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Professors of practice from Conservation International to teach, mentor at ASU.
Goals: Protect biodiversity, promote sustainable development, train next gen.
March 20, 2017

University adds 7 professors of practice from largest American conservation group with goal of building the next generation

Environmental news can be all too depressing, with headlines punctuated by the drumbeat of extinction and destruction.

There are occasional bright spots. One of them occurred this month when Arizona State University announced it is powering up its conservation biology program by adding seven professors of practice to the faculty as part of a partnership between the university’s Center for Biodiversity Outcomes and Conservation International, the biggest American conservation organization.

The ASU center takes a multidisciplinary approach to find solutions for the long term — not just the science of saving species that one might think of with the field, but also engaging with business and reaching out to groups underrepresented in conservation biology.

It’s a practical approach that fits well with that of Conservation International. The nonprofit has helped establish 1,200 protected areas across 78 countries and protected more than 730 million hectares of land, marine and coastal areas. 

The partnership’s goals are threefold:

  • protect biodiversity
  • promote sustainable development, particularly in food production and fisheries
  • train the next generation of conservation biologists

Biodiversity is “the natural capital that we need for human well-being,” said Leah Gerber, director of the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes, itself a partnership between ASU’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and the School of Life Sciences.

“Our partnership with Conservation International is a mechanism to integrate scholarship across campus in interdisciplinary teams to tackle (those) three general goals,” Gerber said.

ASU President Michael Crow addressed the seven new professors of practice who will be teaching, lecturing, mentoring and leading fieldwork in Arizona; Washington, D.C.; and around the world.

This will not be a sequestration of academia away from the front lines, Crow told them. They will rush towards the battle, not away from it.

“Right now we’re in a race, a race that will not be easily won,” Crow said. “The forces of nature and the negative force of our impact on nature are accelerating. The acceleration of those forces are such that they will contribute to our need to have something we don’t have, which are better theories, better ideas, better tools, better solutions, better implementation, better translation — none of which comes naturally. ...

“We don’t have preconceived notions of what it all means or how it all works out — we just hope we can work it out. It’s meant to be catalytically disruptive to how we think and how we work and what we’re doing.”

The exact nature of how the partnership will shake out will be determined later. The immediate goal is to leverage the size and resources of the university with the expertise of the nonprofit to scale up the war to save the natural world.

“What I’m looking for a 10-times impact, a 100-times impact in the work that we do,” said M. Sanjayan, executive vice president and senior scientist at Conservation International. “The only model I have for making that happen is through science. ...

“You will hold us to the truth. You will be honest with us. We can try things. We can experiment, free from preconceived notions and find ways to take the work we do in real places and create that massive impact. ... This is the beginning.”

Daniella Raik, senior vice president and managing director of the Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science at Conservation International, said early talks revealed both sides agreed the main goals would be tackling biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation.

“When we met, we talked about it in various different ways and settled on three main goals we think we can achieve together, given ASU’s incredible academic capacity and our work to do conservation on the ground,” Raik said. “We talk a lot of research to policy or research to action, but it’s this kind of partnership that’s making it happen.”

It’s a practical partnership that will yield measurable results, Gerber said. One of the most important goals is building the next generation of conservation biologists. It’s important to show students they can have a rewarding, successful career in the field.

“Many of these students want to be practitioners working out in the real world and working on the ground to solve problems,” she said. “They’re actually going to be taught by the people who are doing that.

“I anticipate not only achieving quantitative outcomes within each of those domains but also creating a model for how these types of non-governmental/academic partnerships can collaborate in a way that mobilizes our respective capacity to tackle the most pressing environmental challenges of the 21st century.”


Top photo: Courtesy of

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ASU-wide hackathon shows off student innovation skills

Remote-control car project wins ASU's first-ever hackathon.
March 22, 2017

Project Giraffe — involving a remote-control car that can change the way people tour houses — wins 36-hour competition

Update: After a frenzied weekend, the team of SungHo Hong, Kaiwen Zheng, Yilong Chen, Yaohan Ding and Jiacho Chen took home the EmergenTech: Hack ASU competition's first prize, thanks to their submission, Project Giraffe. Project Giraffe allows users to create a remote-control car that is capable of changing the way people tour houses. 

The second- and third-place finishers created a companion for elderly people and a way to find empty parking spots on campus, respectively. Click the links to read more about Wilson Monitoring and FindParking

See scenes from the weekend hackathon below, and read the full preview story below the gallery. 

It’s no secret that Arizona State University is the top school in the country for innovation

Some of that creativity and ingenuity will be on display this weekend, when ASU students of all majors will take part in EmergenTech: Hack ASU. Taking place at the College Avenue Commons, the hackathon event and pitch competition will span 36 hours from March 24 to 26.

“This will be the first year of the event, with the goal of scaling up each year until we become the largest university hackathon in the Southwest and entire country,” said Mark Naufel, the director of Strategic Projects for ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise Development office. “I am excited to see a group of talented, energetic students come together for 36 hours straight to ideate and develop innovative solutions that may have a chance of impacting society.”

Throughout those 36 hours, participants will form teams and choose an emerging technology to develop both a prototype and business concept. The event will then finish with a pitch competition in which the competitors are judged by a panel in front of a live audience.

Sethuraman Panchanathan, executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise Development, will be providing welcoming remarks at the event. He said that the team competitions are one of the things he’s looking forward to most this weekend.

“What could be better than bringing together students from various disciplines to apply their creativity and critical thinking skills?” Panchanathan said. “They will build solutions that may revolutionize public and private industries.”

There have been other similar events held on campus through school clubs, specific departments and outside groups, but this is ASU’s first-ever, university-wide edition. 

The winning team at Hack ASU will receive $1,000 and a new mattress from Tuft & Needle for each team member. The other teams that finish in the top three will also be awarded monetary prizes.

With such a large-scale event taking place, the hackathon will rely on a number of student organizers to help make sure everything runs smoothly. One of those students is junior Chelsea Border, who will be working to expand the entrepreneurial side of the participants.

“By encouraging business, design and engineering majors to participate, we are aiming to approach the hackathon with a sense of innovation and creativity,” Border said. “One of the ways we establish this is by developing the hybrid hackathon/pitch competition framework, which requires business and design elements to be addressed in final projects. Our hope is that by the end of the event, each student will have learned something new outside of their usual disciplines.” 

Whether it's the opportunity to learn at the event, gain new knowledge from their peers or take home one of the top prizes, there are plenty of reasons for students to participate in this inaugual hackathon.

"Seeing how our participants can learn from one another is what excites me most," Border said. "Our university has such a bright, talented pool of students, and the fact some of them are willing to sacrifice their time and energy to join us for a whole weekend shows our community’s dedication to innovation."


Top photo: The hackathon team HackSunDevils works on their project in a student club room of the College Avenue Commons building on the second day of the EmergenTech Hackathon. The team, composed of Chinese international students, worked on developing a method to predict cultural popularity. 

Connor Pelton

Communications Writer, ASU Now