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New tool, Looking Glass, being used to counter violent extremism in Libya.
Started as DoD project, Looking Glass work crosses several disciplines.
August 9, 2016

ASU researchers develop Looking Glass to search social media for radical groups as well as positive messages

By now, the wearying trope of internet outrage is a global touchstone, especially when it comes to "angry young men."

Everyone is familiar with what’s trending on Twitter. It gives a rough idea of what a particular group is thinking. But taking this a step further, ASU researchers are developing a software tool that mines big data and then maps out what’s trending on everything: Twitter, websites, blogs, news sites, speeches, images and videos.

It’s called Looking Glass, and it’s being used to counter violent extremism in part by identifying groups that promote peace and other positive social messages. Currently, ASU is partnering with a private international development company called Chemonics to test the tool in Libya.

Are messages from extremist groups having an effect on the post-Gadhafi government? Does what they’re saying have an effect on popular support? And how can authorities tell the difference between a terrorist and an angry teen?

“How do we distinguish between the radicals we like and the radicals we don’t like?” asked Carolyn Forbes, assistant director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict. “That’s what the project tried to map.”

Forbes has been working on the project with Hasan Davulcu, associate professor in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems EngineeringThe School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering is part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering..

Initiated as a Department of Defense project, Looking Glass is the product of computer scientists, historians, anthropologists, Islamic studies scholars, sociologists and political scientists. It earned its name because it provides a visual lens into a group's thinking.

Carolyn Forbes

“Digital anthropology; I think that’s a good way to describe it,” Forbes said.

The software pulls in content from all over the internet and then maps out what people are saying.

“Anything you can get online, it’s going to look up,” Forbes said. “Basically, what we’re trying to understand are ideas and groups and the interactions of those things. ... Why do certain topics become hot-button issues and others don’t? It’s not always what you’d expect.”

To wit, reaction in Libya to France bombing al-Qaida recently was anti-French, but there was plenty of support for an American bombing of ISIS shortly after.

“It was very surprising,” she added, “and completely unexpected.”

Forbes said Looking Glass is about more than finding violent extremists, as important as that is. It’s also a way of identifying pro-social groups and positive social messages aimed at achieving Libyan unity, prosperity, security, cohesion and justice.

"Countering violent extremism means being able to find and support these movements for positive social change,” Forbes said. 

Chemonics is interested in the tool’s potential because development work is affected by the global war on terror.

What they’re interested in is not determining how safe a place is for aid workers (they have their own ways of determining that, according to Forbes), but rather measuring their effectiveness.

“Can it help USAID see if any of its own work is having an impact?” Forbes asked, referencing the United States Agency for International Development. “That’s one way they see this tool as being useful.”

The social media analytics software provides a birds-eye picture for what’s working and what’s not.

“We’re just doing a pilot with (Chemonics) right now,” Forbes said. The Libya project is ongoing, but “we’re already seeing its potential.”

Looking Glass may have to adapt depending on sources.

“You need different strategies for different parts of the world,” Forbes said. “It may not lend itself to every country.”

For example, social media use in Afghanistan is sparse. The U.S. set up a social media network in Afghanistan that was wildly successful at first. But after American financing for the network wasn’t renewed in 2011, the Afghan company that ran it began charging a small fee. People stopped using it, according to a 2014 article in The New York Times.

“It has to draw from social media and other sources on the web,” Forbes said. “It all depends on what kind of data is available and how you can stream it through a system like this.”

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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Relativity speaking: Teachers gain physics skills

ASU professor helps future teacher harness the joy of scientific discovery.
August 9, 2016

ASU professor improves hands-on science education for future teachers

Kids love to do experiments. When David Meltzer taught middle-schoolers, they especially enjoyed making a generator out of copper wire.

But nothing extinguishes that joy of discovery more than teachers who are unenthusiastic about teaching science because they don’t know the subject matter.

And that’s where Meltzer is working to make a difference, by teaching future teachers how to do experiments, so they learn the activity as well as the content.

“The method that has been followed for years is that you learn a little bit about the subject, you get an acquaintanceship, and you try to teach it,” said Meltzer, who started his career as a theoretical physicistMeltzer also is a consultant to the American Physical Society and the Physics Teacher Education Coalition and senior consultant to the National Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics. and is now an associate professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

“It’s a myth that students will learn very much if the teacher doesn’t know the material.”

Meltzer, who works at the Polytechnic campus at Arizona State University, just completed a four-year project funded by the National Science Foundation to improve science teaching in grades kindergarten through eight by using classroom activities. He said that typically, K-8 teachers aren’t required to have specialized science training, even though they're teaching physics concepts including mechanics, Newton’s laws of motion, electricity and magnetism, in physical science classes.

“You don’t teach physical science by standing at a blackboard and lecturing to students. That’s not effective. You get them involved in carrying out investigations, solving problems, doing experiments,” he said.

Some of the $300,000 grant was spent on equipment that students use for experiments. They mount little carts on tracks to study mechanics, use ultrasonic motion detectors to measure velocity and acceleration, and create magnets out of coiled copper wire.

Meltzer has taught physical science to the middle schoolers at the ASU Preparatory Academy on the Polytechnic campus, and he said all students love to see what they can build.

“We created a power generator, and you scale that up and it’s the Hoover Dam and you light up a city,” he said.

A one-semesterThe class is SCN 250, “physical science by inquiry.” class isn’t enough to completely prepare future teachers to teach physical science but they get good experience with how to incorporate the activities.

“They’re learning both how to teach, very hands-on, and they’re learning the science content so they aren’t trying to teach something they don’t really understand — which is the big problem in all science education, and we're behind other countriesAmerican 15-year-olds’ science scores ranked 24th in the world in the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment..”

David Meltzer
David Meltzer won a grant to improve physics instruction for future teachers at the Polytechnic campus. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now.


Meltzer also is an expert in the historySome of the grant money was spent on adding material to a web site that chronicles the history of science education. of teaching physics. He said that dating back to the 1880s, when physics was called “natural philosophy,” teachers knew that students learned best when they did experiments.

“Teachers back then at the high school and college level made tremendous efforts to expand activity-based teaching but they largely did not succeed,” he said, because by the 1940s, many more Americans started attending high school and the demand for teachers exploded.

“The lecture method took over as the primary method of teaching and the experiments were very prescriptive, like following a cookbook,” he said.

The United States saw a burst of interest in teaching science after the Russians beat the United States into space with Sputnik in 1957 and again in the last few years with the focus on STEMscience, technology, engineering and math. But Meltzer said that eagerness has never translated to better teacher training.

“The Next Generation Science StandardsThe Next Generation Science Standards is an updated set of learning goals for kindergarten through 12th grade. The standards were developed by 26 states, including Arizona, but Arizona has not adopted the standards. are very ambitious but from my standpoint, it will fall short because it’s not linked to a realistic effort to improve the education of science teachers, or, critically, K-8 teachers, where the foundations are set.”


Top photo: David Meltzer shows how he teaches students to use an ultrasonic motion detector to measure velocity on a low-friction track. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now.

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now