Students play role in research to advance health, public safety

October 25, 2011

Kaushal Rege is working at the forefront of chemical engineering research that promises to produce far-reaching beneficial impacts on human health, public safety and national security.

He’s also providing students opportunities to not only learn about the research as it happens but enabling them to help make it happen. Rege chemical engineering lab Download Full Image

Rege is an assistant professor in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, one of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University.

With support of a $1.48 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, he is pursuing advances in battling cancer by engineering polymers (compound materials made by combining different kinds of molecules) that can be used to deliver therapeutic genes directly to cancer cells in the body.

The process is designed to overcome the negative effects of unhealthy genes by administering healthy genes on a cellular level directly at the source of the cancer.

The method involves generating several polymers that are rapidly screened to identify the particular ones most effective for delivering therapeutic genes. These genes then produce proteins that can kill cancer cells.  
A key advance employed in the research involves use of cutting-edge computational methods for correlating the chemical properties of polymers with their ability to deliver genes within the body.

Rege is collaborating on various aspects of this research with partners at the Medical University of South Carolina and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.

In a project supported by a $200,000 Young Investigator Award from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, Rege is also doing work on “smart materials.” The project focuses on assembling polypeptide nanoparticles in ways that can be used for detecting thermal changes (changes in heat).

A polypeptide is a chain of amino acids linked together by peptide bonds. Many hormones and antibiotics are peptides.

Cylindrical gold nanoparticles (called nanorods) convert near infra-red light to heat (the photothermal effect), which induces changes in polypeptide structures, Rege explains.  This, in turn, induces the liquid nano-assemblies to change to solid-phase materials, which is a visual indicator of photothermal changes.

Using different kinds of nanoparticles in this process can produce materials that are effective in sensing different forms of radiation, he says.

Sensors that can detect radiation, thermal (heat) and magnetic changes can be effective in indicating when major weapons testing by foreign nations has occurred or detecting the presence of certain weapons-grade materials.

Several chemical and biomedical engineering graduate students work as lab assistants for Rege on the cancer treatment and chemical-detection projects.

Other ASU students are involved in the work through the engineering schools’ Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative, which enables undergrads to participate in advanced research.

In addition, for a third straight year Rege is involved in an education outreach program with the Mesa Public Schools Biotechnology Academy. The program brings two of the academy’s high school students to Rege’s lab during each school year to be mentored on the basics of chemical and biological engineering research.

Using what they’ve learned in Rege’s lab, the high school students have been successful in competitions at the annual Arizona Science and Engineering Fair.

“All of our students who have been mentored by Dr. Rege have won medals at the Arizona Science and Engineering Fair, and one used her work to help qualify for the prestigious Wood Scholar program,” says Biotechnology Academy director Amanda Grimes.

“The in-depth knowledge the students gain about complex molecules, polymer generation and the effects of various molecules on cancer cells makes their research stand out from that of their peers.” Grimes says.

 “Their future careers in research and medicine will be better because of their early exposure to the world of chemical engineering,” she says. “The knowledge and experiences gained by the internship will help them make smooth transitions from the school environment to working in industry or in academia.”   

Academy student Merissa Fynan says her internship in Rege’s lab “made me feel better prepared and more confident in the information I had when I presented my research project at local and state competitions.”

The experience, she says, “has given me great preparation for what I expect to see when I get into college-level research.”

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Project to strengthen youngsters' education in engineering, science

October 25, 2011

More active learning through engineering education is finding its way into elementary and middle school classrooms in metropolitan Phoenix through an Arizona State University effort to provide young students a deeper comprehension of the mathematical and technological concepts that form the foundations of science and engineering.

The new Engineers Serving Education project draws on expertise of faculty members from ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.  Sail contest Download Full Image

The project introduces ASU education majors involved in their student-teaching experiences to STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) that they can immediately incorporate into class lessons.  During the current semester, these teacher candidates are delivering one or more of four STEM lessons to approximately 1,800 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Most of the students are in low-income, high-need schools.

Engineers Serving Education is under way at the ASU Preparatory Academy at the university’s Polytechnic campus in Mesa as well as in six Valley school districts – Madison, Higley, Scottsdale, Murphy, Dysart and Balsz.

In the spring of 2012, it will expand to an additional 10 sites, involving 300 teacher candidates and their mentors. With that expansion, the project will reach nearly 7,500 additional elementary and middle school students.

“By combining the technical expertise and resources of the Schools of Engineering with the educational expertise and resources of the Teachers College, we will make a significant impact on the teachers of tomorrow as well as current teachers who are serving as mentors to our student teachers,” said Nancy Perry, assistant dean of Teachers College. “Ideally those mentor teachers will share the engineering-based learning tools with their colleagues and spread the impact of the project even further.”

The resources the two ASU schools have committed to Engineers Serving Education are being augmented by the Boeing Company’s Mesa, Ariz. operation, which has provided startup funds to the Schools of Engineering.

“The field of engineering is at the crossroads of math and science, and that’s where the fun is,” said Ron Zambo, an associate professor in the Teachers College who instructs a class on methods of teaching mathematics in elementary schools.

Zambo’s class has been visited this semester by Jan Snyder, school relations program manager for academic and student affairs in the Schools of Engineering. “After we presented the first lesson – designing a sail to capture wind energy – we had an interesting report from a teacher candidate who then taught it in her classroom,” Snyder said. “She described constructive arguments among students about just how to design their sails. The students remained cognitively engaged in the activity that went on for two days of their science class time.”

Getting young people enthused about STEM subjects is precisely the point of Engineers Serving Education, said James Collofello, associate dean of academic and student affairs in the Schools of Engineering.

“Multiple sources have been sounding a warning that the U.S. position as a global leader may be abruptly lost unless we greatly expand our commitment to success in advanced STEM education,” Collofello said.  “The 2007 seminal report Rising Above the Gathering Storm makes numerous recommendations for long-term approaches to remedying this quandary. Primary among them is the need to increase America’s talent pool by vastly improving STEM education in preschool through high school.”

Stephen Rippon, assistant dean of recruitment, outreach and student engagement in the Schools of Engineering, explained that STEM activities being taught to teacher candidates are designed to evoke a high level of enthusiasm from teachers and students.

“These projects give new teachers the opportunity to infuse both math and science concepts into a lesson that focuses on matters of personal relevance to students and for which students typically possess prior knowledge – two essential and powerful learning factors,” Rippon said.

“The Engineers Serving Education projects provide examples of interesting activities that teacher candidates can utilize. Through the inquiry-based approach by which they are administered the teacher candidates experience full cognitive engagement as a result of their own involvement in the activities, and they realize how their students can have the same experience.”

The project is being incorporated within the larger context of a redesign of the teacher preparation curriculum by the Teachers College. Under the new curriculum, dubbed iTeachAZ, one-quarter of education classes for students majoring in elementary education are being replaced by classes focusing on academic content to produce new teachers with broader content knowledge.

iTeachAZ also expands student teaching from the traditional one-semester model to a full-year experience, during which university students spend four days per week in school classrooms, working collaboratively with mentor teachers and fellow university students, and one day per week taking Teachers College pedagogy classes in partner school districts.

When Snyder visited Zambo’s math methods class to introduce the sail-building activity, he visited a classroom at El Mirage Elementary School in the Dysart Unified School District. The second activity taught through Engineers Serving Education builds on concepts introduced in the initial sail-building project.  Students design windmill blades to fit on a basic windmill tower and rotor constructed from a milk carton with a shaft made from dowelling. Their goal is to harness enough energy to lift weights.

The overarching goal of Engineers Serving Education also involves lifting. The two ASU schools are committed to forging a sustainable long-term partnership to lift the prominence of STEM education in Arizona’s schools and lift the chances that young people will pursue careers in STEM-related fields.

ASU engineering students will also participate in the project. The Schools of Engineering are recruiting up to 200 of its students to work with teacher candidates to facilitate classroom activities.

The Teachers College and the Schools of Engineering will partner in assessing the impact and outcomes of Engineers Serving Education. The two schools will assess the program impact on teacher candidates and their mentors.

They will also develop and implement tools to measure the value of STEM-related classroom activities and the change in young students’ perception about STEM subjects.  Assessment will include measuring the impact of the studies on students’ math and science aptitudes, and the impact on students’ long-term progress in STEM-related studies and careers.

“It’s not good practice to commit time and resources to an effort that simply ‘feels’ like it’s the right thing to do,” Collofello said. “You need data and assessment that indicates the effort’s efficacy. Assessment allows you to adjust your approach to increase the efficiency of resources spent and increase the impact of the effort. Assessment and evaluation are also imperative to sharing best practices with other educational entities.”

Joe Kullman,
(480) 965-8122
Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering