ASU fuses mathematics with social sciences

October 31, 2008

There’s a new kind of math being taught at ASU, and it goes something like this: Take one globalized world, multiply by billions of people and add an influenza virus. Factor in extreme poverty and the fact that there are more people than vaccines. Using massive demographic, climate and health data sets, determine a vaccination distribution plan to prevent a deadly epidemic in rural Mexico. Hint: you can’t actually test it to see if you got it right. This year, two new degrees – a doctorate and a bachelor of science in Applied Mathematics for the Life and Social Sciences – join an array of crosscutting programs administered by the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Carlos Castillo-Chavez, ASU Regents’ Professor and Joaquin Bustoz Jr. Professor of mathematical biology, joined the school this summer to direct the new programs. He will share his time with his newly founded Mathematics, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center and the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. Home to several programs under his direction, including the acclaimed Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute, the center actively recruits students from disadvantaged backgrounds and mentors them in mathematical sciences for the purpose of improving human lives. “We face enormous demographic, economic, environmental, health and social challenges,” says Castillo-Chavez. “Our goal is to produce a new generation of scientists with an understanding of global issues and vigorous training in quantitative theory and methods. Our graduates come from a wide range of backgrounds and will be able to quickly adapt to the changing employment demands we are already seeing in areas such as homeland security, sustainability and conservation biology, urban system dynamics, public health, disease evolution and addiction, infrastructure and technological research.”While best known for its anthropology programs, the School of Human Evolution and Social Change is expanding its expertise in the study of complex adaptive systems. “The school is a natural home for mathematicians who want to use their skills on social and environmental problems,” says Sander van der Leeuw, the school’s director. “We are extremely thrilled that professor Castillo-Chavez and his students have come on board. Our social scientists have a long history of working closely with computational scientists and are eager to advance the application of quantitative tools to social science data.” “What’s different about applied mathematics in social science is that there is more focus on how to apply various tools and methods to social systems, besides learning the technical aspects of methods. The trick is figuring out which tools and methods are best for which type of problems, and how to use them to produce useful results,” says Marco Janssen, assistant professor in the school and associate director of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity. “Whether you are searching for viable strategies to convert a city to sustainable energy or to preserve an endangered rainforest in Indonesia, you better understand cultural and social processes. To develop rigorous models, you have to include knowledge from many disciplines.”

The four mathematicians in the school’s faculty know of no other programs that train mathematicians using social science data in an ecological context the way ASU is doing it.

“We just started the Ph.D. program this fall and we have already exceeded our five year enrollment projections. As soon as it was approved, we were able to enroll 27 highly qualified students, and we are constantly getting inquiries from around the world,” says Bate Agbor-Baiyee, academic success specialist for applied mathematics in the life and social sciences. Download Full Image Not surprisingly, it turns out there is a huge global demand for problem solvers. According to Janssen, the job opportunities for graduates cover just about every field you can think of: health, business, industry, government, environment, entertainment, sports and of course, education.

“In the age of computers and Internet, there are massive amounts of data being collected that require strong computational skills to analyze,” says Janssen. “But we are still learning how to use that data in meaningful ways. Whenever you are dealing with people, things get complicated very quickly,” says Janssen. “This is not like applied mathematics in engineering where you have to figure out the best circuit for a chip. Maybe you are trying to figure out the best circuit for a new light rail system. Unlike the chip, you can’t test it over and over to refine it until it’s perfect. You have to be good at asking questions – a lot of questions – because getting it wrong has serious consequences.”

In this emerging field, research is driven by questions at the interface of the life and social sciences – and a process of discovery that relies on a continuous, adaptive ‘trialogue’ between models, theory and data, adds Castillo-Chavez.

“Students learn a way of thinking and approaching problems, and then get to apply it to whatever they are passionate about,” says John “Marty” Anderies, associate professor with appointments in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and the School of Sustainability. “We’ll never fully understand what motivates people’s behavior. But we can observe what they actually do in a given set of circumstances, develop models of their decision-making behavior and map that onto data and models of the environment. We can then look across history and time and space to see how people’s decisions and the environment interact.”

Engineering programs ignite the sparks of Valley students

October 31, 2008

Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering leaders know that their challenge to nurture the next generation of innovators needed to maintain the nation’s technological and economic edge starts long before students enroll in college.

“Industry experts and educators agree that to prepare students for the rigors of a degree in engineering, we must capture and direct their imaginations and creativity while they are still kids,” says Steve Rippon, the school’s assistant dean for student affairs. Download Full Image

The engineering school is marshalling its resources to ignite the sparks that will turn young students toward careers in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math.

Almost a dozen programs geared for K-12 students are up and running. In addition, many grants for faculty research projects include funding to support STEM educational outreach in K-12 schools, and engineering school student groups at ASU are helping  introduce younger students to opportunities in engineering.

A major expansion of such efforts will be enabled by a $4 million investment in the engineering school made earlier this year by former Motorola CEO Gary Tooker and his wife, Diane. Much of it will be used to endow five engineering faculty positions for professors who will work specifically to strengthen STEM outreach efforts.

The Tookers’ investment also will help support partnerships with Arizona’s K-12 teachers and education leaders to improve high school graduation rates and student success in college, as well as support public-private partnerships between the industry and school districts geared to inspiring students to pursue science and engineering studies. 

The Tooker professors will be part of ASU’s Center for Research on Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology (CRESMET). The center develops and researches the impact of innovative teaching methods for K-16 teachers to keep students interested in these fields.

Among new and ongoing programs:

• Youth Engineering Summer Program for high school students. A two-week residential program helps high school students better understand engineering and encourages them to pursue studies to prepare them for a major in engineering. It provides a survey of engineering disciplines and careers. Students also engage in engineering projects and competitions. 

• Youth Engineering Summer Program for middle school students. A one-week commuter program designed to excite middle school students about engineering. Students get involved in projects ranging from Lego robotics to rocket launching. 

• Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement Program (MESA). A collaboration between the engineering school and local school districts engages middle school and high school students in engineering-based after-school clubs. MESA culminates in regional, state and national competitions. Eleven schools now participate.

• First Lego League. A robotics-based curriculum geared to teams of 9- to 14-year-old students. The engineering school is the statewide partner for the league, helping train and support teams to participate in regional and state competitions. More than 130 teams, involving 1,300 students, are participating.

• Senior Discovery Day. Arizona high school seniors learn about the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering and the many engineering disciplines.

• Explore Engineering, Construction and Computer Science! A one-day event geared to Arizona 10th and 11th graders to familiarize them with the disciplines in engineering. Students meet with representatives from each engineering school department, talk with industry partners and tour school facilities and labs.

• Engineering Expo. A one-day event brings Arizona middle school students to ASU’s Tempe campus to experience engineering-based, hands-on projects. 

• Collegiate Scholars. A partnership with Access ASU and the ASU Polytechnic campus provides engineering courses on high school campuses. The goal is to offer courses in as many as 10 high schools by the 2009-2010 academic year that give students course credit in engineering at ASU.

• Test of Engineering, Math and Science (TEAMS). A one-day competition challenges high school students to work as a team to apply knowledge learned in the classroom to real-world engineering scenarios. Awards are given on local, state and national levels. 

The school’s Office of Academic and Student Affairs provides campus tours and hands-on projects for K-12 students by request. Staff members also visit K-12 campuses on request to talk with students about engineering disciplines and careers, and to provide hands-on activities to engage students in engineering-based projects. As many as 200 outreach visits are being made each year.

In addition, the School of Computing and Informatics, a part of the engineering school, offers high school students summer programs where they can learn the basics of robotics and computer games.

Dozens of ASU engineering majors are contributing to the efforts. These are members of student organizations that focus on areas such as bioengineering, and aeronautical, computer and civil engineering, or encourage women and other groups underrepresented in science and engineering to pursue education in the fields. They help mentor and tutor K-12 students, and provide them opportunities to participate in hands-on science and engineering projects and workshops.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering