Beloved ASU mascot sparks innovation in design challenge

April 14, 2021

Arizona State University students have embraced the nickname “Sun Devils” since Nov. 20, 1946, when a student body vote approved the now famous moniker.

Sparky the Sun Devil first appeared on the football field in the early 1950s and has slowly evolved in appearance over the decades. And while no changes to Sparky’s look are on the horizon, some visionary ASU students are exploring ways to “level up” the adored mascot’s powers and create an innovative, technology-enhanced version for the future. Sparky the Sun Devil watching students present during Ignite Sparky event Ignite Sparky was a yearlong design challenge for the Arizona State University community to bring Sparky up to the next level of innovation. Six finalist teams presented their proposals at the San Tan Ford Club at Sun Devil Stadium with Sparky in attendance. Photo by Erik Wirtanen/ASU Download Full Image

Ignite Sparky, a yearlong design challenge open to the ASU community of students, faculty and alumni, brings together Sun Devil Athletics, the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts in a collaborative effort that will see a new Sparky emerge.

More than 25 teams submitted proposals at the kickoff of the Ignite Sparky Design Challenge last fall. But as the school year has progressed, a series of mini-challenges have narrowed the field to six finalist teams and their innovative ideas for how to transform Sparky.

Now, three teams’ projects will move forward for further analysis and possible implementation by either Sun Devil Athletics or the university to promote the school and deliver a “wow” moment for fans. The three advancing teams were each awarded $1,000, while the three other finalists were each awarded $500.

The idea for the Ignite Sparky challenge came from Brian Swette, an ASU alumnus and president of Sweet Earth Natural Foods. Swette’s goal was to bring Sparky up to the next level of innovation, increase his power and even give the character a little bit of attention-grabbing flash.

“What makes me really excited about this is just to see how young people have come up with tremendous ideas,” said Swette. “They present them well, they work collaboratively and it’s been really heartwarming and exciting to see.”

Swette, a member of the board of directors for the Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation, is the primary donor for Ignite Sparky.

The Sparky’s Inferno team — (left to right) informatics student Natalie Mason, Lecturer Anoop Grewal and mechanical engineering students Kenny Truong and Matthew Nolan — presented three separate ideas, including an enhanced pitchfork similar to the one held by Nolan. Photo by Erik Wirtanen/ASU

Sparky’s Inferno

The Sparky’s Inferno team featured a trio of Fulton Schools students: informatics junior Natalie Mason, mechanical engineering seniors Kenny Truong and Matthew Nolan, and Lecturer Anoop Grewal, their faculty mentor.

The team created several concepts throughout the challenge but fused them into three big ideas for their pitch.

Their "Solar Fury" idea features a pair of large, articulated vortex air cannons that fire rings of fog and a blast of air into the crowd during football games at Sun Devil Stadium.

“Our inspiration initially stemmed from the ‘Stomp the Bus’ video,” said Nolan. “We wanted to more viscerally capture the essence of Sparky beaming down from the sun and marching with a dust storm in his wake.”

“We love this idea for two reasons,” said Truong. “One, it’s a freaking cannon! And two, it’s a multifaceted event. It is loud, it is visually incendiary and the audience will get to physically experience the energy as Sparky comes on the field.”

Their second idea, "Sparky Storm," is designed to replicate a dust devil in which Sparky could ride around the field. In this scenario, Sparky rides out onto the field on a robotic platform that will emit smoke and create cylindrical air flow and the illusion of a cyclonic dust devil.

Their final idea was the enhanced pitchfork, which will take the traditional pitchfork that Sparky carries to an exciting new level. The new pitchfork would utilize compressed fog to shoot blasts of smoke from the prongs, which will then be illuminated by lasers. Another feature of the pitchfork is to dynamically react to Sparky’s movements to create a light show on the shaft of the pitchfork itself.

The group has been working together for three years now as part of the Sun Devil Robotics Club, including work on a planetary rover for a competition called the University Rover Challenge, and for an ASU-hosted combat robotics competition called the Sun Devil Smackdown.

“Ignite Sparky is a really nice way to be able to give back,” said Mason. “The idea of our designs being used long-term and earning a place in Sparky’s story is exceptionally cool.”

The Sparky’s Lightning team of mechanical engineering and industrial design double major Ben Weber (left) and aerospace engineering major Andrew Deros (right) demonstrated how Sparky could wield his new lightning powers with a Tesla coil during the Ignite Sparky event. Photo by Erik Wirtanen/ASU

Sparky’s Lightning

The Sparky’s Lightning team featured Andrew Deros, a junior studying mechanical engineering and industrial design, and Ben Weber, a first-year aerospace engineering student.

The pair were inspired by an electrical aura around Sparky’s pitchfork and decided to create a Tesla coil that will use the energy of the crowd’s cheering to generate electricity in the Tesla coils beside Sparky.

“Our inspiration came from Sparky’s backstory,” said Deros. “It just felt natural to give him the ability to harness lightning. I envision Sparky using his new power to play AC/DC’s 'Thunderstruck' with lightning and amping up the crowd to cheer on the football team and lead them to victory.”

The duo met during the original hackathon for Ignite Sparky, but have worked on other hackathons since then.

“In each stage of the Ignite Sparky challenge, we improved on the design. And seeing the side-by-side comparisons of this growth has been really fun,” said Weber. “I am looking forward to seeing Sparky embrace his power and command the lightning.”

Mechanical engineering major Oskar Kozieja (left) and business major Ci’mone Rogers (right) presented their "Ignite with Light" idea of using hundreds of drones to display assorted school spirit logos and sayings during the Ignite Sparky finals. Photo by Erik Wirtanen/ASU

Ignite with Light

The Ignite with Light team consisted of first-year mechanical engineering major Oskar Kozieja and business (information security) junior Ci’mone Rogers, who is also a transfer student in her first year at ASU. Kozieja and Rogers first met at the initial Ignite Sparky Design Challenge informational meeting.

“Virtually, we both connected, made a quick bond and were driven to implement a plan for the judges, students, staff and community members to love,” said Rogers.

The team proposed a drone light show inspired by the ones that were performed at the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

“I have a great appreciation for drones because of their versatility and usefulness in different settings, such as photography, entertainment, the workforce and armed services,” said Kozieja. “I believe that it would be amazing if our design would be implemented in Sun Devil Athletics and throughout the university.”

The team envisions 10 to 20 people working with 250 drones that can be programmed to display images over the stadium with sayings such as “Forks Up,” or even a picture of Sparky himself.

The legacy of Sparky

Sparky has been inspiring ASU athletics for generations, and over that time he has become a symbol for the entire ASU community. How he gets “ignited” remains to be determined, but all of the teams provided some great ideas to be considered.

Christine Wilkinson, senior vice president and secretary of ASU, president and CEO of the ASU Alumni Association and managing director of the Trustees of ASU, attended the Ignite Sparky event and shared what Sparky means to ASU.

“Sparky is not only the embodiment of Sun Devil Athletics, but our university overall,” said Wilkinson. “Sparky represents the enthusiasm and innovative spirit that keeps us moving forward.”

Brian Swette (far right wearing gold) talks to all six finalist teams at the conclusion of the Ignite Sparky Design Challenge. Photo by Erik Wirtanen/ASU


Erik Wirtanen

Web content comm administrator, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Rethinking community garden siting in the Valley

ASU researchers develop new spatial model for strategically choosing the location of urban community gardens

April 14, 2021

Across the Phoenix metropolitan area thousands of land parcels lay vacant. 

From Goodyear to Gilbert, abandoned plots of land may serve as opportune spaces for urban community gardens, bringing with them a potential host of neighborhood benefits, from increasing the availability of nutritious foods to strengthening community ties to curbing urban heat.  ASU research undertakes one of the first strategic approaches for siting community gardens. Photo courtesy of Download Full Image

While community garden benefits have been studied extensively, little research has been done around choosing the location of these vital sources of green infrastructure and community space.

Recently published research led by Jordan Smith, a PhD candidate in Arizona State University's School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, undertakes one of the first strategic approaches for siting community gardens. 

“There are thousands of vacant parcels across the Phoenix metro area and we don't have a way to assess the potential of all of them,” said Smith, who successfully defended his thesis on the topic. “While our process doesn't eliminate the need for on-site due diligence, it does provide a way to factor in lots of components that could contribute to the site's potential suitability that may otherwise be missed if you're looking at just one site individually on its own.” 

The research, published in the journal Urban Forestry & Urban Greening and co-authored by Sara Meerow, assistant professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, and B. L. Turner II, Regents Professor in the school, lays the foundation for a decision-support tool that can leverage community voices and help urban planners and policymakers efficiently evaluate the suitability of a large number of land parcels simultaneously.

Community garden siting meets spatial analysis 

Historically, choosing the site of a new community garden has been ad hoc and inconsistent depending on who’s leading the process. Researchers believe that by rethinking the notion of community gardens as independent projects and instead viewing them as a network of green infrastructure, they could have many benefits to a city as a whole. 

“We don't typically think of community gardens as a form of green infrastructure that can solve urban and climatic challenges by building with nature,” Smith said. “When in reality, if they're integrated into an urban setting as part of a broader sustainability plan, they can have a significant impact in the communities in which they're located.” 

Smith and his team applied a decision-making methodology called multicriteria decision analysis to community garden planning. The process involves identifying key decision-making factors, conducting spatial analysis and assigning weights to multiple conflicting criteria to make community garden siting decisions on large scales. 

“One of the challenging things about developing a model like this is that you have to find the best possible spatial indicator for all of the criteria, and that requires a working knowledge of a lot of different research topics,” said Meerow, co-author of the study whose research focuses on city resilience planning in the face of climate change. “The innovation in the model is not really in any one of the criteria, but in bringing them all together to create something that can be used by cities.”

Novel to their research was incorporating community input in identifying and prioritizing the model’s siting criteria. 

“Frequently in multicriteria decision analysis the weights for calculating the score of the different factors that you include are derived by the researchers, but what made our study special is that we actually did stakeholder participation,” Smith said. “What's most important to stakeholders when considering where to site a community garden? We wanted the relevant stakeholders to derive those weights and that was something that hadn't been done before.” 

With the input from more than 30 Phoenix-metro community members, urban planners, government officials and practitioners of urban community gardens, Smith and his team identified 17 criteria for selecting a suitable location for a community garden. 

Their criteria featured physical characteristics like residential proximity, bikeability and population density, as well as sociodemographic factors such as neighborhoods with poor community health, low-income neighborhoods, minority neighborhoods and heat vulnerable neighborhoods. 

The criteria, grouped in three resulting indices – a social characteristics index, physical setting index and comprehensive index – were then applied to the expansive inventory of almost 6,000 vacant parcels across the Phoenix metro area.

The tradeoff 

Jordan Smith

The research revealed a potential tradeoff between siting community gardens based on criteria to maximize desired community benefits versus siting urban community gardens based on criteria that may influence long-term success. 

When only taking the social characteristics index into consideration, the parcels that scored the highest with the most potential to be transformed into a community garden were concentrated in the urban core of the Phoenix metro area, often in places where more disadvantaged communities are located, as was expected. 

But when looking at the physical setting criteria, researchers found that the high-scoring sites that had the most potential were sprawled more across the entire metro area, in both suburbs and more affluent areas in addition to the urban core. And when all of the criteria were assessed comprehensively, the model still heavily favored the social criteria over the physical criteria.

“You have two competing thoughts: ‘Do you look at just the core of the city or do you look at this more broadly distributed area?’ We see that sort of conflict,” Smith said. “The social characteristics and comprehensive indices prioritize locations that benefit disadvantaged communities in the urban core, but potentially exclude aspiring gardeners who live in suburbs,” a group who may be better equipped to manage the long-term success of a community garden. 

A tool to support planners, policymakers and community members 

Ultimately, Smith said that is up to the decision-makers themselves to decide where to site community gardens and which criteria they use but having a systematic decision process for community garden siting that is robust and transparent has value in a broader geographic context.

“The ultimate goal that I would like to see is seeing things like community gardens and urban agriculture integrated into urban land-use plans,” Smith said. “Using something like multicriteria decision analysis could help generate those plans because you can then see where the potentially most suitable spaces are located, then see how you could develop a network rather than thinking of these as one-off independent sites.” 

Smith hopes others will continue this work and create decision-support tools to benefit planners, policymakers and community members in the future. 

“The proof of concept is here,” Smith said. “The next step is bringing it into fruition, that could be something that I could hand over to someone else to say: ‘We have this thing, there's an interest in it, how can we realize the real potential of it?’ It can be done.

“Let’s get it in the hands of as many people as possible.” 

David Rozul

Media Relations Officer, Media Relations and Strategic Communications