Project App Maker Pro aims to increase high schoolers' interest in STEM fields

Their teachers learn about technology as well during software development in Design Villages

January 19, 2016

To address the national need for greater numbers of students to enter STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, Project AMP at Arizona State University is conducting a three-year program that taps into the tech interests and talents of students grades 9-11 as a way to increase their interest in STEM.

Project AMP (App Maker Pro) — in which teams of students and teachers come up with software apps to address workplace and community needs — also aims to help high school STEM teachers enhance their technology expertise and knowledge of applications that will promote student learning. High school students and teachers work around a computer. High school students and teachers working collaboratively in the Power Track Design Village in the first Project AMP cohort. Download Full Image

In AMP Design Villages, teams of five (three students and two teachers) collaborate to develop software apps to address real-world needs — for example, in health care or city planning. Villages are led by university and industry scientists with STEM, software and programming expertise. Leaders are assisted by mentors who are computer science majors, who also serve as role models for the student participants.

After creating their own apps, Villagers will design and conduct — with mentorship from AMP staff — Mini-Design Villages for students, teachers and members of the community in their home schools or school districts.

All completed, tested and refined apps will be uploaded to a national database.

During the three years of the project, three cohorts of villagers (150 participants in all: 30 students and 20 teachers per cohort) will be served, along with the hundreds of students reached by the in-school and after-school programs offered by AMP participants.

Throughout the program, student and teacher activities are monitored, and content knowledge and interests assessed. Results will add to knowledge about motivation for student program selection and career choice, as well as for professional-development approaches that enhance teacher knowledge of STEM careers.

On Nov. 14, AMP Cohort 1 completed the first of its five consecutive project sessions. A session is a semester (six Saturday mornings) or a summer (two weeks). The last day of each session is dedicated to a Showcase Open House where each villager picks up the microphone, describes some aspect of the project that was explored, and answers questions from the audience — family, friends, members of the community.

The two Design Villages in Cohort 1 are: Health Tech, co-led by Dr. Rachel Rowe, neuroscientist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, and Dr. Ashish Amresh, assistant professor of computer science at ASU. Mentors are Pragathi Gopal, Taruni Kancharla and Zach Moore. The Power Track Village is co-led by ASU faculty, Dr. Lina Karam, professor of electrical engineering, Dr. Timothy Lindquist, professor of computer science, and Dr. David Meltzer, associate professor of physics education. Mentors are Jason Luc, Yifan Tian and Shaojia Zhao.

Laura Gonzales-Macias, one of the parents of a participant, commented, “Riley (daughter), as part of this creative and talented team of students and faculty, has explored new technologies and strengthened her communication skills. I’m deeply grateful to the Project AMP staff."

Project AMP is directed by professor Carole Greenes and her PRIME Center staff, executive director Mary Cavanagh, project manager James Kim and project co-manager Javier Duarte. Project evaluator is Dr. Melissa Kovacs.

Project AMP participants hail from the school districts of Avondale, Bagdad, Chandler, Gilbert, Higley, Mesa, Phoenix, Tempe and Queen Creek, as well as the San Tan Charter School and the Arizona Virtual Academy. Session 2 begins on Jan. 23.

Contact: Carole Greenes, and Mary Cavanagh,

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ASU researchers find microbial heat islands in the desert

January 20, 2016

Deserts are often thought of as barren places that are left exposed to the extremes of heat and cold and where not much is afoot. But that view is being altered as new research reveals the intricate ecological dynamics of deserts as they change in response to the elements.

New research from Arizona State University shows how microbes can significantly warm the desert surface by darkening it, much in the same way that dark clothes will make the wearer feel warmer in sunlight. These desert-darkening organisms make a living basking in the sun and form a mantle that covers the landscape.

Such mantles, called biological soil crusts or biocrusts, provide important ecosystem services, such as fighting erosion, preventing dust storms or fertilizing the ground with carbon and nitrogen.

The new ASU research shows how the biocrust microorganisms, in an effort to protect themselves from harmful ultraviolet rays in the strong desert sun, produce and lay down so much sunscreen as to noticeably darken the soil, changing the reflectivity of the desert surface as they spread across the land. 

An aerial shot of the desert, with the soil on one side darker than the other.

A biocrust turns a dark
color (left) in the desert
outside Chandler, Arizona.
These crusts can raise
the temperature of the
desert floor by as much as
18 degrees Fahrenheit.

Photo by Ferran

The research is outlined in the article “Bacteria increase arid-land soil surface temperature through the production of sunscreens,” published in the Jan. 20 online issue of Nature Communications. It was written by Estelle Couradeau, a Marie Curie postdoctoral fellow at Arizona State University, and Ferran Garcia-Pichel, an ASU professor and dean of natural sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. It is part of a long-term institutional collaboration with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, whose fellow scientists Trent Northen, Ulas Karaoz, Hsiaon Chiem Lin, Ulisses Nunes da Rocha and Eoin Brodie are co-authors of the paper.

“We have found that the presence of sunscreen-bearing crusts can actually raise local surface temperature by as much as 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit). Because globally they cover some 20 percent of Earth’s continents, biocrusts, their microbes and sunscreens must be important players in global heat budgets,” said Couradeau, the lead author of the paper. “We estimate that there must be some 15 million metric tons of this one microbial sunscreen compound, called scytonemin, warming desert soils worldwide.”

Couradeau spent the past three years studying biocrusts in the laboratory of Garcia-Pichel.

“An increase of 18 degrees Fahrenheit is not without consequence, and we can show that the darkening of the crust brings about important modifications in the soil microbiome, the community of microorganisms in the soil, allowing warm-loving types to do better,” Garcia-Pichel said.

“This warming effect is likely to speed up soil chemical and biological reactions, and can make a big difference between being frozen or not when it gets cold,” he explained. “On the other hand, it may put local organisms at increased risk when it is already quite hot.”

Couradeau and Garcia-Pichel said that although biocrusts have been overlooked in the past, they are now getting much closer scrutiny from scientists.

“Biocrusts, while cryptic, deserve more consideration from us,” Couradeau said. “We need to include them in our climate models and speak about them in the classroom.”