ASU grad brings innovation to US Air Force


Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

Wiggins in military uniform smiling at the camera

Austin Lamar Wiggins has always been interested in innovation. He joined the U.S. military right out of high school, and for the last few years of his career he has been serving as a consultant on a variety of innovation-related projects with the Air Force and Department of Defense.

Working in this space for such a long time prompted him to look for more formal innovation education to supplement his practical experience. Seeking a degree program was really Wiggins’s “aha moment,” and he’s getting ready to graduate with the program that drew him to Arizona State University in the first place — a Bachelor of Science in innovation in society from the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, which is part of the College of Global Futures

As an ASU Online student, he cites the non-traditional class structure as a key to his success at ASU. 

“We’re seeing an evolving trend of people being able to go to school online and still integrate to a significant degree,” said Wiggins. “People make the argument that the education quality is different, online versus in-person, but what I have come to understand is that online learning simply facilitates a different kind of learning that is good for certain cognitive types.” 

He mentioned that he, like many other students, can get overstimulated or easily distracted in social situations. Whether it’s the echo of the professor’s voice or the clicking sounds of a classmate typing out notes in the back of the room, there are many aspects of being in a large lecture hall that can make learning challenging. By taking courses online, Wiggins was able to create his own best environments to study while also finding opportunities to actively apply his coursework to his day job. 

After graduation, Wiggins plans to continue his education and pursue a Master of Science in public interest technology, also offered through the College of Global Futures.

He is fascinated by the intersections between innovation, technology and policy, as well as the implications of these factors on society as a whole through a philosophical lens. He cited the widespread interest in ChatGPT as an example: how people have responded to generative AI so far and how innovation like this has the potential to influence the way people interact with one another. Longer term, Wiggins hopes to build upon this line of inquiry and dive deeper into this field in a doctoral program. 

Read on to hear more about his time at ASU in his own words.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective? 

Answer: In one of my core classes, we read an article from the 1980s called “Do Artifacts Have Politics.” It’s a chapter excerpt from Langdon Winner where he talks about how technology isn’t just a benign thing that people can use well or use badly — rather, these things that people create, even as part of their design, have real effects on people. 

For me, as a futurist, as a technologist, and as a person involved in innovation, to realize that it’s not just about the creation and use of technology that we should pay attention to, but also the ways that technology can privilege some people or others, or fundamentally reshape the way that we interact as people. It has political power and meanings behind it. Probably one of the most fundamental knowledge shifts for me, in fact, is that this article changed what I wanted to do as my master’s degree. Up until reading that, I was probably going to go into a sociology-related master’s degree. After reading that, I decided being involved in technology policy and the philosophy of technology is actually closer to where I wanted to go. It shaped me in a really interesting way. 

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU? 

A: Lauren Keeler. She doesn't know that she did, is the thing, but it’s in a really interesting way.

So I’ve read a bunch of her papers. I am a School for the Future of Innovation in Society Undergraduate Research Fellow, and she’s my professor for that. There’s a paper that she wrote that I read recently that talked about some characteristics that people should have when dealing with cross-disciplinary problems. It was really interesting to see myself in that paper without her really knowing I existed at the time she wrote it. I thought, “Oh, this describes a lot of my background.” 

Now, when I’m engaging with her as an undergraduate research fellow and in my last course (which she’s teaching), I’ve been realizing that she has in a way helped me recognize that there’s a place for somebody like me, and recognize all the ways that I intersect with various identities. She’s helped me realize that I have a place, and that’s meant more to me than any academic lesson that I could learn. It’s probably been the most important thing that I’ve gotten, and I got that from her. 

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give to those still in school? 

A: This will be a little bit of a controversial take. There is learning as a means, and learning as an end. With learning as means, you make sure you get your A’s or B’s or whatever your’re aiming for, and your learning is for the sake of facilitating that letter grade for the class you’re in.

My recommendation for people is to stop caring about grades so much. Instead, put that effort into learning about what interests you within the specific classes you are taking. You will 100% forget anything that you didn’t really want to learn anyway. Instead, focus on learning as an end — go back to enjoying what you’re learning just for the sake of it. I think the more that people do that, you might actually see better academic results anyway since you’re finding how your interests align with your courses. 

Sometimes that’s harder than other times. I had a class that was about politics, economics and innovation. Probably the hardest class I took, not necessarily because of the material but because I had trouble aligning my interests with a specific subset of the class. What it did help me do is learn a lot about how tied innovation is the economic structure of a government. I did enough to pass the class, but a majority of my time was spent learning about how innovation is different in a capitalist society versus a socialist one versus others, and what happens when money is controlled in different ways. Overall, learning for learning’s sake is something that I feel like we need to get back to. 

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: Because I have a full-time job and because I have a family, I didn't necessarily have the chance to have a single place where I could study. It makes for an interesting dilemma because you have to figure out how to create the environment to study wherever you are. So I had my iPad and a pair of headphones that I keep around with me wherever I go, because, you know, I might have a free lunch one day at work where I have a free hour to use for studying. Or if I’m at home and AJ, my 5-year-old, is asleep, I could spend an hour or two studying. For me it was more about how do I bring the conditions for the best studying with me wherever I go, as opposed to finding the best place.

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