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Stunned by devastation of coral reefs in Hawaii, ASU students design solutions

Studio course emphasizes collaboration, life-inspired design thinking


Scene on a beach looking out over the ocean.
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November 17, 2023

How can you harness the money and good will of tourists to save coral reefs in Hawaii?

Thirty students in The Design School at Arizona State University traveled to the state this semester in a unique studio course to create new ways of saving the islands’ dying coral.

The master’s degree students spent a week in O‘ahu as part of a Global Engagement Studio, a semester-long course led by Michelle Fehler, a clinical associate professor in The Design School and affiliate in The Biomimicry Center; Darren Petrucci, the Suncor Professor of Architecture in The Design School, and Hazal Gumus-Ciftci, an assistant professor of industrial design.The course is a partnership between The Design School and the College of Global Futures, and the transdisciplinaryBesides Fehler, Petrucci and Gumus-Ciftci, the other core faculty were Luis Angarita, program head and associate professor of industrial design; Adelheid Fischer, affiliate faculty and former assistant director of the Biomimicry Center; Wil Heywood, a clinical psychologist and professor in The Design School; and Judith Klein-Seetharaman, a professor in the School of Molecular Sciences and the College of Health Solutions. project includes not just the various design specialties but also sustainability and biology.

The group snorkeled in two locations off of O‘ahu, including Hanauma Bay, a marine preserve.

What they saw was shocking.

“We saw a lot of coral that was damaged or not healthy or with algae overgrowth,” said Naomi Chandran, who is pursuing a master’s degree in visual communication design.

“It’s one thing to read about it and another to actually experience it and see it. You’re forced to take it personally and you can’t look away.”

The coral, which should have been vibrantly multicolored with a defined shape, instead looked like gray rocks and was covered in algae — a symptom of poor health.

The students were devastated, and that was the point.

“Seeing the coral is the reason we're doing this work,” Fehler said. “So they connect that with the importance of the design solution.”

Higher water temperatures is one reason the coral is dying but another cause is human development. As the rain falls on the islands' hilltops, the water rushes down through the neighborhoods, becoming contaminated, and out into the bay.

Besides the coral reefs, the students also visited a fish pond that was built by Indigenous people 800 years ago to farm fish. There are hundreds of fish ponds across the Pacific islands, although many are now abandoned. Because the ponds contribute to a healthy ecosystem, the students spent time working to restore the pond by removing litter, weeds and invasive mangrove.

They also visited a nursery where scientists are raising corals for replantation on reefs, and interviewed marine biologists, engineers and nonprofit environmental groups involved in reef-restoration initiatives.

“So it was a full week of really being exposed to the local condition,” Petrucci said.

While snorkeling off of O‘ahu, the ASU Design School students saw coral reefs that were unhealthy and covered in algae. They saw healthy coral during a visit to a coral nursery. Photo courtesy The Design School

Leveraging tourism

When they returned, the six teams of students started designing solutions to regenerate the coral, with each focusing on one segment of the rim-to-reef watershed.

One team is working on an elaborate model of the watershed with overlays showing ocean temperatures and other data that affect the coral.

Another is designing a way to filter the water that rushes through the hillside neighborhoods. They’ve proposed using people-pleasing amenities, such as park-like retention ponds and pontoon boats that produce cleansing nanobubbles.

Another group is thinking of a way to shade the coral for a few hours each day, which will lower the water temperature.

Chandran’s team started with a straightforward idea and realized it needed to be much bigger.

“We’ve developed a motorized brush with the idea of cleaning the coral,” she said.

“But we realized over time that these problems are multi-faceted. We’re cleaning the coral, but what happens after? Are we waiting for the algae to grow back and to keep doing the same thing over and over with what is seemingly a net zero gain?

“You need a multifaceted solution,” she said.

So the team decided to leverage the huge influx of visitors who come to Hawaii every year in a kind of eco-tourism solution of encouraging them to clean the coral.

“How can we get people involved in these conservation efforts? After cleaning, how can we introduce larvae to bring health back to the reef?” she said.

“When you go there, you see how interconnected everything is, so you have to look at the picture as a whole.”

Allen Chou, an industrial design student, said the studio was challenging because typically in his major, students are asked to design a tangible product such as a piece of furniture or electronic device.

“This is more complex and more science related. A lot of times I feel like a scientist doing research on this very multifaceted problem, but it encourages me to think differently,” he said.

“We’re trying to develop a better way to communicate with tourists about coral reefs — from the airport to the hotels. How can we reach them in an effective but low-cost way to increase the impact?”

Gina Fagliarone, an architecture graduate student, said her group is designing an infrastructure project to shade the reefs and provide a no-contact way for tourists to see the coral.

“How do we avoid snorkeling? How do we create an observation experience where people aren’t able to physically kick and grab and harm the coral?” she said.

“It will also serve as a gathering space for researchers and tourists to create a long-term emotional connection.

“What we experienced in Hawaii is that you’re snorkeling and it’s kind of all dead and it’s depressing. You want to flip that experience to celebrating restoration and regrowth.”

During the mid-semester presentation on Zoom, the team developing the interactive model got great feedback from Doug Harper, executive director of the Malama Maunalua nonprofit.

“This is just the type of display we’re looking for to convey what is taking place,” he said. “We tried doing something like this but this is several levels above what we had envisioned.”

New ways of thinking

The studio also is teaching new ways to collaborate. The students have been meeting weekly with Wil Heywood, a clinical psychologist and professor in The Design School, who has worked with them on team building and also went on the Hawaii trip.

Petrucci said, “So much of what we're trying to teach the students is, ‘How do you develop an emotional intelligence as a designer so that you can actually have impact?’

“Everything we do is collaboration. Nobody works in a vacuum.”

Fagliarone said the collaboration has been valuable.

“As an architect, I know my job and practice will be collaborating with a bunch of people. You have to do construction management, you have to talk to clients and all these different people,” she said.

“And so far in my coursework, I haven’t quite gotten that. I talk a lot to different designers and architects, but I’ve never spoken to an industrial designer before this class.

“It’s super inspiring for my own work to collaborate with people who don’t think exactly the way I do.”

Fehler and Petrucci hope the concept of their design studio course, which they call COLĪD, for “center of life-inspired design,” can expand into a degree program or even a center.

“We want to allow the problem to define what we need to do. So it's really part of practicing life-centered design, which is our focus,” Fehler said.

“It's in the name to allow nature strategies and the problem itself to define what it needs.”

And that wide-ranging, flexible, evidence-based design thinking can lead to a whole new model, Petrucci said. He served as director of The Design School from 2005 to 2012 and worked during that time to foster collaboration among the design disciplines based on wide-ranging problems, like food.

“We just had a whole conversation with the students because they're at the mid-review and they could have continued what they were doing and made a bunch of amazing graphics and portfolio pieces. Or they could take the harder way, which is to rethink the definition of what they're doing,” he said.

“When you sit down with an employer, they've seen a thousand portfolios. Now they can say, ‘This is a transdisciplinary studio I took on coral in Hawaii. We developed this whole integrated system of infiltrating all aspects of tourism in Hawaii and figuring out how every moment could be part of coral in some capacity. And here are the examples of how that could go.’

“So they're creating a whole new market type that hasn’t existed.”

Petrucci said the studio is trying to shift the focus of design from being human centered to nature centered.

“Our client is coral, not humans,” Petrucci said.

The class will hold a presentation of their projects on Friday, Dec. 1, that is free and open to the public.

Top image: A bay off O‘ahu, Hawaii, visited by ASU graduate students from The Design School in September 2023. Photo courtesy The Design School

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