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ASU engineers are taking concrete pavements to the next level.
December 23, 2015

ASU engineers are ratcheting up research for more resilient concrete pavements

Aging roadways pose a growing threat to transportation infrastructure that’s critical to the health of economies throughout the world.

Beyond the daunting task of funding extensive restoration efforts, there’s an equally pressing challenge to find ways to rebuild major roads that are more sustainable.

The need is one of the main motivating factors behind a new international initiative called Infravation, a combination of infrastructure and innovation.

The European Commission — an offshoot of the European Union — initiated the effort, inviting engineers and scientists in Europe and the United States to propose research projects to develop technological solutions.

The commission considered around 100 proposals. Fewer than 10 have been selected, including two projects to be led by researchers in the United States, one of them by Arizona State University engineer Narayanan Neithalath.

High-performance concrete materials in demand

Neithalath has been experimenting with what are called phase-change materials to produce more resilient concrete surfaces for roads and bridges.

Working with colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), he is finishing up a National Science Foundation-funded project that is exploring the use of a phase-change material solution for reducing or preventing temperature-related cracks in concrete pavement.

Through the new Infravation project, he and his UCLA partners will expand their work in collaboration with researchers at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, the Swiss Federal Institute for Materials Science (commonly known as EMPA) and the Tecnalia Research and Innovation organization in Spain.

Since cement concrete is a major component of transportation infrastructure, countries throughout the world are extremely interested in long-lasting and high-performing concrete materials, Neithalath said.

His Infravation group has been awarded $1.6 million to find out whether concrete solutions containing a phase-change material can significantly enhance the durability of concrete pavements and bridge decks. 

Guys looking cool in a lab.
ASU engineer Narayanan Neithalath (right) will lead an international project to develop ways of making concrete pavements more durable. Civil engineering doctoral student Akash Dakhane will assist him. Photo by Nora Skrodenis/ASU


Helping pavements cope with stress

Phase-change materials are substances that respond to temperature variations by changing their state from solid to liquid or vice versa, and can be sourced from petroleum (such as paraffin wax) or be plant-based.

“We know how the materials perform under laboratory conditions. Now we have to see if it holds up when applied at larger scales and real-life loading and environmental conditions,” said Neithalath, an associate professor of civil, environmental and sustainable engineering in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Like other phase-change materials, the substance his team is working with is especially effective at absorbing and releasing thermal energy. It means that over a wide range of temperature variations, it can store significantly more heat per unit of volume than water, rock or masonry.

That ability makes this phase-change material a good choice for mixing with concrete to boost its resistance to crack-inducing stresses. For instance, in hot weather the material can absorb much of the heat, thus protecting the concrete from a level of heat that can trigger fracturing.

“The important thing is to have a material that helps concrete pavements cope with different kinds of stresses put on it,” Neithalath said. “You need materials that can melt or solidify in response to varying environmental conditions without weakening the structural integrity of the pavement.”

Goal is to optimize durability

Beyond how well the phase-change material performs in that particular fashion, his team needs to answer other big questions.

What changes in the road design and construction techniques are necessary to optimize the use of the crack-reducing phase-change materials?

What are the most effective ways to embed phase-change material into vast amounts of concrete?

Can the new system provide enough durability to justify additional costs?

How can this phase-change material be safely disposed of when the new road pavements are eventually replaced?

In addition, it will likely be necessary to devise strategies for use of the material on bridge decks that are different than how the material would be used in pavements for roadways built on solid ground.

Finding answers “will require us to more fully understand the properties of the material and how it will behave in a range of situations,” said Neithalath, who is also on the faculty of the graduate studies program in materials science and engineering.

“I think we can take concrete pavements to the next level.”
— ASU engineer Narayanan Neithalath

Components for progress in place

Fellow ASU civil engineers on the project team, Subramaniam Rajan and Mikhail Chester, will apply their specific expertise to aid Neithalath in pursuit of answers and solutions.

Professor Rajan will provide computer modeling to validate results of extensive experiments with the material.

Assistant professor Chester will perform cost-benefit analysis as well as life-cycle analysis of the new pavement material — a major step in predicting how it will measure up to sustainability expectations.

The project will also provide opportunities for a number of ASU post-doctoral lab assistants and engineering graduate students to get valuable research experience.

“We will have good research teams at each of the institutions in different countries that are partners in this project. We have experts for every component of what we need to accomplish our goal,” Neithalath said. “I think we can take concrete pavements to the next level.”

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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Building a community of young learners

ASU LEGO competition builds a community of young learners.
December 29, 2015

Fulton Schools' LEGO competition sees rapid growth

Numbers attest to the impressive growth of the Arizona FIRST LEGO League (AZ FLL) robotics and research competition.

In 2015 the program designed to ignite youngsters’ interest in science, technology, engineering and math — the STEM fields — drew about 3,000 9- to 14-year-old students to join 358 teams throughout the state.

Each of those figures are record highs, adding up to almost four times the numbers of students and teams involved in AZ FLL since Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering took over management operations in 2008.

But what tells the bigger story about the program’s success is the spirited ambience that pervaded the recent annual mid-December AZ FLL state championship tournament at ASU’s Tempe campus.

See the list of award winners at the 2015 Arizona FIRST LEGO League state championship tournament.

Jubilant scene during competition

Nearly 600 students on the 62 teams that earned their way to the championship — along with team coaches, mentors, teachers, parents and competition judges — created a festive atmosphere of joyful intensity at the event.

They were joined by many of the more than 100 ASU staff members, faculty and students who volunteered to facilitate activities on the day of the tournament or had helped make preparations for the event. ASU students built each of the 23 LEGO field kits used to stage the robotics competition.

What the scene made evident is that AZ FLL is not just expanding an educational outreach enterprise but is nurturing a growing community dedicated to fostering the excitement of learning, discovery and creativity.

Empowering experience for students

“This is about building a culture of STEM education, and I am seeing it transform these kids,” said David Thompson, a professor who helps lead the Center for Science Teaching and Learning at Northern Arizona University.

For about a decade Thompson has coached AZ FLL teams in northern Arizona, helped organize regional qualifying tournaments and served as one of the masters of ceremonies at the championship tournament.

“The robots are what catch the kids’ attention at first,” he said. “But once they get into the hands-on interaction with technology and they learn to do research and problem solving, it can empower them with a kind of confidence they’ve likely never had before.”

Taking on the Trash Trek challenge

AZ FLL requires teams to work throughout much of the year to design, build and program small robots made from LEGO MINDSTORMS robotics kits. Those skills are put to the test at tournaments, earning teams’ points for how effectively their robots perform a variety of technical maneuvers.

Teams also make presentations to competition judges on research projects based on a different theme each year. It requires youngsters to identify a real problem in their communities and apply basic science and engineering principles to develop potential solutions.

The 2015 theme was “Trash Trek,” which assigned students to come up with ways for society to cope with the pressing challenges presented by the growing amounts of trash and related pollution being produced around the world — with a focus on recycling and reuse of waste materials.

The championship tournament Platinum sponsor — most appropriately, given the research challenge theme — was Republic Services, the waste collection, recycling and disposal service company.

Sponsors for the qualifying regional tournaments included Salt River Project for Winslow, Raytheon for Tucson, and Intel for Chandler, along with Cisco Systems and Arizona Western College for the Yuma area.

student competing in the Arizona FIRST LEGO League
Student teams learn some of the basics of engineering, science and math by designing, building and programming small robots made from LEGO MINDSTORMS kits to compete in Arizona FIRST LEGO League tournaments. Photos by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU


Focusing on core values

The program is operated through FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an international organization founded by Dean Kamen, the renowned inventor. FIRST develops and supports programs throughout the United States aimed at motivating students to pursue opportunities in STEM education and careers.

FIRST puts special emphasis on its “core values.” Teams are judged on how their efforts exemplify teamwork, respect for fellow competitors, friendship and appreciation for learning, and on sharing their discoveries with other students and their communities.

Promoting those values has been a strong point of AZ FLL under the leadership of the Fulton Schools of Engineering, said Kathy Vachon, a partner services manager for FIRST. She attended the recent state tournament to observe the event, as well as meet with AZ FLL leaders.

“It’s good to see the kids adopt the attitude that the competitions are more important to them for what they discover than for what they win,” Vachon said. “You see a real sense of camaraderie not only within teams but among the teams and the coaches.”

Teaching real-world lessons

The Fulton Schools “are doing a wonderful job developing a contingent of well-trained coaches and mentors and volunteers,” she added. “And by bringing a quality program to more communities each year, they are enriching their investment in the future of Arizona through providing these STEM education opportunities.”

Others echo that assessment.

“It’s the best outreach program I’ve seen to teach STEM subjects to kids,” said Laura Wittman, a former hydrogeologist. She and her husband, Craig Wittman, have been involved with FLL in Arizona and elsewhere for 16 years. She’s now an adviser to tournament judges.

They said the FLL competition mirrors the real world of technology development and business.

“You need to have teams with people who can do more than just make the technology,” said Craig, an engineer with Raytheon Company, an aerospace and defense technology company. “You need to have people who can explain how and why your product works. Your customers look at your team’s teamwork, and they take into consideration how they will interact with your team. It is not just the technical side of things used in their decision making.”

Picking up problem-solving skills

Erik Von Burg, a teacher of gifted students at Johnson Elementary School in Mesa, has coached more than a dozen FLL teams in the past eight years. He said the program is particularly valuable for teaching youngsters how to be professional.

“They face time constraints. The work can be a grind at times. They get stretched out in a lot of different directions,” he said. “So they have to learn to perform under pressure and put their best foot forward even when they are not as prepared as they want to be.”

Charlotte Ackerman is the teacher leader for scientific and engineering practices for the Catalina Foothills School District in Tucson. She has coached more than 60 student robotics teams in the past 13 years, including the Local Legends team that won the 2014 AZ FLL championship.

“Coaching FLL teams is demanding, but I’ve seen robotics inspire students to work like they’ve never worked before,” Ackerman said. “It’s work that stretches those valuable problem-solving skills.”

Competition encourages creativity

Katelyn Keberle was among the volunteers who helped manage activities at the state tournament. She was the Fulton Schools of Engineering outstanding graduate in the spring of 2014, when she received her bachelor's degree in materials science and engineering.

“I really like volunteering, especially when it supports STEM education,” said Keberle, who is now a process engineer for W. L. Gore & Associates in Phoenix. “I participated in many science competitions in middle school and high school. It was a big reason that I went into engineering. I loved the teamwork and the creativity and the challenge. So it was exciting to support the FLL organization and all the parents and teachers who support their kids doing this.”

The FLL challenge is “the best way I’ve seen to have fun and learn at the same time,” said Daja Harris. “Teachers say they can tell which students have been in FLL because they all have really good presentation skills.”

She and husband Russell Harris, an engineer at General Dynamics, have coached seven FLL teams of students from the Mesa Academy for Advanced Studies. Five of the teams have made it to a state championship tournament.

“The kids see these robots, and they want to jump right in and learn how to make them work,” Russell said. “They learn that to be competitive they also have to be cooperative.”

Learning about leadership

They also learn planning and organization, project management, time management and public speaking,” said Christine Sapio, a science teacher at Coconino High School in Flagstaff. She has been one of the state tournament’s masters of ceremonies for eight years, a coach of numerous robotics teams and an organizer of regional tournaments.

“It’s not just about building a robot. I’ve had students who were too shy to talk in class, and after being in FIRST robotics programs they would speak about their projects in front of schools boards and city councils,” Sapio said. “We’ve got kids who are excited about being proactive in their communities and helping people.”

Seventh-grader Dylan Maki and sixth-grader Jamie Ledbetter are confident that at least one accomplishment of their FLL team project will have some lasting impact. Team Toxic from Sonoran Science Academy in Tucson created an interactive game designed to teach children about recycling and why it’s important.

“It teaches them how to recycle, and it’s fun to play. It will make them want to recycle,” Maki said.

He and Ledbetter said they’re now hooked on robotics for the foreseeable future. Maki is looking forward to learning advanced robotics programming. Ledbetter, a rookie on the team this year, sees herself taking on a leadership position in the years ahead.

“I learned about being on a team,” she said. “You see how there are different people with different roles and ideas. Not everyone gets along perfectly all the time, but you learn how to compromise and keep going.”


team competing in the Arizona FIRST LEGO League

There are moments of high intensity
at the tournament, as participants
concentrate on preparing their robots
to perform a variety of technical maneuvers
necessary to win points for their teams.

Bright outlook for future growth

AZ FLL is poised to not only keep going, but is picking up steam. In 2016, the number of students and teams participating is expected to rise once again.

In 2015, thanks to support from the Cisco company’s sponsorship and a first-time partnership with Arizona Western College, a new regional qualifier was established to handle a rapid rise in the number of teams in Yuma area. The event drew about 250 youngsters on 35 teams.

An outlook for similar growth in other areas of the state has set plans in motion to add one or two more regional qualifying tournaments to the 14 held in 2015, and to extend the championship tournament into a two-day event.

More importantly, AZ FLL will be extending its reach geographically, especially to rural, remote and underserved communities, said Jennifer Velez, a senior K-12 outreach coordinator for the Fulton Schools of Engineering and the managing partner for FIRST LEGO League in Arizona.

“Word has really gotten out about all the ways that being in FLL is benefitting young students,” Velez said. “Schools and teachers and parents, especially in the communities that don’t have a lot of resources, really want their kids to have this kind of inspirational experience that can give them an educational advantage.”

Of course the selling point for AZ FLL is a bit different for the youngsters. The attraction is made clear by the buzz of exhilaration exhibited during the championship tournament, and articulated point-blank by Team Toxic members Maki and Ledbetter, emphasizing every word: “It is just so much fun.”

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering