ASU scientists, adventurers, explorers celebrate Geography Awareness Week

New ‘video game’ style lab uses avatars to transport students around the globe and teach them about the natural world

November 25, 2020

Under a cloudless blue sky on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus, Craig Turner fired up a thin R2D2-looking device and shot out pulsed lasers creating a 3D map of ASU’s campus with impeccable detail — capturing everything from individual leaves on trees to the smallest hairline sidewalk cracks. 

“Our lidar machine captures between 6 million to 20 million points in under a minute with the accuracy of less than a centimeter,” said Turner, laboratory coordinator in ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, to a group of students and staff. “Precise remote mapping technology like this allows us to monitor how landforms change over time, what causes these changes, and the efforts underway to preserve unique native environments.” Craig Turner, holding one of the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning's unmanned aerial vehicles. The school's terrestrial laser scanner is in the background. Download Full Image

ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning hosted a mixture of virtual activities and in-person, social-distanced events to celebrate Geography Awareness Week during the third week of November.

From masked-up outdoor presentations on unmanned aerial vehicles and terrestrial laser scanners to creating virtual spaces where students, alumni and faculty shared why geography inspired them, events were aimed at building community and igniting a shared love for exploration, investigation and storytelling of connections between people and place. 

“I loved seeing everyone’s geography photography and hearing about their love for geography,” said Lucia Caraballo, an urban planning online student living in Virginia, via social media. “I’m so glad I found this program.” 

Abigail Johnson, an ASU geography 2019 alumna, participated in the activities and shared in an online post that she loved geography for its different branches, including the physical, the human, and the environmental.

“I’ve applied my spatial perspectives to modern issues in local communities and environmental affairs. My education at the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning has allowed me to move to graduate school,” Johnson wrote. “I will apply my geographic knowledge to provide culturally responsive teaching in my STEM classroom.” 

A world interconnected

Often, outsiders may mistake the field of geography as studying points on a map, but the discipline is much more, and involves looking at the connections that exist in places and spaces. 

For example, a place is much more than its rocks, its plants and its roads, but it also involves people, and all those individual elements associated with a place are interconnected. 

“Geography is not about memorizing state capitals,” said Erinanne Saffell, a meteorologist and lecturer in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. “It's about finding patterns in the natural world.” 

Stewart Fotheringham, Regents Professor in the school, adds that because geography covers a variety of important topics, many of the decisions we make are influenced by space.

“Who we marry, where we live, who we vote for in elections, and where we shop are all heavily influenced by location,” Fotheringham said. “The field of geography is a chance to understand people's preferences and actions as they relate to our surroundings.”

“Discovering something new about issues that nobody else in the world knows is truly an amazing experience.”

While every personal geography story is different, a common trait among geographers is a shared inquisitive nature and deep drive to make a place better.   

“Geography satisfies my curiosity about the world,” said Matthew Quick, assistant professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. “It intersects with many different disciplines, can be used to answer many different types of research questions, and directly engages with the cities and neighborhoods that we live in.”

Kelli Larson, deputy director and professor in the school, agrees. 

“I love the breadth of what geography is and what geographers do,” she said. “My specific field within geography is human-environment interactions, which provides the best of both words given my interest in how Earth systems work and why people do what they do.” 

For Randall Cerveny, President’s Professor, his love for geography is summed up pretty simply, saying our world is “a pretty darn amazing place.”

Exploring the outdoors in a virtual world 

Geography classes aren’t just for geography majors, but for anyone passionate about learning about the world and how it works.

Ronald Dorn, professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, teaches GPH 111, an introduction to physical geography class at ASU focused on helping students interpret what they see when they visit the great outdoors — including the weather, the climate, the plants, the animals and scenery. 

“The class and its lab explore what many students love to do with their free time — hike, kayak on rivers, mountain bike, or just go camping out in nature,” said Dorn, who has taught geography at ASU for more than 30 years and is an avid camper and skier. “You'll appreciate the outside world so much more after the classes.” 

Unique to the course is the newly designed and launched geography "video game" lab. The video-game format lab (GPH 112) uses student avatars to investigate scientific issues related to climate, weather and landscapes in places like Hawaii, the Grand Canyon and San Francisco Peaks in Flagstaff, Arizona. 

“The lab is a video game, I don’t know how else to describe it,” said Camille Plant, a journalism sophomore with a geography minor who took the course this semester, with a chuckle. “It’s interactive, you get this little character and they put you in different scenarios.”

“It’s been really interesting to learn about the science of the earth and how we interact with the world around us. My geography classes really have opened up a whole new world.” 

The new video-game format lab was first launched in fall 2020 and is planned to continue into the spring 2021 semester as classes continue through a mixture of remote learning and in-person options.

Although physical exploration and travel may look different right now, Dorn is still passionate about sharing his love for geography with others and connecting students to the outdoors. 

“I cannot wait to get the vaccine so I can run field trips for our students again. One of the first orders of business I want to do is a School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning campout to reconnect,” Dorn said. “If you care about the world and how we are connected to each other, geography is the field for you.”

David Rozul

Media Relations Officer, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


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How effective are sit-to-stand workstations, really?

Workers with sit-to-stand workstations sat 66 minutes less per day.
Fewer musculoskeletal problems among benefits of sit-to-stand workstations.
November 25, 2020

ASU professor collaborates to research efficacy of 'move more' programming coupled with standing desks

In workplaces across America, a new noise has become part of the familiar office soundscape: the whir of an electric motor that announces a co-worker’s rise from their chair to a standing position.

Yet, while sit-to-stand workstations are being installed in offices at a rapid clip, those who can boast having one at their disposal are still in the minority, often because of cost or workplace policies. And although the health risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle are becoming more widely accepted, some argue that simply encouraging employees to move more throughout the workday is enough to make a difference.

Others disagree.

“American workers spend upwards of six to eight hours a day sitting, which can contribute to poor health even among those who might already be getting enough physical activity,” said ASU College of Health Solutions Associate Professor Matt Buman. “The workplace is a great place to target that behavior because we can actually do something in that environment in a relatively standardized way.”

In a study funded by the National Institutes of Health, Buman and colleagues at the University of Minnesota sought to determine whether providing employees with sit-to-stand workstations and programming that encouraged integrating more movement into the workday would be as effective or more effective than just the programming alone.

The results, which found that workers who received the sit-to-stand workstations sat less and showed improvements in health and quality of life compared with those who received only “move more” programming, were published in a paper by the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

In a large cluster trial, Buman and colleagues selected 24 work sites in two states — half in Arizona and half in Minnesota — where sitting during the day was common and randomized them to receive one of two interventions for a 12-month period.

Half received supportive programming that ranged from emails from supervisors geared toward stimulating employee motivation to enacting policy-level changes regarding acceptable footwear. And the other half received both supportive programming and a sit-to-stand workstation.

Researchers found that participants who received both supportive programming and a sit-to-stand workstation — referred to as the “stand-plus” group — sat about one hour less per eight-hour workday than those who received only supportive programming. The former group also showed reductions in musculoskeletal issues and reported improved quality of life.

As a bonus, researchers were pleased to see participants in the stand-plus group show reductions in weight.

“That was surprising,” Buman said. “We never hypothesized that they may lose weight, but we’re seeing some initial indications that that may be due to reductions in appetite and energy intake. It could be that they were eating less because they were standing more.”

And among the nearly 100 prediabetic participants, researchers found clinically meaningful improvements in cardiometabolic rates, including reductions in fasting glucose and blood pressure.

Participants were evaluated at the beginning of the study, at three months and at 12 months. All of the beneficial changes they experienced began at three months and were maintained at the 12-month mark. Initial evaluations of participants after 24 months also reflect maintained benefits.

“What we typically see in physical activity studies is that we can initiate change but we can’t maintain it,” Buman said. “So this is really exciting because we’re showing that we can actually sustain change. A lot of that has to do with part of the intervention being a physical change in their environment. It becomes sort of an easy option to stand because the desk itself is there and present all the time.”

infographic with facts about sit-to-stand workstations

Infographic by Alex Cabrera/ASU Now

But Buman and his team acknowledged that getting participants to actually use the sit-to-stand workstation might require some changes to workplace culture.

“We tried to address certain cultural beliefs in our study,” Buman said. “We required every work site to have a work site leader who, among other things, was required to write an email at the beginning of the program and quarterly throughout the year inviting employees to participate. Basically saying, ‘At our workplace, we stand for health and we want you to take charge of your health because it’s important to us.’ People want to be healthier, but they don’t want to do it at the cost of their job.”

The researchers also noted that even though stand-plus participants increased the amount of standing they did at work, they did not compensate by sitting more after work, nor did their amount of physical activity in general increase.

“I view this as intervention that doesn’t compete at all with an exercise program because it’s an additive thing,” Buman said.

In 2018, Buman served as one of nine special consultants for a report that informed an updated version of the national Physical Activity Guidelines, first published in 2008 to inform public health policies.

The most recent iteration of the guidelines reflect the latest, most accurate scientific evidence regarding physical activity. One of the key updates is a greater recognition of sedentary behavior, defined as sitting, with the new recommendation calling for the usual 150 minutes of moderate activity per week in addition to sitting less and moving more in general.

And while Buman agrees with the recommendation regarding physical activity, what this study suggests is that just standing more can also result in benefits to your health.

“We didn’t get anybody to move more,” Buman said. “We just got them to stand more,” and they still saw health benefits.

But he also stressed the importance of balance.

“The caveat is too much standing is also probably not good for us, as that could create other musculoskeletal issues,” Buman said. “So people who are on their feet all day long — people working in a steel mill, or nurses or teachers — maybe they need to think about sitting more. The next position is the best position. If you’ve been sitting for awhile, maybe you should stand. If you’ve been standing awhile, maybe you should sit.”

Buman and colleagues have now begun a new project to test the programming nationwide for best practices for workplaces to implement it.

“Sit-to-stand workstations are being adopted widely across the country,” he said. “They’re no longer just for those who have a doctor’s note. People are asking for these and expecting them in their workplace. It used to be a cost barrier, but they’ve come down in price. Now the problem is that even though many workplaces provide them, they don’t provide support. So we’ll be testing delivery mechanisms to find the smartest way to scale up the program and retain health benefits.”

Top photo: ASU College of Health Solutions Associate Professor Matt Buman uses a sit-to-stand workstation every day. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Emma Greguska

Editor , ASU News

(480) 965-9657