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ASU students to be empowered by 'technofluency'

School of Arts, Media and Engineering students empowered by "technofluency."
July 16, 2021

School of Arts, Media and Engineering Director Pavan Turaga wants students to consider implications of technology

Students in the transdisciplinary School of Arts, Media and Engineering at Arizona State University will be empowered by “technofluency,” a concept embraced by the school’s faculty and new director, Pavan Turaga.

Turaga, an associate professor in the school and also in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, had served as interim director of the school, a collaborative initiative between the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

The school, with about 400 students, will expand into the new Creative Futures initiative in the ASU Mesa City Center, set to open in 2022.

Turaga answered some questions from ASU News:

Question: What is “technofluency”?

Answer: One of the good things that emerged during the past year was in the last faculty meeting of spring 2020, we had a marathon writing session and framed our first vision and mission statement

We identified a key word, technofluency, and we said that, as a school, we will engage with this work. So it’s three things: fluency with technology, application development and implications. Those are the three pillars.

We want students to develop fluency of the tools of technology, how to apply them and ask, what are the implications?

All technology tools have certain tradeoffs and it’s become more and more clear, especially in the fields of media and social media, things driven by artificial intelligence, that those methods amplify certain biases that are prevalent in media already.

We are creators who make art and media and engaging products, but let’s pay attention to the underlying assumptions that exist.

Q: And how will students consider the implications of the technology they create?

A: That is one of the questions that we’re addressing. Is it in every class, or a specific class or the capstone project?

If we cover it in every class, it limits the work you can do. Some classes need to be just development or just application. They’re deep technology classes.

Maybe it’s developing new classes.

We’d like to see students use all three muscles in developing their yearlong capstone projects. I would like to see them embrace it fully and see if we can do community-impact projects at full scale. I will be working with a new team of capstone instructors including incoming faculty DB Bauer, Luke Kautz and David Tinapple to start achieving this vision.

Q: When you became interim director, you discussed how the school focuses on artificial intelligence and games. What’s going on with those areas?

A: We are in the advanced stages of launching a certificate around the idea of artificial intelligence for media development applications, led by faculty directors Suren Jayasuriya, Ed Finn and Sha Xin Wei.

We’ve been finding a lot of interest from middle schoolers and high schoolers who want to understand AI, and we’re working on a summer program, as part of our Digital Culture Summer Institute, led by faculty directors Kim Swisher and Loren Olson.

The idea of gaming really took off during the pandemic, with games as a means of connecting with a community and gaming as a way of learning and promoting a sense of equity. I feel like the games sector, as a business, exploded during the pandemic and our students were soaking that up and it manifested in their projects.

One student built a Spanish language game for their capstone. They chose a prison for the setting and the purpose of the game was to break out of prison by trying to communicate with the people in the prison in Spanish. It was, “How do you immerse yourself in a language-based community during a pandemic?” And gaming is one way to do that. I saw it as an impressive project to encourage language fluency.

Q: Your area of expertise is wearable technology. What are you working on?

A: My interest is in AI methods as applied to data from wearable devices.

As wearables take off, there’s a huge opportunity for understanding movement data and other kinds of physical measurements of movement that come from these sensors and try to understand the full spectrum of human behavior, which has a lot of applications.

There is a strong interest in using noninvasive, wearable technology to measure biomarkers, which, in the old days, could only be measured with a blood test. For example, blood glucose levels can’t be easily measured with a wearable, but we can correlate changes in those levels with physical activity measured by biosensors.

Many of our faculty are interested in using wearables for performance, such as Seth Thorn, Grisha Coleman and more.

We just received a gift, $250,000, from the Edson Foundation to develop a wellness-based experience to create a reprieve for caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients. One idea was to use interactive methods, such as screens at homes or virtual reality, to create an experience to immerse them in a pleasant world. We are working with a team of faculty, students and consultants, including Tejaswi Gowda, Max Bernstein, Xavier Nokes, Ri Lindegren, Todd Ingalls, David Coon, Dennis Bonilla, Elle Spencer Lewis and more.

I’ll be involved in this project over the next year.

Q: You recently completed work on a project involving people with Parkinson’s disease. How did that go?

A: I worked on that for five years and that project is now done. The Parkinson’s project also was about interactive systems that create biofeedback, led by colleagues in nursing and bioengineering: Narayanan Krishnamurthi, Jimmy Abbas and also Todd Ingalls. We were looking at sensors attached to people’s feet that could signal gait cadence to drive feedback so they could hear themselves walking and correct their walk cycles.

Q: What kind of jobs are graduates of the School of Arts, Media and Engineering getting?

A: We are primarily a liberal arts program, which means they have broad-based skills. Many are doing startups. A recent graduate began an entry-level position with Amazon. Others become video editors, media (and game) designers. Many have gone to Unity, a big software platform for a lot of virtual reality and augmented reality games, with some of our faculty like Robert LiKamWa and Garth Paine playing a significant role in that pipeline.

Many go into jobs that require hands-on technology fluency, but they’re also good with leading and managing people.

Top photo: Portrait of Pavan Turaga by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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Arts, Media and Engineering students tackle the big 'why' questions

Students tackle big 'why' questions in School of Arts, Media and Engineering.
January 9, 2020

New interim director sees school as fusion of technology, humanities

Why play games? Who benefits from artificial intelligence? How do you help society? These are some of the big-picture questions that students confront in Arizona State University's School of Arts, Media and Engineering, which is now a decade old.

Pavan Turaga, the new interim director of the school, a collaborative initiative between the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, said that students work on those issues through a curriculum that blends technical literacy with a critical eye.

“AME offers hybrid degree offerings that blend methods, practices and outcomes from diverse disciplines. At the undergraduate level, our program is called Digital Culture," he said.

“The ‘why’ and the ‘what’ are embedded into everything we do, not just how you do it,” said Turaga, associate professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and also in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering.

“If you want to go very deep into how you do something, we might say the best place for that is the school of engineering. Or if you want to ask critical questions, maybe try the humanities. We are that fusion place, where in every class, we ask the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ every time.”

That combination makes the school unique, said Turaga, who last year won a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to research wearable technology.

“I’m an engineer so I emphasize how you do certain things but I always keep coming back to, ‘Let’s try a context where this will make sense. Who will use this technology and how do you apply it to society?’”

Turaga, who also is director of the Geometric Media Lab, answered some questions from ASU Now:

Question: What are the important areas the school is addressing?

Answer: I see three things the school works around. One is artificial intelligence. Everyone asks, "What is AI for and what is its effect?" We have people trained in AI and humanities and we bring both perspectives to the table in education and research.

Second, we are looking at games. If you want one prototypical example of where engineering and design and media comes together, it is in games. Games are big business. There is this whole business of esports. We want to be at the forefront of asking difficult questions about the how, why and what. Why do you want to play a game? What is it for?

The third area is the idea of wearable technology. We have interest in a lot of different angles, including wearables for health, for art and performance, for fashion. We already have people creating new kinds of performance where they wear sensors on their bodies and as they dance, it drives the sound you’re hearing. People are asking the same question in fashion. You might have clothing with circuits that light up as you move around in different ways.

I look as these three areas as contemporary topics of broad interest where AME is a strong force.

We also have a lot of other exciting work that exists at the intersections and supports a wide array of work including augmented reality, sound-based art and science, food studies, responsive bio art, responsive environments, camera technology, citizen science and more.

Q: Where does the art come in?

A: The art that comes out of AME always has some technology basis. It’s the medium with which the art is created. Traditional media for art might be painting and sculpture and architecture. The medium that our artists work with include sensors and software. That’s the modus operandi.

We have great artists who are always creating new kinds of performance pieces that challenge what you can do, and technology becomes a performer in their piece. It’s a medium for them and it can also be a performer.

Q: Why is it important to include the humanities?

A: We have engineering, arts, design and humanities faculty. In many ways what we have is a university within a university. We are very well balanced.

In our humanities faculty, we have a philosopher and an English professor. The humanities faculty are interested in what they would refer to as critical theory — taking a very critical approach to all the fun things we talk about. They ask those hard questions about why we do this. Who does it benefit and who does it leave out? Who does it enrich and who does it impoverish?

They ask the questions that artists and engineers also like to engage with, but it’s the nature of our profession to emphasize production more than critical reflection. It’s important to have humanists in the loop to bring us back to look at our projects critically, if we are to have well-informed societal impact.

Q: What do the students learn and what kinds of career paths do they take?

A: Much of the coursework is project based. We have an end-of-semester showcase of student projects and in the recent showcase, a student built a virtual-reality game for policymakers in Tempe city government asking the question of ‘If I plant a tree in a specific location, what impact would it have on the comfort of a pedestrian?’ One student created a mannequin embedded with electronics to simulate an allergic reaction on the skin to show what hives look like and what happens when a peanut allergy kicks in. That could be used for training of nurses. It was a wholly staged experience. There’s always a performance piece. We had a project several years ago by a graduate student who created a system that learned the style of your percussion and improvised with you.

We have two or three different career paths we frequently see. They go into media design, which can include website design or graphics. Another is software development. Some of the skills sets they learn can be further developed in that field. We have some who go into art companies or sometimes become freelance artists. And many create their own startups, too.

Q: How is the School of Arts, Media and Engineering unique?

A: I come from a very traditional, linear engineering preparation. I never had any significant exposure to the arts. I came here with a very rigid attitude about what constitutes good research and what constitutes a good question and good impact. Then I was confronted with this diverse faculty coming in from nontraditional backgrounds asking even more important questions than I was asking and having bigger impact than I was having and yet doing work that was legible in their own disciplines. That was challenging.

Here, I saw that almost everybody was breaking silos. We had musicians writing science grants, dancers doing science. We had scientists interested in art as a way to ask difficult questions. It was remarkable to me.

I drafted a mission statement few years ago about what keeps me here. It’s a place where collaboration flows freely, which is what I think AME is about. And to get there, our mission should be to find value where few others are looking for it because that’s the only way you find unexpected answers.

Top photo: Associate Professor Pavan Turaga is the new interim director of the School of Arts, Media and Engineering. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News