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Harvesting data: The impacts of increased urban farming

What are the effects of more urban gardens? ASU team to crunch the data.
ASU team looking at ecological, social and economic aspects of urban gardens.
High-precision agriculture offers a lot of information at a very local level.
January 22, 2016

ASU project to create physics-based model— accessible to anyone — to study the effects of establishing neighborhood gardens

What would happen if the vacant land around Phoenix were converted to urban farms? Could it bring sustainable, locally grown food closer to consumers?

Arizona State University is taking the lead on a collaborative national project to answer questions like these. Researchers in the university are developing a physics-based model utilizing weather and farming data to predict environmental, economic and socio-economic impacts of increased urban agriculture.

The community model will be public and accessible to everyone — scientists, researchers, farmers, city planners and policymakers.

Alex Mahalov, the Wilhoit Foundation Dean’s Distinguished Professor in ASU’s School of Mathematical and Statistical SciencesThe School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences is an academic unit of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences., is the lead principal investigator of the national project.

“We want to collaborate with people in all different areas to find sustainable solutions," Mahalov said.

The interdisciplinary team from ASU, consisting of computational and climate scientists, mathematicians, statisticians, geoscientists and social scientists, will help predict the yields of crops and to study “what if” scenarios and optimize outcomes of future crops.

For example, the team will study what would happen if vacant lands around the Phoenix metropolitan area were converted to farms. The model will be able to take a future map of the city expansion and samplings based on current densities, and use that data to predict a future city scenario. Bringing food closer to consumers with less shipping means fresher, more nutritious food available at lower cost.

Alex Mahalov (left) and Stephen Shaffer

Alex Mahalov (left) and Stephen Shaffer discuss "what if" scenarios related to converting vacant lands around Phoenix into urban farms.

This is the first time ASU will be collaborating with the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) on the same national project, which involves three separate grants over five years.

Researchers plan to study four distinct geographic and climate zones: the Arizona Sun Corridor, Detroit, central California (Fresno and surrounding area) and central Florida. Local data specific to each area, such as topography, solar energy and water table, will be applied to the physics-based model.

This model is being developed for the United States, but it can be applied to other areas to help determine how best to feed the growing global population — expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050, with more than 50 percent of the populace contained within cities.

Stephen Shaffer, postdoctoral scholar in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, received an additional grant for computational resources from the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Computational and Information Systems Laboratory, sponsored by the NSF.

He’ll start by looking at select winter and summer periods, comparing high-resolution observations represented at a coarser resolution, and moving on to multi-season simulations.

To crunch all the big data, Mahalov’s group will be the first at ASU to be connected to the new fast Internet 2, which will link researchers with the Computational and Information Systems Laboratory at NCAR. The initial simulations require many hours of parallel processing and will generate upwards of 80 terabytes of data.

Shaffer’s idea is to improve the atmospheric models, which currently run best at one kilometer or three kilometers of horizontal resolution.

“How do you take data you’ve observed at one meter and represent it efficiently at one kilometer? It’s these spatial aggregations that I’m writing algorithms for,” he said.

Currently land is only identified in one by one-kilometer sections as a building or vegetation. An entire city, like Phoenix, would look like it is made up of only three kinds of land. Mahalov and Shaffer came up with different methods of how the end result can be more detailed.

“Modeling is a lot like cooking because you need very good ingredients. One ingredient is data. If you have better ingredients — better data and faster computing — you get more accurate representations,” Mahalov said.

This high-precision agriculture offers a lot of information at a very local level. Every point on an individual community garden or urban farm offers data on things like the water table, slope of the land and sun exposure.  Shaffer said that can help farmers make decisions on what to grow and when, and when to buy water credits.

“On a larger scale, if we were to convert all the current vacant integrated lands in Phoenix into crops, would we be able to irrigate them for the next 80 years, or would they just last for two or three years and we’d run out of water? We can start looking at these kinds of scenarios,” said Shaffer, adding that the model they’re developing is public and open to anyone’s ideas.

In addition to the linked agricultural and urban simulations, the researchers are partnering with experts in geography and social sciences who are interested in the social and economic aspects.

“We don’t specify how crops are going to be set up. We’re going to put some amount of vegetation and some amount of water or irrigation in the model, but how it’s implemented in reality could be community gardens, for example,” Shaffer said. “This drives social aspects, with neighbors speaking to each other about how to grow crops or how to deal with pests. I have a garden in my backyard, and my neighbors come over and learn about it.”

In addition to producing food, backyard and community gardens provide other benefits, such as small-scale jobs and economic activity for people who might not have sufficient resources. And there are other positives.

“Put a chicken coop in your yard and see what happens in the neighborhood. Everyone gets interested,” Shaffer said with a chuckle. “We haven’t put chickens in the model yet.”

“Having a garden to grow some food might make you happier. Happiness cannot be underestimated,” Mahalov said.

“And turning compost is very stress-relieving,” Shaffer said.

What excites the researchers about this joint national project is not just working with USDA and NSF to create a set of modeling tools that can be used to study future development scenarios, but also the multiscale nature of it.

“It’s different than climate change, where you have global scale forcing to the finer scale. This is fine scale forcing the larger scale — your own backyard, but many people acting in similar ways,” Shaffer said.

Mahalov agrees: “It is very important that we outreach to the public. If we all do smart and sustainable things collectively, we can have a big impact.”

The co-principal investigators on the project are Billie Turner II, distinguished sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and Gilbert F. White Professor of Environment and Society in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning; Mohamed Moustaoui, senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and associate professor in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences; Matei Georgescu, senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and assistant professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning; and Carola Grebitus, senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and assistant professor of Food Industry Management at the Morrison School of Agribusiness in the W. P. Carey School of Business.

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ASU expands teachers' technology tool kit

ASU program is expanding teachers' technology tool kits, with amazing results.
ASU student-teachers are embracing animation, songs, storytelling technology.
January 22, 2016

Student-teachers find that learning surges with apps, animation and other know-how

A few years ago, students in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College took a three-credit course on how to use technology in the classroom.

“There’s something kind of ironic about having a course called ‘integrating technology,’ but it’s a standalone course — it’s not integrated,” said LeeAnn Lindsey, who is in charge of the technology-infusion initiative at the college.

Then that changed. Starting in 2012, the Teachers College dropped the one-time class and began infusing technology into every course that undergraduates take. So when ASU students learn how to teach multiplication tables or American history, they use videos, storytelling applications, animation software and other techniques to improve the lesson.

The goal, Lindsey said, is for the children to be the ones using the technology.

“It’s not just about ‘I’m going to lecture with a PowerPoint behind me.’ It’s how to teach so that students are driving instruction,” Lindsey said.

“The students are the ones creating a website; they’re doing digital videos to show their learning.”

Starting last year — and thanks to a $50,000 donation — some of ASU’s student-teachers took that philosophy into their school classroomsASU partnered with the Avondale, Tolleson and Osborn elementary school districts in metro Phoenix, providing training and iPads for the project. The donation was from the Jane A. Lehman and Alan G. Lehman Foundation., where they saw amazing results. Children learned faster and were more engaged. Lessons were individualized and classrooms became paperless.

All students became enthusiastic, according to Hayley HoskinHayley HoskinHayley Hoskin (at right in the photo) is in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College iTeachAZ yearlong teacher-training program., an ASU student who teaches eighth-grade math in the Avondale Elementary School District.

“It was night and day to see that the students who had been disengaged from the lessons — even defiantly not participating — were the ones who created the most abstract and creative presentations,” said Hoskin, whose class created animated stories and wrote a song to explain the concept of proportion.

“It was nice to see how it reached every kind of learner in the classroom.”

An iPad with a person's face on the screen.

A tablet shows a fourth-grade student pretending to be a pilot during the iTeachAZ presentation in Avondale on Jan. 15. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now


'They got it the first time'

ASU students in the iTeachAZ program spend the whole academic year teaching at their schools, not just one semester. They student-teach in a classroom, supervised by experienced mentor teachers, and take their senior-year ASU classes on the school district campus, taught by an ASU faculty member who is the site coordinator.

Lynda Scott is the ASU site coordinator in the Avondale Elementary School District in the West Valley. She jumped at the chance to apply for the technology-infusion program after looking at her data from the previous year. She observed many student-teachers using videos and games, but only once did she see the children using technology. Her goal was to get the technology into the pupils’ hands.

“A lot of people think that classroom management would get worse with technology, but we could see that classroom management was better because the kids were so engaged in what was happening and they were listening,” she said.

Both the student-teachers and their mentors were trained, and Scott modeled how to integrate technology in the ASU classes she taught the pre-service teachers — who needed to see both the good and the bad.

“We knew it would not be perfect,” Scott said. “We knew there would be times when the kids wouldn’t use it appropriately. One day our Internet was out. We had trouble with the apps. But I told them, ‘This is going to happen in the classroom, so what’s your Plan B?’ "

Earlier this month, the student-teachers and their mentors in the Avondale district presented their technology-infusion projects. Among their conclusions:

• Students learn quicker: ASU student-teacher Lola Dominguez teaches first grade and used a storytelling app. “They listened the first time, and they got it the first time.”

• Assessments are faster: Rebecca Haines, who has been teaching for 29 years, tried the Plicker app, in which each student answers on a card with a bar code. She scanned the room and knew immediately how many got the answer right. “It’s a quick and easy assessment, and it helps our understanding of what they understand,” said Haines, a second-grade mentor teacher.

• The students were more engaged: Hoskin said her eighth-graders weren’t required to work on their projects at home, but most did. Being able to create an animated project gave shy students the courage to speak up, she said. “They could just press play and they weren’t standing up there with a poster board.”

• Technology allows more inclusion: ASU student Ashley Kesweder teaches first grade and found the storytelling app perfect for her pre-readers. “They were able to show me what they know without that frustration of not knowing how to spell,” she said.

Partnering with mentors

The various gadgets, apps, programs and methods that teachers use will likely change in the coming years, but the point of the technology infusion is to keep minds open.

“It’s creating a mind-set of embracing any new technology that comes along, with a framework for how to integrate technology that’s not specific to one tool,” Lindsey said.

And that’s important for the experienced teachers as well, said Chris Giles, the K-12 education technology specialist for the Arizona Department of Education.

“This is really sketchy ground for them because they’re not the technology users that the students are,” said Giles, who trains teachers around the state. He sees the ASU program as a key way for the new and experienced teachers to collaborate.

“There’s no age thing, just partnership.”

ASU’s pre-service teachers will continue to use devices, apps, videos and programs as part of their courses, but the $50,000 grant that funded the elementary-school program has expired.

Lindsey said she is searching for more money to offer the program to more schools.

“I would like to find a donor who says ‘This works, I can see it.’ "

Top photo: Betsy Hargrove (center), superintendent of the Avondale Elementary School District, chats with Sara Sanchez, an elementary education senior at ASU, about the project she created with students in her fourth-grade class while working on a Native American unit. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News