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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 Now


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Exposure to fieldwork introduces prospective students, parents to range of jobs.
Club founders hope to expand Nature@ASU to other universities.
March 28, 2016

Conservation biology students launch Nature@ASU club to show others the path to range of career options out in the field

Inspecting the teeth of a drugged Siberian tiger. Darting a tracking device in a whale from the deck of a pitching boat. Waking up in a tent to sunrise over the Tibetan steppe.

There are careers where you can do all these things, and be paid for it.

A group of conservation biology students at Arizona State University want to shout this to the high heavens. To that end, they are starting a club to focus on professional development for conservation biologists.

Nature@ASU, slated to officially launch next fall, will have five components: a mentorship program; an internship finder; a job-mining component; high school outreach; and a website.

“We all care about protecting our planet,” said Jessica Givens, Nature@ASU co-founder along with John Lebens.

Givens’ experience is a classic example of what she wants to change. In high school she always liked animals and biology classes. When she arrived at ASU, she was pre-med student. But when classes like biochemistry loomed, she thought, “I don’t know if I want to do this.”

She had no idea what she wanted to do. What she really wanted to do was be a force for change in the natural world. “I have this big feely thing where I want to protect the world,” she said.

A meeting with conservation biologist Andrew Smith, President's Professor and Parents' Association Professor in the School of Life SciencesThe School of Life Sciences is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Smith is also a distinguished sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, a guest professor in the College of Life Sciences/Center for Landscape Ecology and Sustainability Science at Beijing Normal University, and advisory board member for the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes, part of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability., where he showed her his work and research, clinched the deal. She discovered what she wanted to do with her life.

“A lot of people are interested in conservation biology, but they don’t hear about it until they’re juniors or seniors,” Lebens said.

“We need to show students this is a viable (career) option,” Givens said.

She switched her major to a bachelor's in conservation biology and ecology, became president of the Central Arizona Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology — a student-run, conservation-biology organization centered at ASU — and quadrupled its membership in less than a year. The chapter jumped into fieldwork, doing a jackrabbit survey, spotlighting black-footed ferret, and trapping prairie dogs.

“I’ve taken a lot of people out and they’re like, ‘This is my first sleeping bag,’” Givens said. “That’s what makes students great conservationists: being out there.”

A group of bio students pose at Saguaro National Park
A group of volunteers, including ASU students, completed a recent cactus survey at Saguaro National Park outside Tucson. Photo courtesy: ASU alum Carolyn Harper


About 167 students are studying conservation biology at ASU, mostly juniors and seniors. The subject ranges across the university: conservation biology and sustainability in Tempe; environmental science at the West campus; and applied biosciences at the Polytechnic campus.

Givens and Lebens recruited 16 undergrads to help with the launch of Nature@ASU. They want to elevate the club to the point where organizations like the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the Nature Conservancy call for project volunteers or internship candidates.

Ecosystem scientist Sharon Hall, associate professor in the School of Life SciencesHall is also a senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and associate director of education and diversity in the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes., will be Nature@ASU’s faculty adviser.

Hall said students going into the field need more of a hand than in other careers. Conservation biology is not like a law degree, where grads can expect to clerk after graduation.

“There’s a lot of pathways you can choose from, but they’re not very clear,” Hall said, citing the need to show a range of jobs.

There are two other groups who need education about the field. Parents are one. They may feel that a college degree is limited to business or law, and not understand that a good career can be had under mosquito netting as well as wood paneling. That’s why the outreach component of Nature@ASU is important.

“Make the pathways to conservation science very clear, and take it to parents and to high schools,” Hall said.

The other is kids that haven’t spent any time in nature and don’t know that they can do what they see on Animal Planet for a living.

“You have to have some exposure to nature to know what to expect,” Hall said. “It can be scary for kids who don’t have that background. They’re faced with how do I get a job? How do I make a living?”

Givens envisions Nature@ASU moving to other universities.  “What we need most is mentors,” she said. “Hopefully we get the stars to align.”

“What they need is to find and support each other,” Hall said. “If you’re interested in nature, we’ll help you choose. ... It’ll be student-driven. That’s the key thing.”


Top photo by Andreas Krappweis/

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now