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White House honors ASU faculty

November 01, 2007

Two young scientists at Arizona State University – a geophysicist and an educational psychologist – are among 58 recipients of the 2006 prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). Having two faculty members receive this national award is a first for ASU.

Matthew J. Fouch, an associate professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, and Jenefer Husman, an assistant professor in the Mary Lou Fulton College of Education, were recognized in a ceremony at the White House Nov. 1.

The Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, established in 1996, honors the most promising researchers in the nation within their fields. Nine federal departments and agencies annually nominate scientists and engineers at the start of their independent research careers.

Selection for the award is based on innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology that is relevant to the mission of the sponsoring organization or agency, and community service.

Fouch and Husman were nominated by the National Science Foundation, which provides grant support for five years through its Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) program.

“These awards underscore the exceptional talent at ASU,” says Elizabeth D. Capaldi, ASU’s provost. “To earn two of only 58 national awards is a remarkable achievement. I congratulate Dr. Fouch and Dr. Husman. We are all honored by their success.”

Matthew J. Fouch

Gigabytes of data are flowing from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) project known as EarthScope, and ASU associate professor Matthew J. Fouch and his students are “right in the thick of it.”

Fouch is being honored with a PECASE award for developing new approaches that integrate geophysical data types – seismic and geodetic – to help researchers and students better understand deformation, or the dynamic nature of Earth’s interior, beneath continental North America.

He is one of 20 NSF-nominated recipients of this year’s PECASE honor. Fouch received a NSF CAREER grant last year that supports his work in both developing new approaches to integrating EarthScope as well as bringing data from seismic stations around the world into the classroom.

“There’s no way to get geologic samples from a wide range of places deep inside Earth,” Fouch says. Yet, by developing semi-automated data analysis tools, “Earth science students can perform seismic research in their classroom, using real-time data from a variety of sources, including EarthScope’s seismic monitoring component: USArray.”

And, with EarthScope’s facility now constructed and fully operational, data is being collected and analyzed by Fouch and his graduate students.

“It’s a revolutionary new amount of data for understanding the geologic history of the western United States,” he says. The data can be used to answer questions about historic changes occurring within and beneath Earth’s tectonic plates, such as the Juan de Fuca Plate in the Pacific Northwest.

“This is a region where there have been extreme changes over the last 35 million years and more that are still not well understood. The new data generated by EarthScope and our own seismic arrays in the region are providing a beautiful window into how those processes occur,” Fouch says. “It will generate a profoundly new set of images that shows where the plate is, where it is not and where it appears to have fallen apart.”

That “window” is data-created computer imaging of deep beneath the Earth’s crust.

“We’re using the data to relate the geology at the surface to the structure and deformation (stress and strain) in the depths of Earth,” he says.

This new interdisciplinary approach to collecting and analyzing data, making it accessible to students, and, to the public through lectures, helped earned Fouch these national honors.

“It is an honor to receive this presidential award, which goes beyond the NSF CAREER award,” he says. Such awards, early in his career, have given him the academic and research freedom to explore new directions, “to take risks,” he says.

“With five years of funding from grants like the CAREER award, rather than a typical two-to-three year grant, it’s like receiving two bonus years to do research and think about your research at a much deeper level,” he says. “The extra time allows for more introspection and development of new approaches to your science.”

The award also recognizes Fouch for integrating teaching with research. With a passion for Earth science and a commitment to teaching, his goal is to develop a series of tools that can be used in the classroom, drawing on data from far away points.

Fouch, who has his bachelor’s degree in geology from Pomona College, his master’s and doctoral degrees in geophysics from Brown University, and performed postdoctoral work at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, joined ASU in 2001 as an assistant professor in the Department of Geological Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He recently was promoted to an associate professor in the college’s new School of Earth and Space Exploration.

“ASU is a very unique place that enables young faculty to achieve CAREER and PECASE awards. The administration here has always been enthusiastically supportive of new and innovative efforts,” he says.

The revolutionary new ways science and engineering are fused in the School of Earth and Space Exploration is one example of how Arizona State University is building a new American university.

“Compared to many places around the country and the world, we’re empowered to be incredibly academically free at ASU. To my mind, it’s like the wild west,” Fouch says. “Anything can go here, in the best possible way.”

Jenefer Husman

Jenefer Husman, an assistant professor of psychology in education, has focused her work as a motivation researcher on understanding the developmental processes of students who pursue and persist in careers in science and engineering, and adding an important link between successful intervention programs and student achievement in these fields.

“Engineering programs across the country have very high attrition rates. This fact led me to suspect that students in engineering may suffer from motivational conflicts,” Husman says. “Engineering is a difficult major that requires students to possess a strong prior knowledge base combined with the ability to persist in the face of difficulties and disappointments.” Additionally, educators must understand how students conceptualize their futures, she says.

Her research study titled “Connecting with the future: Supporting identity and career development in Post-Secondary Science and Engineering,” endeavors to address these goals. The project is being supported by the CAREER program sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

“There is a strong identity associated with becoming an engineer, although not every student can internalize or wants to internalize that identity,” Husman says. “I believe that my research can help engineering educators better understand the identity formation process their students are going through, and how to support their students’ motivation to learn.”

Through the project, Husman and a team of ASU researchers will specifically focus on the concepts and processes that form a person’s future time perspective (FTP). The more accurate, complete and viable a person’s FTP, the more likely, Husman says, they are to succeed, both in the present and in the future.

“By better understanding how students think about their futures in science and engineering, we can better support and guide them, increasing the number of students who choose and succeed in science and engineering careers,” she says.

In an examination of engineering education literature, Husman realized there was very little focused on motivational issues in engineering education. The early catalyst for her research, instead, was born from her own experiences as a young student and scholar.

“When I was in elementary school, I had great difficulty learning. Everything was hard; mathematics, reading and writing,” she says. “Like so many learning-disabled students, I had strengths in some areas and great weaknesses in others.”

Husman says she was fortunate that her instructors noticed this early and took action. “My teachers and parents were all keenly aware of my learning disability and worked with me, after school, at night studying at the kitchen table and on weekends. Helping me learn to work with my learning disability was a family affair.”

When her studies overwhelmed her, Husman’s father reassured her, telling her college would be easier than elementary school.

“Even then, he was setting expectations for me, but supporting my belief in my own ability to succeed academically,” she says. “I knew that, even if things were hard then, in the future I would be successful.”

Husman says it was those early struggles with learning that taught her “what a difficult and fascinating process learning is.” It also taught her how important motivation – the willingness to put forth large amounts of effort – is to student achievement.

“Most importantly, I understood firsthand how important a strong, positive, view of the future is to supporting motivation and learning. My goal is to better understand how people think about their futures and how instructors and parents can help their child develop a clear, positive image of themselves in the future.”

Ultimately, students must have good motivational orientations, in order to choose and succeed in rigorous courses and careers in science and engineering, Husman says. And yet there has been little consideration of the importance or possible impact of existing interventions on students’ motivation for learning to become an engineer.

Husman says ASU is in the unique position to propagate knowledge in this area, having several ongoing programs to support student recruitment and retention in engineering, including the Virtual Counseling Center, which provides programs and instruments for helping students and graduates develop life and career plans, and the campus-based Women in Science and Engineering program.

“These programs support many aspects of students’ learning,” she says.

Joan Sherwood,
Mary Lou Fulton College of Education