average cost to in-state students after need-based aid ranked No. 2 at $5,885. The University’s financial aid program meets 100 percent of students’ demonstrated financial need.

The complete Kiplinger rankings can be found online, where visitors can sort them by admission rate, average debt at graduation and other criteria for all schools, plus by in-state and out-of-state cost for public universities. There is also a slideshow of the top 10 schools in each category, archives of previous years’ rankings, and FAQ about the ranking methodology. The rankings will be published in the February issue of the magazine, available on newsstands Jan. 6.

After the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and U.Va., the rest of the top 10 public institutions were the University of Florida, the University of California-Berkeley, the University of California-Los Angeles, the University of Michigan, the College of William & Mary, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Maryland-College Park and the University of Georgia.

Other Virginia public schools in the top 100 included James Madison University at No. 21; Virginia Tech, No. 26; Christopher Newport University, No. 89; and University of Mary Washington, No. 92.

U.Va.’s continued strong showing in the Kiplinger’s rankings is backed by the Princeton Review’s annual “Best Value” rankings, in which U.Va. is rated as the No. 3 public university in the nation. U.S. News & World Report rates U.Va. as the No. 2 public university in the nation, tied with UCLA.

U.Va. Economists Shine New Light on Effectiveness of Vocational Rehab Programs

Wed, 2014-12-17 16:42
H. Brevy Cannon

A new $2.5 million federal grant will support two University of Virginia economists and a team of colleagues who are revolutionizing how to measure the effectiveness of vocational rehabilitation services. 

The new measures of effectiveness are a “quantum leap” improvement over current metrics, said Steven Stern, U.Va.’s Merrill Bankard Professor of Economics.

The goal of vocational rehabilitation services is to expand employment opportunities for individuals with a spectrum of disabling conditions, from mental illness and cognitive impairments to physical impairments, autism and learning disabilities. Services offered range from basic skills training through employment supports like transportation to and from jobs.

To measure the effectiveness of these services, the new approach harnesses 10 years of anonymized longitudinal data on each person who receives vocational rehabilitation services – tracking his or her wages and labor force data from three years before entering a program to seven years after entering.

That rich long-term data – created by merging two state data sets – is analyzed by econometric modeling software created by Stern and fellow U.Va. economics professor John Pepper. After a decade of development by Stern, Pepper and colleagues at the University of Richmond and the Virginia Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services, the modeling software has evolved to handle the large statistical variations observed across different types of disabilities and across the range of interventions, including diagnosis and evaluation, education, job training, and even restorative services like providing an artificial limb.

“What works is specific to the type of disability the individual has, and there is not really an average person in these programs,” Stern said. “Participants tend to be quite unique. So the software must handle these statistical challenges.”

For instance, Stern said, restorative services are the most valuable for those with physical impairment, while education services are most useful for those with cognitive impairments.

Across all groups and types of services studied thus far in Virginia, median rates of return are very high – “about 40 percent per year, and much higher for some groups,” Stern said. These benefits often become more pronounced a few years after leaving a program, which is why the use of long-term data is crucial, he said.

For example, participants in Virginia’s Postsecondary Education Rehabilitation Transition program, supported by the Virginia Department of Education and administered by the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services at its Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center in Fishersville, earn on average twice as much in their first 10 years in the workforce than if they had not taken part in the program, Stern explained.

This research collaboration “has clearly identified the value of our vocational rehabilitation program with data confirming the long-term return on investment of our funds,” said Bill Hazel, Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources.

Many states and programs currently measure effectiveness by simply reporting a starting salary in the year after someone exits a vocational rehabilitation service. “That’s not a good way to measure effectiveness,” Stern said.

The new grant will enable the team to assess the effectiveness of vocational rehabilitation programs in five additional states – Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma and Texas – by working directly with the state agencies overseeing those programs.

With the new grant, Stern, Pepper and colleagues will create a user-friendly, Web-based version of their Rate of Return Estimator software, enabling state agencies across the nation to assess the impact and cost effectiveness of different vocational rehabilitation services.

Ultimately, the goal is to enable “turnkey” analysis, Stern said, that can generate rigorous and credible estimates for any size agency, for individuals with virtually any type of disability, for different types of services.

All states are required to collect the same longitudinal data sets that the research team harnessed to study vocational rehabilitation services in Virginia, Stern said, so the new analysis should work for any state.

Vocational rehabilitation programs are largely funded by a federal-state partnership, administered by the federal Rehabilitation Services Administration, which currently gives approximately $3 billion annually to state agencies to provide vocational rehabilitation services.

The team’s new approach is coming just as state legislatures are increasingly seeking data on the effectiveness of vocational rehabilitation programs, Stern said. “Both critics and defenders of vocational rehabilitation services will finally have better data to evaluate the cost effectiveness of these programs.”

On Nov. 25, Virginia Gov. McAuliffe announced the nearly $2.5 million federal grant to the University of Richmond and its partners: U.Va., the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired, and the George Washington University Center for Rehabilitation Counseling Research and Education.

“This truly collaborative project is bearing fruit as we look at the return on investment of this publicly funded program at the state level,” said McAuliffe in a press release announcing the grant. “This research is demonstrating evidence-based approaches to help people with disabilities enter the workforce.”

Dr. Robert Schmidt, professor and chair of the economics department in the University of Richmond’s Robins School of Business, is the principal investigator on the $2,498,878, five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

Stern and Pepper have been studying long-term employment outcomes for vocational rehabilitation clients for about a decade with Schmidt and his colleague, the late David Dean, a University of Richmond professor of economics, and others, supported by three prior grants. This line of research has resulted in three published papers thus far, and at least six other papers under way.

The National Council on Rehabilitation Education recently awarded the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services its annual President’s Award for Excellence in Vocational Rehabilitation for outstanding work on return on investment in vocational rehabilitation.

Echoing the award, Stern said the department “has been a leader in effectiveness research for many years, and the results of this grant will be a national model.”