ASU scholars awarded $2M grant to advance educational data sharing

November 16, 2021

A collaborative group of scholars from Arizona State University was awarded $2 million by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) to develop a foundational infrastructure and protocols that will facilitate the connection of student achievement, learning and persistence data within ASU and beyond. 

The ASU Learning at Scale Digital Learning Network is part of the IES Digital Learning Platforms to Enable Efficient Education Research Network and will develop a digital learning network platform with the capacity to house aggregated data. A photo illustration of data and coding Image by Metamorworks/iStock Download Full Image

Led by Danielle McNamara, ASU professor and director of the Science of Learning and Educational Technology laboratory, the ASU Learning at Scale team is composed of an interdisciplinary group of scientists, data analysts and data specialists from EdPlus at Arizona State University, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and the University Technology Office who have extensive experience in online learning. 

"The L@S project takes a vital step toward understanding learning and instruction in the real world, in real-world contexts," McNamara said. "ASU is one of the largest and most innovative universities in the country, and even more important, ASU is committed to lifelong learning and providing effective instruction for all learners. This makes ASU the ideal setting for the L@S  project." 

ASU Online course data and undergraduate student data will be available to ASU and non-ASU researchers, allowing them to examine and use the data through exploratory and experimental methods in a way that maintains institutional and individual privacy.

A platform of this kind would leverage various types of data from large, diverse learner populations and facilitate experimental studies that examine the impact of a wide range of learning tools and approaches to enhance learning.

“The project allows us to accelerate our ability to organize, optimize and analyze data to gain insights and scale our ability to make data-informed decisions that lead to increased student success,” said Bethany Weigele, EdPlus chief innovation officer.

Having an interdisciplinary team that spans multiple units, technical expertise and skill sets allows for innovative collaboration of ideas and furthering the mission of the university.

“The team gets the vision of the project and how it aligns with our charter,” Weigele said. “We need to be increasingly able to conduct research at scale on our university’s data or we can’t iteratively improve our service to our students. The ASU Charter defines our responsibility to our community, and this project is a catalyst for us to make greater use of our data to serve our community better."

The long-term vision is to provide the infrastructure to promote innovation in research, emerging technologies and community outreach to enhance universal, lifelong learning to students around the world.

Applying research and methods from multiple disciplines, McNamara’s work with the interdisciplinary research group at the Science of Learning and Educational Technology lab speaks to her research and leadership expertise that will guide and empower the team to advance inclusion and equity-oriented research to benefit all students. 

In addition to ASU Learning at Scale, the Digital Learning Network includes four platform teams and a network lead that leverage existing tools for rigorous education research: The Canvas+Terracotta LMS-Based Experimental Education Research PlatformMATHia: A Digital Learning Platform Supporting Core and Supplemental Instruction in Middle and High School Mathematics; Revisions to the ASSISTments Digital Learning Platform to Expand Its Support for Rigorous Education Research; and Efficient Education Research via the OpenStax Learning Platform.

Meenah Rincon

Public Relations Manager, ASU Online

image title

Freeze frame: Scientists use new electron microscope to explore the mysteries of life

November 16, 2021

In a winding corridor behind a loading dock in the basement of Arizona State University's Schwada building, a group of ASU scientists are meeting in a lab, deeply focused, exploring the mysteries of life. 

Tucked in the basement in the heart of the Tempe campus is the only microscope of its kind in Arizona, ASU's Titan Krios, a dedicated cryogenic transmission electron microscope (or cryo-EM) that uses flash-frozen samples to explore the complexities of cellular life. 

Associate Research Scientist Dewight Williams is the maestro behind the operations, serving as a collaborator to all who want to solve burning biological questions. He described the project’s mission as solving “the assembly states of cellular life ... that create cells that can move and crawl and sense and do all this amazing stuff we consider life.” By revealing the structures of the true building blocks of organisms — proteins — the lab opens up new vistas of discovery. 

One of ASU’s best kept secrets is kept in the basement for a reason: to keep a controlled and stable environment for the best possible microscopic imagery. The floor is made of a 4-foot-deep slab of steel-reinforced concrete in order to prevent the slightest seismic vibration that could corrupt the images. As the scientific director of the microscope, Williams noted that “to understand how biology works, you understand how the atoms are arranged ... it’s all molecules interacting with molecules. So if you can understand the structure of those molecules, probable interactions and how they do what they do ... that requires high-resolution information.”

Most of the scope functions are automated, thus allowing the scientists to multitask while the scope takes as many as 5,000 images in a given day at a resolution of 1.4 angstroms (an angstrom is the width of the smallest element, hydrogen). Scientists need only prepare samples, load the tray and occasionally realign the lenses. 

The data is collected by flooding the sample with a 300,000-volt electron beam and creating a small probe that collects reflected light like a TV image composed of individual pixels. By capturing images of proteins from various angles, they can develop a 3D image of its structural makeup. 

man's portrait

Abhishek Singaroy

Faculty from a wide range of universities and fields have requested time with the cryo-EM to help build a new picture of the structures of cellular life at work. By solving one protein structure at a time, they are building, protein brick by brick, a new picture of the structures of cellular life at work.

The cryo-EM microscope continues to yield new information and is currently part of Assistant Professor Abhishek Singharoy’s project to uncover the cellular process associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection. 

His experience in molecular dynamics and kinetic modeling have propelled him to explore the prominent topic. He hopes to uncover the underlying mechanisms that make up the virus. 

ASU professor Po Lin Chiu

Po-Lin Chiu

ASU Assistant Professor Po-Lin Chiu is a biophysicist and frequent user of the machine. His lab utilizes the machine for examining the impact of various proteins on brain health, allowing Chiu to search for signs of neurodegeneration. 

The high atomic resolution of the microscope allows scientists such as Chiu to observe individual molecules and their target compounds. 

ASU alum and Associate Professor Brent Nannenga is an avid user as well. He uses diffraction and imaging techniques to explore the function of biosystems through structure. Nannenga admits that the allure of the scope and collaborations inspired him to join the university faculty, where he proceeded to work as a colleague to his previous mentor.

He noted that the microscope has shaped his career, saying, “I use the cryo-EM in almost every project. (Without it) my research wouldn’t be what it is. It’s pretty central to everything I do.”

The project’s development was heavily influenced by the lifetime achievements of ASU Professor John Spence. Having served on faculty at the university for 40-plus years before his untimely passing, his influence can be found all over his department as well as others. 

He was a pioneer in the development of crystallography bioimaging after aiding in the development of the BioXFEL laser. More locally, he brought his expertise back to ASU by developing the compact iteration, CXFEL, being constructed under the Biodesign C building. 

Spence’s fingerprints are still on the project and aiding his peers. Before his passing, Spence nominated Nannenga for the Burton Medal for Microscopy Society in 2020, an award that Spence himself had won in the early '80s. As the CXFEL nears its premiere, the team has mourned his loss but vowed to carry on the spirit of his unbridled enthusiasm for science and the contributions he has made to the field. They hope to continue to aid discoveries in medicine, drug design and renewable energy. 

When looking toward the future, Nannenga said, “we're trying to figure out ways to upgrade and bring it into the next generation of microscopes.”

Top photo: ASU scientists, including Brent Nannenga (pictured), are using the only microscope of its kind in Arizona, the Titan Krios, a dedicated cryogenic transmission electron microscope (or cryo-EM) that uses flash-frozen samples to reveal the complexities of cellular life.

Hannah Weisman

Science Writer , Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering