ASU difference maker pioneers innovative teaching, research techniques

May 12, 2015

Many of us at one point or another have pondered our place in the universe, asking, “Are we alone?”

To hybrid scientist-teacher Ariel Anbar, it’s a question that drives his workday – and thanks to his innovative teaching efforts, he has inspired many thousands of ASU students to think about habitability in new ways. Ariel Anbar Download Full Image

Anbar’s research focuses on Earth’s past and future as a habitable planet, and the prospects for life beyond Earth.

His pioneering research – especially about the chemical evolution of the environment – and innovative efforts in online education have garnered him the Gary S. Krahenbuhl Difference Maker Award.

The annual award, presented by ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, celebrates a faculty member who personifies the spirit of difference-making demonstrated by Krahenbuhl, a former dean of the college.

Anbar is a President’s Professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, as well as a Distinguished Sustainability Scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability.

“Ariel has been a key member of our faculty for some time now,” said Daniel Buttry, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “He serves a vital role in connecting our department’s work in molecular sciences with the School of Earth and Space Exploration, where he holds a joint appointment. He has been extremely innovative in applying skills from his Earth science work to an emerging area of biomedicine. And he has been a driving force in creating new technology platforms for teaching science.

“To say he makes a huge difference to the institution’s key missions would be a drastic understatement.”

In his research, Anbar makes a difference by seeing connections that aren’t always obvious and inspiring talented teams and communities to develop them. That approach has led him to co-author more than 100 peer-reviewed papers, many led by students, and to head many large team projects.

Now, Anbar is making a difference as a leader in online learning at ASU and nationally. He is deeply involved in using the medium to its fullest to help educate and encourage a generation that has grown up with the Internet.

He is the driving force behind an online class called Habitable Worlds, which teaches students majoring outside the sciences how to think like scientists and uses the intuition of a tech-savvy generation to kindle their interest and spur their education.

“Professor Anbar’s innovative approach to teaching made the impossible seem possible,” said ASU alumnus Justin Slavicek. “The math in the Habitable Worlds course seemed insurmountable for a non-science major like me, but his attitude, ability and confidence in me turned me in to a better student. Prior to his class, I had no interest in any form of science. Now I find myself scouring the Internet for news about newfound solar systems and the possibility of another habitable world.”

As with his research, Anbar’s success in online education comes from building a team to pursue an idea that wasn’t immediately obvious: That online technology could be used to teach introductory science in a way that was more engaging than a lecture class. In Habitable Worlds, students learn though game-like activities that help them understand the science behind big, unanswered questions like, “Are we alone?”

ASU’s newly established Center for Education Through Exploration (ETX), directed by Anbar, is an initiative designed to develop and extend this idea. The ETX Center will develop, deploy and research digital platforms that help teach science as the means by which we explore the unknown, rather than simply learning what is already known, and do it at scale.

As part of ETX, in collaboration with the Inspark Science Network and the innovative education technology start-up company Smart Sparrow, Anbar will guide the network in developing “smart courses” that teach basic science concepts through the exploration of intriguing questions, placing traditional science content in a compelling context.

“Ariel is reaching out beyond his excellent research and teaching in two major directions: first to forge a new and better path in online education, and second to help organize a team to construct productive paths forward in addressing climate change,” says Lindy Elkins-Tanton, director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

“He’s bringing the community together and helping us make significant leaps forward. This is what ASU is about.”

The Gary S. Krahenbuhl Difference Maker Award has been awarded since 2003 to a tenured faculty member in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences “who demonstrates a broad vision for academic scholarship and a passion for engaging students in discovery and exploration.” Anbar is the 13th recipient of the award.

Nikki Cassis

marketing and communications director, School of Earth and Space Exploration

ASU professor's new book offers taste of bayou magic, culture

May 12, 2015

Award-winning author Jewell Parker Rhodes was born in Steel City U.S.A., but her head, heart and literary works can often be found the Deep South.

Her latest, “Bayou Magic” (Little, Brown and Company, $17), is a middle school reader novel about Maddy, a young African-American girl in Louisiana who finds out that she has inherited her family’s magical legacy. And when an oil leak threatens to ruin the beautiful bayou, she knows she may be the only one who can help. Jewell Parker Rhodes Download Full Image

Rhodes is founding director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing and the Piper Endowed Chair at Arizona State University. She is also a professor in the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

The author of a dozen books, Rhodes spoke exclusively to ASU News about “Bayou Magic” and her Southern roots, and she offered a sneak peak at her next novel, which was influenced by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Q: “Bayou Magic” takes a very different approach to mermaid lore than the Disney tale so many of us are familiar with. What was the inspiration for this story?

A: I’ve long known about different mermaid lore. I was thrilled when both UCLA’s Fowler Museum and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art featured an exhibit of Mami Wata, “Mother Water.” I think it’s amazing that African mermaids swam beside slave ships and remained in America to comfort the captured and to remind them of their homeland. Literature teaches culture. I want girls of color to know there are heroic mermaids that mirror them. I want all girls to know there are diverse, global mermaid tales that depart from the Western tale of a mermaid transforming herself to marry a human.

Q: You were born in Pittsburgh, but “Bayou Magic” and many of your previous novels take place in Louisiana. What is it about the Deep South that moves you?

A: My grandmother raised me, and she had deep Southern roots. She believed in holistic healing, and she taught me to honor the past, my ancestors and nature.  Grandmother died when I was 19 just as I was deciding to become a writer.  Whenever I visit Louisiana, I feel her spirit – her good-heartedness and love.  I’m also enthralled by the cultural stew – the delicious food, music and people. History feels alive in Louisiana; the atmosphere encourages dreams, magic and creativity.

Q: Why are magic and myth such an important part of children’s literature?

A: The world is already magical for children. Seeing the moon, a family of rabbits, currents in the water are spectacular for a child.  However, I do think children are drawn to stories in which characters perform magic. Magic can help children overcome their limitations and like Maddy save the day. Combine the mythic hero’s journey with magic and young readers feel empowered.

Q: What’s the best part of writing for a younger audience?

A: Hugs and more hugs! Visiting schools is such a life-affirming delight. But I didn’t expect cards, letters and drawings from students. It’s very precious when a child reaches out. I keep a box filled with cards and letters. I imagine when I’m very, very old, they will never fail to lift my spirits. 

Q: What do you hope your young readers learn from this book?

A: Nature needs to be cherished, and the health of animals, humans and our planet need to be balanced with energy needs. Young people today will be the stewards of the future. I do believe legends of mermaids who valued waters and befriended humanity will add an emotional resonance to sustainability issues for children. Which is why through our Piper Writers Studio and our Desert Nights, Rising Stars – we also support youth writing and workshops. Your Novel Year is a Piper initiative, and we have a second cohort in progress. We teach Young Adult and Middle Grade novel writing. These are genres not taught in traditional MFA programs.

Q: Are you working on any new projects?

A: I’m completing “Towers Falling,” which has a publication date for the summer of 2016.  It’s about Dèjà, a homeless girl who discovers how her life has been impacted by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I’m also doing research for two other historical novels. I don’t know if I’ll write one or both or none. As always my writing follows my heart. I’m open to voices, characters that appear like ghosts when I’m doing the dishes or dreaming.

Reporter , ASU News