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Lab-tested and online

January 13, 2022

Reinventing education in the sciences for students online

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the winter 2022 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.

Some say it’s impossible to predict the future.

For centuries, the best scientists have tried, from Nostradamus to Nobel prize-winning Marie Curie to Nikola Tesla. But in the world of higher education, there have been few willing to put it all on the line. 

Then in 2009, leaders at ASU saw a better future — with no boundaries for learning and the entire campus available to the broadest audience possible with the most sophisticated learning tools humans could build. And even while measuring success through inclusion, ASU leaders set out to prove that online courses can command the same academic rigor as any on-ground classroom learning.

To do this, President Michael M. Crow chose Phil Regier as university dean for educational initiatives and CEO of EdPlus to restructure and manage ASU Online, and increase the information technology budget to power the digital learning machine. And, to reinvent education and provide truly immersive experiences for all students (online and in-person), Crow doubled down on ASU’s commitment to finding faculty with ties to technology and science institutions, like NASA scientist and astronaut Cady Coleman and Jim Bell, a planetary scientist and the principal investigator for the Mastcam-Z cameras on NASA’s Mars 2020 rover.

Four years later, in 2013, ASU had the first online hard science degree, the Bachelor of Science in engineering (electrical engineering), up and running. It was just the beginning of the online hard sciences future ASU envisioned. It now extends to biological sciences degrees that have earned graduates spots in top medical schools. 

The successful reinvention of more than 120 STEM programs for online required that ASU’s faculty and staff adopt a paradigm shift in how they approached the digital curriculum. It required embracing inclusion and the willingness to redesign entire curricula and labs by learning from both students and instructional designers. And it required ensuring that technology partners would foster the academic rigor the curriculum needed.

The science agenda

Regier says many people in higher education think sciences can’t be taught online because they believe it’s impossible to achieve the same standards. But ASU faculty and staff have put the hard work into transforming education.

“We were and are operating from the mindset that we are abundant and we don’t have limited or constrained resources, so why not do science online?” Regier says. 

“Our undergraduate electrical engineering degree is ABET-accredited, and I remember when the agency pushed back when we put that degree up for accreditation,” Regier recalls. “In the end, we won the accreditation with flying colors.”

The tipping point for more online science degree programs, such as in biochemistry and astronomy and planetary sciences, was electrical engineering. Successfully teaching it online opened up the idea of being able to do a lot of other challenging things. 

“Then, after we took the biologies online, the physics and chemistry faculty said, ‘If that can be online, then so can physics and chemistry,’” Regier explains. “And that belief led to the growth in astronomy and planetary sciences. So you began to see this rollout of science degrees with impeccable academic rigor and outstanding faculty credentials that you won’t find anywhere else online today.”

In addition to the need to make rigorous science programs available to more students, there’s an economic imperative to educate people for in-demand occupations, such as in STEM. STEM field jobs are expected to grow 8% by 2029, compared with 3.7% for all occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

One student who reinvented her career is Maria-Elena Sisneroz, ’21 BSE in electrical engineering. “I already received my first degree in biology from UCSD and my doctorate in physical therapy from Northwestern University,” she says. But when she decided to change careers, she needed to take an online program because of her life situation. She emphatically states that she chose ASU because it was the only fully online ABET-accredited program. 

Sisneroz says she was able to master the concepts through the take-home lab kits and digital labs. “I had to put a circuit together on a breadboard and observe the signals on an oscilloscope,” Sisneroz says as an example. 

In addition to using her engineering degree to work on device design for physical rehabilitation applications for her own startup, KinesioTech, LLC, she took a job as an electrical engineer at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California.

student working on laptop and with engineering kit

Online programs include lab kits so students can master rigorous concepts.

The power of labs

Justin Harding is the senior director of Instructional Design and New Media for ASU Online. Harding says that the challenge with many science and engineering degrees is the capability, through additional resource investment, to create and offer quality lab experiences for students online.

“Labs are the initial barrier to why many universities are not interested in pursuing online science degree development,” Harding says. “It is not just about saying we will have an online lab, it is reevaluating the goal of lab activities and creating and conceptualizing those experiences in the online modality.”

In ASU’s online science courses, there are four lab types: simulations built in virtual reality, lab kits mailed to students, kitchen labs that use ingredients like soil and water from a student’s environment, and follow-along video labs. And for many of the science degree programs — such as the Bachelor of Science in biological sciences, Bachelor of Science in biochemistry, Bachelor of Science in forensic science and more — there’s a fifth lab type: in-person labs performed by students during an intense summer lab week on campus, or two weeks for some classes, such as organic chemistry.

“They’re going to be scientists, and scientists work with their hands, and we can’t deprive the students of this opportunity,” explains Ian Gould, President’s Professor in the School of Molecular Sciences, about the rationale for the in-person labs. “So one of the most important components of designing our whole online degree program was to make sure the students receive the experience they need to succeed.”

Julie Greenwood, vice dean for educational initiatives at ASU Online, says that when a student completes a one-week intensive lab, they gain much greater competency in the skills and relationship building with the faculty than what they would achieve during a 15-week lab course.

“Data show that those are poor learning experiences, and students are often unable to retain what they’re doing from week to week,” Greenwood says. “Now, on-campus biochemistry faculty are talking about shifting their campus lab programs to be more like what’s happening with the online programs.”

Greenwood attributes the success of the digital labs to technology partnerships and the creativity and innovation of faculty. 

“We partner with a number of tech vendors such as Cogbooks, InScribe, Zybooks and Labster, which enables digital laboratory experiences for students to focus on the concepts as opposed to the manipulations, and that kind of work is much more like what they would do in an actual career,” Greenwood says. 

For example, during VR labs created with Labster, students interact with lab equipment as if in the lab in real life, and work through hypothesis and the scientific method with the help of a digital assistant who provides personalized feedback. During the VR labs, students explore concepts like gene expression on a molecular level, as well as get an inside molecular look at what the lab machines are doing. 

Mary Loder, instructional designer at EdPlus, adds that tools like Zybooks allow students who are learning programming, including in physics and engineering majors, to see effects in real time. “This gives students the opportunity to see animations of their code before they submit them,” Loder says.

In this sense, these robust, immersive lab experiences open up the entire university to any student regardless of life circumstances — while helping them master rigorous concepts.

student in VR goggles

Virtual reality labs allow students to simulate being in a physical lab and get additional insights beyond what is possible in an in-person lab.

A science and math deep dive

Harding firmly believes that the reason ASU has put in the deep work to achieve the same scientific and mathematical rigor in online courses is simple: ASU recognizes that learners want quality online STEM programs. 

“So even when it was challenging to build out and ensure the quality of the learning experiences, we knew we had to do it,” adds Harding. 

Case in point: The two Bachelor of Science in biochemistry programs and the five Bachelor of Science in biological sciences programs launched in 2017 and 2020. The former has 941 students enrolled as of fall 2021, and the latter has nearly 3,200 students, making it one of the highest enrollment online degree programs. Harding believes that these programs address a significant segment of students who cannot attend location-based programs. ASU has launched several more biological sciences degree programs since then, including a Bachelor of Science in applied biological sciences (preveterinary medicine).

“It’s a blended learning experience created specifically for these sciences students,” Harding says. “It has taken deep commitment and humility with new insights from faculty to understand the hard work of finding ways to reinvent the curriculum.”

Innovation in science classes is exactly what entire teams, including faculty, instructional designers, technology partners and other innovators, did to take rigorous science programs online — and continue to do to improve learner outcomes. In 2019, ASU created the first adaptive learning platform in the School of Life Sciences called BioSpine. BioSpine shifts the learning model from mass production to mass personalization through a scaffolded support structure that personalizes each student’s learning throughout their four-year degree. It has yielded impressive results for students — and the examination of all concepts students need to master involved more than 50 faculty and 10 staff members. And, it was essential in being able to reinvent the curriculum for both the in-person and online degree programs, Regier says.

In 2020, the online Bachelor of Science in astronomical and planetary sciences launched along with an online Bachelor of Arts in physics. 

The former uses the “math that helped us understand conceptually what the universe looked like before we could go above the blue line and see; it’s the math that will take us to Mars,” Loder says. “We couldn’t just re-create on-ground math courses. We had to think about the courses in a different way.”

To help people acquire new skills for the changing economy, ASU also has created numerous online certificate programs and a data science degree program. So far, ASU offers nearly 300 degree and certificate programs online.

“Students should be able to come in and take a continuing education course or two, or a full degree, to pick from the tree whatever they need,” says Regier. “More and more, we’ll use even more immersive experiences like Dreamscape Learn and personalized technology. We continue to push the limits of education to make it ever more available to more learners.”

Top photo: ASU’s online biological sciences degree programs include an intense on-campus lab week. Jid’dah (Jai) Ado-Ibrahim, a junior in the program, says the lab week provides critical hands-on experience. She balances her education with parenting her three daughters and working full time at a local pharmaceutical company.

Written by Jennifer Kite-Powell

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Like a medical center for the planet

January 13, 2022

The Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory is tackling some of the most important and complex problems of our time

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the winter 2022 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.

The challenges for the planet’s health and the future of humanity and other life forms command urgency — and Arizona State University is accelerating its wide-reaching collaborative work to help keep the planet not only habitable but healthy. 

In 2019, ASU established the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory as a first-of-its-kind initiative designed to find actionable solutions to the most challenging issues facing global society and our planet. The laboratory is ASU’s response to the growing awareness that conventional approaches to sustainability and planetary wellness are not adequate. Instead, designing a thriving future requires a holistic approach defined by uncompromising transdisciplinary research and open collaboration among universities, businesses, policymakers and the wider public. 

In many ways, the laboratory can be conceived as an entity that operates like a medical center for the planet, says ASU President Michael M. Crow. Its mission consists of diagnosing social and environmental maladies, developing new ways of acquiring data from all components of the Earth’s systems, triaging problems to ensure they are properly prioritized, and ultimately prescribing both treatment and ongoing proactive wellness regimens that minimize harm while maximizing health. 

“The Global Futures Laboratory is an entity that focuses on how the world might look in the future and imagines pathways that will keep it a place worth living in,” says Peter Schlosser, the laboratory’s vice president and vice provost. “That means a world that is habitable and leaves options for the next generation to shape their lives according to their desires.” 

The laboratory consolidates existing research efforts and schools and augments them with new ones. For example, the Global Institute of Sustainability and the Institute for the Future of Innovation in Society have merged to become an encompassing research institution: the Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation. The laboratory also adds numerous dedicated resources to solving Earth’s greatest challenges, attracts new partner organizations, acts as a single voice with policymakers and influencers like the U.N., and works as a robust center of knowledge and learning about Earth’s health.

Hundreds of the best and brightest minds 

Students will be able to work side-by-side with researchers from the Humanities Lab, the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions, the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems and several other organizations. Together, they will explore a staggering range of issues such as water scarcity, biosystems, food security, health systems, Indigenous knowledge, future cities and more. 

The heart of the Global Futures Laboratory is the new Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building 7 on the Tempe campus, a $200 million facility hosting more than 500 faculty and 1,300 students. ISTB7 is the largest research building on ASU’s campuses, with both wet and dry labs outfitted for many disciplines, including sustainability, engineering, biology and robotics. Although the building will serve as the lab’s headquarters, the initiative’s impact will extend far beyond its walls to engage partners across ASU’s campuses, out in the field and around the world. 

“When people walk into that building, I want them to see that they’re moving into the Anthropocene, the new era shaped by human activities,” Schlosser says. “I want them to recognize the urgency of the moment and see hope in the people at work across collaborative spaces. This new building is a physical center for those who work on how to get us back onto a trajectory of global wellness.”

Transdisciplinary solutions 

When Sally Kitch, founding director of the Humanities Lab, heard about Schlosser’s plans, she wasted no time pitching him on folding humanities into the laboratory. “I approached him right away,” Kitch says. “He agreed immediately.”

The emphasis on collaboration among natural scientists, social scientists and humanists is part of what makes the lab unique. And for many of the researchers, it’s also the reason they think the laboratory will succeed in creating solutions to humanity’s and Earth’s biggest problems where others have failed. 

“Getting to the root of these problems is not just about finding technological fixes, it’s about changing human beings’ relationship to the planet and to one another,” Kitch says. She co-directs the Seize the Moment initiative — designed to leverage the arts, humanities and sciences to answer pressing existential questions — along with Diana Ayton-Shenker, the CEO of Leonardo, a renowned think tank and publishing group that came to the university for just this kind of collaboration. “All these problems — social justice, environmental and health problems — are all very interconnected. You need the humanities in there so we can act quickly and with wisdom.” 

This transdisciplinary approach is one of the keys to taking research and implementing it in the real world. 

“In my view, we are not limited by scientific knowledge at this point,” Schlosser says. “We are limited by translating that scientific insight into action.”

“When you couple the science-based efforts at BIOS to our efforts led by Greg Asner in the Pacific, a clearer picture of the overall ocean dynamics and health will begin to come into full view.”

— Michael M. Crow, President of ASU

Data and knowledge for improving positive outcomes

A major part of the concept of the Global Futures Laboratory is hundreds of dedicated scholars and scientists across multiple disciplines gathering knowledge and data about how the planet functions across various systems. This is essential for creating wellness solutions and interventions that create positive outcomes.

In September, an international team of researchers including Greg Asner, the director of the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, completed work on the first-ever coral reef atlas. The mapping tool, initiated via a partnership among ASU, Vulcan Inc., National Geographic, Planet and The University of Queensland, allows researchers and policymakers to leverage satellite data to track coral reef health around the world. Prior to the Allen Coral Atlas, this data had never been available at this scale.

satellite model of coral reefs

The Allen Coral Atlas shows detailed coral reef health in a way never before.

In the Atlantic Ocean, the laboratory is partnering with the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, a premier research institute studying ocean processes. Building on yearslong work, the partnership will share expertise in ocean sciences to study the highly interlinked, complex problems related to the future of the planet and will put students on the cutting edge of ocean science. It also will allow BIOS to hire some of these passionate students post-graduation to continue to develop sensors and robotic systems to monitor the ocean in the coming decades, says BIOS President and CEO Bill Curry. 

“When you couple the science-based efforts at BIOS to our efforts led by Greg Asner in the Pacific, a clearer picture of the overall ocean dynamics and health will begin to come into full view,” Crow says. “We expect that this new partnership will be a huge benefit to all Earth scientists seeking a clearer and more concise view of the ‘state of the planet.’”

With these types of knowledge and data, researchers also can help prioritize actions. One of the many examples of this is a report by the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems led by Executive Director Kathleen Merrigan. It details 46 recommendations to guide the Biden administration’s approach to organic agriculture. The recent Swette report will help policymakers at all levels triage issues to make the biggest positive impacts on carbon emissions, soil and water health, and people’s health in the shortest amount of time. 

“In my view, we are not limited by scientific knowledge at this point. We are limited by translating that scientific insight into action.”

— Peter Schlosser, vice president and vice provost, the Global Futures Laboratory

Addressing global issues

Dave White, director of the Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation, says the laboratory’s findings can help locally and globally. 

“The Global Futures Laboratory allows us to scale up to other areas around the world,” White says.

In 2021, for example, researchers working with the ASU Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Service, the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes and Conservation International joined forces with the U.S. Agency for International Development to lead a new program in Peru, which currently is experiencing biodiversity loss from unsustainable land development. It is meant to create solutions to foster entrepreneurship that help to protect biodiversity, not only in the Amazon, but beyond. 

women conducting research on whales

Leah Gerber (right) near Maui conducts research on humpback whales with graduate students and collaborators.

The program builds on years of transdisciplinary work by Leah Gerber, the founding director of the CBO. She and colleagues are developing new ways of funding conservation by drawing on tools from economics and finance, such as defining biodiversity’s “return on investment” and creating conservation markets in which people can buy shares of species. 

“Given that there is a scarcity of resources going toward biodiversity conservation, the big question is: How can we maximize what we’re getting?” explains Gerber. “Everything I do is done with the idea that we can amplify it, and it could be more generally applied.”

Honoring Native knowledge and youths’ wisdom

Researchers affiliated with Global Futures also are having an impact around the world through the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge about living in balance with Mother Earth. This includes the hiring of Indigenous scientists, collaborative projects and the direct listening to and working with Indigenous groups and other stakeholders. 

Recently, Native Hawaiian Assistant Professor Haunani Kane, who joined the Global Futures Laboratory’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science last summer, led a two-week climate research voyage in Hawaii that drew on Indigenous traditions to study how the islands are responding to rising sea levels. 

Around the same time, the laboratory received a five-year, $6.4 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that will support the Global Futures-led Pacific Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (Pacific RISA) program to address climate challenges on the Pacific islands. As the next phase in yearslong work, this new center, in partnership with local Indigenous peoples and colleagues at the University of Hawaii and the East-West Center, will help create solutions to pressing climate issues and ways to mitigate climate-change-caused damage to these communities.  

Another key focus is creating opportunities for students to make an impact. As Schlosser points out, many young people feel as though earlier generations disenfranchised them by not addressing climate change. The laboratory’s approach supports students in pursuing research that has real-world outcomes now and far into the future — their own and their future grandchildren’s and beyond. 

“These students and young activists are capable of anything given the right kinds of opportunities,” Kitch says. “If you put a team of students together and give them the freedom and support to design something that is a step toward changing policy, that’s a whole different learning experience.”

woman working on makeshift table on beach

Haunani Kane conducting research on rising sea levels. Her focus areas include Samoa, the Marshall Islands and Hawaii.

Plotting a course to a thriving future

The Global Futures Laboratory embraces students from across the university and partners and stakeholders from around the world. Andrew Maynard, director of the Risk Innovation Lab and an associate dean in the College of Global Futures, says the full curriculum will focus on cultivating skills students need to work on challenges that require a holistic understanding of complex systems.   

“We have the capacity to equip students not only with the skills, but the mindset to see pathways forward in a way never done before in educational programs,” Maynard says. “We’re at the end of the line in terms of problems that we can solve with individual disciplines. The way we’re going to solve problems is by merging and transcending disciplines. And that’s exactly what we will be training students to do.” 

There are still many unknowns, but this comes with the territory of launching an entirely new model for how universities engage with the era’s most pressing problems. What is certain, however, is that this ambitious medical center for a habitable planet would never have been possible without the university’s commitment to fostering academic work with real-world impacts and its decadeslong support of sustainability and transdisciplinary research. Together, these laid the foundation for the success of the Global Futures Laboratory and, perhaps, the planet as a whole.

“The increasing number of global climate and societal events we are witnessing proves that urgency is one of the major messages that we have to convey to ourselves, to our partners and to the world,” Schlosser says. “But the next 10 years also present an opportunity unlike we have ever seen before. We are leading the way by pursuing what we think is necessary, but the world needs to decide to act. The world needs more global futures laboratories. We cannot do it alone. Together, we create hope.”

Written by Daniel Oberhaus