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'Hybrid Law' shows what happens when the thin blue line goes green

Arkansas police trade in Crown Vics for Toyota hybrids in ASU documentary.
ASU short film examines an Arkansas police department that went green.
January 21, 2016

Film by ASU professor examines an Arkansas town's decision to buy hybrid police cars

When filmmakers dream of scoring prestigious screenings, the names that pop in their minds tend to be Cannes, Toronto or Sundance.

Not in Detroit. And not at a car show.

But an Arizona State University professor couldn’t be happier that his short film is being screened today at the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.                 

Peter Byck’s “Hybrid Law” is about a small-town police department in Arkansas, which awkwardly, but lovingly, embraced a new fleet of Toyota Camry hybrid patrol cars. It is being screened in Detroit by Toyota.

“We didn’t make this for Toyota,” Byck said. “We didn’t even know they were driving Toyotas.”

Byck, a professor of practice in both the School of Sustainability and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, is the director, writer and producer of “Carbon Nation,” an acclaimed 2010 documentary about climate-change solutions. “Hybrid Law” is part of a series of short films being created by Byck promoting a low-carbon economy. They are being produced in affiliation with ASU.

“Hybrid Law” paints a picture of a traditional small American town where the police love their traditions, but come to appreciate something very new.

Sergeant Don Cleek and Officer Kevin Yeagle of the Arkadelphia, Arkansas, Police Department, stand by their patrol cars — a Crown Victoria and a Camry hybrid — at the beginning of the film.

“He’s got the modern submachine gun, and the modern Toyota car,” Cleek said in his police uniform. “He carries a modern Glock. I drive a good old American V-8 with a rear wheel and a full frame like they were meant to be, (I carry) a wood and steel rifle, like they were meant to be, and a 1911 that was designed in 1911 by John Moses Browning. I’m old. He’s young.”

Yeagle, driving his hybrid, admits he enjoys it.

“I’ve gotten a few snickers, of course, when I tell friends at other departments what I’m driving,” he said. “I don’t want to make myself out to be a green energy person, either. About as far as I’ve gone with that is I hate littering.”

Asked by Byck if he’d go back to driving a Crown Vic, Yeagle simply said, “No.”

Byck was screening “Carbon Nation” in Fayetteville, Arkansas, when someone mentioned the small-town police department that embraced hybrid cars — and was doing a better job because of it.

“I thought, ‘Wow. What a story,’ ” Byck said.

After the police chief and city manager both agreed to the filming, Byck spent two days in the central Arkansas town, with a population of about 10,000.

“I knew when I was filming it, ‘This is really good. They have a good story,’ ” Byck said. “It’s a positive story, and it’s one of those stories we hunt for in our Carbon Nation work — show me good money-saving ways to be cleaner. Those are the stories we hunt for. We hunt for good characters.”

“The only noise you’re going to hear is the tires crunching on the gravel.”
— Arkadelphia Police Chief Al Harris

Initially the cars were not an easy sell to either the rank and file or management.

“When I first heard about the Camrys they were going to order, I was dead set against it,” Cleek said. “Police cars are supposed to be rear-wheel drive, and V-8s, and a lot of room, and be able to go through ditches and stuff.”

“I just dismissed it,” Police Chief Al Harris said. “All I thought was they’re small and don’t have any power.”

Then he and city manager Jimmy Bolt went for test drives.

“One, they’re not little, and two, the performance is a lot better than I’d given them credit for,” Harris said.

The effects of the switch were evident, too.

By replacing 10 Crown Victorias with 10 Toyota Camry hybrids, the department increased patrols, decreased maintenance and cut down so much on fuel that the entire city staff enjoyed a 3 percent wage increase. One officer said he has gone from filling up his gas tank twice per shift to once.

There was even a benefit no one saw coming, and that some still don’t.

“The only noise you’re going to hear is the tires crunching on the gravel,” Harris said. “We call it the stealth mode. You can literally be on top of something before the bad guys realize you’re there.”

The film shows that people are coming on board with green living outside of San Francisco or San Jose.

“This idea that early adoption is owned by the coasts is just wrong,” Byck said. “That’s why this story works so well — because it’s unexpected. I’m seeing innovation and early adoption everywhere. It’s just not known yet. … We’ve got to tell those stories more and more and more. It shouldn’t be thought of as a place of early adoption. It should be celebrated.”

And in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, it is.

“We all want to do right by our world we live in,” Bolt said. “Green is popular, but it also has to be practical.”

The image at the top of this page is a screen shot from Peter Byck's film "Hybrid Law."

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

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Hot under the collar? Blame it on El Niño

January 20, 2016

2015 was the warmest year on record, and ASU's weather expert says 2016 will be hotter — but there's a silver lining

Scientists reported Wednesday that 2015 was by far the warmest year on record, breaking a record that was set the year before, which has some wondering whether global warming is taking root.

ASU climatologist Randy CervenyCerveny is a President's Professor in ASU's School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, which is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences., however, identified another culprit.

Question: Were you surprised that 2015 is the hottest year on record?

Answer: No. The primary reason for that warming is what we call is El Niño, a major warming on the Pacific Ocean. This El Niño is unprecedented in the last 50 years. The fact we are seeing such a warming globally is primarily attributable to the massive warming we are having in the Pacific Ocean.

The fact that we have had very warm temperatures over the past 20 years, particularly — we have had global warming happening at an accelerated rate — will make this more noticeable. But the primary cause is the warming we have in the Pacific Ocean.

Q: What is El Niño?

A: El Niño is a periodic variation of sea surface temperatures. Normally the Eastern Pacific is cold and the Western Pacific is warm. About every five to seven years there is a surge back from the West to the East of warm water, and it comes along the coast of South America. When it happens we get this change in the storm track and the weather patterns, and it is something that pretty much affects the entire world.

Satellite imagery of heat patterns over the Pacific Ocean.

NASA ocean surface topography comparing the 1997-1998 vs. 2015-2016 El Niño events. Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech

Q: Will 2016 be hotter than 2015?

A: Yes, 2016 will be an incredibly hot year. The primary reason for that is because we still have El Niño going on. El Niño is a massive warming that began last June and will go on until April or early May of this year; consequently the temperatures we will have globally this year will be marked by that massive warming in the Pacific Ocean.

Q: What will we see as a result?

A: The primary thing that El Niño is associated with is precipitation in the South and Southwestern parts of the U.S. Our forecast for the next few months here in the Southwest is we are going to have many more rains and we will start to fill up some of the reservoirs that have been emptied over the last few years. This is the perfect kind of rains to break droughts.

The full interview with Randy Cerveny is available here.

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The psychology behind failed resolutions

Already given up on your New Year's resolution? Here's the psychology of why.
ASU psychology professor explains why most resolutions fail.
January 15, 2016

ASU professor says best way to keep resolutions is to make them 'SMART'

It's the middle of January. How are those New Year's resolutions going?

If you're like most people, they're swiftly receding from memory. According to Forbes, 63 percent of Americans make resolutions, but only 8 percent keep them.

So why do we bother, year after year, if the failure rate is so high?

Paul Karoly, a psychology professor at Arizona State University, might know why. Karoly studies goals and motivation and claims a resolution is just a cultural function.

“What is a New Year's resolution? It’s a meme,” Karoly said. “It’s a culturally given thing. ‘Why don’t I lose weight, or get healthier?’ It has very little meaning besides that."

Karoly said the reason why we make them is because it's in line with Skinner’s Verbal Operant: where people enjoy praise — especially drunk people — and resolutions are an insincere way to get praise.

“You get drunk, you're with drunk people. You say something positive like ‘I am going to lose weight!’ and then everybody congratulates you for thinking that,” Karoly said. “Then you sober up and say, 'Tomorrow I’ll do that,' and you never do it.”

Even if you weren’t knocking a couple back when you made the resolution, adding onto a goal’s nearly inevitable failure is the abstinence violation effect, referring to a person's sense of loss of control over his or her behavior that has an overwhelming and demoralizing effect. For example, if you made a resolution to stop eating chips and you have one chip, you proceed to have the full bag because you already failed by eating one.

When applying it to other common resolutions like “go to the gym four times this week” or “quit smoking,” it becomes evident how easy it can seem to fail.

However, Karoly does think there is one way to make those resolutions stick: by making them “SMARTSpecific: It's not enough to say “I want to get a degree.” It’s vague, and changeable. Instead say something specific like, “I want to get my bachelor's in mass communications at ASU.” /// Measurable: A measurable statement would be “I’ll get my bachelor's by spring 2018.” /// Achievable/action-oriented: What are the specific steps? Try something like, “I will take this certain set of classes to get my associate's by the end of summer, leading into my degree at ASU.” /// Relevant: Ask yourself how important this is to you and your life. /// Time-related: Know the timetable for your goal; every goal needs a beginning, a middle and an end. .” Karoly is referring to the acronym for: Specific, Measurable, Attainable (or Action-oriented), Relevant (or Realistic) and Time-bound. It was created as a planning model to help realize goals that can be used year-round.

However, he still finds the process of New Year’s resolutions a bit misleading — and a waste of time.

“New Year’s resolutions are an example of weak intentions. Let's do something else,” Karoly said. “Make them lasting. If we were to make them last, if we had to, let's make it realistic. Let's make it smart.”

Reporter , ASU Now

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Trash talking at the wrestling meet

Sun Devils wrestling meet to highlight ASU's Zero Waste initiative.
January 15, 2016

Athletics event will use power of the fans to drive Zero Waste initiative

Wrestling is a minimalist sport, with no elaborate uniforms or equipment.

And the fans at Friday night's Sun Devils wrestling meetThe Sun Devils will host Iowa State at 8 p.m. at Wells Fargo Arena. will be asked to keep that sentiment in mind by keeping their trash to a minimum.

Arizona State University’s Zero Waste Initiative is partnering with the Sun Devils Athletic Department on a marketing campaign aimed at fans. Signs will remind them to “think before you throw” and volunteers will staff the bins for people who really aren’t sure where to toss that plastic fork.

Lucas Mariacher, program manager for Zero Waste at ASU and an alumnus of the wrestling team, said the meet is a big event and the partnership will raise the profile of both organizations.

Zero Waste has been working for years behind the scenes to cut ASU’s landfill stream two ways, according to Alana Levine, assistant director for Zero Waste. Aversion means the institution tries to produce less waste by buying items that can be reused, recycled or composted. Diversion means actually recycling or composting everything that can be.

The process is a loop, Levine said.

“We look at the life cycle of materials. If we’re going to be recycling our paper, we have to make sure we are buying back recycled paper so we have closed that economic loop,” she said.

One major way that trash is reduced at athletic events is by working with the concessionaire, Sodexo.

“A few years ago we really analyzed the packaging around the hot dog you’re going to buy,” Levine said. “Can they serve chips in a tray that’s recyclable instead of a bag that’s not recyclable?”

She said the Athletics Department has been eager to participate. “We stand side by side with Athletics; we’re not pulling them along,” she said.

Sparky visited the ASU staff barbeque in December, where waste diversion was more than 99 percent.

The initiative has been very successful. Mariacher said that waste is separated and weighed after events. More than 99 percent of the waste produced at the ASU staff barbeque in December was diverted, he said. The record for Wells Fargo Arena was a men’s basketball game last year in which 90 percent of the trash was diverted.

But now the fans are being invited to do their part.

“One of the shifts in our thinking in how we’re approaching Zero Waste is we really want the individual to be activated,” Levine said.

Each ASU team will feature the Zero Waste marketing campaign at one of its signature events this semester. Friday is the wrestling team’s “MMA Night,” featuring wrestling alumni who now participate in the Ultimate Fighting Championship competition.

“Our number one goal is that the behavior transfers to other venues and even to the fans’ personal lives,” Mariacher said. “Maybe you shouldn’t throw away all those recyclable things.”

The other Zero Waste promotional events this spring will be: women’s basketball, 7 p.m. Jan. 22 vs. the University of Arizona; gymnastics, 7 p.m. Feb. 22 vs. the University of Arizona; wrestling PAC-12 championship, 6 p.m. Feb. 27; men’s basketball, 6:30 p.m. March 5 vs. California; baseball, 7 p.m. April 12 vs. the University of Arizona; and softball, 7 p.m. April 23 vs. Oregon.

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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Preaching the politics of food and nutrition

You really need to get involved in the political process of food.
USDA Under Secretary urges ASU students to consider the politics of food.
January 14, 2016

USDA Under Secretary Katie Wilson stops at ASU to talk about nutritional guidelines and food access

Few can fire up a crowd quite like Dr. Katie Wilson when it comes to talking people into eating their fruits and vegetables.

It may not sound like a sexy job, but it’s hers. And she does it well.

As the USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services under President Barack Obama, Wilson (pictured above, right) is responsible for improving the health and well-being of Americans by developing and promoting science-based dietary guidance and administering the USDA’s 15 nutrition assistance programs.

Prior to joining USDA, Wilson spent 23 years as a school nutrition director in several Wisconsin public school districts, served five years as the executive director for the National Food Service Management Institute, and was an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi.

On Thursday, Wilson visited with more than 50 students, faculty and researchers in ASU’s College of Health Solutions on the Downtown Phoenix campus to discuss how universities and educators helped shape the recently released USDA Dietary Guidelines — which are developed every five years.  

“School nutrition programs should be educational labs for children, and all of you need to be advocates for them,” Wilson said. “I encourage you all to get involved in the process because we need to hear your voice and we need your research and expertise.”

Wilson, who started her appointment on May 3, 2015, spoke to ASU Now about her surprise visit to ASU, how national nutritional policy is created and the role and function of the USDA.

Question: Your call to action for future teachers and researchers to get involved in the political process is interesting. Why is it so important for nutritional guidelines?

Answer: Writing regulation at the regulatory level means we’re only as good as what the scientists and researchers know and tell us. The field of nutrition in particular is evolving. We really don’t know a whole lot because it keeps changing, and that’s because the research keeps changing. We haven’t been dealing with nutrition as long as we have, specifically, with other kinds of issues. It’s also not a concrete issue. It’s very passionate, it’s very personal, it changes upon your demographic and age group, what your cultural preferences and experiences are. I think that if we can get people involved in the American process of writing these things, then we’re much further ahead.

Q: There are many issues behind food — social, economical, political — that go behind the making of policy. Is it the hardest aspect of your job, with so many voices and factors weighing in on the process?

A: That’s what makes it so difficult to deal with in this arena. It’s not cut and dry. It’s neither this nor that. Again, I think that’s why we have to go back to the American public and say, “That works. That doesn’t work.” What are we seeing? What are the trends? Then we have to listen to the scientists and how they have advanced nutrition to see how it reacts with the body and the whole medical aspect of it. We’ve made a lot of advances in the last 10 years, so we know a little more.

Q: There are differing opinions about funding free-meal programs. What are your thoughts on the issue?

A: I really and truly believe that anyone of us could fall on hardship tomorrow. We can’t get people back into the mainstream if they’re hungry. It just can’t be. We know that children don’t learn well if they’re hungry. The same with adults. You can’t function if you’re hungry and if you’re a single parent doing multiple jobs or managing children from multiple schools or having to figure out public transportation to get to your destination or job. If you’re hungry on top of all of that, there’s no way to figure it out. So how do we get people back on their feet and into the mainstream if they’re hungry? … We have the ability to feed everybody in this country and so we just have to figure out a way to make sure they get it.

Q: Most of your programs seem to be geared toward not only feeding children but also educating them about nutrition. We constantly hear about how America has become more obese as a nation, so when will we see that shift in behavior?

A: We have already started to see changes in schools regarding nutrition. Some of it is anecdotal; some of it is more research-based. There’s a brand-new article that just published in the American Medical Journal of Pediatrics. It shows that there’s a big difference in what they’re choosing and consuming. And they’re not being forced to. It’s a choice. We are seeing a shift. We’re seeing a difference because industry is saying, “Look, these healthy products are so popular that we’re going to put them in the commercial market.” We’re beginning to see a shift in the general population because they are asking for more information on food labels. They’re interested. The fact that we got tens of thousands of people giving their input and commenting on the USDA Dietary Guidelines for 2015 says people are paying attention. I believe people are beginning to relate good nutrition to a healthy lifestyle and longevity. We are beginning to see those changes in children, even though it takes time.

Q: It’s obvious you are passionate about what you do and teach.

A: I am. Every day I go home I know I’ve fought some battle somewhere that gave some kid access to food … and I’m OK with that.

Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Reporter , ASU News


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A new look at the 'affluenza' issue

"Affluenza" defense not complete nonsense, says ASU researcher.
Studies show drug/alcohol use higher among affluent teens than inner-city kids.
Anxiety/depression among affluent youth found to be 2-3 times national rates.
January 14, 2016

ASU researcher shares what her studies have revealed about America's affluent youth

Late Monday night it was announced that Tonya Couch, mother of the infamous “affluenza” teen Ethan CouchPictured above in a photo released by Mexican authorities with dyed-black hair after he has detained in Puerto Vallarta., had posted bail after her bond was lowered from $1 million to $75,000.

This, after the elder Couch was accused of aiding her son in fleeing to Mexico to avoid a probation hearing that might have led to jail time.

It all stemmed from a 2013 incident in which the younger Couch, 16 at the time, killed four people in a drunken driving accident. At the time of his trial, Couch’s lawyers cited a defense of “affluenza,” claiming the teen’s affluent lifestyle lead to an inability to understand the consequences of his actions.

Many in the media and general public balked at this claim, calling it “junk science” or an outright lie.

Recently, however, research from Arizona State University’s Suniya Luthar, a Foundation Professor in psychologyThe Department of Psychology is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. has been cited as appearing to support the idea that affluent youth do actually suffer from issues such as severe depression and anxiety that can lead to substance abuse and poor decision-making.

A recent blog post co-written by Luthar and Barry Schwartz for Reuters states that although Couch’s “affluenza” defense may just be “an absurd effort to minimize one teenager’s responsibility for a horrific tragedy,” it would be “foolish to allow [it] to obscure growing evidence that we have a significant and growing crisis on our hands."

“The children of the affluent are becoming increasingly troubled, reckless, and self-destructive," they wrote. "Perhaps we needn’t feel sorry for these ‘poor little rich kids.’ But if we don’t do something about their problems, they will become everyone’s problems.”

ASU Now sat down with Luthar to get to the root of this growing problem and talk about ways to deal with and — potentially — prevent it.

Question: Your research has received a great deal of national attention in the past few months, cited extensively in The Atlantic and more recently by NPR, CNN and The Washington Post. Why so much interest now?

Answer: These reports stem from two sets of events recently, one involving the tragic cluster of suicides in Palo Alto, California, and the other being the Ethan Couch “affluenza” case. Essentially, these events capture the types of problems that we’ve repeatedly documented in our research on kids in white-collar, professional families: high rates of depression, anxiety and self-harm on the one hand, and substance abuse and rule-breaking behaviors on the other.

Q: Why are we suddenly seeing so many troubled affluent children? Have they always had these issues, or is this a new phenomenon?

A: Well, we really don’t know what “used to be.” Until the turn of the century, there really wasn’t any research on this subgroup of children in particular.

That said, it is clear that the pressures on these kids have increased tremendously over the last several decades. Competition among affluent youth has become that much stiffer, so that instead of having 200 kids vying for a particular spot in a university, it’s more like 2,000. Between that and globalization, there is so very much more competition, not just for university admissions, but for jobs in prestigious white-collar settings. These factors, I believe, lead to an enormous sense of pressure and, in turn, to high levels of distress among upper-middle class children.

Q: Your research article “I can, therefore I must: Fragility among the middle classes” is among the most-read articles from ASU according to ResearchGate. Does this mean that many more scientists are now studying this population?

A: No, not necessarily. The interest is partly because of the recent media stories, and I think scientists now acknowledge that these problems are in fact real. We have replicated our findings several times across the country.

Despite this acknowledgement, we can’t assume that many more researchers are working with this population simply because these kids are very difficult to access. Most upper-middle class schools are extremely protective about the privacy of their students and families, so that asking to conduct research with them is unlikely to go anywhere. In our case, after our first couple of studies (that happened pretty much by chance), schools started to reach out and ask for assessments, usually after troubling incidents involving serious self-harm or substance use.

Q: What are the solutions to these problems? Are they at all preventable?

A: Yes, I do believe that they are preventable in many cases, but our interventions will have to be at many different levels, as Barry (Schwartz) and I wrote in our recent blog post. Starting with the parents, obviously; it’s critical to keep the channels of communication open with your kids. Teenagers can be notoriously difficult sometimes to get through to, but do keep trying, do make sure your children really do feel loved and cared for, and that you value them for the human beings they are, and not for the splendor of their accomplishments. Also, you have to set your limits and be firm in sticking to them.  Kids catch on very fast about whether or not testing the limits will lead to any real consequences from you.

Equally important, parents must understand that they are not machines who can just keep giving and performing; that they too need replenishment if they are to sustain “good enough parenting” in these extremely fast-paced, stressful communities. This is why my recent work is focused on mothers, who are usually the primary caregivers, in efforts to ensure that they too receive ongoing support and tending in their everyday lives.

At schools, teachers need to remember that they are only one of many teachers parceling out tons of homework (often in challenging AP classes). And schools in upper-middle class communities tend to push kids toward a very selective group of colleges — back off that approach. Focus more on conveying to kids that there are many ways in which they can get a splendid college education, show them real-life examples of the many very “successful” people who went to schools nowhere near the Ivy’s.

And there urgently need to be changes in higher education. In our blog article, we reiterated Barry’s terrific suggestion to introduce a lottery system for admissions in highly competitive schools. So essentially, if you have a good enough portfolio to make the top applicant pool, your name gets thrown into the pool but from there on, selection occurs by lottery. This can do much to reduce the enormous pressure kids feel that if they did just one more challenging course or activity, that would make or break their admission.

For more information visit

Emma Greguska

Editor , ASU News

(480) 965-9657

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Narrowing gap between man and machine

Future robots could help you assemble that IKEA chair.
January 12, 2016

ASU engineer exploring new frontiers in human-robot collaborations

Imagine an assembly robot that collaborates with a human to assemble a piece of IKEA furniture. The robot would need to analyze the movements of the human to avoid potentially hazardous collisions.

portrait of Heni Ben AmorHeni Ben Amor (pictured left) is trying to make that situation become closer to reality by helping robots better understand and respond to human behavior. For instance, the assembly robot may learn that it must hand over a screwdriver whenever a human is stretching out an arm.

Ben Amor, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering in Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, is working to make advances in human-robot collaboration and on identifying the importance of such collaborations.

“I develop new methods that allow a robot to work in close proximity with human partners,” he said. “To ensure safe interaction, autonomous robots need to include movements and actions of human partners into their decision-making process.”

There is a widespread misconception that robots will replace humans in all workplaces, Ben Amor said. While it is true that robots can perform mundane, repetitive tasks better than humans, there are still many tasks at which humans are way better than robots.

“For humans, opening a fridge is not a particularly difficult thing to do. For robots, however, this can be a daunting challenge.”
— Heni Ben Amor, ASU assistant professor of computer science and engineering

He believes in a combination of robotic strength and speed on one side, and human decision-making, creativity and dexterity on the other side of a symbiotic relationship between robot and human.

“A fascinating aspect of working with robots is discovering how challenging even presumably simple tasks can be for a machine,” he said. “For humans, opening a fridge is not a particularly difficult thing to do. For robots, however, this can be a daunting challenge.”

Even after having a human program all the steps involved, “it may actually take the robot more than five minutes to accomplish the task. It is therefore very inspiring to see how nature managed to find very elegant and versatile solutions to similarly difficult problems,” Ben Amor said.

“I am particularly intrigued by learning capabilities of biological systems,” he said. “Humans and animals often learn to adapt and change their behavior whenever faced with a new challenge.”

Human-robot collaboration has become an important aspect of many applications of robotic technologies, such as in the automotive industry.

There is a strong interest in bringing human and robot capabilities together. For many tasks, human skills remain important, but  other tasks could best be accomplished by the strength and agility of robots. Deploying robots to help humans in physically demanding tasks could, for instance, lead to a significant reduction in work-related injuries.

Ben Amor is intrigued by machine learning involving robots. He wants to find out if robots can learn how to solve tasks on its own, by employing a human-like trial-and-error strategy to acquire new motor skills or imitating observed human behaviors and learning to program themselves based on what they observe.

“One idea that I am particularly fascinated by is a robot that reads a manual to learn to program itself,” he said.

He expands on the idea of robot assembling IKEA furniture. All of the pieces of furniture come with a manual that is originally intended for humans. He hopes that in the future a robot could scan the manuals and extract the knowledge it needs to program itself to do the assembly.

“I think for the acceptance of robots in many application domains it is important to reduce the programming effort that is currently involved," he said. “Robot learning can help eliminate this effort and thereby enable even laymen to train or program a new robot.”

One area Ben Amor is looking to investigate further is bi-manual grasping and manipulation by robots. Typically, robotic technologies employed in manufacturing operations use only one arm to perform various tasks. He wants to develop methods that give robots increased dexterity so they can match the ability of humans in using two hands and arms.

Written by Erik Wirtanen, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

Top photo: Methods developed in Heni Ben Amor’s lab enable robot assistants to anticipate the actions of human co-workers and help whenever needed. Photo courtesy of ASU’s Interactive Robotics Lab.

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Putting a face on the nameless

Giving a face to a cold-case victim is a long but rewarding process.
Hands-on lab experience at ASU is essential for forensics students.
January 11, 2016

New ASU professor, his wife and a forensics student work to help identify one of the nation's missing and unidentified persons

Every couple has a “how we met” story. Sometimes it takes place at a party, sometimes it’s online, sometimes it’s at school.

Anthony and Catyana Falsetti met at a morgue in Broward County, Florida.

“She was working for the county sheriff’s office, I was a forensic anthropologist at the University of Florida, and I had been sent to the morgue to identify skeletons,” Anthony explained.

Today, things aren’t much different. Catyana is still working for the county, only now it’s the county of Maricopa, and Anthony is still working as a forensic anthropologistAnthony Falsetti serves as a Professor of Practice in ASU’s School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences, an academic unit of the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences on the West campus. for a university, only now it’s Arizona State University.

He and CatyanaCatyana Falsetti works as a forensic artist for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. She is also a graduate student at Arizona State University and will be teaching the course “Documenting the Crime Scene” through ASU’s Criminology and Criminal Justice Program at the Downtown Phoenix campus for the fall 2016 semester. — a non-degree graduate student at ASU — are recent Valley transplants, having come to Arizona via the aforementioned “Sunshine State.” The fall 2015 semester was their first at ASU, but they’re already finding plenty to keep them busy.

Beginning with a request to help in the identification of the murder victim of a 1984 cold case from Wisconsin.

Two forensics experts look at a reconstructed skull.

Anthony and Catyana Falsetti — he an 

ASU professor, she a forensic artist who

will teach an ASU course this fall —
worked together on a skull (also shown
in the top photo) from a cold case.

Photos by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

The sheriff’s department in Wisconsin looked to Anthony because of his work in assisting with the creation of, a first-of-its-kind website launched in 2010 at the behest of the National Institute for Justice to more efficiently identify missing or unidentified persons.

Of which “there are about 50,000 that we know of in the U.S.,” Anthony said. uses a dual-sided system that allows for medical examiners, coroners and law enforcement officials to input information regarding missing or unidentified persons on one end, and the general public to input information regarding an individual on the other. Whatever information one side lacks, the other may be able to provide, increasing the chances of resolving cases.

Besides basic stats like age, sex and ethnicity, photos of an individual can also be uploaded to the site. However, in some cases — as with the 1984 Wisconsin homicide victim — because a person’s identity is unknown, so is what he or she looked like.

Thankfully, talented forensic artists like Catyana are able to create 3-D facial reconstructions using the victim’s skull as a basis for adding layers of muscle and skin. With nearly 80 facial reconstructions under her belt and a 10 percent identification success rate (the national average is about 1 percent), enlisting Catyana’s help was essential.

Before she could get started, it was Anthony’s job to prepare the skull, which was badly damaged due to the manner of death. With the help of ASU forensics junior Kori Dowell, Anthony began the first step: maceration, or removal of the remaining soft tissue, at their West campus lab.

Most skulls of individuals who have been deceased for 30-plus years do not have any remaining tissue because of the natural process of decay. However, in this case, the victim had been embalmed before burial, which preserved some of the soft tissue, though not enough to get an accurate idea of what she looked like. Thus, it had to be removed in order for Catyana to be able to build an accurate likeness, as extra tissue on the skull would provide inaccurate measurements of the bones.

The process of maceration consists of submersing the cranium in warm water for a number of days, then removing the tissue from the skull using the appropriate tools.

While the idea may cause some to squirm, Dowell was grateful for the opportunity to get real-life experience.

“I think it is extremely important for students to get hands-on experience so they can learn more about the field and the career in an up-close-and-personal setting,” she said. “Especially in science careers, there are a lot of things that can only be taught and practiced in labs and with experience.”

Removing the tissue also allowed for Anthony and Dowell to make observations about the underlying damage to the skull and evaluate the trauma, which becomes very important in the event a suspect is identified and the case goes to court.

“So [the trauma] noted in 1984, we can corroborate it with what we know now and just give a more clear picture of the level of injury,” Anthony explained, which could determine anything from the level and type of crime an individual is charged with to the length of his or her sentencing.

Anthony and Dowell’s observations of the skull upon removal of the soft tissue noted extensive trauma. So much so that large portions of it had to be superglued together in order for the reconstruction process to begin.

The first step in the reconstruction process was to photograph the skull and upload it to Photoshop. Then, Catyana used tissue depth-marker measurements to layer muscle and skin over the skull.

Tissue depth markers — which refer to the thickness of one’s skin at various points on the human face — vary depending on a person’s ancestry. So depending on the shape of the skull, which Anthony had evaluated and determined to be of European descent, Catyana layered more or less tissue.

The resulting image was the face of a woman in her mid-50s, a strong, thick nose dominating her square-ish face, offset by two downward-tilting eyes, deep smile lines and thin lips.

A woman's face is shown in a facial reconstruction from a skull.

The completed facial reconstruction of the victim, done by forensic artist Catyana Falsetti. The hairstyle was based on hair found at the scene, and the shirt used in the image was found at the scene as well, Falsetti said.

All that was left to do was to upload it to the unidentified victim’s NamUs profile in hopes that someone would recognize her.

“That’s why the NamUs system is so important, because people can sit on their computer online now and at least search what has been uploaded,” said Catyana.

“That’s what we’re hoping to do here at ASU,” Anthony said, “is to start [creating facial reconstructions] within our own state, then work regionally. We’ve reached out and we’ve got some cooperation from medical examiners. And we’re going to start digitizing actual skulls so that we can then produce 3-D reconstructions based on the new data.”

Using a 3-D laser scanner would not only make the facial reconstruction process more accurate, but would allow for the extraction of even more data “so that we can continue to learn more about the human face and variation,” Anthony said, “which is what all this gets back to, as an anthropologist, is studying human variability. And this is just the application of it.”

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The power of words: Climate change and the media

Journalists bring fresh outlook to complex issue of climate change at ASU panel.
Honest, readable translation of dense science is key to covering climate change.
“Biggest beat of our century”: ASU panel to explore media's climate coverage.
January 11, 2016

Panel featuring NY Times and NPR writers, ASU scientist to discuss how the stories we tell affect how we respond to climate change

When thousands of negotiators and scientists descended on Paris in December to reach an historic agreement on lowering the planet’s rising temperatures, they were followed by thousands of press.

The world was treated to images of exhausted people exiting conference rooms, men in ties shaking hands, Amazonian Indians in full jungle regalia and a whale on the banks of the Seine.

The copy that poured out of the event wasn’t any less of a dog’s breakfast. Many pieces were notable for using three paragraphs to explain one word of jargon. (The Wall Street Journal used 455 words to explain what an “indaba,” a small informal negotiation, is.) Professor X was quoted in the Herald as saying the agreement would accomplish nothing, according to his data. Over in the Bugle, Professor Y said it was a landmark and Professor X was a fool.

A panel of science writers and a scientist will discuss the past, present and future of climate-change coverage by the media from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 12, at Arizona State University’s Memorial Union in Tempe.

Andy Revkin, science writer for the New York Times for more than three decades, and Richard Harris, a visiting scholar at ASU who covered climate change for National Public Radio since the 1980s, will join Manjana Milkoreit, senior sustainability fellow at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability in the discussion. Milkoreit’s research explores the role of cognition in climate-change politics and governance.

Daniel Sarewitz, professor of science and society in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, came up with the idea for the discussion.

“Climate change has become such a supercharged issue in so many ways that I thought it would be valuable to have to journalists who have been covering it in all its complexity pretty much since the beginning, to bring a fresh perspective on what’s happened and why things have unfolded as they have,” said Sarewitz, who will moderate the conversation.

“Then I was thinking that while journalists cover things in the present, a lot of the talk about climate change has to do with the future, and that’s what made me think that it would be cool to have Manjana join the conversation as well.”

Toeing the line between accurately communicating the science without sending readers screaming out of the room requires patience on all sides, Harris said. Explaining climate-change jargon like “differentiation” is going to mean repeating and re-explaining that word in every single story.

“Journalists, like anyone else, think if I’ve said this a hundred times, people get it,” Harris said. “That’s not necessarily true. … One thing you can do is introduce the jargon and talk about what it means.”

“There is the Chicken Little stuff, but for every Chicken Little story, there’s a story of human courage, and bravery, and innovation. These stories say a lot about the human spirit.”
— Terry Greene Sterling, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Avoiding theological debates is another choice journalists can make.

“The one thing you can do is step back and say, 'I’m not going to get in to the weeds and talk about all these niggling details,’ ” Harris said. “ 'I’m going to get into the big picture and talk about the dynamics between the countries that are wealthy and the countries that aren’t.’ ”

Terry Greene Sterling is writer-in-residence and faculty associate at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a highly decorated and respected journalist. She said journalists and scientists have to meet each other halfway.

“It’s important for the writer to learn and explain the jargon,” she said. “You sit down with the scientists and work out a translation that’s honest and that people can understand. It’s an important subject; you can’t just throw the jargon in there.”

Nuance is significant in what is a relatively new topic, Sterling said.

“Climate change is the biggest story topic of the century, and probably for many, many centuries to come,” she said. “Writing about climate change is very nuanced. For instance, we know it’s real; that’s given. But the day-to-day weather patterns — they may or may not be related to climate change. How do you have a conversation about that?”

Academic debate between differing factions, as traditionally reported by the press with an eye to balance, gave the impression to the public that the science was unsettled, Revkin wrote in a column in the Times.

“The norm of journalistic balance actually introduced a bias into coverage of climate change,” he wrote. “Researchers from the University of California at Santa Cruz and American University tracked (20 years of) stories that portrayed science as being deadlocked over human-caused warming, being skeptical of it, or agreeing it was occurring. While the shift toward consensus was clearly seen in periodic assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the coverage lagged significantly and tended to portray the science as not settled.”

Talking to a variety of scientists to operate as guides more than sources, and focusing on peer-reviewed journals rather than press releases are two methods Revkin recommended in his column to get out from under what he calls “the tyranny of balance.”

Focusing on why scientists have the opinion they do can help reporters wade through the morass, Harris said.

“The best thing you can dp is tout the variety of opinions out there, but explain why people get to those opinions,” he said. “The real question is, ‘Is this is a small step in the right direction?’ ”

Climate change has been poorly covered, but that’s changing, Sterling said.

“Now that we understand that climate change is real, I think we are getting better at it,” she said. “There’s a lot of room for improvement.”

Over the past two decades, the press has grown up with the science surrounding the subject, Revkin said.

“Climate-change coverage is kind of like climate change itself, subject to a host of variables like competing issues, the rise of social media — along with lots of geographic variability,” he said. “I think the overall shift is real and has essentially reflected the evolution of the science, particularly as summarized periodically over the decades by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”

Sterling pointed to the topic as a field rich enough to be a beat in its own right — and not every story has to be about the imminent demise of life as we know it.

“Getting down to the nuances and telling stories about people who are helping us adapt to climate change, there’s a lot of hope in that,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of very interesting and hopeful stories tied to climate change. There is the Chicken Little stuff, but for every Chicken Little story, there’s a story of human courage, and bravery, and innovation. These stories say a lot about the human spirit.

“As a journalist and a teacher, I can’t emphasize the importance of having conversations like the one we’re having on the 12th, with the experts who will help us understand the nuances and the challenge of reporting climate-change stories,” Sterling said. “This is the biggest beat of our century.”

Covering Climate Change: Past, Present and Future

What: A conversation with Andy Revkin, science writer for the New York Times; Richard Harris of National Public Radio; and Manjana Milkoreit, senior sustainability fellow at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU.

When: 1-2:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 12.

Where: Ventana Room 241 C at the Memorial Union on ASU’s Tempe campus.

Details: Light refreshments provided. RSVP online or at the door:

Top photo: Cameras operated by Arizona State University captured this image on Oct. 12. The cameras are mounted on a spacecraft orbiting the moon. Photo by NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

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CompuGirls founder on new Center for Gender Equity in STEM

January 8, 2016

ASU associate professor Kimberly Scott discusses her new White House-backed initiative

On Monday, Jan. 11, ASU will launch the Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology, led by Dr. Kimberly Scott of the School of Social Transformation. The new center seeks to engage communities of scholars, organizations and policy makers to breakdown the systemic barriers that prevent girls and women of color from pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) options. Scott's work to enhance the opportunities for women and girls of color has earned her acclaim from the White House. She spoke to ASU Now about the launch of the new center.

Question: Tell us about this the Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology.

Answer: It's a one-of-a-kind center in the nation that is exclusively focused on documenting, building capacity, building programs and advocacy specific to African American, Latina, Asian American and Native American women in their pursuits in science, technology, engineering and math.

There are three departments of the center. There is the knowledge-building arm that is dedicated to synthesizing as well as presenting research that is attainable and accessible to a large audience, so that we can really make sustained and scalable efforts through informed, empirical data. There is the capacity-building arm, which presents programs such as my nationally recognized Compugirls programs, which provides a series of multimedia courses to adolescent girls from digital storytelling to culturally responsive co-robotics. Then there is also the advocacy arm. It's within the advocacy arm that we attempt to culminate the work from the research arm and the capacity-building arm and to translate that information to decision makers such as policy makers, legislators and community grasstop and grassroot leaders.

Q: What need are you fulfilling with this center?

A: Well, there are several needs. First of all, the information that’s specific to the communities that I articulated, specifically African American, Latina, Asian American and Native American girls and women and their experiences in STEM. There hasn’t been a coordinated effort that synthesizes what’s happening to us in these disciplines. There hasn’t been a coordinated effort to try to do something that’s based on research. And so, on the practical level, one of the things the center is most interested in, is how can we take the information, the research, the theories, and translate that into practice and then also measure the impact of those practices in a way that we can make long-term changes.

Q: You speak very passionately about this. Does it resonate for you personally in some way?

A: It does, it does. Having taught in urban districts categorized as high needs and also having had the opportunity to work with education leaders as well as leaders in general. There is this commitment to trying to close the disparity among groups in particular. I’ve seen this in practice, I’ve seen this in the scholarly community, I’ve seen this in writing. So for me, not only as an African American woman but as a social justice activist, this is something that we all must take seriously if we are really interested in addressing inequity.

Q: Tell me a little bit about the National STEM Collaborative, and how this new center will work with it and fit into it.

A: The National STEM Collaborative is one of our signature programs within the advocacy arm of the center. It emerged from a meeting that I co-hosted with the White House Council on Women and Girls in July 2015. It was at that meeting that we had the opportunity of interacting with about 50 university college presidents and they ranged from HBCU, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, to tribal colleges, to Hispanic-serving institutions and to land grant. We had the opportunity to ask these leaders what are some of the issues specific to women of color in STEM, how should we address those issues and what are some of the success stories.

At the conclusion of that meeting, having analyzed the information that we heard, I made the announcement based on what I had assessed in that we need a collaborative. We need to further those conversations so that it wasn’t simply a chat and chew, but it led to something that can be actionable and can be impactful. So it was at that White House meeting that I announced the collaborative and since then we’ve had several other meetings as well as the development of programs specific to furthering the initiatives for the collaborative.

Watch the full interview here: