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Opening the universe to everyone

ASU team will transform NASA data into "bite-size educational experiences."
NASA project pulls together rock-star team of ASU scientists.
Aim of ASU project is to teach science as a process, as solving problems.
March 28, 2016

ASU wins $10M NASA grant to develop education courseware with aim to create critical thinkers both near and far

Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration is about to take the whole nation on a school tour.

Rock stars in their fields will guide virtual field tours of bodies in the solar system. Mars experts Phil Christensen and Jim Bell will help students explore the Red Planet. Enceladus researcher Ariel Anbar will show them Saturn’s tiny icy moon. Erik Asphaug will lead the way to asteroids.

Part of the school’s mission is outreach, said School of Earth and Space ExplorationThe School of Earth and Space Exploration is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. (SESE) director Lindy Elkins-Tanton, and with a new $10.18 million grant from NASA, SESE’s impact on schoolchildren will go from thousands to millions.

The school’s top researchers will develop next-generation digital learning experiences that incorporate NASA science content. The result of the five-year project will be “bite-size educational experiences” available for free on the Internet, according to Elkins-Tanton.

ASU is the sole Internet platform content-delivery method within the new NASA education program. “We’re it,” Elkins-Tanton said.

“There’s a huge need to reach out at scale,” she said. “And when you talk about scale, you’re talking about the Internet.”

NASA has a ton of content on the Web. ASU will work with designers to create interactive content on a platform that makes NASA data accessible and interactive.

“We were trying to take all those ideas and bring them to the next level of effectiveness,” said Elkins-Tanton, principal investigator on the project.

“The aim is to help learners become problem-solvers capable of exploring the unknown, rather than just mastering what is already known,” said Ariel Anbar, project deputy principal investigator. “It is learning science as process and as a universe of questions rather than as a dusty collection of facts.”

Students will go to a portal, select from a library of experiences and be launched into a cool NASA data-infused experience, Anbar said. It’ll be different from traditional NASA outreach, which typically buries the user in facts. In this effort, students will be taught to solve problems they haven’t seen before.

“You will be learning that material but through the context of this cool NASA exploratory data,” Anbar said. “Part of it is increasingly we’re trying to teach science not as facts, but as a process. ... Our theme is changing from mastery of what we know to the ability to explore the unknown.”

“The aim is to help learners become problem-solvers capable of exploring the unknown, rather than just mastering what is already known. It is learning science as process and as a universe of questions rather than as a dusty collection of facts.”
— ASU professor Ariel Anbar, project deputy principal investigator

SESE officials said they hope to get to a scale of millions of users.

“The learning experiences we’re going to be building will be interactive and adaptive,” Anbar said. “It will be, ‘Go look at this, and do it in a virtual space, and receive feedback.’”

To this end, SESE has put together a crack team, led by principal investigator Elkins-Tanton, deputy principal investigator Anbar, and co-investigators Steven Semken, Sheri Klug-Boonstra and Dror Ben-Naim. Other co-investigators include SESE’s Erik Asphaug, Jim Bell, Phil Christensen, Scott Parazynski, Meenakshi Wadhwa, Sara Imari Walker, David Williams and Patrick Young. With faculty like these on board, it will be like having Jacques Cousteau build your aquarium.

Together with adaptive learning provider Smart Sparrow, this team will develop personalized and adaptive learning experiences centered on astrobiology and “small bodies” such as Saturn’s moon Enceladus, Jupiter’s moon Europa, and asteroids. These are specific areas of expertise among the NASA subject-matter experts on the ASU team. 

“They will bring their expertise to our content,” Elkins-Tanton said.

The grant comes from NASA's Science Mission Directorate. Their vision is to share the story, the science and the adventure of NASA's scientific explorations through stimulating and informative activities and experiences created by experts, delivered effectively and efficiently to learners of many backgrounds.

“SESE is known for combining the creative strengths of science, engineering and education, setting the stage for a new era of exploration,” Elkins-Tanton said. “With this grant, we can promote a greater public understanding and appreciation for science, and inspire a new generation of explorers. We hope to share the exciting world of NASA science in a way that is both approachable and interactive.”

In the near term, the focus will be on independent self-learners of science. In the longer term, the team seeks to expand the program to formal K-12 education, in coordination with NASA’s new education strategies.

“This grant brings together education powerhouses — ASU and NASA, together with a trusted edtech partner — to promote STEM education through exploration," said Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, chief research and innovation officer and executive vice president at the ASU Knowledge Enterprise Development. “This opportunity helps ASU engage and empower learners from all backgrounds and proficiencies to master concepts, ask open-ended questions regarding what’s next, and prepare to explore the unknown with the help of technology.”

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

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Working to feed the world

ASU researcher finds way to modify crops to use less water, produce more food
Crucial step toward feeding 7 billion people — crops that each produce more food
ASU advance could farm decrease pollution while increasing food production
March 25, 2016

ASU researcher improves crop performance with new biotechnology

An Arizona State University researcher has figured out a way to modify crops that causes them to use less water and fertilizer but grow more food, an exciting development as food security becomes a critical concern as the world’s population expands.

Roberto Gaxiola, an associate professor with the School of Life SciencesThe School of Life Sciences is an academic unit in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences., said his work also enhances a plant’s tolerance to various outside stresses, such as drought or climate change, other factors in feeding the more than seven billion people on the planet.

Gaxiola describes the work as enhancing the way a certain gene in the plant operates.

“This gene helps to move photosynthates — or molecules made by photosynthesis in the leaves — to the places plants need them in order to grow better roots, fruits, young leaves and seeds,” he said.

Current agricultural methods to increase the production of food often overuse fertilizer, causing environmental problems by polluting water and creating dead zones in oceans downstream. Over-fertilization can also cause plants to have small roots — something that was not anticipated when fertilizers were developed in the early 1900s.

Crop yield is improved with new biotechnology

By increasing the expression of the enzyme H+-PPase, plants can more effectively move sugar, water and nutrients to the places they need them to grow better roots, fruits, seeds and young leaves. Credit: David Kiersh, ASU

By changing how effectively a plant uses water and nutrients, farmers would be able to use fewer resources to grow their crops.

“Larger roots allow plants to more efficiently acquire both nutrients and water,” said Gaxiola. “We can optimize inputs while minimizing environmental impacts. This is advantageous for our environment and for all consumers.”

The study showed that altering the way this geneThe gene, which is called type 1 H+-PPase, is found naturally in all plants. works in rice, corn, barley, wheat, tomato, lettuce, cotton and finger millet caused better growth in roots and shoots, and also improved how the plants absorbed nutrients.

The crops also saw improved water use and tolerance to salt in the soil, which is bad for crops.

The study’s findings were published in the scientific journal Trends in Biotechnology.

Gaxiola, who is the lead author of the study, collaborated with researchers from the University of Arizona, University of North Texas and with the USDA/ARS Children's Nutrition Research Center, Baylor College of Medicine.

He said the next step is to further study this simple biotechnology in order to maximize its agricultural potential.

This study was funded by the National Science Foundation (IOS-1122148). 

Top photo by Thomas Westcott,

Sandra Leander

Assistant Director of Media Relations , ASU Knowledge Enterprise


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Ghosts of victims, survivors past

ASU professor: "East Europeans still fear the ghosts of the vanished Jews."
Personal narratives of trauma help us understand how to live more harmoniously.
March 22, 2016

ASU panels shed light on what we can learn from remembering the victims and survivors of WWII

It may be hard to believe, but already the better half of a century has passed since World War II broke out. Despite the distance time has graced us from its atrocities, their effects are still felt by the generations of individuals descended from its victims — individuals like ASU professor Martin MatustikMartin Matustik is the Lincoln Professor of Ethics and Religion at ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences., who discovered only at the age of 40 that he was the child of a Holocaust survivor.

The subsequent journey that discovery took him on opened Matustik’s eyes to a world of trauma and suffering he never realized was so close to him. And perhaps the worst part was knowing that the very kind of discrimination and xenophobia that caused it all is still happening today in places like Europe, currently dealing with one of the world’s largest refugee crises ever.

“East Europeans still fear the ghosts of the vanished Jews, and they raise fences to keep Syrian refugees out, even though very few want to settle in Eastern Europe,” bemoaned Matustik.

Fortunately, he has had the opportunity to share his story and bring attention to the issue with the publication of his book, “Out of Silence: Repair Across Generations,” which he discussed last Wednesday at a book panel organized by the Center for Jewish Studies, in collaboration with the Melikian Center: Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies.

At the panel, Matustik recounted the story of how he discovered his mother’s secret past, which included family members he never knew existed, and set him on the path of discovering his true identity.

Assistant professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies Anna Cichopek-Gajraj also spoke at the panel about her similarly themed book, “Beyond Violence: Jewish Survivors in Poland and Slovakia, 1944-48.”

A native of Poland, Cichopek-Gajraj was “shook to the core” when in 2000 she read Jan T. Gross’ “Neighbors,” which showed how “Polish neighbors” were complicit in wartime genocide.

“It prompted serious introspection into what it meant to belong to a national community, or what do crimes of my grandparents’ generation say about me,” said Cichopek-Gajraj, who still struggles with the issue.

For associate professor of German studies Daniel GilfillanDaniel Gilfillan is an associate professor of German studies and information literacy in the School of International Letters and Cultures, as well as faculty affiliate in film and media studies, Jewish studies and English., the period of history surrounding World War II “is one that showcases the potential of taking a certain conversation to its ultimate extremes.” Furthermore, he continued, “I think there are some parallels to what we might be seeing politically in the United States today and elsewhere.”

Along with Matustik, Gilfillan will be delivering an Institute for Humanities Research faculty seminar titled “Remembering WWII: Victims and Survivors,” at 10 a.m. Wednesday, March 23, in the Social Sciences building, room 109, on the Tempe campus.

Gilfillan’s research focuses on 20th-century literature, film and media studies in the German-speaking sphere. His portion of the seminar will look at the propaganda films “The Ghetto” (1942) and “The Führer Gives a City to the Jews” (1944), examining what the films’ use of close-up reveals about the faces of the victims featured.

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Associate professor of German studies Daniel Gilfillan speaks about his research in his office March 17. Along with humanities professor Martin Matustik, Gilfillan will deliver the "Remembering WWII: Victims and Survivors" faculty seminar from 10 to 11:30 a.m. March 23. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

“There’s something about that immediate capture of the close-up on film, and what that face tells us about the narrative that is about to be extinguished,” Gilfillan said. And it is those personal narratives (which both Matustik and Cichopek-Gajraj detail in their respective books), he explained, that end up transitioning into larger, representational models of a collective experience of a traumatic event — whether it’s the Holocaust or something more recent, like 9/11.

Having those representational models is important. They make sure we don’t forget by reminding us of the humanity of the victims, and they ask us to question how these incidents of large-scale atrocities and human suffering fit into the human condition. According to Gilfillan, understanding that is imperative to living in today’s international world, something he hopes students take to heart:

“In moving out into the world, you can have a particular skill set that’s based on economics of business or engineering or journalism, but that skill set is only going to take you so far. You need to also have those moments of emotional connection, intellectual connection and understanding of what it means to live in an international world, versus a world that wants to create walls and borders, and values [those things] over progress.”

To learn more about Matustik’s story and his book, visit his website at

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Flipping the water conversation

ASU's FutureH2O initiative to have an impact locally, nationally, globally.
FutureH2O to make Phoenix service area a model for reducing outdoor water use.
Incentivizing efficiency and conservation to be part of initiative's approach.
March 22, 2016

New 5-year ASU water initiative, announced today at White House summit, will focus on abundance instead of scarcity

Arizona State University today announced a five-year initiative, FutureH2O, to flip the global conversation about water on its head and focus on the abundance of water and how to create it instead of hand-wringing about scarcity.

ASU will work with large corporate water consumers to restore what they use, train a new generation of leaders on water usage, turn a Phoenix area municipality into a model for reducing outdoor water use and maximize sensors, data and the Internet around the world to instantly manage water and hydropower.

John Sabo, an ASU professor in the School of Life Sciences and director of the new initiative, led the announcement at today’s White House Water Summit.

“FutureH2O will look for new opportunities to harness the abundance of water on the planet,” said Sabo, a senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU. “Some of these opportunities are things you’d expect us to do as a university, like training the next generation of water managers. But some of the other opportunities are things that ASU is uniquely poised to do.”

“We want to learn how to make it ‘cool’ to conserve. But, more importantly, we need to figure out how to finance the transition to this future. FutureH2O plans to be in the middle of that conversation whether it’s happening in our backyard, on a farm or in the developing world.”
— ASU professor John Sabo, director of the new FutureH2O initiative

ASU’s work with the private sector, such as technology transfer and helping incubate businesses, and its strong relationships with all levels of government, enable the university to create the partnerships necessary to incentivize efficiency and conservation.

“We want to learn how to make it ‘cool’ to conserve,” Sabo said. “But, more importantly, we need to figure out how to finance the transition to this future. FutureH2O plans to be in the middle of that conversation whether it’s happening in our backyard, on a farm or in the developing world.”

The initiative will work towards the following five goals:

• Develop public-private partnerships to fund an urban landscape design and renovation campaign that reduces residential outdoor water use in at least one Phoenix metro service area by a third by 2025.

• Deliver research and advice to at least 10 of the largest corporate water users in the U.S. to scope, plan and implement restoration projects at scales that improve water reliability in stressed water basins nationwide.

• Develop online learning platforms for undergraduate and professional clients that cross-train the next generation of water leaders. They will collaborate with energy leaders to find solutions to the complex demands of water usage in producing food and energy, and train 1,000 such leaders across the U.S. Sunbelt in the next 10 years.

• Build a food-energy-water technology test bed at ASU and use demonstration projects from this test bed as game-changers for the future of agriculture in the arid Southwest.

• Transform how institutions in the U.S. and developing world embrace, deploy, use and share sensors, data and the Internet of Things to improve real-time management of water, hydropower, fisheries and agriculture in large river basins.

A second ASU commitment that will be made at the White House Summit is on SciStarter, a research affiliate of ASU’s Center for Engagement and Training in Science and Society (ASU CENTSS). Darlene Cavalier of ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society said ASU is committing to advance citizen science to build a sustainable water future by:

• Expanding the network and impact of citizen science, SciStarter has trained more than 40 citizen-science teams (more than 1,700 individuals) nationwide to take soil-moisture measurements to validate data captured by NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite. SciStarter will train an additional 60 teams over the next 18 months — including at least one team in every U.S. state.

• Establishing a “Lending Library” of soil-moisture monitoring equipment, SciStarter will launch programs in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Phoenix — to partner with local science museums and libraries to provide training on the equipment. These cities will serve as pilot projects to establish regional networks of lending libraries anchored in science museums across the country.

The White House event will be webcast live at

Top photo by Robbie Ribeiro/

Director , Media Relations and Strategic Communications


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Writing a new chapter in prison rehabilitation

ASU prison education programs help not only inmates, but the helpers, too.
Lowering recidivism benefits the economy, prison experts tell crowd at ASU.
March 20, 2016

Prison conference highlights role of inmate education, including programs at ASU — and how we all benefit

The U.S. prison system is retreating from an era of force and punishment and is starting to think once again about education and rehabilitation programs.

And that’s not only good for society but good for the economy, according to a panel of experts who gathered at Arizona State University this weekend to discuss the role of prison education as part of the American landscape.

“Political positions on prison education shift like the wind, and we’re coming out of an incapacitation and punishment model and realizing again there’s a direct relationship between education and recidivism,” said Michelle Ribeiro, who recently retired as education director for the New Mexico Corrections Department.

“Not only does education help inmates when they release from prison back into society, but it’s also good for the economy and it saves taxpayers money.”

Ribeiro was one of several featured guests at the fifth annual Prison Education Conference, held March 19 at the Memorial Union on ASU’s Tempe campus. The event was hosted by ASU’s Department of English and the Prison Education Awareness Club, a nonpolitical student organization that is dedicated to raising awareness of the need for prisoner education programs.

The Great Recession had a profound impact on the budget of correctional institutes and nearly wiped out most educational programming, said Ribeiro, former education supervisor for the Penitentiary of New Mexico, 15 miles south of central Santa Fe.

“The budget to run my program in 2008 and 2009 was shrinking, and there was little money and few offerings for a high-quality education program,” Ribeiro said. “I was desperate, but it got me to brainstorming.”

Her desperation led to inspiration and ultimately the creation of the Pen Project — a writing class that allows maximum-security and other incarcerated writers to receive anonymous feedback from ASU student internsAfter being unable to find a New Mexico university that did prison outreach, Ribeiro reached out to the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing and made the ASU connection. in the Department of English.

Prison Education Conference

Michelle Ribeiro, former education supervisor at the Penitentiary of New Mexico, gives a demonstration of the "thin black line," the figurative divide between prisoners and corrections staff, during the fifth annual Prison Education Conference on March 19 at the ASU Tempe campus. Top photo: Sheldon Thompson, a former inmate and Pen Project participant, reads some of his written work at the conference. Photos by Ben Moffat/ ASU Now

The program was created in 2010 and has mutual benefits for incarcerated writers and students. Interns employ the critical skills they have learned over the course of their undergraduate education in order to read and critically comment on fiction, poetry and non-fiction prose produced primarily by maximum-security inmates in New Mexico.

“Inmates are getting a lot of good feedback from our interns, who are delighted to share what they know,” said Cornelia “Corri” Wells, director of ASU’s Prisoner Education Programming and English lecturer. “Those who are incarcerated have created an awareness for our students that life is tough, and our students are also getting humbled because they’re learning the writers are full human beings and are not always the people that are labeled or portrayed by society.”

English literature major and Pen Project intern Katerina Morosoff admitted it took a while for her to be humbled, but she said she is now won over.

“My first semester I felt bad, like this heartless person because I just analyze things because that’s what I’ve been taught to do in school — interpret and analyze,” said Morosoff. “This second semester I started to realize how passionate some of these writers are about their work. Now that I’ve opened myself up, I’m less cold and their writing has really connected with me to the point where I reference a lot of what they say in my mind because they have wise words of advice. I really don’t know what effect I have on them, but I know they have a great effect on me.”

The impact of the Pen Project on former New Mexico inmate Sheldon Thompson has been life-changing. The 35-year-old Native American was recently awarded a writing scholarship to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and recited three of his writings to the crowd of approximately 100 people who attended the conference at ASU.

Prison Education Conference

MFA student Gary Garrison (second from left) shares his experience teaching creative writing in state prisons March 19.

“It’s strange reading my work to you here today,” Thompson said with a slight smile. “I’m used to reading in front of a room full of men in orange jumpsuits.”

Twenty-two students now coach 90 inmates in New Mexico and 50 at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence, who are under lockdown 23 hours per day and have no access to regular education programming.

ASU recently added another program offered through the School of Criminology and Justice SystemThe School of Criminology and Justice System is part of ASU’s College of Public Service and Community Solutions. called the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. The class brings together college students and incarcerated individuals to learn about the issues of crime and justice over a full semester. The culmination of this community-based learning is an actionable project designed to improve the correctional system.

“You never know who’s going to be tomorrow's warden or correctional officer or which individual might affect policy and change,” said Kevin Wright, who teaches the class. “My research is based on recidivism, and these projects help.”

The Rand Corporation thinks along the same lines, and a landmark 2013 study called “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education,” essentially stated:

• Correctional education improves inmates’ chances of not returning to prison.

• Inmates who participate in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than those who did not.

• Education programs improve inmates’ chances of obtaining employment after release. The odds of obtaining employment post-release among inmates who participated in correctional education was 13 percent higher than those who did not participate in correctional education.

• Providing correctional education can be cost-effective when it comes to reducing recidivism.

Officials from the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADOC), who presented at the conference, have embraced this notion and are aggressively applying for national and local grants to implement education and workforce programs as well as holding first-time job fairs in correctional institutions statewide.

“There’s a huge focus nationwide on re-entry and long-term recidivism,” said Nikki Studer, ADOC’s community corrections manager. “We don’t want inmates getting involved with the criminal justice system again.”

Reporter , ASU News


CompuGirls plants the seeds of STEM careers

March 17, 2016

When Kimberly Scott worked as a teacher in a high-needs school district operated by the state education department, she had a hunch that her female students weren’t reaching their full potential. She decided to explore the issue further. 

“I completed this study looking at how girls were making sense of themselves in this highly politicized environment,” Scott said.   Brianna Gonzales and Anel Hernandez (left to right), participants in the CompuGirls program, present their final project. Download Full Image

Her findings suggested that girls weren’t receiving enough technology training in the classroom. In a world where computer skills are essential for success, Scott worried that her students would fall behind. She presented the results to her students, their parents and the school administrators, who all shared her concerns.

By happenstance, around the same time the Girl Scouts of America contacted Scott. They wanted her help in piloting an e-troop for girls who were physically unable to attend meetings in person. Scott is an avid proponent of the Girl Scouts, having been a member and troop leader herself. She saw an opportunity to address two needs — a lack of technology programming in her school, and an online e-troop for the Girl Scouts. She created a program called Teaching, Learning and Community. 

In 2006, Scott accepted a faculty position at Arizona State University and brought Teaching, Learning and Community with her. Collaborating with other ASU researchers, she revamped the program and renamed it CompuGirls.  

CompuGirls is a multimedia platform for girls aged 13-18 in underserved school districts that don’t have access to high-quality technology classes and resources. Since its inception, the program has helped more than 1,000 teenage girls increase their technical literacy and computational thinking skills. 

“The program encourages girls to become digital innovators,” said Scott, an associate professor in Arizona State University’s School of Social Transformation. “The point is that they will learn these skills in order to advance their community.” 

CompuGirls also aims to address the lack of women, especially women of color, in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Women made up only 25 percent of the computer and math sciences workforce in the U.S., 15 percent of engineers, and 12 percent of the physicists and astronomers in 2012, according to the National Science Foundation. For African-American women, these numbers drop to 6.1 percent, 3.6 percent and 3.5 percent, respectively. These are all below African-American women’s overall proportion in the workforce, which is 11 percent. 

According to Scott, girls — and especially girls of color — face low expectations from teachers and family. Schools often “code and treat” African-American girls as overly aggressive and sexual, Latina girls as destined for teen pregnancy, and Native American girls as future alcoholics. 

In addition, “computer science” is often interpreted as programming, which girls may perceive as boring. They don’t see how technology can be used to create, discover or solve a problem. 

“Unlike most technology programs, CompuGirls is very focused on having the girls identify and research a social or community issue that is important to them,” Scott said. “The technology becomes a means to that research, to analyze that issue and ultimately come up with and present a solution.” 

CompuGirls participants learn how to manipulate the latest technologies in digital media, game development and virtual worlds. In one project, two students collaborated to produce a short documentary on whaling. Other documentaries have explored issues such as teen pregnancy or bullying in school. The students learned how to use a video camera and several types of editing software.  

In other projects, students use an online platform called Scratch to program their own games. All CompuGirls students are also required to complete both quantitative and qualitative research components, and to make use of five to 10 external sources.  

With a grant from the NSF’s National Robotics Initiative, Scott and a team of researchers are expanding the CompuGirls curriculum to include a robotics plan. Participants will still research social issues and make presentations in their communities, but they will also be able to program a robot to co-teach with them. 

“We’re taking robotics to another edge and including in the offerings the idea of culture, identity and certainly social transformation — things that are not often discussed when we think about robotics, or programming for that matter,” Scott said. 

Currently, there are CompuGirls sites in Arizona and Colorado. Scott was recently awarded a scale-up grant from the NSF to develop more sites in California and beyond. Her team has published several research papers based on the program, and they’ve developed an instrument to measure its impact — the Culturally Responsive Computing Scale.  

Another indication of the program’s success is that Scott is starting to see CompuGirls graduates enrolling as students at ASU. One of them is Mitzi Vilchis, now a senior double-majoring in secondary education and English.

Vilchis joined CompuGirls when she was a freshman in high school. She says the program gave her a big boost in self-confidence. 

“There was an instance in high school where I was presenting, and as I was reading from the paper my hands started shaking because I was so nervous. My voice started quivering and I ended up crying,” Vilchis said.  

“In Compugirls we would do presentations all the time, and we did sandwich compliments,” she said, referring to a way of giving feedback that starts and ends on a positive note, with a constructive critique in the middle. “It was a very different environment. My confidence was through the roof by the time I got out of there.”  

After enrolling at ASU, Vilchis returned to CompuGirls as an undergraduate research assistant. She has also helped recruit new participants for the program. Before participating in CompuGirls, Vilchis hadn’t even planned to go to college.  

“Now my goal in life is to get the PhD, and I don’t see it any other way,” Vilchis said. “I think Compugirls and Dr. Scott’s guidance and mentoring had a lot to do with that.” 

Allie Nicodemo

Communications specialist, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development


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How mathematicians combat violence

Using math, data can help find 'tipping point' that makes difference with gangs.
ASU mathematician to support El Salvador center that bears his name.
March 15, 2016

Salvadoran university names center after ASU's Castillo-Chavez; his work models ways to quell violence

Upon first thought, the idea of math combating violent crime seems unlikely, at best. Can an algorithm be more effective than a SWAT team with a battering ram?

Yes. By mathematically modeling systems, pressure points can be identified and squeezed until the system changes or collapses. Instead of bludgeoning a problem into line, it’s like finding a carotid artery and pinching it until the opponent collapses.

That’s the idea behind the establishment of a mathematical modeling center at an El Salvador university named after Arizona State University professor Carlos Castillo-Chavez late last month.

This center will focus on researching the main problems of the country, particularly, in the short term, designing models for addressing violence and its prevention. The objective is to analyze data related to the issues of violence, insecurity and their derivatives.

Francisco Gavidia University has created the Center for Mathematical Modeling “Carlos Castillo-Chavez” in honor of the Mexican-American scientist at ASU. Dr. Castillo-ChavezDr. Castillo-Chavez is a University Regents’ Professor and Joaquin Bustoz Jr. Professor of mathematical biology in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, distinguished sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, and executive director of the Simon A. Levin Mathematical, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center. will support the center’s technical implementation and assist in the development of collaborative research with ASU and other institutions throughout Latin America.

Mathematics can’t solve the problem of violence per se, but mathematical models are key components of interdisciplinary efforts aimed at quantifying the impact of violence, Castillo-Chavez said.

Models can “help identify what are the key mechanisms that facilitate the spread of violence in communities and regions to the point that it may alter societal norms,” he said. “They can also help you identify the pressure points of the system; that is, what are the key nodes that, if modified, would have the most impact on the reduction of crime.”

“A key problem in El Salvador involves gangs. Can we model their dynamics? Recruitment? Progression? ... What would happen if we reduce recruitment — somehow make it harder? By 10 percent? By 20 percent? By 30 percent? At what point does it make a difference?”
— ASU mathematician Carlos Castillo-Chavez

The process is to ask questions, build scenarios in the form of experiments, define constraints and proceed to address the problem.

“A key problem in El Salvador involves gangs,” Castillo-Chavez said. “Can we model their dynamics? Recruitment? Progression? Until they become hard-core? What are the key pressure points? Recruitment? What would happen if we reduce recruitment — somehow make it harder? By 10 percent? By 20 percent? By 30 percent? At what point does it make a difference? What if recidivism is high? How do we reduce the levels of recidivism? Can we do it if individuals within the environment that they live in are dominated by gangs?”

What Castillo-Chavez is looking for is the “tipping point,” an idea explained by journalist Malcolm Gladwell in his 2000 book of the same name.

It’s “the idea that social problems behave like infectious agents,” Gladwell said in his original article on the topic in the New Yorker magazine in 1996. “This is the fundamental lesson of nonlinearity. When it comes to fighting epidemics, small changes — like bringing new infections down to thirty thousand from forty thousand — can have huge effects. And large changes — like reducing new infections to fifty thousand from a hundred thousand — can have small effects. It all depends on when and how the changes are made.”

Castillo-Chavez also wrote about applying epidemiology modeling to life and social sciences in a 2011 paper.

“The concept of threshold or tipping point, a mathematical expression that characterizes the conditions needed for the occurrence of a drastic transition between epidemiological states, is central to the study of the transmission dynamics and control of diseases,” he wrote. “Epidemiological thinking has transcended the realm of epidemiological modeling and in the process, it has found applications to the study of dynamic social process where contacts between individuals facilitate the build-up of communities that can suddenly (tipping point) take on a life of their own.”

The main idea is to use mathematics to model the processes that produce violence, and then use the model to figure out how to alter these processes by whatever interventions are appropriate to reduce violence, said Ed Kaplan, the main speaker at the center’s opening.

Kaplan is the William N. and Marie A. Beach Professor of Management Science at the Yale School of Management, professor of public health at the Yale School of Medicine, and professor of engineering in the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“Reducing gang violence largely reduces to reducing the population of gang members; fewer gang members, fewer people to commit violent crimes,” he said. “There are two basic ways to reduce the size of any population: increase the rate that people leave, or reduce the rate that people join.

“Increasing the rate that people leave is essentially the job of law enforcement — and the many arrests and incarcerations of Salvadoran gang members testify to this approach. But even more important is starving gangs of new members. Here the key ingredients are education and job opportunities.

“A mathematical model can help relate the impact of investments in such diversion programs as well as the impact of different levels of enforcement on the resulting gang population, and show what the most cost-effective interventions are.”

Top photo by Aleksandar Milosevic/

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

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Fighting for her people

Fighting for the rights of Native Americans.
ASU law director Patty Ferguson-Bohnee uses legal skill to aid Native community.
March 14, 2016

ASU's Ferguson-Bohnee uses her legal prowess to advocate for her Louisiana tribe, and all Native Americans

Justice is a continuing struggle, and constant vigilance is required to maintain it. This is especially true for indigenous people living on American Indian reservations.

That’s the viewpoint of Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, faculty director of the Indian Legal Program in Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, who knows firsthand about the struggles of indigenous people. Her family grew up in southern Louisiana during the era of desegregation; as a result, Ferguson-Bohnee felt that her own people were minimized in the quest for equality.

“I like that the law can be used to provide for change and advocate for inclusion,” Ferguson-Bohnee said. “Once you achieve certain rights, you have to work to protect those rights to ensure that you’re able to exercise them. I think until Natives have a more prominent role in society, if you’re not seen or heard or participating in the process, you can’t assume someone else is going to protect your rights.”

Protecting the rights of indigenous people is Ferguson-Bohnee’s passion, and it's a crucial component of an overall effort at ASU to be engaged with the needs of Native people. That includes fostering open communication and strengthening relationships between ASU and American Indian tribes, ensuring that Native American students receive appropriate support services and programming, and ultimately increasing the graduation rates of all American Indians. 

Her skill with the law is what sets Ferguson-Bohnee's work apart.

“What Patty does by opening up possibilities is allow young people to determine the future for themselves, futures they may not have had without legal representation," said Bryan BrayboyBrayboy is also a special adviser to university president Michael M. Crow on American Indian affairs., ASU President’s Professor and director of the Center of Indian Education. "For me, this is what’s crucial about how we work here at ASU. We not only think about it, but we also do it."

Ferguson-Bohnee has been doing her work for about 30 years, starting when she had an important realization about her own tribe, Pointe-au-Chien. It is not federally recognized and for years has been marginalized and ignored by the government. That sentiment was also felt on the local level.

“My cousins who attended the local public high school where our tribal members attended were not encouraged to continue their education. By the time I went to school, the district had to integrate. The principal would tell them, ‘Isn’t your dad a shrimper? You should just quit school,’ ” Ferguson-Bohnee said. “There wasn’t any real promotion of education.”   

It had been that way for years. Ferguson-Bohnee’s mother, Yvonne Billiot, attended school in Larose, Louisiana, before integration. Billiot had been cursed at, spat on and called derogatory names. She was also put through a geographic ordeal purposely designed to keep indigenous people at bay. In order to attend school, her mother had to cross the bayou in a boat, catch a ride to a local bar and take a bus from there.

Billiot could no longer take the discrimination and went to live with her aunt in east Baton Rouge for her senior year of school, but she didn’t finish. She did, however, get her GED. Billiot and her husband, Davis Ferguson, wanted a better educational opportunity for their daughter and bought a home in Zachary, Louisiana, 20 miles outside Baton Rouge.

That decision helped lead to the moment of Ferguson-Bohnee’s own intellectual awakening. It came during her junior year of high school when she says her life was forever changed by participating in an extracurricular mock trial during her junior year.

“I had never met an attorney in my life, and I had to play one in a worker’s compensation case,” Ferguson-Bohnee said. “We were a team of four lawyers, and we had to conduct a trial, including the examination of witnesses and giving opening and closing statements. It was very eye-opening.”

So was her experience at Stanford University and later Columbia University, where Ferguson-Bohnee pursued her undergraduate and law degrees, respectively.

“Naturally, I began asking a lot of questions in my first year of college. ...” Ferguson-Bohnee said. “When I heard other Native students talking about what they were going to do once they graduated, I realized that I’m not here at college just for myself. I’m here for my people … I have a cause.”

“I’m excited each morning when I wake up that I can help tribal communities, my community and Indian people who need an advocate. I never thought I could have this sort of impact because I had always thought of myself as this little ol’ country gal.”
— Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, faculty director of ASU's Indian Legal Program

After clerking for a federal judge in California and working in a private Scottsdale firm on Native American voting rights, she landed the job where she would have the most impact. In 2007, Ferguson-Bohnee took over as faculty director of ASU’s Indian Legal Clinic (ILC), which is part of the Indian Legal Program (ILP).  The program was established in 1988 and has grown into one of the most respected Indian law programs in the nation.

In addition to providing students with an opportunity to participate in real cases dealing with Native peoples and Indian issues, the ILC provides legal services to tribal governments and other Native governments and associations. The clinic works with tribal courts handling criminal prosecutions and defense actions, undertakes tribal development projects, represents individuals in civil actions, and works on federal policy affecting Native people, including writing amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Court of Appeals.

“We work on a lot of rights-based issues where people don’t have the kind of money to defend themselves,” Ferguson-Bohnee said. “If we don’t provide that voice, the judges or justices may not consider it and they don’t see the full picture. As lawyers, we can use our skills to make a difference in the lives of the underprivileged and the disadvantaged. The law is so powerful … that’s what the students learn.”

And so are the tribes. Last month the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation created a $1.2 million endowment to benefit the ILP to support scholarships, grants and other programs for current and prospective Native American ASU law students. In the last year alone, the ILP has received close to $2 million in grants and gift money from various tribes, centers and research and analysis groups to increase the number of Native American law students and improve access to justice for Native people.

Ferguson-Bohnee continues to seek justice for the 700-member Pointe-au-Chien tribe. For almost 20 years she has been doing pro bono legal work on behalf of her tribe to receive federal recognition, which entitles them to rights regarding discrimination, education, child welfare, health and disasters, as well as having a seat at the table in discussions about their tribe or land.

“We had a number of sacred sites affected by the BP oil spill of 2010, triggering federal response actions. There was a consultation policy used by federal agencies to claim that they could only consult with federally recognized tribes,” Ferguson-Bohnee said. “At first they included us but then later excluded us. I told them, ‘I don’t care what you call it, you will talk to me. The law doesn’t prevent you from talking to me.’ ”

Not being federally recognized also affected the tribe when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Louisiana gulf coast in 2005.

“After Katrina struck there were a number of tribes who were offered FEMA trailers who weren’t anywhere near the storm surge or the flooding like we were,” Ferguson-Bohnee said. “Not having access to clean housing is very stressful on individuals and shows there’s no real support for us. That’s why it’s important to be included in those conversations so that all of us — including our children — can be represented.”

Ferguson-Bohnee said federal recognition can take decades and millions of dollars. Last August the regulations for federal recognition changed, and Ferguson-Bohnee said she’ll submit their petition in about two years. Even though the process is slow, she believes it will happen during her lifetime.

“I’m excited each morning when I wake up that I can help tribal communities, my community and Indian people who need an advocate,” Ferguson-Bohnee said. “I never thought I could have this sort of impact because I had always thought of myself as this little ol’ country gal.”

Top photo: Patty Ferguson-Bohnee (shown outside the Ross-Blakley Law Library on the Tempe campus March 2) has represented tribal clients in administrative, state, federal and tribal courts and is the director of ASU's Indian Legal Clinic. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

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ASU setting path 'Toward a More Perfect University'

Ivy League author praises innovations, widened access at ASU.
'Ivy League is not where it's at,' author says, praising ASU's initiatives.
March 11, 2016

Ivy League author praises innovations launched by ASU President Crow

An Ivy League academic made a startling prediction at a talk at Arizona State University on Friday: Knowledge is progressing so quickly that the concept of a standalone university could soon be obsolete.

Jonathan Cole (pictured above), former provost at Columbia University, made that forecast during a discussion of his new book, “Toward a More Perfect University,” with ASU President Michael Crow in the Memorial Union on the Tempe campus.

“Instead of creating more sports leagues, what we should do is produce academic leagues,” said Cole, who is the John Mitchell Mason Professor of the University at ColumbiaCole also is the former dean of faculties and vice president for arts and sciences at Columbia.. “Why not form a league that’s not based upon a school or a department, but based upon a problem?”

In Cole’s example, complex issues such as the study of inequality of wealth would be studied by a collaboration of the top minds around the world, enabled by technology.

“We’re so far from our maximum in terms of universities’ potential that we should rethink every aspect of them,” he said.

ASU President Michael Crow

ASU President Michael Crow (right) and Columbia professor and author Jonathan Cole discuss the future of higher education Friday in Tempe. Photos by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

CrowBefore coming to ASU in 2002, Crow was executive vice provost of Columbia, where he also was professor of science and technology policy in the School of International and Public Affairs. said that universities need to challenge the “hierarchy of knowledge,” which has become distorted.

“We’ve built this social hierarchy that physics is the elite science and everything else is trivial by comparison. Why do we have ‘physics is better than chemistry,’ ‘chemistry is better than biology’? ‘Economics is more important than political science, which is more important than sociology’?

“The understanding of each is equal.”

Cole said that Crow has been a driver of innovation at ASU to a degree almost unheard of in higher education.

“Most leaders of academic institutions are risk averse, not risk takers,” Cole said. “Michael Crow is a prudent risk taker.”

Toward a More Perfect University bookIn his book, Cole refers to ASU as “a cauldron of change,” citing Crow’s creation of transdisciplinary research initiatives such as the Biodesign Institute, as well as programs such as the Global Freshman Academy and the Starbucks Initiative.

“Every time I come to ASU, I see amazing things unfold in front of my eyes. It’s a level of excellence that you rarely see in an American university combined with access and really giving people opportunities,” Cole said.

Cole said that admission to Ivy League colleges has become so impossibly selective that the students are “boring.”

“They all have perfect scores. They’ve never deviated from the beaten path. They’ve never flunked chemistry,” he said.

“They have taken the quirkiness out of the student body.”

He praised ASU for taking students from a wide variety of backgrounds.

“ASU doesn’t pay homage to the kind of testing mythology that has been internalized in American society as legitimate.”

He said that although his entire education and career have been spent at Columbia, “The Ivy League is not where it’s at.

“Most education and most research is taking place at state universities, and we cannot let them fail.”

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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Making textbooks accessible to all

ASU student workers innovate ways to make textbooks accessible to everyone.
Making education accessible to all.
March 9, 2016

ASU staff and students innovate solutions for blind, visually impaired students at Alternative Format lab

A typical course at Arizona State University will require a student to read thousands and thousands of words — usually printed in ink on paper.

Those printed words are not available to blind or visually impaired students. So ASU has a way to transform textbooks and other class materials into an accessible format.

Sometimes the words become spoken, heard on an e-text reader.

Some letters are enlarged until they are as big as your hand.

Others become tactile, as raised dots or symbols on paper that can be touched.

A few of these methods are brilliant — such as when a student worker created a tactile version of the Arabic alphabet for a blind student who doesn’t use Braille.

Other approaches are more basic, like physically chopping up a textbook so its pages can be scanned.

All of it is done by the student workers in the Alternative Format ServicesThe lab, in Matthews Center, is part of ASU’s Disability Resource Center, which has a presence on all four campuses. lab, where they convert more than 700 books every semester, often under great time pressure.

About 180 students use the lab’s services, and not all of the students have visual impairments. Some have acquired brain injuries, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia or other physical or psychiatric disabilities that make reading words on paper a challenge.

Jessicah Newton, who is blind, is a specialist in the lab. When she was a student at ASU in the early 2000sNewton earned her degree in 2005., she had all her class materials converted to Braille. Now she collaborates with a staff of about 25 student workers to help the current generation of students.

“The work they do here really can mean the difference between a student passing and a student failing,” she said. “It is that important.”

Student Mattie Leavitt and specialist Jessicah Newton

Mattie Leavitt (center), a manufacturing engineering major and the e-text team leader in the Alternative Format Services lab, works with specialist Jessicah Newton, who supervises the student workers. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Chopping up books

It all starts in the bookstore.

Just like every other student, those who need their textbooks converted into accessible information have to buy the books, then turn them over the Alternative Format Services lab at the start of the semester, according to Chad Price, director of ASU’s Disability Resource Center.

Some textbooks take only a few days to be "translated," but others can take weeks. Some are completed all at once; others are produced in chunks. Either way, the lab's staff is constantly working under pressure to keep up.

Some publishers provide books in a digital format, usually a pdf, which still is inaccessible to a visually impaired person. Those files have to be converted. 

Books that aren’t available digitally are chopped. Literally. A device in Hayden Library called a “guillotine” slices the binding off before the pages are separated and scanned so the text can converted into an e-reader format or into Braille. The books are then reboundA rebound book with spiral bindingThe rebound books are returned to the student. .

And that’s just the words.

If there are photographs, figures or tables, those must also be converted. Some are made into tactile form; others are verbally described by the staffers.

“If you think of a flowchart, visually, it’s complicated. One student staffer came up with a way to demonstrate it linearly,” Price said. “They’re being innovativeRegular textbooks become enormous when printed out in Braille — usually several volumes. One student invented a tactile way for blind or visually impaired students to quickly sort the volumes. in their own way.”

Math and science texts are particularly challenging, and many of the student workers are engineering grad students, who not only grasp the complicated concepts but also can think of new ways to translate the information.

Newton said that a student recently graduated with a degree in molecular biology and had her textbooks converted to BrailleJessicah Newton reads an embossed pageBraille is a system of raised dots that allows blind people to read and write tactilely. Named for its inventor, Louis Jean-Philippe Braille, the Braille code is the universally accepted method of reading and writing for the blind..

“I thought I was going to lose my mind,” said Newton, who reviews all of the materials the staff converts.

“When Braille was created, even when math Braille was created in 1972, nobody anticipated the advances in sciences like DNA. We almost had to create her books from scratch.”

Newton helped to develop the process for doing tactile diagrams, which weren’t even provided when she was a student. One way to do it is to print complicated graphics onto heat-encapsulated paper, which is then run through a machine dubbed “the toaster,” which heats the paper and raises the ink so the image can be felt. Images also can be embossed.

Melody Taylor, a linguistics major, is now in her fourth semester of studying Arabic and uses textbooks converted through a novel approach by the lab. Taylor is blind and doesn’t use Braille, so the characters had to be accessible to her another way.

Micah Kyler, a student worker in the lab, began playing with the idea of making the characters themselves tactile. He recoded a keyboard to type the Arabic characters.

“The first semester we did a lot of trial and error, and if the letters were too thick, it was harder for me to get the whole character beneath my fingers,” said Taylor.

If the letters were too thin, they couldn’t be reproduced in the embosser.

"Finally we conquered it," said Taylor, who understands all the work that goes into converting a text. She works as a proofreaderThe conversion program will translate the text literally. For example, the e-reader will say “dollar sign forty” and Taylor must change it to say “forty dollars.” in the lab, spending many hours reviewing material that's formatted for an e-text reader.

A fresh start

Students must register with the Disability Resource Center to access Braille conversion, sign language interpreters, note takers, golf-cart transportation, testing accommodations or any of the other services provided.

Price said that about 2,500 students register every year — fewer than would be expected for a university with 85,000 students. The 2012 U.S. Census found that 19 percent of Americans have a disability.

Registered students can borrow equipment including e-text readers, text-enlargement devices, audio players and optical microscopes with enlargers. There’s also a proctored testing center for students who are permitted to have extended time or adaptive equipment during exams. It includes three “whisper rooms,” essentially soundproof booths for students who must eliminate all distractions. A federally funded program for some Disability Resource Center clients called TRIO offers tutoring and classes in study skills and time management. Center staff also work with faculty to accommodate students who need services.

Program coordinator Kandi Martinez

Program coordinator Kandi Martinez feeds a book into the "guillotine" machine in Hayden Library, which chops the binding off so the book can be scanned and converted in the Alternative Format Services lab. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

So with the latest technology and most innovative services provided, why do so few students register with the Disability Resource Center?

The answer is an age-old reason.

“They feel there’s a stigma associated with disability,” Price said. “They don’t want to self-identify.”

The transition from high school to college is a crucial time.

“They may have been pulled out of class or identified in high school as someone with a disability and now they want a fresh start,” Price said.

“It’s usually their sophomore or junior year that they come here and say ‘I’m struggling.’ "

Improving access to class materials is one way to keep students in college classes, which is a goal at ASU. According to the U.S. Census, 13 percent of adults with a disability have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 32 percent of non-disabled adults.

And Price said the resource center empowers students beyond academics.

“We talk to students about the importance of being able to self-advocate, self-identify and understand their abilities enough to articulate what their needs are.”

Melody Taylor, a linguistics major and proofreader in the lab

Melody Taylor, a linguistics major and a proofreader in the Alternative Formats lab, checks content that has been converted for use on an e-text reader. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

A new perspective

Newton is often the first blind adult the student workers have talked to.

“Most are shy when they start. They don’t want to offend,” Newton said. “We use a lot of humor. I tell them I’m afraid of the dark.”

Mattie Leavitt, a manufacturing engineering major, is the e-text team leader in the lab. She said she's glad the staff is able to tailor the conversions to each student's needs.

“I have a sister with special needs so it’s really dear to my heart to produce materials that somebody wouldn't be able to get otherwise,” Leavitt said.

Newton said the varying perspectives are key to the lab’s success.

“They’ll start asking questions and observe me trying to solve a problem with text and then someone will come up with an idea. It’s often something that won’t occur to me because I can’t see it,” she said.

She teaches them to process the way she would — by touching and listening.

“We all have a way of looking at things and all of us, me included, get to say, ‘I never thought of it from that point of view.’ ”

Top photo: Industrial engineering graduate student Sri Kiran Potluri takes pages to scan at the Alternative Format Services lab in Matthews Center. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now. Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now.

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News