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Two ASU professors elected American Geophysical Union Fellows

August 20, 2019

Cosmochemistry expert and new ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) Director Meenakshi Wadhwa and drylands researcher Osvaldo Sala, a Regents Professor in the School of Life Sciences, have been elected to the 2019 class of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fellows, recognized for their exceptional scientific contributions and gained prominence in their respective fields of earth and space sciences.

This honor is bestowed on only 0.1% of AGU membership in any given year. AGU Fellows are recognized for their scientific eminence in the earth and space sciences. Their breadth of interests and the scope of their contributions are remarkable and often groundbreaking.

Each year since 1962, AGU has elected as fellows members whose visionary leadership and scientific excellence have fundamentally advanced research in their respective fields. This year, Wadhwa and Sala are two of the 62 members chosen to join the 2019 class of fellows.

“AGU Fellows are recognized for their outstanding contributions to scholarship and discovery in the earth and space sciences," said Eric Davidson, AGU president. "Their work pushes the limits of human knowledge by helping to understand better the complex world and universe around us and to build the knowledge base for a more sustainable future. The rich diversity of disciplines and career backgrounds of this year’s fellows is evidence of the great scholarship, depth and breadth of knowledge, and profound scientific curiosity of AGU’s global membership of more than 60,000. We are pleased to recognize and honor the newest class of fellows for their significant and lasting contributions to the earth and space sciences.”

The evolution of the solar system

headshot of ASU Professor Meenakshi Wadhwa

New ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration Director Meenakshi Wadhwa has been elected to the 2019 class of the American Geophysical Union Fellows. Photo courtesy Knowledge Enterprise Development.

“I am incredibly honored, but this really is a recognition of the wonderful students, lab personnel, colleagues and collaborators that I have been fortunate to work with,” said Wadhwa, who, for more than a decade, also directed ASU’s Center for Meteorite Studies prior to her appointment as SESE's director.

Wadhwa is a planetary scientist and educator who studies the formation and evolution of the solar system through the analysis of planetary materials including meteorites, moon rocks and other extraterrestrial samples returned by spacecraft missions. Her research group is known for developing and applying novel methodologies for high precision isotope analyses to these materials for understanding the formation and evolution of the solar system and planetary bodies.

Wadhwa has roles on two missions currently in flight. She is a collaborating scientist on the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument on the Mars Curiosity Rover and a science team member on the Japanese Hayabusa2 sample return mission to asteroid Ryugu.

Besides the robotic explorations, back on Earth, Wadhwa has been on two Antarctic expeditions hunting meteorites. (She calls them the highlights of her field geology career.) Antarctica is the best place to find meteorites. Its dry, cold climate perfectly preserves the asteroid fragments that crash to Earth. Ice sheets corral them into areas where they’re relatively easy to collect, and winds screaming across the surface expose buried specimens.

Asteroid 8356 has been named 8356 Wadhwa in recognition of her contributions to meteoritics and planetary science.

Drylands and global changes

headshot of ASU Professor Osvaldo Sala

Arid ecosystem researcher Osvaldo Sala, a Regents Professor in the School of Life Sciences, has been elected to the 2019 class of the American Geophysical Union Fellows.

Drylands account for 40% of the Earth’s surface. They are home to 30% of the people, including some of the most vulnerable, and half of the world’s livestock. About 35% of terrestrial carbon is fixed in drylands.

"I feel honored and humbled to be among AGU Fellows who encompass excellence in so many fields of study," said Sala, who serves as the Julie A. Wrigley Chair, Regents and Foundation Professor and founding director of the Global Drylands Center at ASU.

Sala has spent more than 35 years studying the driest places on Earth: the Patagonian steppe, the annual grasslands of California, the Kalahari in southern Africa, the Loess Plateau in China and the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico. His publications are among the most cited in the fields of ecology, sustainability and biology. He has more than 200 publications and 40,000 citations. Sala's day-to-day work focuses on drylands that range from deserts to grasslands and savannas. He uses field experimentation together with mathematical models in his quest to provide the necessary knowledge to achieve drylands sustainability, which is essential to achieve global sustainability.

“Professor Sala is an international expert in the ecology of global drylands, and his knowledge is invaluable as at this critical time where these natural habitats face threats from changes in climate and increased development,” said Kenro Kusumi, director and professor at the School of Life Sciences. “We are proud that his achievements and service to the scientific community have been recognized with this highest honor from the American Geophysical Union.”

Sala’s research interests include several topics, from the functioning of arid ecosystems to ecosystem services and biodiversity, and encompass several scales from local to global. Climate change will affect arid ecosystems primarily through changes in water availability.

At the global scale, he has developed scenarios of biodiversity change for the next 50 to 100 years. He is particularly interested in working with scenarios as a way of simplifying, understanding and communicating the complex relationships that emerge from the study of social-ecological systems.

Honor and celebration at fall AGU meeting

The fellows were chosen by the AGU’s Honors and Recognition Committee and the Union Fellows Committee. At this year’s Honors Tribute, to be held Wednesday, Dec. 11, at the Fall Meeting 2019 in San Francisco, AGU will celebrate and honor the exceptional achievements, visionary leadership, talents and dedication of 62 new AGU Fellows.

Joe Caspermeyer

Manager (natural sciences) , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


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ASU develops world’s first adaptive-learning biology degree

August 20, 2019

School of Life Sciences leads effort to transform undergraduate science education

If you sit in a typical lecture hall at any university, you’ll likely see some students distracted by their phones, or worse, napping or tuned out.

Now, Arizona State University is doing a major rethink of the big lecture hall format to make room for innovation in its science classrooms. It has developed the world’s first adaptive-learning biology degree at ASU's School of Life Sciences.

“We are moving away from mass production to mass personalization," said Dale Johnson, director of adaptive-learning initiatives with EdPlus at ASU. "We used to teach everyone the same thing at the same time. Now, we’re connecting the right student to the right lesson. We are changing the structure of higher education from static to dynamic.” 

Johnson has been working with Michael Angilletta, professor and director of undergraduate programs in the school, and a diverse team of faculty and staff in the school to build its biological sciences degree program in a new adaptive-learning platform called BioSpine.

“Other universities are using active learning and adaptive learning tools," Angilletta said. “However, none of them are attempting to do it at the incredible scale that we are.”

Whether online or on campus, students using this platform will encounter a “scaffolded” support structure that personalizes each student’s learning throughout their four years in the degree program.

The technology is being co-created between ASU and a company called CogBooks. Adaptive learning is a highly interactive format that will adjust to the student’s learning needs in real time.

“In college, you may have heard of faculty members stating that certain students would not make it through the program and erroneously align that with rigor,” said Joshua Caulkins, assistant director of undergraduate programs with the school. “With the support we are creating through adaptive learning, as well as true assessments that measure the range of student learning, students will receive support and direction when course material is especially challenging.”

BioSpine Initiative

Graphic by Ron Carranza 

The degree program uses the BioSpine adaptive-learning courseware rather than textbooks. Faculty members link learning activities to the platform, which then allows students to progress through more challenging coursework when they are ready, or step back and get support in relearning something from a previous course or chapter.

Adaptive learning

Research has shown that the standard lecture hall format does not necessarily engage students in the material, nor is it effective in producing exceptional performance in exams.

This has been especially challenging in science classrooms, where faculty have to use big lecture halls due to demand.

Several years ago, the School of Life Sciences began working with CogBooks to explore new ways to help students learn biology.

Jim Thompson, CEO of CogBooks, explained the concept. 

“To appreciate the power of adaptive technology, it helps to focus on the importance of making connections when we are learning,” Thompson said. “We build new learning by making connections to what we already know and by using this existing knowledge and skill set. If we are struggling to learn a new skill or concept, it is most likely because we are missing key prior learning. Effective adaptive learning identifies these gaps or misconceptions and helps resolve them.”

They first tried out the adaptive learning format on a problem area known for poor performance and high dropout rates, nonmajors taking biology courses to fulfill a science requirement for their majors.

Active and Adaptive Learning models

Graphic by Ron Carranza

In 2015, the company partnered with professors and instructional design staff from ASU’s EdPlus and the School of Life Sciences to develop a new introduction to biology course for nonmajors. Basically, the textbook was replaced with an online experience similar to a textbook, but responsive to a student’s needs.

The results of the first effort were impressive.

“In its first semester, we saw student pass rates, in a nonmajors’ Biology 100 course called The Living World, improve by 24% and dropout rates reduce by 90%,” Thompson said. “This level of success from such a modest investment convinced us we were doing something right. These results have been replicated at other schools, over multiple years, and have been validated by large-scale, independent studies.”

But would the same program also work for life science majors, where content becomes more challenging as students advance from freshman to senior courses? After the success of the pilot course, the effort has been rapidly expanded. So far, 16 courses have been built in support of the school’s BioSpine project.

Early results have shown that both students and faculty are embracing the new adaptive learning format.

Flipping the classroom

To date, as many as 50 faculty and 10 staff members in the life sciences are meeting regularly to advance the project.

“For the first time, we’re thinking about education as a connected path rather than a series of courses. We’re asking our faculty to consider what students need to know to work in a world that is changing dramatically, and to work together to create a unified curriculum,” Angilletta said.

During meetings, faculty and staff work to align what students should learn across a whole degree, as well as within a specific course. To many, this concept is radical.

“I have been surprised by how collegial our colleagues have been during this process," said Karin Ellison, director of the life science ethics program at the school. "This process could be seen as really disruptive to traditional thoughts on intellectual freedom. Everybody teaches their own course and people don’t talk to one another.

“They’re interested in how students might have a common experience across different experiences and how that builds into a whole curriculum.”

Life sciences faculty members who teach evolution were some of the first to embrace the new technology.

“I volunteered for this initiative because I care a lot about teaching evolution,” said Carlo Maley, associate professor with the school. “It is one of the most important tools we have for understanding our world, and I want to do a better job teaching it to our students. In addition, I was uncomfortable not knowing how much of what I was teaching, the students had seen before in previous courses. Was I wasting their time?” 

Maley said their faculty group went through upheaval last fall. They changed the textbook and translated the new one into the CogBooks adaptive-learning platform. Then, they “flipped” the classroom — delivering instruction online and outside the classroom, and providing interactive and hands-on activities during class time.

biospine graphic

Graphic by Ron Carranza 

The results were enthusiastically received.

“Beckett Sterner and I got an ovation at the end of the junior-level major’s course, Evolution — Biology 345, and also at the end of the class on zombies. We really appreciated that, given how hard we had been pushing the students and how many glitches there were in the beta testing,” Maley said. “With active-learning exercises, they really have to be engaged. They can’t sit back and let a lecture wash over them. While the course was much harder, I think they got a lot more out of it than previous students." 

Next steps 

Key BioSpine features include aligning the curriculum, integrating content, shifting faculty roles from lecturers to leaders and empowering faculty to see when a student needs intervention. During the upcoming academic year, the BioSpine team will focus on aligning the content among the courses.

The group also will be using a nationally-recognized standard for reviewing the courses. Three reviews will be completed this summer and as many as a dozen course reviews each summer going forward. 

Designing an entire degree program in adaptive learning comes with many challenges, but the goal remains true to ASU’s charter — to increase access to student populations and achieve success. This success is linked directly to Arizona and the nation’s future success by creating a more educated workforce and a highly diversified economy.

“In looking at our successes to date, we already see greater persistence and greater performance by our students. This dynamic program is the future of education, and ASU is leading globally in this effort,” Johnson said.

Top photo: Biology students in Assistant Professor Silvie Huijben's BIO 345 course take a final exam last spring. The students participated in the newly launched BioSpine Initiative. Photo courtesy Sandra Leander/ASU

Sandra Leander

Assistant Director of Media Relations , ASU Knowledge Enterprise