Better engineering for humans, by humans

Rod Roscoe awarded prestigious Tooker Professorship to advance work in developing engaging human systems engineering curriculum at ASU

July 25, 2017

Engineers create the devices, software, chemicals, materials, machines, buildings, airplanes and other systems that make our daily lives better.

However, to successfully design for the diversity of the human experience, engineers must understand people — their clients as well as themselves — in addition to technology. Portrait of Rod Roscoe in a computer lab. Caption "Rod Roscoe, assistant professor of human systems engineering, works with students in his SLATE Lab to improve engineering education Rod Roscoe, assistant professor of human systems engineering, works with students in his SLATE Lab to improve engineering education. His efforts led to a prestigious Tooker Professorship to advance his work in developing an engaging human systems engineering curriculum at ASU's Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU Download Full Image

Enter the Human Systems Engineering program in Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. This recently added program seeks to prepare students to consider both the human and technology sides of engineering by combining psychology and technical coursework.

Introduced as a major and minor in fall 2016, the program is being developed out of the applied psychology-focused courses offered in the former College of Technology and Innovation, which became the Polytechnic School in 2014. The merge became a unique opportunity for faculty members with backgrounds in psychology and an interest in education, such as Rod Roscoe, assistant professor of human systems engineering.

“We’re a group of psychologists in an engineering school, and I think that makes us a unique resource in the way we think about things,” Roscoe said. “There’s a growing appreciation for this kind of mind-set.”

Roscoe believes this human-focused approach to engineering will help attract, engage and retain students in engineering fields of study — and to integrate it into the Fulton Schools program, he’s taking his own iterative human systems engineering approach.

Prestigious Tooker Professorship leads the way

Roscoe’s efforts to improve engineering education at the Fulton Schools has earned him a prestigious Tooker Professorship to further his work. Tooker Professors implement innovative projects to increase engineering student retention and persistence, create more rewarding learning experiences, greater student diversity and provide experiences that give students a competitive edge in the job market. They’re selected through a competitive annual proposal process and appointed for one- to two-year terms.

“This is a wonderful encouragement and commitment from the Fulton Schools to the Human Systems Engineering program,” Roscoe said. “I think it shows that others appreciate the ‘human side’ of engineering and are willing to let us promote that approach. And I think all of us in the Human Systems Engineering faculty are committed to living up to those expectations.”

The Tooker Professorship began in 2011 with an endowment from ASU alumni Diane and Gary Tooker. The Tookers are passionate about attracting and retaining students in STEM fields with exciting learning environments, owing to their backgrounds as an elementary school teacher and CEO of Motorola. 

Roscoe will leverage his Tooker Professorship to develop an engaging human systems engineering curriculum. He seeks to identify the needs, gaps and opportunities to introduce students to human systems engineering principles in ways that strengthen their engineering and how they conceptualize as well as solve engineering problems.

“We think that human systems engineering has the potential to be really engaging to the ASU students who are here to solve real problems, change the world and improve the world,” Roscoe said. “Doing these things involves not only strong technical knowledge and skills, but a good understanding of the ‘people side’ of real-world challenges.”

To foster an appreciation for a broader view of engineering’s role in society, Roscoe will first explore how students are currently applying human-centered engineering in their projects and survey prospective and current students to determine their attitudes toward psychology and engineering.

These activities will help Roscoe generate guidelines for aligning human systems engineering course content to students’ broader needs and interests.

To encourage students to pursue and engage in engineering, Roscoe will also develop a “problem-based recruiting” exercise to help prospective students think about being problem solvers and engineers.

“Students are more engaged and persistent when they have a passion and a purpose for what they do — when they can connect ‘stuff I’m learning’ to ‘stuff I want to do,’” Roscoe said. “Introducing students to the human side of engineering solutions could make that link more real and authentic to students at risk of ‘disconnecting,’ switching majors or even leaving ASU.”

To achieve this, students would brainstorm a problem that interests them and then come up with engineering and human solutions to the problem.

For example, if a student is interested in reducing infection risks in surgery, they may imagine engineering bacteria-resistant materials or new antiseptic drugs, but could also think of doctor, nurse and patient behavior adjustments that would decrease infection risks.

Recruiters can use this dual problem-solving approach to introduce prospective students to Fulton Schools programs that would enable them to solve these problems, as well as encourage them to consider human systems engineering courses or a minor to supplement their ability to solve human problems through engineering.

The analysis of these activities will help tell what the human systems engineering program should be teaching to excite and benefit students.

An emphasis on the human side of engineering can help with retention as well as engagement for students who highly value a sense of belonging and contribution, personal and real-world connections, and opportunities for people-centered or altruistic work that benefits society. Roscoe notes that these concerns are often important to groups that are underrepresented in engineering.

A course, a minor or a major all improve engineering education

Whether students pursue human systems engineering as a major or a minor or simply take the introductory course, Roscoe aims to make human systems engineering a helpful part of a Fulton Schools student’s education.

“We made sure that HSE 101, the intro freshman course, fills the social-behavior course requirement,” Roscoe said. “Engineering students can now take a course that is geared to engineering interests and that satisfies an important general-studies requirement.”

Other HSE courses cover a wide range of topics, including research methods, statistics, decision making and qualitative and quantitative methods. Some courses are geared more toward the psychology side, and Roscoe said they’re working on adding more of a technology focus to others.

“Curriculum design is iterative in the same way that the human systems engineering approach is iterative,” Roscoe said. “As existing and new students move through the program, students nearing graduation and alumni can also tell us what experiences they felt really prepared them.”

Taking a human systems engineering approach beyond ASU

Roscoe was also recently awarded a three-year, $300,000 research grant through the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education.

With engineering Assistant Professor Micah Lande, human systems engineering Associate Professor and program chair Rob Gray and human systems engineering Assistant Professor Scotty Craig, Roscoe will assess the progress made by his Tooker Professorship project with an eye on achieving a wider impact.

Their aim is to develop and test learning modules that integrate psychology and engineering for use in classrooms beyond ASU.

“The Tooker Professorship activities are primarily directed at strengthening Human Systems Engineering, the Polytechnic School and Fulton Schools,” Roscoe said. “The recent NSF award ensures that we’ll be able to test our ideas more rigorously and share them with a broader audience beyond ASU. We look forward to sharing the work with colleagues and contributing to the scholarship in this area. In turn, their input and expertise will improve our own program development.”

Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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ASU astronomers find young galaxies that appeared soon after the Big Bang

July 25, 2017

Using powerful Dark Energy Camera in Chile, researchers reach the cosmic dawn

ASU astronomers Sangeeta Malhotra and James Rhoads, working with international teams in Chile and China, have discovered 23 young galaxies, seen as they were 800 million years after the Big Bang. The results from this sample have been recently published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Long ago, about 300,000 years after the beginning of the universe (the Big Bang), the universe was dark. There were no stars or galaxies, and the universe was filled with neutral hydrogen gas. In the next half-billion years or so, the first galaxies and stars appeared. Their energetic radiation ionized their surroundings, illuminating and transforming the universe.

This dramatic transformation, known as re-ionization, occurred sometime in the interval between 300 million years and 1 billion years after the Big Bang. Astronomers are trying to pinpoint this milestone more precisely, and the galaxies found in this study help in this determination.

“Before re-ionization, these galaxies were very hard to see, because their light is scattered by gas between galaxies, like a car’s headlights in fog,” Malhotra said. “As enough galaxies turn on and ‘burn off the fog’ they become easier to see. By doing so, they help provide a diagnostic to see how much of the ‘fog’ remains at any time in the early universe.

Milestones in the history of the universe

Milestones in the history of the Universe (not to scale). The intergalactic gas was in a neutral state from about 300,000 years after the Big Bang until light from the first generation of stars and galaxies began to ionize it. The gas was completely ionized after 1 billion years. The LAGER study takes a close look at the state of the Universe at 800 million years (yellow box) to investigate when and how this transformation occurred. Image courtesy of National Astronomical Observatory of Japan

The Dark Energy Camera

To detect these galaxies, Malhotra and Rhoads have been using the Dark Energy Camera (DECam), one of the new powerful instruments in the astronomy field. DECam is installed at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO)’s 4-meter Blanco Telescope, located at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO), in northern Chile, at an altitude of 7,200 feet.

“Several years ago, we carried out a similar study using a 64-megapixel camera that covers the same amount of sky as the full moon,” Rhoads said. “DECam, by comparison, is a 570-megapixel camera and covers 15 times the area of the full moon in a single image.”

DECam was recently made even more powerful when it was equipped with a special narrowband filter, designed at ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE), primarily by Rhoads and Zhenya Zheng (who was a SESE postdoctoral fellow and is currently at the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory in China), with assistance from Alistair Walker of NOAO.

“We spent several months refining the design of the filter profile, optimizing the design to get maximum sensitivity in our search,” said Zheng, the lead author of this study.

Touching the cosmic dawn

The galaxy search using the ASU-designed filter and DECam is part of the ongoing “Lyman Alpha Galaxies in the Epoch of Reionization” project (LAGER). It is the largest uniformly selected sample that goes far enough back in the history of the universe to reach cosmic dawn.

“The combination of large survey size and sensitivity of this survey enables us to study galaxies that are common but faint, as well as those that are bright but rare, at this early stage in the universe,” said Malhotra.

Junxian Wang, a co-author on this study and the lead of the Chinese LAGER team, adds that “our findings in this survey imply that a large fraction of the first galaxies that ionized and illuminated the universe formed early, less than 800 million years after the Big Bang.”

The next steps for the team will be to build on these results. They plan to continue to search for distant star-forming galaxies over a larger volume of the universe and to further investigate the nature of some of the first galaxies in the universe.  

Top photo: CTIO Blanco Telescope in Chile. Photo by Tim Abbott/CTIO

Karin Valentine

Media Relations & Marketing manager , School of Earth and Space Exploration