June 4, 2018
New ASU initiative to bridge engineering and physics with other science, art and design
The human eye can only see a narrow range of visible light. Yet there’s an infinite number of possibilities for the perception of light, from infrared to ultraviolet and beyond. This is a prime example of how our natural senses give a limited picture of the world.
Professors Nathan Newman and Frank Wilczek seek to improve and enhance people’s limited scope of perception with modern technology through a new initiative at Arizona State University called the Science Hub, or “SciHub.”
“How can we enhance our lives by looking and analyzing beyond human perception?” asked Newman, the Lamonte H. Lawrence Professor in Solid State Science in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. “We’re going to transcend the boundaries of engineering and physics to include other disciplines of science, art and design in hopes of turning visionary ideas into real-world results.”
ASU President Michael Crow’s vision for the New American University drives SciHub’s mission to combine interdisciplinary teaching and research with community outreach. SciHub’s centerpiece will be an innovation space on the Tempe campus, modeled in the style of a generator lab, where locally generated ideas can undergo a systematic process for development into commercial products.
Outreach program sparks creation of SciHub
The idea for SciHub arose from a collaboration between Clubes de Ciencia (Spanish for “science clubs”), a STEM-based program operating in Latin America, and Wilczek, a professor of physics in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a research professor in ASU’s Origins Project.
Wilczek, who won the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics, was called upon to help create the inaugural workshop for Clubes de Ciencia Mexico. Two founders of the club were inspired by Wilczek’s work on how technology could be used to expand humans’ limited color perception and wanted to use it as a means to strengthen science education in Mexico.
Wilczek’s workshop, like others in the Clubes program, gave high school students and early undergraduate students the opportunity to engage with practicing scientists. In his workshop, they learned how to control light and sound with computers and electronics to explore aspects of the world that don’t register to the unaided senses. They discovered, through hands-on experience, that there is much more to reality than what human senses ordinarily perceive.
The success of the Clubes de Ciencia model has expanded the organization’s reach to six countries across Latin America. Additionally, Wilczek’s workshop has been taught almost 20 times in Latin America, and as a course at ASU and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I was very interested in developing this course [for Clubes de Ciencia],” said Wilczek, who also holds the Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics title at MIT. “We decided some very good ideas were being developed. We saw great potential in an organization that would sponsor similar activities in Arizona and take the emerging ideas out into the world.”
And so the concept for SciHub was born.
SciHub will partner with the existing Clubes de Ciencia hubs at Harvard and MIT to reach out to underserved schools and districts in Arizona. This model will give high school and early undergraduate students the opportunity to apply for and participate in SciHub’s intensive STEM workshops, spark their interest in these fields and help develop real-world products.
Access ASU, a division of Educational Outreach and Student Services, will help administer and manage these outreach activities at the university level.
“One of Michael Crow’s dreams is to give access to people who deserve it. The potential of our society shouldn’t be limited to people who have the resources to get to college,” said Newman, who will co-direct the SciHub initiative. “The beauty of the SciHub stems from access and excellence being at the heart of it. We’re going to pair high school and university-level students with a Nobel Prize winner and leading professionals to educate beyond book learning to a real-world experience in the industrial design process.”
Transforming theoretical ideas into gadgets, software and more
In conjunction with the hub’s outreach activities, Newman and Wilczek are co-teaching the Clubes de Ciencia workshop as a course in perception technology at ASU. After a review of basic theory around color perception in humans and animals, the course encourages students to design and construct software and hardware to expand visual perception with a focus on color blindness, synesthesia and tetrachromacy.
For instance, students in the course are looking at brain functionality with a 3D model of the human brain. They inserted light emitting diodes, or LEDs, to show what part of the brain is activated for specific functions, such as shaking hands, wiggling toes or doing jumping jacks. This model can also be useful for seeing activity in the brain of someone with a neurological disorder, such as Tourette syndrome. This research can be used as an educational module for K-12 students or even as a diagnostic tool.
Another group of students is using multi-spectrum cameras to correct color vision in real time. These cameras have the potential to shift the color spectrum to compensate for color pigments not visible by people with colorblindness. The camera can also enhance human vision into infrared or ultraviolet.
“Some of the ideas generated in the course are very creative,” said Wilczek, who’s also a professor of physics at Stockholm University in Sweden. “My main career is as a theoretical physicist, so it’s an adventure to get involved in things that are more tangible. I find it very exciting and rewarding that I’m actively involved in these kinds of developments and trying to bring theoretical ideas into things that go out into the world.”
The second portion of the course focuses on the steps needed to develop a finished project. Students learn how to do a feasibility study and market analysis, design specifications, project schedules, design a project, select materials, and conduct a patent study and failure mode analysis.
Students will have the ability to work in SciHub's generator lab to learn how to turn their ideas into projects, from educational modules and museum exhibits to scientific instruments and new commercial products.
“It’s awfully easy to generate a lot of ideas, but it’s rather difficult to commercialize these ideas into products,” Newman said. “Through SciHub, we’re going to combine the ideas generated in our design courses with a professional staff of engineers, scientists, artists and designers to help students take their initial ideas and amplify them into realistic prototypes that can be made to solve real-world problems.”
Interdisciplinary collaboration at its finest
SciHub’s multidisciplinary and collaborative efforts are at the heart of this new initiative. Newman and Wilczek have been committed to creating an all-star team, which will aid in the development of products with real impact for society.
Two people who will be instrumental in helping the university with the challenge of turning visionary ideas into real-world solutions are Walter Herbst and Deana McDonagh, both of whom have a history of working with technologists to progress from initial ideation to commercial development.
Herbst will be dedicated to bringing “design thinking” to those involved in the SciHub venture. He’ll also advise on the students’ research endeavors with conversion potential to become commercial applications.
“If one bases product and/or service design and development on human-centered needs and design thinking, the conversion to highly successful commercial products is dramatically enhanced,” said Herbst, who grew one of the largest independently owned design and development consultancies in the U.S.
Newman first collaborated with Herbst at Northwestern University, where the two served as founding advisers for a Sunraycer solar car program for engineering undergraduate students. Now, Herbst serves as a distinguished professor who directs a master’s program in product design and development management at Northwestern.
According to Herbst, SciHub will be an opportunity for exploration that should net in a positive impact by creating products based on scientific research and a human-centered design approach.
McDonagh, a business partner of Herbst and professor of industrial design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will bring a new mindset of exploring the user to the SciHub. Her expertise focuses on the holistic needs of users to ensure design outcomes satisfy functional and emotional needs.
As a design thinker and emphatic design researcher, McDonagh will provide critical support for students to help identify product opportunities and enhance the innovation of design outcomes, from ideation through to commercialization.
“As we are in an empathy economy, whatever we develop needs to offer the user more than functionality,” McDonagh said. “Technological solutions will have [what is analogous to] a vitamin deficiency if users’ needs are not at the heart of the design decision-making process.”
McDonagh believes working with Herbst, Newman and Wilczek will bring a unique interdisciplinary opportunity to blend their expertise and celebrate whole-brain thinking. She hopes their expertise combined with the visionary ideas of students will lead to incredible design solutions the world needs.
“We’re thrilled to have such high-level people joining us,” Newman said. “We’re hoping our students will follow through with their dreams. Our team of students and professionals will come together to collectively advance products and make revolutionary discoveries to profoundly enhance human life.”
Top photo: Christopher Gregory (left), a dual major in physics and materials science and engineering, and Hunter Middleton, a dual major in business entrepreneurship and data analytics, look at brain functionality with a 3D model of the human brain. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU