Summer research sizzles at ASU

Students gain valuable skills in the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates program

August 23, 2018

This summer, more than 50 undergraduate students from across the nation studied in labs at Arizona State University to develop solutions to some of the world’s most vexing problems. 

The students are part of the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program that provides valuable educational experiences for college students through active participation in science, engineering and education research at ultramodern facilities. REU projects offer universities a chance to tap a diverse talent pool and broaden student participation in use-inspired research initiatives with meaningful impact. student holding a light illuminating object on table “My favorite part of the REU experience has been working with my teammates and mentors. Getting the chance to collaborate with others, particularly people who specialize in a different subject or major, has taught me a lot,” said Jacquelyn Schmidt, a major in engineering physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Photo by Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU Download Full Image

By integrating research and education, REU aims to attract students to science and engineering programs, retain them and prepare them for careers in those fields.

NSF is interested in increasing the number of women, minorities and people with disabilities who participate in research, and particular attention is paid to recruiting students from underrepresented groups. REU sites across the country are also encouraged to involve students from communities and academic institutions where research programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are limited, including two-year colleges.

REU students participated in integrative, hands-on research with a focus on bio-geotechnical engineering, drinking water and industrial wastewater treatment, sensor device design and algorithm development, solar energy and photovoltaics. Participants helped develop solutions for a broad scope of challenges, from facilitating access to clean water to restoring degraded landscapes and revolutionizing electricity generation.

The Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering hosted REU programs this summer at sites in the NSF Engineering Research Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics, the NSF Nanosystems Engineering Research Center for Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment, the Sensor Signal and Information Processing Center and the NSF Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies Engineering Research Center.

REU provides the building blocks to succeed

Jeremy Nez, a civil engineering major at Scottsdale Community College, has been interested in creating sustainable, resilient and environmentally compatible solutions for geotechnical infrastructure since he took a tour of the NSF-funded Engineering Research Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics with the Phoenix Indian Center as a high school student.

Last year, he participated in the center’s Young Scholars program for his first exposure to research. This summer, he returned to the center to complete the REU program.

Nez worked on a bio-inspired process to stabilize and control clay swelling, teaming with Associate Professor Claudia Zapata, postdoctoral research associate Hamed Khodadadi Tirkolaei and graduate mentor Hani Alharbi, a doctoral student in civil, environmental and sustainable engineering.

Many types of infrastructure are built with a clay foundation beneath them. When some clay foundation soils come in contact with water, they expand dramatically. Clay swelling is problematic because it contributes to cracked foundations, walls, driveways, swimming pools and roads — costing millions of dollars each year.

Nez helped establish protocols for conducting efficient and economically competitive stabilization of problematic clay soils by comparing compaction characteristics of clay-treated soil with plant-based silica extracted from rice husk. Results of this research will help prevent and mitigate damage caused by clay swelling.

“I liked how the REU program was interdisciplinary,” Nez said. “You have biologists and geologists as well as civil, geotechnical and mechanical engineers working together to improve civilizations. There’s not just one major in this program, it’s very diverse.”

Nez’s two summers of research at the center have inspired him to transfer to ASU. He’ll start an undergraduate program in civil engineering this fall. Nez is one of four students participating in the REU program this summer who plan to transfer to the university.

six students standing

Six students from Glendale Community College, Phoenix College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Scottsdale Community College and the University of New Haven participated in the summer Research experience in the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics at Arizona State University. From left to right: Ibrahim Ibrahim, Lydia Kelley, Leslie Bautista, Colleen Adams, RJ Mabry and Jeremy Nez. Photo by Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU

Interdisciplinary experience drives plan for the future  

Jacquelyn Schmidt, a major in engineering physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, also wanted to study at ASU based on the interdisciplinary component of the Sensor Signal and Information Processing Center REU program.

“I have a lot of interests: data science, internet of things, machine learning and electrical engineering,” Schmidt said. “The SenSIP REU was one of the only summer programs I came across that touched on all of those areas.”

Schmidt’s research project focused on reducing turtle bycatch, which happens when turtles drown from being caught in fishing nets. Schmidt said marine biology research suggests the number of sea turtles accidentally caught can be dramatically reduced with the use of light-emitting diode, or LED, lights.

“Several research groups are continuing this research today, but a clear problem has emerged,” she said. “The LED lights are battery powered. When the batteries run out, they’re just thrown into the ocean.”

Schmidt’s team included Associate Professor Blain Christen, postdoctoral fellows Mark Bailly and Martyn Fisher, Associate Professor Michael Goryll and Assistant Research Professor Jesse Senko. They sought to find a more sustainable solution to this problem by using renewable energy to power LEDs on fishing nets.

For this project, Schmidt studied different types of renewable energy sources to determine which would be ideal for potential designs. Given that the nets are submerged in water but dried in the sun, Schmidt considered tidal and wave energy as options as well as solar charging.

“Turtle bycatch is a huge global issue and is impacting communities in Mexico, North Carolina, Hawaii and Indonesia, just to name a few,” Schmidt said. “In the future, we’re hoping to see our prototypes mass produced and used in fishing enterprises around the world.”

Schmidt said the research experience gave her valuable skills in developing a real-world product. She’s more confident in her abilities to take an idea through the product development process, from the original concept to a physical device.

Going into the SenSIP REU program, Schmidt wanted to determine whether engineering graduate school would be on her horizon.

“So far, the answer seems to be yes,” she said.

Changing the world one research experience at a time

These research centers in the Fulton Schools represent four of about 600 different REU sites across the U.S. For more than 30 years, the NSF has funded nearly 9,000 undergraduate students each year in the REU program. REU participants gain in-depth scientific research experience under the guidance of faculty members and research mentors to learn how to develop solutions.

Read more about all the REU programs hosted in the Fulton Schools this summer. 

Amanda Stoneman

Senior Marketing Content Specialist, EdPlus


ASU and Amazon inspire new student ventures with Alexa

August 23, 2018

"Alexa, who was awarded the 2018–2019 Alexa Innovation Fellowship at Arizona State University?”

Alexa, Amazon’s cloud-based voice service known for its vast trove of information and punchy responses, might reply with the name of Brent Sebold, the director of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Sebold is one of 10 national entrepreneurship faculty members selected for the 2018–2019 Alexa Fellowship. man speaking with a microphone Brent Sebold, executive director of training and development for ASU's Entrepreneurship and Innovation program, addresses the audience during the Demo Day event at Skysong in Scottsdale, Arizona, on April 27. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASUNow Download Full Image

Voice technology has significant potential for future marketplace innovations. Amazon’s Alexa Fellowship seeks to inspire undergraduate and graduate students to unlock the future of voice technology via the development of new startup ventures.  

The Alexa Innovation Fellowship is a new program this year intended to inspire and enable student-led startups to enhance their products with voice. Each Alexa Innovation Fellow receives funding, training and Alexa devices to help support student entrepreneurs on their campus.

Sebold and his faculty colleagues will use Amazon Alexa-enabled devices to help student innovators build upon their new venture concepts within various sections of ASU’s Entrepreneurship and Value Creation course, a multidisciplinary, junior-level engineering technology elective and a required course for a bachelor’s degree in business entrepreneurship or technological entrepreneurship and management. These courses are administered jointly by the Fulton Schools and ASU's W. P. Carey School of Business.

“This fellowship will allow us to increase the clock speed of student-led startup teams experimenting within the emerging market of artificial intelligence and voice technology,” Sebold said. “Thanks to this fellowship award, our students will have the opportunity to make a dramatic leap forward in the early-stage prototyping and business model experimentation process that’s necessary to produce the next big thing.”

In the course, students learn how to identify the needs of a market and pressing problems, develop impactful technology solutions, interact with customers and end users, and pitch innovations to supporters and decision-makers.

“I aim to encourage the startup teams to focus on enterprise or workplace problems that Alexa technologies can help solve, in addition to consumer and lifestyle pain points,” Sebold said. “In other words, how might we harness Alexa to make the workplace more efficient?”

This isn’t the first time ASU engineering students have had the opportunity to become leaders in voice-technology development. Last year, ASU partnered with the Amazon Alexa team to enhance engineering students’ experience in Tooker House, a recently opened high-tech campus residential complex for engineering students. Using Amazon Echo Dots, Tooker House residents gained touch-free access to information and services and became part of the first voice-enabled residential community on a university campus.

The Tooker House partnership also included four undergraduate engineering courses on voice-user interface development. Engineering students are encouraged to build their own Alexa skills and start integrating the technology into other projects.

ASU’s Entrepreneurship and Value Creation's accelerator-style, venture-based course offerings culminate with students being able to apply lean startup and disciplined entrepreneurship methodologies toward advancing their own ventures or in their roles as entrepreneurially minded industry professionals.

Students leveraging Alexa in their in-class ventures will be encouraged to apply for and participate in Venture Devils, a program collaboratively run by ASU Knowledge Enterprise Development’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the Fulton Schools with participation from all the schools across ASU.

Venture Devils guides students, faculty and community-based entrepreneurs through the process of creating a successful venture with ongoing support and mentoring. Founders in the program have access to training at all developmental levels, a dedicated venture mentor who challenges the iterative advancement of ventures and a formal process to attain funding or additional resources.

“We're thrilled to feature Amazon’s Alexa technology within ASU’s venture development funding network, which is fueled by a wide array of forward-thinking donors and sponsors,” said Ji Mi Choi, associate vice president of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at ASU. “We are committed to supporting student changemakers, disruptors and innovators across the entire university. Thanks to our collaborations with Amazon, we're now better positioned to help them experiment on the cutting edge of voice technology.”

Within just the past academic year, the program has supported nearly 400 engineering student co-founders and 132 student ventures, and approximately $355,250 in grant funding was awarded to engineering-related ventures.

Venture Devils startups incorporating Amazon’s Alexa technology will be encouraged to compete for funding and support in the bi-annual Pitch Playoff and Demo Day events, in which students present evidence-based pitches for their new venture concepts. Promising startups with Alexa integrations are eligible to receive up to $5,000 in seed grant funding.

The next Venture Devils Demo Day that may feature student ventures competing for funding through the Alexa Fellowship will take place on the last day of fall 2018 classes on Friday, Nov. 30 at 1951 @ SkySong.

“Voice is clearly becoming the next technology disruptor, much like the internet and mobile devices were,” said John Rome, ASU’s deputy chief information officer. “I’m happy to see the students in Venture Devils get access to this technology, and determine how and if voice fits into their innovation or startup. The continued partnership between ASU and Amazon enables us to inspire our students to build the technology of tomorrow.”

Through opportunities like the Alexa Innovation Fellowship and Tooker House partnership, ASU is continuing to work with Amazon on the cutting edge of creating educational and entrepreneurial opportunities for students using voice technology.

Amanda Stoneman

Senior Marketing Content Specialist, EdPlus