Students collaborate on sustainable product design

May 13, 2011

What happens when you integrate a class of biology and design majors?

The answer is creative tension, trial and error, innovation and, ultimately, the potential for earth-friendly designs that meet urgent needs. This is what students discovered this spring in ASU’s inaugural course in biomimicry, the practice of emulating nature to solve human problems. Download Full Image

"Biologically Inspired Design," taught by Adrian Smith from the School">">School of Life Sciences in the College">">College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Prasad Boradkar and Adelheid Fischer from The">">The Design School in the Herberger">">Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, is the first of its kind at ASU and the latest in a series of biomimicry">">biomimicry initiatives led by InnovationSpace, a transdisciplinary education and research lab for product innovation in The Design School. Since the launching of the program’s biomimicry initiative in 2008, InnovationSpace has helped pioneer the use of biomimicry in sustainable design, business and engineering education. In 2010 the Montana-based Biomimicry Institute recognized these efforts by admitting ASU into its Biomimicry Affiliate Program. ASU is one of only six institutions worldwide to be awarded affiliate status. 

Class projects, tackled by transdisciplinary teams of designers and biologists, considered how nature could inspire solutions for problems such as reducing water consumption, mitigating urban heat island effect, regulating household temperature or utilizing solar radiation.

For Michele Fehler, who worked as a professional graphic designer before returning to ASU’s Design School to conduct graduate work in interaction design, biomimicry is a valuable tool in achieving the goal of sustainability.

“In graphic design, marketing is ‘spray and pray’ or send out as many pieces as possible and hope someone responds. We know that there is only a 3% response rate and in nature this would be a failed system,” says Fehler. “Every time I produced a postcard, I would get a stomach ache, knowing that 97% of them would be thrown away. In the end I want to do graphic design without the stomach aches.”

Biomimicry has helped Fehler to explore other alternatives. “In nature, we see more targeted communication systems,” Fehler says. “For instance, flowers have evolved to display colors that attract bees, and bees have evolved lenses to be able to pick out the flowers they need. This is a communication system without waste.”

This kind of nature-inspired solution could change the scope of a graphic designer’s job description. In the workplace, for example, designers might spend just as much time strategizing with the heads of marketing departments to better pinpoint their audiences as they do creating compelling visual designs.

Similar real-world experiences motivated Karen Ellis, an undergraduate student in the School of Life Sciences, to become interested in biomimicry. Ellis worked on a research project in which she explored inexpensive and sustainable material for diabetes wound care in third world countries.

“In the medical world everything has to be sterile and has to be disposed of after use,” says Ellis. “While, as a microbiologist, I understand why it has to be sterile, I wish we didn’t have to produce so much medical waste.”

Raphael Hyde, a senior industrial design major, discovered a new principle of full-circle product design as a result of the class.

“Waste = Food; a concept which has taught me to strategically understand how we can utilize materials at the end of their life cycle, creating better solutions that support our ecosystem and the wonderful community around us,” says Hyde.

Ellis says that the course offered her more than a new perspective on utilizing the gifts of nature. Students were exposed to the language, processes and stresses of their peers in other disciplines.

“I like the creative energy of the class, and the tension between the designers and the biology students. This tension motivates us to gather more information, rather than just presenting information in forms that only biology students will understand,” Ellis says. “This class is the epitome of what President Crow’s New American University is all about. When students in each of the disciplines let themselves go to consider the impossible – meaning biology students forget for a moment about the limits of physics and chemistry and design students forget about product limitations – what we come up with could evolve into what is possible.”

Written by Jennifer Fraser

Media Contact:
Adelheid Fischer, adelheid.fischer">">
Program Manager, InnovationSpace

Music or math: why not both?

May 16, 2011

On paper, Carole Greenes is a mathematician. In real life, she’s a mathematician disguised as a singing Sherlock Holmes.

It’s the best way she’s found to merge her professional life as a math educator, and one of the loves of her life, musical theater: to write musical mysteries that hinge on math. Download Full Image

For such accomplishments, and many more, Greenes, ASU’s associate vice provost for STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education and professor of mathematics education, has received the 2011 Ross Taylor/Glenn Gilbert National Leadership Award from the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics.

Greenes (pronounced GREEN-ess) never aspired to being a professor of math education. Her first ambition was to be either a professional violinist or pianist, but after she shook the hand of the stellar Van Cliburn, she realized it probably wouldn’t be the piano.

“Van Cliburn was the musician in residence when I was in the Junior Symphony at the Interlochen, Michigan, summer National Music Camp, when I was 12. He directed the orchestra and after I had challenged and was moved up to the second seat in the first violin section, Van Cliburn congratulated me and shook my hand vigorously with his enormous hand. That’s when I realized that my hands were too small for piano. But I didn’t give up on the dream of being a pianist.”

At the University of Michigan, she discovered musical theater, and earned a bachelor’s degree in theater arts and English, with a minor in music.

Greenes and her husband Bob, whom she met at age 15 (she was impressed by his Chevy Bel Air convertible) moved to Boston and she taught elementary school for two years and then middle school.

“While I was teaching middle school, the district implemented the School Mathematics Study Group (SMSG) New Math. Since, from my student teaching where the lab school at the University of Michigan was testing the SMSG program, I knew about associativity, commutativity, the identity element and inverses, the school district decided I would be a great candidate as district math leader and sent me back to university, all expenses paid, to become, officially, a secondary level math teacher with a master’s degree.”

That led to her joining a funded geometry project and enrolling in the doctoral program at Boston University.

“To get additional funds while a doctoral student, I tutored the football team,” Greenes said. “They paid me $5 an hour per person and I taught five players at a time. They got A’s and B’s in all of their math courses, and the provost for athletics was thrilled.”

When she started teaching college classes as a doctoral student, Greenes, who had skipped third grade and did her undergraduate study on a fast track, discovered that she was teaching some of the courses she was supposed to be taking.

Though universities generally don’t hire their own doctoral graduates to teach, Boston University made an exception with Greenes, and she stayed there for 37 years. She jokes, “They didn’t want to let me go because the football players I was tutoring were getting As and Bs in math.”

Greenes said she was encouraged to follow math as a career by “two fabulous professors at Boston University who told me, ‘You are talented in math. You have a great future. There are not many women in the field.’”

As her academic life unfolded at Boston University, she sought ways to get students and the public enthusiastic about math.

“I decided you can get people more excited about math through drama and music, so I started writing these mathematical musical mysteries. I change the words to popular songs, and recruit local math teachers and students to participate with me in their presentations.” 

Her group performed for a “family math night out” for the town of Melrose, Massachusetts. “It was so popular we started to do these all over the country. I did that for many years,” Greenes said.
Her musical, “One if by Land, Two if by Sea,” about math in U.S. history, that she co-wrote with Carol Findell, a math professor at Boston University, was performed on a major anniversary in the city of Boston, in Fanueil Hall, featuring a large cast of mathematics professors and teachers from across North America.

At ASU, Greenes runs two programs: the National Science Foundation-funded “Prime the Pipeline Project: Putting Knowledge to Work,” and “STEM in the Middle,” a project sponsored by the Helios Education Foundation.

“In Prime the Pipeline, high school students collaborate with secondary-level math teachers who want to beef up their knowledge of the sciences, and science teachers who want to know more math. The students are the experts in the technology,” Greenes said. The students and teachers commit to spending after-school time for nine weeks each semester and four hours a day for two weeks in the summer working in “scientific villages” on a variety of projects such as alternative energy, biotechnology and engineering design. Leading the villages are scientists from ASU, Chandler Gilbert Community College, and various technology companies, including Motorola and Intel.

“The teachers are learning exciting ways to get kids excited about STEM subjects,” Greenes said. “A lot of the students come from families where no one has ever gone to college.”

The classes are held at ASU’s Polytechnic campus, which helps ease fears for some of the students. “They see that they are able to compete with peers from other high schools, get around a college campus without getting lost, and are able to communicate and understand professors. College is less intimidating. Most important, they realize that they are college capable.”

STEM in the Middle brings 60 middle-school students to ASU for seven Saturdays, with high school and ASU students serving as mentors.

Greenes said that even younger children can learn challenging math. She currently works with two 6-year-old boys every other Wednesday evening in her office, teaching them concepts that would seem to be way beyond their grasp. 

She believes that all students could benefit from such concentrated periods of study, such as that in Prime the Pipeline and STEM in the Middle. “The siloization of curricula and the limited time for investigation and communication in schools often results in students ill prepared for higher education,” she said.

“By contrast, engaging students in explorations that are challenging, mirror the workplace, require application of concepts from science and mathematics and the use of a variety of technologies for their solutions, and have sufficient time for wrestling with important ideas, will lead to success with the subjects, enhanced interest in the fields, and a stronger STEM pipeline to college.”

Greenes recently developed a program that will prepare students from pre-kindergarten to high school to succeed in algebra, a subject where there is currently a high failure rate.

Perhaps the new program includes a mystery and some music. It would all add up for Greenes.