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February 19, 2017

Herberger Institute artists, students work with scientists and big data in multidisciplinary projects

Microscopy. Big data. Seismology.

These are just some of the tools faculty and students at ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts are using in their research and their work — work that also gives back to technology, science and other disciplines outside of design and the arts.

“The multidisciplinary environment of ASU and the energy and curiosity of the Herberger Institute faculty have fused to create this incredibly rich environment for the intersection of the arts and sciences — and beyond,” said Jake Pinholster, associate dean at the Herberger Institute. “We are rapidly moving to a place where design, the arts, the sciences, engineering and the humanities are drawing from one another to solve big problems and find new areas for exploration.”

Susan Beiner, Joan R. LincolnThe professorship was endowed in 2010 by David and Joan Lincoln, longtime supporters of a number of ASU programs ranging from Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics and the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, to those within the arts, law and ASU libraries. Endowed Professor in Ceramics, is teaching a new Arts and Science course in the ASU School of Art this semester.

“The art and science collaboration is an opportunity for art students to become exposed to areas of science to spark new concepts for their art as well as to open their mind to utilizing new techniques and materials,” Beiner said.

In 2015, the Herberger Institute’s School of Art partnered with the ASU ­School of Life Sciences (SOLS) for Sculpting Science, a project where art students worked with faculty in the SOLS Electron Microscopy lab to create works of art that represented electron microscopy images of various materials, from plant parts and pollen to sludge and fired clay pieces. The artists received inspiration for their art, and the scientists saw new ways of presenting their information and communicating their work.

“It was so successful that I decided it needed to be a class,” Beiner said.

The new Art 494/598 course expands on the collaboration with Robert Roberson, associate professor in the School of Life Sciences, and using scanning electron microscopy scans. Students visit multiple labs and research collections in the School of Life Sciences and hear professors present their areas of research.

“In this ongoing relationship, the art students will translate new scientific hypotheses into visual imagery,” Beiner said, “and the scientists will gain rare insight into what their research could look like as real 2-D or 3-D objects.”

Roberson said he’s excited to continue working with the School of Art.

“Collaborations between scientists and artists can result in a beautiful piece of art for the artist and a means of communicating for the scientist: a win-win situation,” he said.

In the same way that Beiner’s students translated scientific scans from the Electron Microscopy lab into sculpture, Jessica Rajko uses dance to present big data beyond its purely technical aspect.

Big data is full of numbers and databases, charts and graphs, terabytes and gigabytes. But when Rajko, an assistant professor in the ASU School of Film, Dance and Theatre, looks at big data, she sees art. Her latest work, “Me, My Quantified Self, and I,” which premiered Feb. 10 at Unexpected Art Gallery in Phoenix, is the culmination of the past two years she spent researching big data.

“I was interested in how we make data tangible so that we can start to build meaningful tangible metaphors about humans’ relationship to data,” Rajko said.

Rajko’s research started with a project called “Vibrant Lives,” funded through seed grants from the Herberger Institute and the ASU Institute for Humanities Research. Rajko and her collaborators built interactive installations where people could feel their own data. In one installation, guests plugged their mobile phones into wearable devices that provided haptic feedback when they scrolled through their information, so they could feel how much data they were using. 

“We were really interested in human experience of data,” Rajko said. “In this research we realized more and more how much people are implicated in big data infrastructures, because really big data is about people. It’s about human activity.”

One way her piece aims to make data feel less elusive is with the example of a giant 20- by 20-foot hand-crocheted net. Through a grant from the city of Tempe, Rajko enlisted the Tempe Needlewielders, a volunteer organization that creates and donates handmade items to local charities, to crochet objects onto the net during the performance.

“I really wanted to think about metaphors for data that more accurately reflect what data feels and looks like, which is messy and improvised,” Rajko said. “Having these women crocheting and building and growing this net live through the performance harnessed a lot of what I see as the behaviors of data.” 

By creating these new metaphors and exploring the everyday experience with data, she’s reframing big data, both for a new audience and for those inside the bubble.

“Technology always feels like an insider’s game — we often feel like you have to be a computer scientist to understand,” Rajko said. “The arts in this particular case offer a different type of dialogue around technology, one that feels like it doesn’t talk at people but includes them in it.”

To expand that dialogue, when her show premiered the weekend included a facilitated group discussion about digital human rights, privacy concerns and decolonizing approaches to data use as well as personal cyber-consultations on protecting your data with ASU’s Global Security Initiative.

Lance Gharavi, assistant director of theatre in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, also uses art to reach a wider audience. In May, Gharavi will present an hourlong performance piece all about the Earth’s core, called “Beneath.” In the vein of Radiolab or Cosmos, the show is a family-friendly scientific exploration of the Earth’s deep interior.

“People will hopefully leave understanding things about the science of the Earth’s material that they didn’t know before, and they will have had a great time,” Gharavi said. “We all gaze up into the sky and into the stars and wonder about what’s up there. We know the mass of Jupiter’s moons. We know what the atmosphere of Venus is made of. We know what the center of galaxy smells like; seriously, we do. But we know almost nothing about the what’s a few hundred miles underneath our feet. ... That’s what the show is about — that mystery of what lies beneath.”

Gharavi, who is working with geophysists, seismologists, mineral physicists, geochemists and other scientists at ASU, said he loves telling stories and loves working with scientists to tell their stories — stories about what they’re doing, what they’re learning and what they’re discovering.

“The advantage to the scientists is their work gets communicated to populations they might not have reached otherwise, and that’s in the case of this kind of work that I’m doing here, which is really about communicating science in a sort of discursive way,” he said.

The performance is part of a larger collaboration between the Herberger Institute’s School of Film, Dance and Theatre and the School of Earth and Space Exploration. Ian Shelanskey, a graduate student in the Herberger Institute studying interdisciplinary digital media and performance, is working with professor Edward Garnero and graduate student Hongyu Lai, both in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, to create a tomography visualization tool.

As Gharavi describes it, seismic tomography is basically taking a CT scan of the planet. The data output is columns of numbers. This new tool creates a picture of the Earth’s interior based on mathematical operations of the data. Scientists can use the tool to adjust the math and see changes in the picture in real time, allowing for deeper analysis and conversation.

Gharavi said this kind of interdisciplinary work is beneficial to everyone.

“The scientists and the designers and the artists that I work with all have different sets of training and skills and specialized knowledges,” he said. “Those are different among us, but we all have a passion for asking questions and finding answers and solving problems, and that’s what we do.”


Top photo: Jessica Rajko’s “Me, My Quantified Self, and I” dance work features a 20- by 20-foot hand-crocheted net as a metaphor for big data. Photo by Tim Trumble/Courtesy of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts

Sarah A. McCarty

Communications and marketing coordinator , School and Film, Dance and Theatre, Herberger Institute


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ASU sustainability students guide small organizations toward zero waste.
Other student-created finalists: PCs for Refugees and Solar Water Solutions.
February 20, 2017

Student team wins Pakis entrepreneurship prize with solution to eliminate waste, save money

No one wants to live in a world overflowing with garbage, but how does a regular person tackle such a complicated problem?

Three Arizona State University sustainability students have come up with a way to guide small organizations painlessly toward zero waste.

And they’ll make money doing it.

Their consulting firm, Circle Blue, will partner with schools, nonprofits and small businesses to find and eliminate waste, saving money and reducing the amount of garbage that goes to the landfills.

“Part of being sustainable is being happy, and in order to be happy we have to make money,” said Eric Johnson (pictured above), one of the Circle Blue team members.

“But that doesn’t mean we do it at the expense of society and the environment. We’re trying to create a new transformative business model to show that you can make money and be sustainable at the same time.”

The Circle Blue team won a $20,000 grant last week from the Pakis Social Entrepreneurship Challenge, defeating two other teams in the pitch competition. The event, sponsored by the Center for Entrepreneurship in the W. P. Carey School of Business at ASU, sought the team with the strongest potential to solve a social challenge.

Success in social entrepreneurship requires a firm grasp of complex problems and the ability to make enough money to be viable.

“Who wants to live in this world?” asked Johnson, showing a photo of overflowing garbage during the pitch event. “In the city of Tempe annually, we sent 1 million tons of waste to the landfill.

“That’s enough to fill Chase Field 14 times from bottom to top.”

Johnson said the firm is harnessing peoples’ desire to do the right thing and empowering them to find a way to do it.

“It’s not easy, but we provide them with the support they need to achieve zero waste,” he said.

The other two finalists were PCs for Refugees, which refurbishes donated computers and gives them to refugee families, and Solar Water Solutions, which retrofits water pumps in rural communities in Zimbabwe with solar-powered technology.

Fred PakisFred Pakis is managing director of Clarendon Capital Management and chairman of the Pakis Family Foundation. The Pakis Center for Business Philanthropy is part of the Arizona Community Foundation. Photo by Jordan Johnson/W. P. Carey School of Business, benefactor of the Pakis Center for Business Philanthropy, which funds the competition, said all three teams were strong.

“You’re all doing wonderful things for the world, which is the reason we put this contest together.”

Each team was awarded places in the “boot camp” run by Seed Spot, a Phoenix-based entrepreneurship incubator.

This is the second year of the Pakis Challenge. Last year’s winner was All Walks, a nonprofit group that created a program to teach life skills to survivors of sex trafficking. One of the last year’s finalist teams, 33 Buckets, is a nonprofit group that installs water-filtration devices in developing countries, and was featured in an ASU commercial during the Super Bowl.

Here’s more on this year’s teams, which each earned $7,500 for being named finalists:

Circle Blue

The team: Eric Johnson, Sean Murray and Daniel Velez are all master’s students in the School of Sustainability. The venture had its beginnings as Johnson’s thesis project when he was an undergraduate in Barrett, the Honors College.

The mission: Circle Blue is a consulting firm that partners with small to mid-size organizations to divert as much waste from landfills as possible. The company already has worked with Native American Connections on its multifamily housing units, saving it $13,000 on trash fees, and with two schools in the Tempe Elementary School District as pilot projects. Tempe Academy achieved 88 percent waste diversion after working with Circle Blue.

The model: A for-profit consulting firm, the company charges a fee for its services, which begins with a waste audit to see how much is being produced.

“From the outside it looks like we’re dumpster diving, but the reality is that we’re collecting a lot of valuable data,” said Velez.

The team then meets with the people in an organization to see what the obstacles are and to get everyone engaged before adapting new behaviors. At Tempe Academy, that meant a pep rally to fire up the students.

“First we focus on reducing. Are there ways we can minimize the amount of consumption to minimize trash?” Johnson said. “Second we focus on reusing materials. At Tempe Academy, we’ve been able to donate at least 50 pounds of food a day to the homeless. Previously it was going to a landfill.”

At some organizations, especially schools, up to 75 percent of waste is food, so composting is an important element.

“If you’re able to take that and create compost, that compost gets repurposed to grow new food,” Johnson said.

Why they do it: The team has done a lot of research on attitudes about sustainability and realized that while most people embrace it as a concept, they don’t know how to do it.

“We want to help people find the solutions they need. There’s a big disconnect between belief and action, and we’re trying to fill that gap,” Murray said.

What’s next: Circle Blue will use the $20,000 to expand its services to all schools in the Tempe district and to ramp up the business.

Riad Sbai, co-founder of PCs for Refugees, sets up a computer for a Syrian family. The organization takes donated laptops and personal computers, refurbishes them and gives them to refugees.


PCs for Refugees

The team: Riad Sbai, who has a master’s degree in health care delivery from ASU and now works as a web developer for a health care company; Louis Ship, a computer systems engineering major; Abdul Bayazid, a health sciences major; and Sudip Thomas, an employee at Intel. Sbai and Bayazid are Syrian Americans, and Sbai has lost family members to the war in Syria.

“The most difficult part of it all was the feeling of helplessness,” Sbai said. “The refugee community is a vulnerable population, and it’s more important than ever to show we do support them and want them to succeed.”

About 10 months ago, he and Bayazid began visiting newly arrived refugees and noticed that none of them had computers.

The mission: PCs for Refugees collects donated personal computers and laptops, refurbishes them and distributes them to Syrian refugee families who have settled in metro Phoenix. Then they work with Cox Communications, which has a program that provides internet service to low-income families with kids for $9.95 a month with no installation, modem or cancellation fees. The team members also provide computer training for each family. So far the team has donated to 97 families, with six refugees acquiring jobs because they had access to a computer.

The model: The team recently made PCs for Refugees a 501c3 nonprofit organization, so donations are tax-deductible.

Why they do it: “Lack of a computer is a big limitation. Everyone relies on a computer for doing homework, job searches, applications for scholarships and accessing resources,” Sbai said.

The biggest challenge for the families is learning English, and the PCs come with English-tutoring software, as well as educational and professional programs.

The first family that received a computer included a daughter who is disabled.

“This computer was really her lifeline to the world,” Sbai said.

The $7,500 finalist grant was a big help, because it costs $15 to $18 to refurbish each computer, usually for batteries, adapters, speakers, mice, monitors and other peripherals. Thomas took on the job of driving all over the Valley to pick up donations and deliver them to Sbai.

What’s next: The team hopes to expand to refugees from other countries besides Syria and to offer other computer skills, and will start a PCs for Refugees Club at ASU.

Ngoni Mugwisi, co-founder of Solar Water Solutions, describes the project during the Pakis Social Entrepreneurship Challenge. Photo by Jordan Johnson/W. P. Carey School of Business


Solar Water Solutions

The team: Ngoni Mugwisi and Mohammed Munir, both electrical engineering majors; Allistar Machacek, a construction management major.

The project began in EPICS, the Engineering Projects in Community Service course in which teams design, build and deploy systems to solve engineering-based problems for charities, schools and other not-for-profit organizations.

“It started as a sustainable gardens project, but the biggest way to improve is to learn from your mistakes and we learned that the project didn’t work quite as well as we thought it would,” Munir said. “So we shifted to water.”

The mission: Solar Water Solutions will retrofit existing water pumps with solar-powered submersible pumps in rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa. The team installed one pump in 2015 that supplies 48 households.

“They were really happy about the outcome, and it improved their lives on many different levels. They started a little garden next to the pump,” Mugwisi said.

The model: Solar Water Solutions is a hybrid nonprofit and for-profit model that works this way: A rural community will receive a free pump and, with more water, can increase its harvest profits, which will allow it to invest in the next pump in another community. The venture also will sell pump kits that have added functionality for solar-powered lights and Wi-Fi to boarding schools in Zimbabwe. The sale of five kits will fund one nonprofit pump. Operation of the pumps will be supervised by a local committee in the communities, which handles maintenance and security.

Why they do it: Most rural communities use hand-powered pumps, which are labor-intensive and take a long time.

“We realized we could go to existing pumps and retrofit them with solar panels, so now it’s not only pumping water but storing it, so anyone can turn on the faucet and have water,” Munir said.

What’s next: Solar Water Solutions is planning to install seven pumps in Zimbabwe this summer and eventually hire a director to supervise operations there. Next fall, Mugwisi will be working on his PhD at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.


Top photo: Eric Johnson is one of the members of Circle Blue, which will partner with schools, nonprofits and small businesses to find and eliminate waste, saving money and reducing the amount of garbage that goes to the landfills. Photo by Jordan Johnson/W. P. Carey School of Business

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now