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ASU students win $10K prize in 30-hour hackathon

March 1, 2023

Event looked at tackling terrorist threats to homeland security

There was pure joy, followed by lots of hugs and high-fives on Sunday afternoon when a team of five Arizona State University students won a $10,000 prize for creating a design to divert a domestic terrorist attack. 

It was all part of a Devils Invent event, which took place Feb. 24–26 in the Engineering Center on the Tempe campus and via Zoom. Devils Invent is a series of design challenges put on by ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

The event's theme was “Protecting America’s Public Access Areas” and featured the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 

The hackathon brought together 23 teams from 11 colleges across the country, including Northeastern University, San Diego State University, the University of the District of Columbia and California State University, Los Angeles. 

“Essentially, it is a way for students to design, innovate and build their teamwork and hands-on technical skills,” said Melissa Stine, coordinator senior for student success and engagement at the Fulton Schools. 

The goal of the challenge was to design effective responses to Department of Homeland Security threats in what are described as soft locations — churches, museums, schools, stadiums and other public places. Organizers paired students with academic and industry mentors to solve problem scenarios. 

Participants were tasked with designing responses to one of the following prompts:

  • How do we guide crowds to good decisions during an attack?

  • How do we enable effective and timely communication among stakeholders and responders to allow for oversight and response to an attack?

  • How can we inform and enable civilians to prepare for a drone attack?

The winning team, called Malindo, was made up of five computer science students from the Fulton Schools: Nathan McAvoy, Fawwaz Firdaus, Kalyanam Priyam Dewri, Camelia Ariana Binti Ahmad Nasri and Rui Heng Foo. They competed in the second prompt.

Their design, titled Live Emergency Response System, uses artificial intelligence in closed-circuit television cameras to detect firearms on a potential terrorist. Radar mapping tracks the target’s movements and provides first responders with information, including the suspect’s location.

Computer-generated person on computer screen in a hallway

The image of an armed terrorist was part of a winning design created by the ASU team Malindo during a design challenge for the Homeland Security Department. Photo by Dolores Tropiano

The team spent 30 hours in the Engineering Center working on the project — which turned out to be time well spent. 

“We can learn more here than we can learn in a classroom,” said team member Firdaus, a second-year student. “I feel more passionate about doing this than I would doing homework. … I would never stay up all night doing homework.”

There was more than passion that kept them going.

“We had good snacks and a lot of Red Bulls,” said McAvoy, a first-year student on the team. 

The weekend-long event kicked off with a keynote speaker, George Naccara, a retired admiral in the U.S. Coast Guard and former senior official at the Department of Homeland Security. 

Naccara described the profile of a domestic terrorist based on multiple government studies.

Most attacks occur in public access areas, 71% involve firearms, 90% are male with a criminal history, and the suspect typically has extreme ideologically and hateful views, he said.

“This is truly a remarkable opportunity to engage young minds in thinking about the risks and threats and devising innovative approaches to mitigate or minimize these risks. I emphasize young minds (because) that's you out there — each of you,” Naccara said.

Students in classroom sitting at desks for design challenge

A Devils Invent event focusing on “Protecting America’s Public Access Areas” drew 58 ASU students for a hackathon Feb. 24–26, put on by ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Photo by Zachary Spencer.

A total of 58 students from ASU participated, forming 11 of the teams. ASU students won in five out of nine prize categories.

The two second prize winners from ASU were:

The two ASU teams that tied for third prize for their response to the crowd prompt were:

Prizes, ranging from $2,500 to $10,000, were awarded at the end of the event, in a ceremony that was co-hosted by Northeastern University’s Soft-Target Engineering to Neutralize the Threat Reality Center of Excellence and ASU’s Center for Accelerating Operational Efficiency.

The hackathon gave students the opportunity to successfully tackle real-life emergencies and grow from the experience. 

“Not many undergraduates think they have the skills to handle these problems,” said Anthony Kuhn, the director of design experiences for the Fulton Schools, who also runs the Devils Invent hackathons.

“But by giving them time to work an entire weekend, they prove to themselves that they can.” 

Before the winners were announced, Gregory Simmons, program manager for Minority Serving Institutions and Workforce Development at the Department of Homeland Security, talked about the future opportunities available to students in the department.

“The bottom line,” he said, “is that we want you to come and take jobs within Homeland Security.”

Top photo: The Malindo team (back row, left to right) Nathan McAvoy, Fawwaz Firdaus, Kalyanam Priyam Dewri (front row, left to right) Rui Heng Foo and Camelia Ariana Binti Ahmad Nasri won $10,000 for their design to divert domestic terrorism at the Devils Invent hackathon Feb. 24–26. Photo by Dolores Tropiano

Dolores Tropiano

Reporter , ASU News

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Shark-saving technology makes waves

March 1, 2023

ASU professor uses tracking technology to help conserve shark birthing areas

When some people think of sharks, they may conjure up an image of a menacing fin racing through the ocean in search of its next meal.

But the reality is that for most sharks, people are threatening.

According to Defenders of Wildlife, a national nonprofit dedicated to protecting imperiled species, 75% of shark species are threatened with extinction and up to 73 million sharks are being killed each year for finning. 

Habitats that were once secure places for sharks to give birth have also been affected. And since sharks have long gestation periods, give birth to relatively few young and mature late in life, efforts to repopulate are made even more difficult.

Despite their menacing reputation, sharks play a significant role in balancing the ocean’s ecosystem and keeping the planet and its people healthy. Man’s survival is linked, in part, to the survival of sharks. 

“If they (the mother sharks) don't have that suitable habitat, then their babies won't be able to grow up. And if babies don't grow up, we have no more sharks and literally the ocean ecosystem would collapse,” says Arizona State University Professor James Sulikowski, who has studied sharks for nearly three decades.

Much of his research takes place in the Sulikowski Shark and Fish Conservation Lab at ASU's School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. He has appeared on a variety of television shows, including the “Today” show, “Ocean Mysteries,” NatGeo and the Discovery Channel.

The marine biologist knows that protecting newly born shark pups would go a long way toward reversing the current trend. 

And that’s exactly what he’s doing. 

Sulikowski has researched and helped develop a revolutionary new satellite technology capable of remotely documenting the location and time of birth of shark pups. This data will enable the science community to create ways to protect the sharks’ vulnerable places of birth.

The device is making waves in the scientific community — and for good reason.

“We've been trying to do this since we started studying sharks. So this is really our holy grail. We have really advanced shark science 20, 30, 40 years,” says Sulikowski, who is also a senior global futures scientist and professor in the School of Life Sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

The process of protecting newborn sharks

In a paper released on March 1 in Science Advances, Sulikowski and his partner, Neil Hammerschlag, a marine ecologist at the University of Miami, write that “this novel technology will be especially valuable for the protection of threatened and endangered shark species, where protection of pupping and nursery grounds is a conservation priority.” 

Egg-shaped birth alert tag for sharks

A close-up look at a birth-alert tag. Photo courtesy James Sulikowski

The paper outlines the deployment and results of an intrauterine satellite tag on two highly mobile sharks — a scalloped hammerhead and a tiger shark — to detect when birth occurs. They call them birth-alert tags, or BAT.

Here’s how the tags work. 

First, a BAT is inserted into a pregnant shark. The egg-shaped technology is approximately 2 inches long and 1 inch wide. When the shark gives birth, the BAT pops out along with the pups and reaches the ocean surface. Once there, the device switches to transmitter mode, sending messages announcing the time and location of the birth. 

The BAT has already yielded remarkable results. Where it was once assumed that sand sharks gave birth inland, the scientists have learned that they are most comfortable having their pups in abandoned shipwrecks on the ocean floor. 

“It was a total surprise,” Sulikowski says. “You know, this is why we do this work. For most shark species, we have no idea where they give birth or how far they must travel to habitats that are essential for their survival.”

Once habitats are discovered, efforts will be made to protect them either by creating sanctuaries or expanding areas already set aside for this purpose. 

The ultimate goal is to go global with BAT. Sulikowski wants to create a global network of shark scientists around the world to determine areas that are important to sharks and how to protect them.

Not an overnight success

The Discovery Channel will be airing an episode about Sulikowski’s research during Shark Week in July and the BAT is drawing lots of attention.

But it’s been a long and arduous effort.

“We've had every sort of failure that can happen. We had battery failures. We had firmware failures, we had antenna failures. It has taken us over six years to get to this point,” he says.

“And the only way we knew we were having failures is if the tags didn’t report, right? So there were times we waited six, seven, eight months and got nothing. … I felt like giving up multiple times. But thanks to my co-author, Neil Hammerschlag, we kept forging ahead and we didn't give up.

“And honestly, it feels incredible to have created technology that is going to revolutionize the way that we study sharks.”

Video by the New College of of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences

Top photo: ASU Professor James Sulikowski (left) and his team insert a birth-alert tag into a pregnant shark. The tags track the shark's birthing location to help protect nursery grounds. Photo courtesy James Sulikowski

Dolores Tropiano

Reporter , ASU News