ASU launches 'The Difference Engine: An ASU Center for the Future of Equality'

February 11, 2021

Arizona State University announced Feb. 11 the new name and website of a universitywide center that will create tools to end the nation’s rising social, political and economic inequality.

The Difference Engine: An ASU Center for the Future of Equality” pairs interdisciplinary entrepreneurship with the enthusiasm of ASU students and thought leadership of ASU faculty and staff to help communities overcome social, political and economic inequality. It is led by Ehsan Zaffar, a civil rights lawyer and educator who previously served as a senior adviser on civil rights during the Obama administration. photo of The Difference Engine ASU website The name and website of a new universitywide center — The Difference Engine: An ASU Center for the Future of Equality — was unveiled Feb. 11. Learn more at Download Full Image

Zaffar, who was appointed founding executive director of the center and professor of practice when ASU President Michael Crow announced the initiative last fall, is bringing together an interdisciplinary group of ASU units, including The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, W. P. Carey School of Business and the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, to jointly launch the new center.

“We chose to name the center ‘The Difference Engine’ to reflect the ingenuity and thought leadership of a woman named Ada Lovelace who worked with Charles Babbage during the late 1800s — a time of stratified gender inequality — to build the first modern automatic computer,” Zaffar said. “They called it the ‘Difference Engine,’ and they used it to solve the most pressing problems of their time — from wage inequality to the labor rights of minorities. I love what this story represents — that people can work past discriminatory barriers to find breathtakingly innovative solutions that shatter those barriers.”

Crow, in his opening remarks at the center’s launch event on Feb. 11, said the center is one of several actions ASU is initiating to transform social justice.

“We’re doing this because at the end of the day, the reason we haven’t achieved ... equality is that, while we have the aspiration, our designs are inadequate. Our systems are inadequate. Our laws are inadequate. Our tools are inadequate,” Crow said. “So what we need is to set the goal at a higher level and then start peeling back everything that limits us from being able to get there. We need new designs. New systems. New perspectives.”

Open to all ASU students, faculty and alumni, as well as anyone else interested in the center’s work, The Difference Engine will serve as “a community of doers, thinkers and storytellers that creates innovative products to help people defeat injustice,” according to Zaffar. The center’s products will range from educational tools for use inside and outside the classroom, to indexes and maps for nonprofit and government organizations, and smartphone apps that can be shared widely throughout impacted communities.

“Law is essential to effect true and beneficial societal change,” said ASU Law Dean Douglas Sylvester. “Welcoming Ehsan to ASU will be crucial to preparing the next generation of ASU graduates to seek social justice and reform. Studying inequality is one thing. Ehsan, through The Difference Engine, will be making a substantial real-world impact, and we are excited to get started.”

Pardis Mahdavi, dean of social sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says the interdisciplinary nature of work across ASU pushes innovation and allows us to see things differently.

“The Difference Engine amplifies these efforts,” Mahdavi said. “It strengthens our commitment to work toward a more just society that values and prioritizes social, political and economic equality.”

Amy Ostrom, interim dean of the W. P. Carey School of Business, says The Difference Engine is already making a difference with its focus on finding innovative solutions to overlapping systems of inequality.

“We understand economic equity, from wages to loan approval to generational wealth, as a primary driver for social and individual well-being,” Ostrom said. “Expanding access to economic opportunity has the potential to enfranchise entire communities and significantly impact their future. We are proud to partner with our colleagues across ASU and at The Difference Engine to find innovative solutions to overlapping systems of inequality.”

Kyle Squires, dean for the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, said, “As creators, builders and technologists, we are accustomed to tackling complex societal problems and improving systems. Making substantive strides to improve social, political and economic inequality means embracing diversity in all its forms and we are committed to applying our solutions-oriented perspectives to innovating change here at ASU and the many communities we reach.”

Learn more about the Difference Engine on the website and sign up for the newsletter to join the community of difference engineers and find ways you can get involved with their work. You can also make a contribution here.

Julie Tenney

Director of Communications, Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law

Health solutions students gain real-world experience by supporting ASU COVID-19 vaccination distribution

February 11, 2021

When the call went out in late January for volunteers to help with Arizona State University's COVID-19 vaccination effort, students at the College of Health Solutions jumped at the chance, filling almost a fourth of the 480 available slots in less than 12 hours.

They joined a small army of ASU faculty, staff and students volunteering to help deliver thousands of COVID-19 vaccines to more than 11,000 eligible ASU community members at the COVID-19 vaccination site in the Sun Devil Fitness Center at the ASU Tempe campus.  Sophomore medical studies majors Anna Vargas Jordan and Sarika Sawant are among the many College of Health Solutions students who have volunteered to help with ASU's COVID-19 vaccine distribution. Download Full Image

These students are helping people navigate the multistep process of getting the vaccine. From greeting people at the door to confirming appointments and helping with paperwork, College of Health Solutions students are supporting the logistics of the vaccine delivery to ensure a smooth and efficient process.

Being part of this history-making, complex public health operation is exciting, said senior nutrition student Bethany Liedike.

“I volunteered for vaccination duty to be a part of something bigger than me,” she said. “I have had the luxury of staying safe at home for the majority of the pandemic, and I was excited to be able to lend a helping hand.”

For Alexandra Wood, an exercise and wellness major, seeing so many people glad to get the vaccine is one of the best parts of the experience.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised that so many people have showed up," Wood said. "You hear about anti-vaxxers opposed to shots, but we’re seeing a lot of people, and they really appreciate the opportunity to get the vaccine so early.” 

Many getting the vaccine right now are in the age 65 and older group because they are among the first to be eligible according to federal guidelines. Senior health sciences student Maci Crookes said helping them complete the application process has given her a deeper understanding of the barriers to health care that she has studied in her classes.

“The easiest and most accessible way to get an appointment is to sign up through email. It has been a challenge for many elderly people to get access to the vaccine because some of the people who have come to be vaccinated do not even have email addresses,” Crookes said.

Alysa Bustamante, a student in the science of health care delivery master’s degree program, also drew a parallel between her coursework and her volunteer experience.

“In a lot of my classes we’re talking about how to optimize health care delivery by giving patients a quality experience," she said. "It’s been really great to see the front lines of the clinical side of health care since I’m studying it more from the administration side.”

Giving patients that quality experience is the mission of David Gillum and his staff. Gillum is ASU’s senior director of environmental health and safety and is charged with setting up the vaccine operation and making sure it runs smoothly.

“Everything looks effortless and works very well, but it’s incredibly complex with all the logistical details,” he said.

The team delivers 500 vaccinations to 500 patients’ arms each day. They have to do it within six hours of the vials being opened for use because the vaccine loses its effectiveness after that. Student volunteers are told they will receive the vaccine after working three shifts, but Gillum said that if any vaccine is left at the end of the day, it is administered to volunteers and walk-ins so that none of it goes to waste.

“One of our nurse practitioners figured out how to extract doses from the vials to make use of the entire amount leaving none leftover. Because of this, we’ve been able to get an extra dose from each vial so that even more can be vaccinated,” he said. 

Some of those eligible for vaccination are ASU faculty who are teaching students in person this semester. Tamiko Azuma, a College of Health Solutions assistant dean and associate professor who teaches in the college’s speech and hearing programs, received her vaccine at the ASU site and said it was an excellent experience.

“I was so impressed with how smoothly everything ran, from the initial intake to the end debriefing," Azuma said. "All of the volunteers were friendly and seemed excited about being a part of this important process. I knew that many of our (College of) Health Solutions students had signed up to be there, so I was feeling especially proud of the student volunteers.” 

Gillum said being around the student volunteers is truly energizing. “The students are amazing. They seem so happy, and I love seeing them here working as volunteers. When would they ever have this opportunity in a normal year?”