Experiential lab customizes technology for community impact

March 24, 2021

Among the six Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, The Polytechnic School is known for its hands-on curriculum and strong network with the local industry. These strengths have proven valuable for all involved and therefore continue to take priority at the school. The Social Innovation Startup Lab, or SISL, carries that torch forward by connecting students with industry and engaging in philanthropic efforts to bring innovation to communities in need.

Established in 2019, the Social Innovation Startup Lab aims to connect students with industry to benefit the community through the responsible use of new and existing technologies. As a technological entrepreneurship and management program, the lab blends entrepreneurship, innovation and the strategic management of technology in a hands-on and experiential environment. people gathered around a table for a Social Innovation Startup Lab meeting Social Innovation Startup Lab students collaborating with industry partners and community leaders during the spring 2020 semester at the ASU Chandler Innovation Center + Hub249 Makerspace. All photos in this article are archival images taken before the current pandemic social distancing and face-covering requirements went into effect. Photo courtesy of Andrea Cherman Download Full Image

Technology entrepreneurship and management alumnus and Intel manager Christopher Ross and faculty adviser and technological entrepreneurship and management Lecturer Andrea Cherman developed the lab with the common goal of exposing students to real-world practices and promoting sustainability initiatives within industry while benefiting the local community in the process.

“Our mission is to focus and strengthen university, industry and community partnerships,” Cherman said. “We want to engage and connect companies, employees, faculty, students and communities in a meaningful experience while developing purposefully driven startups that provide responsible technological solutions to the community and nonprofit sectors.”

The Social Innovation Startup Lab is collaborating with the Intel Corporation and the Boeing Company this semester with the goal of engaging with local nonprofits to provide technology solutions for COVID-19 relief. Five teams, each made up of three third-and fourth-year students and three industry professionals, are working with communities across the state on the following initiatives:

  • Impacting children’s literacy in collaboration with Vello.
  • Exposing teens to STEM education in collaboration with SolarGoKarts.
  • Prevention of teen suicide in collaboration with Mesa United Way’s Younited Teen Advisory Council.
  • Impacting homelessness in collaboration with Mesa United Way.
  • Generating water conservancy solutions in collaboration with the Nature Conservancy.

Developing their solutions under the COVID-19 theme, teams are focusing their energy on security when delivering services, faster interactions and responses and how to do more with less.

Fourth-year technology entrepreneurship and management student Blake Lescoe is on the Mesa United Way team. He says they are creating a system that consolidates and streamlines various resources available to homeless members of the community through one convenient tool.

“COVID-19 has caused homelessness to increase drastically, so we investigated methods to alleviate this rise,” Lescoe said. “We identified all of the programs currently offered to the homeless community and determined that resources are scattered throughout Mesa and not easily accessible. Tackling this need was quite overwhelming at first, but we have narrowed our focus to a problem that we feel, if addressed, could leverage the most change.”

Lescoe says that his team gets incredible value from Boeing and Intel professionals who bring their industry experience into the social innovation space. “I have been challenged to think differently about how I approach solving problems in our communities,” Lescoe said.

Derek Waite, a procurement agent for Boeing, sees firsthand how the Social Innovation Startup Lab is challenging students and values the opportunity to generate change in the community.

“SISL gives students the space to take things that they have learned and really apply them to make an impact,” Waite said. “Integrating the nonprofits and the corporate sponsors allows for innovative thinking and collaboration that will push these students to not only see this as a course but a chance to make a difference.”

Harmony Nelson, the director of community impact for Mesa United Way, has worked with the lab for the past two years and appreciates the opportunity to bring community issues to the forefront.

“The greater community often may not be aware of the problems facing our own friends and neighbors,” Nelson said. “Students in this program have always listened intently and kept an open mind for the clients being served and the programs working to help them.”

During the course of a semester, the teams meet weekly at the ASU Chandler Innovation Center + Hub249 Makerspace. They use Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, computer vision, drones and other technologies to conceptualize feasible solutions to community challenges. From developing a business model to designing, prototyping, pitching and iterating practice, students are immersed in an experiential learning environment in addition to their routine coursework.

“I am familiar with the corporate environment and I own two companies,” said fourth-year technology entrepreneurship and management online student Sonya Flaherty. “One is a long-standing theatrical production company and another is a startup. I mention this only to point out that I have had my share of successes, failures, heartaches and lessons learned, and even with my experience, I find myself learning and growing with each week in SISL.”

In addition to working side by side with industry professionals, students are able to participate in lectures and discussions about technological entrepreneurship and social innovation led by technology entrepreneurship and management faculty, tech industry and community experts.

“We are pioneering groundbreaking social innovation methodologies at the intersection of entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship, social impact, emerging technologies, community engagement, industrial expertise and academic innovation,” said Intel’s Ross.

Cherman touts the program’s ability to bring entrepreneurship, technology and sustainability solutions together for a common goal.

“Firms are also able to attract top students and demonstrate sustainability initiatives within their companies,” she said. “Employees are exposed to new challenges and perspectives and gain awareness of the ethical use of technology. In addition, the community has the opportunity to work with a qualified and eager team of students and professionals who are ready to tackle their needs.”

To learn more about the Social Innovation Startup Lab, to become involved as an industry partner or to sponsor its students, please contact Jennifer Williams or call 480-727-1688.

Sona Patel Srinarayana

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Humanities undergrad uses research on Armenia to pen article of awareness

March 24, 2021

The news of the reignited war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh region beginning in September left undergraduate student Jaxon Washburn feeling distraught. After serving a church mission in Armenia and making connections with many people there, Washburn worried about the possibility of a second genocide.

He expressed his concerns to his friend and colleague Daniel Gullotta, mentioning his desire to pitch different op-eds to various outlets and newspapers to raise awareness. Gullotta put Washburn in touch with representatives from The Bulwark, a news network launched in 2018 dedicated to providing political analysis and reporting free from the constraints of partisan loyalties or tribal prejudices, according to their website.  portrait of ASU student Jaxon Washburn Jaxon Washburn is earning his bachelor's degree in history and religious studies, as well as a certificate in religion and conflict. Download Full Image

“I care immensely about the well-being and security of the Armenian people and know individuals who tragically lost their lives in the conflict,” said Washburn. “Writing the op-ed on the subject was primarily my effort to raise awareness of the severity of the war, the risks it posed for the region at-large and the necessity for greater international intervention to help secure lasting peace.”

Upon his article being accepted and published by the network, they invited him to submit more pitches in the future. 

“I am interested in writing for different journalistic outlets in the future, including for The Bulwark, though on which specific subjects I have yet to determine,” said Washburn. “I imagine it will involve the intersection of religion, history and politics. Contemporary issues involving Mormonism, Armenia/the Armenian diaspora and interreligious dialogue and peace-building would likely be my go-to subjects.”

He was delighted when his piece was published, saying it was his small token of gratitude for all the Armenian people have done for him.

“My mission experience there from 2018 to 2019 was life-changing as I was able to learn the Armenian language, engage in regular acts of service and humanitarian projects and fall in love with the Armenian people, as well as their culture and history,” said Washburn.

After serving his mission, he returned to Arizona, where he was born and raised, and began pursuing degrees. 

“I was happy to choose ASU for my undergraduate experience,” said Washburn. “I was and have been deeply impressed by the university’s commitment to holistic student well-being and ample resources to encourage the physical, intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual flourishing of its students.”

In addition to earning his bachelor’s degrees in history and religious studies from the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, Washburn is also earning a certificate in religion and conflict from the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and is a student in Barrett, The Honors College. He has been the recipient of multiple scholarships during his undergraduate studies, including the Friends of Religious Studies Award, Friends of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict Award, Melikian Center Award and the President Barack Obama Scholarship.

Washburn had been approved to study abroad for eight weeks in Armenia through the The Melikian Center: Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies this last summer, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he was unable to carry out his travel.

Despite being unable to visit Armenia, Washburn knows he wants to specialize in Armenian religious history for his career. His honors thesis reflects his interest as it is centered on exploring the history of Armenians in the state of Arizona. 

“I have been able to interview members of the Armenian-American community here to better understand their experiences as a religious and ethnic minority group in the state,” said Washburn. “Though the pandemic has introduced new concerns to my work that I didn’t originally anticipate, I am happy to report that things are progressing as needed.”

He will defend his thesis this spring and after graduation, he plans to pursue a master’s degree in theological studies from a divinity school. The schools he has applied to include Harvard, Yale, Duke and University of Chicago. 

“So far, I have been accepted to both Harvard and Duke and anticipate hearing from the others,” said Washburn. “I actively look forward to attending a divinity program for my master’s given that I want to engage in theological work for my Mormon faith community.”

Washburn plans to accept and enroll at Harvard Divinity School following graduation from ASU.

Rachel Bunning

Communications program coordinator, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies