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Community conversation moves One Square Mile Initiative forward

March 20, 2019

ASU project to help revitalize a growing community of 230,000 residents in Phoenix

The Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions at Arizona State University is moving forward with a project to help revitalize a growing community of 230,000 residents in Phoenix.

Dean Jonathan Koppell led a community conversation in Maryvale Monday to discuss the Maryvale One Square Mile Initiative with a standing-room only crowd of stakeholders representing the neighborhood, various community groups and local police.

The initiative is a core project stemming from Sunstate Equipment founders and philanthropists Mike and Cindy Watts’ investment in the college to support Maryvale, the neighborhood where they grew up. 

“Maryvale is a great place,” Koppell said. “It’s a strong community with lots of people engaged. What we see is a community that is ambitious with aspirations to be more than it is today.”

Maryvale’s soaring population accounts for 10 percent of Maricopa County, and if it were a city, it would be the seventh largest in the state. The neighborhood is also one of the poorest in Phoenix, where 39 percent of residents lack a high school diploma or equivalency.

“There are some extraordinary things going on and there are some signs of unhealthy patterns,” Koppell said.  

Although Monday’s meeting was the first for the public at large, the college has been working on the project for months by listening to residents and soliciting feedback. That is a key piece for the long-term success of the initiative, because Koppell wants to ensure all work going forward is “of, by and for the community.”

“The idea is not that we come here, plant a flag, say we’re open for business and everything is about us,” Koppell said. “Because that’s not sustainable. What we are interested in doing is helping start things that have an organic basis and they last forever.”

To that end, the college established the Design Studio for Community Solutions. Led by Director Erik Cole, the studio will be the place to share ideas, bring in different perspectives and run possibilities up against reality.

“It’s not purely an architectural exercise,” Koppell said. “We think of it as a studio where we design concepts and we repeat, and if we fail we try again, and we design again.”

Many groups in Maryvale are already engaged in different community initiatives. Watts College is interested in helping concentrate efforts and “connect the dots” between activities that are already happening.

“There are so many assets, opportunities and organizations (engaged),” Cole said. “Maryvale Revitalization Corporation, Heart of Isaac (community center), YMCA, Grand Canyon University, school districts. None of why we are here is to say there aren’t those assets and that incredible work is not already happening.”

One other organization mentioned by Cole was Estrella Supermoms, a neighborhood block-watch program of about 20 families who help clean up Maryvale, remove graffiti and work on other service projects.

“That’s what this is about,” Cole said. “It’s really about community and coming together, and if we can be a vehicle for that, so be it.”

Monday’s community conversation also served as an opportunity to continue gathering feedback from residents. Attendees participated in three faculty-led group discussions about health and wellness; youth, families and children; and public safety. The discussions brought up areas of concern that present opportunities for improvement.

Security is an important topic often taken for granted in other neighborhoods, said Carlos Mendoza, a 16-year-old student at Phoenix Union Bioscience High School.

“Other communities have bright lights, security cameras, everything is safe and protected,” he said. “You look at the parks here; the lights are yellow, dim and so far away from each other.”

Parents don't let their children out to play after the sun goes down, because those who are not at home could find themselves in a “scary situation,” Mendoza said.

Contributing to neighborhood crime is the reality in Maryvale that many people are hesitant to report crimes to police, said Rosa Menjivar, who is the president of the Estrella Supermoms.

“We see the fear in the community that leads people to not report crime,” Menjivar said. “I need officials to help do their part in communicating more with families and get them more engaged.”

Crime is not the only safety factor challenging Maryvale residents. Simply walking down the street can be risky. The community layout and sidewalks are not pedestrian-friendly, and this can account for the high number of accidents, Mendoza said. Pedestrians have to walk a light or two down the street to get to a bus stop, which can take an extra 10 to 15 minutes. So jaywalking is common because some are willing to risk their lives to save some time.

“Sidewalks are not practical,” Mendoza said. “Things are dictated by how things are shaped, and I feel like most things here are shaped by, of course, the engineers that originally designed this community.”

Watts College has not set a specific timeline to achieve objectives of the Maryvale One Square Mile Initiative, Koppell said. The university intends to remain a resource for as long as necessary. The idea is for ASU to serve as an “empowering” force rather than an essential element needed for success.

“We can change Maryvale,” Menjivar said. “If we work as a team.”

Top photo: Dean Jonathan Koppell, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, speaks with Maryvale community members on March 18 in Maryvale. Photo by Jerry Gonzalez/ASU

Jerry Gonzalez

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications

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African-American law enforcement officers balance dual identities

African-American law-enforcement professionals talk about racism, reform.
March 14, 2019

Criminal justice system professionals talk about racism, reform during panel at ASU

African-American law enforcement officers must balance two identities simultaneously during these complicated times, and each identity serves the other, according to a panel discussion at Arizona State University on Thursday night.

Five African-American men discussed the complexity of race in their experiences as professionals in the criminal justice system in a talk titled “Being Blue from a Black Perspective” at the Beus Center for Law and Society on the Downtown Phoenix campus.

Kevin Robinson, a lecturer in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and a retired police officer, said that a student recently asked him: “Are you a black law enforcement officer or a law enforcement officer who happens to be black?”

“I didn’t answer right away, but I came to this conclusion: Being one makes me more acutely aware of being the other,” said Robinson (pictured above), who was assistant police chief in the Phoenix Police Department when he retired.

“As a police officer, I understand what happens to black males at stops sometimes. I get it. As a police officer I understand the concerns that police officers have in dealing with adverse situations. It goes both ways.”

Timothy Woods, a Phoenix Police Department patrol shift commander, said: “One thing I cannot escape from forever is the melanin in my skin.”

“Whether I have the uniform on or have the uniform off, I’m a black man. I’m proud to be a black man. I’m proud of my culture, and I’m proud to serve as a Phoenix police officer as well. It is a career path I’ve chosen,” he said.

The men described the discrimination they have faced on the job. Michael Powell, a former state trooper, deputy sheriff and retired senior manager in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, recalled how he was handcuffed by two troopers for speeding while working as an undercover agent in Miami.

“They didn’t believe I was a DEA agent, and I was locked in the back of the car,” he said. “About 15 minutes later, it didn’t turn out well for them.”

Robinson said that he more often faced racism from fellow officers on an individual basis than institutional racism.

“You have to go right to them,” he said of the racists. “And they were a real motivation for me to take promotional exams.”

Jocquese Blackwell, a criminal defense attorney in Phoenix, said he didn’t always have a good view of law enforcement. He worked in military intelligence for several years and then as an engineer before going to law school at ASU.

“I had dreads in law school, and I got pulled over all the time. I had dreads when I worked as an engineer, and I got pulled over all the time,” he said. “We need to address that.”

Cecil Patterson said that, besides being mistaken for a clerk, he also dealt with the “fishbowl syndrome.” He was the first black judge appointed to the Maricopa County Superior Court, the first black lawyer in the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and the state’s first black appeals court judge. He also was a graduate of the second class of ASU’s law school, in 1971.

“I had five major jobs in 32 years of practice, and every job I was the first and only African-American in the job. And that lasted a long time,” he said.

“I had the chance to influence, but it was on an individual level and what hurts is not having more African-Americans. If you have more people, you can have a community effort and more lasting positive change.”

Patterson said he has seen an evolution.

“One of the things that I was proud of and that has continued to happen is the presence of blacks in the system — defense attorneys, prosecutors, police officers, probation officers — and the numbers have increased,” he said.

The experts were asked what they would tell the current candidates who are running for president about the American criminal justice system and black people.

Robinson said that the next president needs to work with states to make sure that law enforcement has more training.

“If we look back at all the negative things we see occur in law enforcement with folks of color, it is lack of communication,” he said. “They don’t understand someone else or take the time to listen. You have to understand folks.”

Powell, who now owns a company that consults with law enforcement, said that accountability is critical.

“You have to hold police departments accountable, and it has to be transparent. All the action has to be transparent,” he said.

Woods said that law enforcement has often been on the wrong side of history and is now figuring out how to be on the right side.

“This goes back to slavery. When the slave ran away, who was entrusted to capture the slave? The sheriff was,” he said.

“We’ve had such a long ‘us versus them’ mentality. We’ve gone into a community and called it ‘the jungle’ or ‘the hood.’ We go in and wreak havoc and destroy and leave. But we’re entrusted to serve and protect, and a candidate needs to understand that dynamic.”

He also said that incarcerating people for nonviolent crimes is expensive and unhelpful.

“We need to be restoring the rights of people and if you don’t, you keep them in prison. And if you keep them in prison they won’t have any options to get resources, and if they don’t get them legally, they’ll get them illegally. We have to change that.”

Blackwell said that candidates who supported the 1994 federal crime bill must acknowledge that the result has been increased rates of incarceration for black people for nonviolent crimes.

“If they believed that crime was rampant and that black people and poor people were ‘superpredators,’ they need to own it and they need to apologize for it,” he said.

The talk was sponsored by the Sigma Pi Phi fraternity, the nation’s oldest African-American professional fraternity, and moderated by Greg Vincent, president of the international organization and a retired law professor.

Vincent said that the often-repeated statement that there are more black men in the criminal justice system than college is a myth.

“But what is true is that for black men in their 30s, on any given day, 1 in 10 is connected to the criminal justice system, many for nonviolent drug offenses,” he said. And although black men make up 13 percent of the population, they make up more than 30 percent of the victims of police shootings.

“We know there have been bipartisan efforts to reform the criminal justice system, and we think in the next election cycle, we’ll see this issue front and center,” he said.

Top photo: Kevin Robinson, an ASU lecturer and former assistant chief for the Phoenix Police Department, introduces the discussion "Being Blue from a Black Perspective" on Thursday evening at the Beus Center for Law and Society on the Downtown Phoenix campus. Photo by Marcus Chormicle/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now


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US News ranks ASU's disaster management program top in nation

March 11, 2019

Emergency Management and Homeland Security's top spot leads strong showing of graduate programs around ASU

Floods, fires, earthquakes and hurricanes. An Arizona State University graduate program sending professionals into the teeth of disasters was ranked the top in the nation this week by U.S. News and World Report, ahead of George Mason University, Naval Postgraduate School and Columbia.

And the Center for Emergency Management and Homeland Security did it just five years after it was created.

“It’s nice to be No. 1,” said Don Siegel, director of the School of Public Affairs, where the center is housed. “It’s an amazing achievement, and we offer a tremendous array of programs in that space.”

The center fuses academics, research and real-world experience to meet disasters and emergencies, respond to them, manage them and recover from them, in both the private and public sectors. It also educates and trains public management professionals.

The No. 1 ranking leads a strong showing of competitive graduate programs around ASU, including several others in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions: Information technology management rose to second, ahead of Georgia Institute of Technology and Syracuse University; and urban policy moved up to fourth, ahead of Harvard, the University of Chicago and UCLA.

Elsewhere around ASU, the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, College of Nursing and Health Innovation, Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and the W. P. Carey School of Business all saw graduate programs with improved rankings. See the full list at U.S. News and World Report's education website.

Managing crises and security is one of the fastest-growing job categories in both public and private sectors, according to Siegel. “There are tremendous job opportunities there,” he said.

Emergency management director is a job category not only in government agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but in large plants and facilities, and at private-sector companies like engineering, procurement and construction company Kellogg, Brown & Root.

“We see this as a growing field, and that’s why we offer so many programs,” Siegel said. “This is a growing area in government, but also in industry.”

Brian Gerber, an associate professor at the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, directs the program.

“We have a wide range of interesting people who go through the program,” Gerber said. Of three recent grads, one works for the Secret Service, another is the emergency manager for Maricopa County, and the third is the emergency planner for a Middle Eastern country’s national health system, Gerber said.

The college is also ranked third in the country for local government management. Most of ASU’s grad students in the field end up as city managers or assistant city managers.

“We train a lot of city managers,” Siegel said. “A lot of them are engaged in this, so they need to know this. It’s a very important part of their job. Not as much in a city like Phoenix, but in places like Florida, where they have all kinds of hurricanes and floods and have to deal with the response to that. ... We also place people in positions like compliance manager — very high salaries in these fields. ... It’s not just limited to the public sector.”

The vast majority of emergency management students are already working professionals. It’s a degree that’s oriented to early- or mid-career folks, Gerber said. The Emergency Management and Homeland Security degree is available online.

Part of the program’s meteoric success arises from the faculty, who are a mixture of various professors in the schools, along with a heavy component of faculty associates who are practitioners.

“That’s intentional,” Gerber said. “This being a professional degree, it’s important you have a blend of practitioner experience combined with an academic perspective that offers a different type of rigor useful to the students.”

Professor Eric Welch has done important research on how transportation departments manage extreme weather events. Associate Professor Yushim Kim has explored public health issues related to emergency management. Research Professor Melanie Gall is a hazards geographer studying the interaction between natural hazards and society. Her expertise lies in risk metrics (e.g., disaster losses, indices, risk assessments), hazard mitigation and climate-change adaptation planning as well as environmental modeling.

“The central strength of the program is that it’s an inherently interdisciplinary program precisely because policy and management issues in homeland security are inherently interdisciplinary in nature,” Gerber said. “When a disaster strikes, all types of professional disciplines are involved in response and recovery — really all phases of an emergency or disaster incident involves everyone from police and fire to public health to public works to transportation and the traditional emergency management office. We have all that expertise in the college, so the program really reflects that.”

Getting the program to the top of its game in such a short time took a lot of effort, said Siân MooneyGerber, Welch, Kim, Gall and Mooney are also senior sustainability scientists in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability., associate dean for Interdisciplinary Programs and Initiatives at Watts College.

“I am excited that we are No. 1 after only five years!" Mooney said. "This rank reflects the hard work and dedication of our faculty, and our commitment to engage community partners and students. The Watts College at ASU truly supports high-quality, interdisciplinary experiences that prepare our students for meaningful careers.”

Top photo: The Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest near in California in August 2013. Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service/Wikipedia Commons

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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ASU research finds poor engagement by parents can lead to gun carrying in boys

New ASU research proves link of poor parenting to gun carrying among boys.
March 4, 2019

Long-term study among first to track parenting, delinquent behavior and guns

A new Arizona State University study has found that boys whose parents were less involved and communicative with them during childhood were significantly more likely to carry a gun during their teen years.

The long-term study, posted in the journal Pediatrics today, followed 503 boys over 13 years and found that boys whose parents were less engaged were more likely to associate with delinquent peers and that, in turn, increased their risk of carrying a gun.

“One of the things that we were thinking about before we did the study was that parenting has been shown in studies to predict all these other kinds of adolescent problems and violence, but not specifically gun carrying,” said Jordan Beardslee, an assistant research professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at ASU, who is the primary investigator of the study.

The key finding is that poor parenting engagement leads to other behaviors that lead to gun carrying, according to Dustin Pardini, an associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice who was on the research team.

“We know from this study that early family factors are important, but there has to be a cascade of events that leads up to the actual carrying behavior,” he said.

“It’s because it sets the stage for the kid engaging in early conduct problems that are not seriously delinquent, like physical fighting, and beginning to affiliate with other kids that are engaged in similar deviant behaviors. That leads to this transition in early adolescence to more serious delinquencies, which also includes carrying a firearm illegally.”

Few studies have examined the relationship between parenting and gun carrying in adolescents, which is illegal in every state. Yet more than 7,000 young people were seriously injured or killed by firearms each year from 2012 to 2014 in the United States, according to a 2017 study that also was published in Pediatrics. Boys are more than four times more likely to be shot to death than girls, and African-American youths have the highest rates of firearm mortality, that analysis found.

The new ASU research is also unique because of the extraordinary data set, acquired through the groundbreaking Pittsburgh Youth Study, which started with first-grade boys in the Pittsburgh Public Schools system in 1987 and is still continuing. The new research paper in Pediatrics analyzed 503 subjects’ answers about gun-carrying behavior from ages 14 to 21. About 56 percent of the cohort is African-American, with 40 percent white and the rest other racial groups. After the first survey, as first-graders, the boys were interviewed every six months for four years, followed by annual assessments.

Their parents also were surveyed, with questions about how often they talked over problems with their sons or did activities together. They were asked, “Do you enjoy being your son’s parent?” And boys’ teachers also were interviewed over nine years, answering questions about the boys’ behaviors.

“It’s the most extensive longitudinal study of males that’s ever been conducted in the U.S. in terms of the frequency of assessment and the breadth of the assessments,” said Pardini, who has taken over as the lead researcher for the Pittsburgh Youth Study.

Over the 13 years that were analyzed, 20 percent of the subjects reported that they had carried a gun. But in any given year, about 4 percent to 7 percent reported that they had carried a gun at least once.

“We found that gun carrying is a very transient behavior among adolescents,” Pardini said, adding that typically the subjects reported carrying a gun only one time in the past year.

“We don’t understand the dynamics of this. But it doesn’t seem like kids who are carrying handguns are doing so every day. It seems like they’re grabbing them and using them for potentially brief periods of time.”

Pardini also is the lead researcher of the Arizona Youth Survey, which is administered to students in eighth, 10th and 12th grades every two years. The 2018 survey results, released in December, included 48,000 students in all 15 counties and addressed drug use, violence and other risk factors. The results of that survey showed that more than 6 percent of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders surveyed in Arizona reported that they carried a handgun at least once.

The Arizona and Pittsburgh surveys are unusual because they ask specifically about gun carrying — not just “weapon” carrying, he said.

“We know that guns are what’s killing kids and are the most dangerous weapon,” he said.

The Arizona survey also asks specifically about gun carrying at school — a topic that Pardini is further analyzing. Because the number of students who take guns to school is so low — less than 1 percent of respondents — he has combined two years’ worth of Arizona Youth Surveys to get a large enough sample to study.

“That’s enough to look at what distinguishes kids who carry guns but not at school compared with kids who actually carry in school,” he said.

Pardini said he knows that people are interested in research that predicts mass shootings in schools, and it was the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012 that led to a surge of federal grants for gun research after many years of that funding being blocked. But he said that mass shootings are too rare to predict.

“I feel like our focus should be on reducing the general likelihood that a kid carries a gun and targeting that rather than trying to focus on mass shooters because it’s too difficult to predict that behavior with any degree of accuracy,” he said.

“What’s sad is that it took these mass shootings for people to become interested in this topic but this has been a huge problem in the African-American community in terms of the amount of deaths that occur from firearm violence for decades and it’s been largely ignored.”

Pardini said that programs already exist to address risk factors for delinquent behaviors, including parent-management training.

“If you’re not working with parents, the effectiveness of the intervention won’t be as robust.”

Longitudinal studies are difficult because the subjects have to be tracked down over the course of several years. The researchers were able to reach 80 percent of the original Pittsburgh cohort when they were in their mid-20s.

“It takes a lot of legwork because you have to go their homes or to people who know them. At every phase, roughly 10 percent of the sample was in prison so we have to go to the prisons to interview them. If they’re out of state, we interviewed them on the phone.”

The team has more research papers forthcoming on the Pittsburgh subjects, including analysis of how gun carrying actually transitions to gun violence.

“The nice thing about Pittsburgh is that it’s a small big city and it’s a tightknit community," Pardini said. "A lot of people don’t leave and if they leave, family stays, so it’s a good city to do a longitudinal study in.”

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now


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The future of visiting the Grand Canyon

February 25, 2019

Several issues will affect tourism at the famed national park in the coming years, say two ASU experts

Editor's note: This story is part of an ASU Now series celebrating the centennial of the Grand Canyon National Park.

Grand Canyon National Park draws visitors from all over the world to bask in its beauty, making it not only a precious ecological resource to cherish but also a major economic driver for the state of Arizona. 

Balancing the twin missions of access and preservation is key to its future, according to experts at Arizona State University.

“When you think about the Grand Canyon itself, there’s so much to it,” said Megha Budruk, an associate professor in the School of Community Resources and Development in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions. 

“There’s something for geologists, there’s something for artists, something for historians, the tourists,” said Budruk, who teaches a course called Wilderness and Parks in America.

“The park is physical, but the meanings we ascribe to it allow people to connect to it in different ways,” she said.

And many more people are connecting to the Grand Canyon. The park had 6.2 million visitors in 2017, up 42 percent from a decade earlier. The month of November 2018 had 10 times more visitorsAbout 410,000 in November compared with about 38,000 in 1919. than the entire year of 1919, when Grand Canyon National Park was formed.

All those tourists generated $648 million — along with 9,800 jobs. The total economic benefit to Arizona, according to the National Park Service, was more than $900 million.

In fact, the park is so important that Gov. Doug Ducey issued an executive order in early 2018 calling for the Grand Canyon to remain open in the event of a federal government shutdown. When the government did shut down in late 2018, the state’s tourism and parks offices paid to keep day-to-day operations running.

Crowd and Shuttle

Along with the revenue, tourism brings crowds requiring roads and parking lots and toilets and maintained trails. The National Park Service, in a 2017 report, estimates that the backlog of maintenance and repairs totals nearly $12 billion nationwide. About $330 million of that is needed at the Grand Canyon. Photo by Michael Quinn/National Park Service

More popular than ever

Christine Vogt, a professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Tourism, and Budruk have done research on the Grand Canyon’s economic impact in the region.

“It’s very clear there’s a prominent route starting in Las Vegas and doing the North Rim and coming around, including the Grand Canyon and Navajo parks and back up to Utah,” Vogt said.

“The whole region, with Las Vegas and its marketing machine, is getting a lot of international visitors,” she said. “The Grand Canyon, Zion, Monument Valley, Moab — all are getting increased tourism.”

Budruk said the spillover effect is felt throughout northern Arizona, which includes Canyon de Chelly, Montezuma Castle, Navajo, Parashant, Pipe Spring, Sunset Crater Volcano, Tuzigoot, Walnut Canyon and Wupatki national monuments, Glen Canyon and Lake Mead national recreation areas, Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site and Petrified Forest National Park. The Navajo Nation is home to four tribal parks, including Monument Valley, and there are several state parks in the Flagstaff area.

“What we found is that most visitors did not have the national monuments as their primary destination but were stopping over as part of their Grand Canyon visit,” Budruk said.

But along with the revenue, all that tourism brings crowds who require roads and parking lots and toilets and maintained trails. In fact, all of the national parks are badly in need of infrastructure work. The National Park Service, in a 2017 report, estimates that the backlog of maintenance and repairs totals nearly $12 billion nationwide. About $330 million of that is needed at the Grand Canyon, mostly for water systems and trails.

“The recent shutdown shed light on what it takes to keep a park open and friendly and clean and safe,” Vogt said. “But over the course of my professional time, the backlog of infrastructure and money needed to run these parks has not changed.

“There needs to be a more significant mechanism for paying for the management and enhancing the overall park infrastructure, which then improves the park experience.”

Adding infrastructure with conservation in mind

Vogt said that one change that likely will continue is the increased role of advocacy groups like the Grand Canyon Conservancy

“They play a very important partner role with the National Park Service in fundraising and in helping to pay for infrastructure and improvements,” she said.

“They’ve supplemented and in some places have taken over the guide and interpretation programs.”

Among the Flagstaff-based nonprofit’s projects: replacing light fixtures in the park to preserve dark skies, restoring and maintaining trails and completing renovation of the Desert View Watchtower and murals. The Grand Canyon Conservancy also runs a Field Institute that offers guided day hikes, backpacking trips, cultural classes and certification courses.

Vogt and Budruk said that the Grand Canyon has done a good job of trying to balance welcoming big crowds while mitigating their effect on the environment. One solution was the redevelopment of the South Rim a few years ago to add shuttle buses and limit driving and parking.

In 2010, the park approved a climate change action plan, warning that a hotter climate could lead to changes in weather and animal habitats, more insects, an increase in frequency and intensity of wildfires and floods and changes to water flows in the Colorado River. The sale of water bottles was eliminated, solar panels were added to the visitors center and the park increased recycling and added a system to reuse wastewater for toilets and irrigation.

Another way to control crowds is to keep the North Rim open only part of the year, which allows it to rest. The lack of infrastructure, including roads and personnel, keeps the crowds down and allows visitors a more solitary experience.

Technology, including social media and wildlife cams, have been cited as a driver of tourism at the national parks, but Vogt said that the Grand Canyon has to consider limiting technology to protect the environment.

“I think a big issue is dark skies and noise pollution. Regulating drones and helicopters is important,” she said.

“I don’t think people go to the parks to have technology in their faces. One reason you go to a park is to step away from that,” she said.

Managing the park on the macro

Michelle Sullivan Govani is a PhD student in School of Life Sciences who is studying preservation across the national park system. Her research project is examining the National Park Service mandate to preserve natural resources for future generations. She has interviewed top agency officials, administrators and park rangers from around the country to see what preservation means to them and how it has changed since the agency was formed in 1916.

“In the beginning, it was about these spectacular scenes and feeling emotionally and mentally invigorated,” she said. Over time, the mission has evolved.

“It’s not that scenery isn’t still important, but it’s not what defines preservation or the park service’s mandate any more, as they would tell it,” she said.

“They’re more concerned with ecosystems and with ecological processes.”

So now, just like each park is embedded in an economic network, each park also must be managed as part of a regional ecosystem.

“Ecosystems aren’t defined by the political lines that parks are defined by, so how do we work outside those boundaries to make sure we’re preserving ecosystems as they function in reality and not just for the scenes they provide to us?” Sullivan Govani said.

“You see that in the way they’re managing parks across boundaries. They’re working with the Bureau of Land Management, with the U.S. Forestry Service and with private landowners.”

Using science to inform the management of the park system has always been part of balancing competing interests, she found. 

“The thing about National Park Service history that’s fascinating is that you see all these starts and stops with regard to how they incorporate science-based management. It’s not that whoever is in charge doesn’t support research, but priorities differ and there’s a limited budget,” she said, noting that customer service is always a concern.

Going forward, it also will be important for the Grand Canyon, as part of the National Park Service, to be more representative of the American public. The agency released a report in 2018 that revealed that its workforce is 81 percent white, 62 percent male and 42 percent over the age of 50. 

“It helps to have an agency that reflects the American population so they see somebody like themselves and feel that, ‘This is a place for me too, where I am welcomed,’” Budruk said.

Top photo: Crowd of tourists gather at an overlook at the Grand Canyon. Photo courtesy of Getty Images/iStockphoto

Audio interview by Karie Dozer.

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now


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Stories of the Grand Canyon

"This incredible hole in the ground" — ASU faculty share Grand Canyon memories.
February 25, 2019

A national park, a university and a century: Trail tales and river reports from across ASU

Editor's note: This story is part of an ASU Now series celebrating the centennial of the Grand Canyon National Park.

“For each man sees himself in the Grand Canyon.” 
— poet Carl Sandburg.

Feb. 26 marks the centennial of Grand Canyon National Park and the sesquicentennial of John Wesley Powell’s expedition down the Colorado River. Literally and figuratively, it’s Arizona’s biggest attraction. Naturally, it draws the attention of artists, faculty, and scientists from Arizona State University, the state’s biggest university.

“Oh my gosh! We are so fortunate,” said geologist Steve Semken. “We are the Grand Canyon State. What we like to say is, ‘There are bigger canyons than the Grand Canyon, and there are deeper canyons than the Grand Canyon, but none are as grand as Grand Canyon.’ It’s an iconic landscape. It exposes 2 billion years of Earth’s history. It is absolutely spectacular. It also incorporates tremendous amounts of human cultural history.”

When you’re in the world below the rims, you realize that it’s not one world; it’s a million worlds in one. Tiny grottos lined with ferns and moss and monkey flowers tinkle with water. Vast slickrock benches bake in the sun. There are broad sandy beaches; twisting, convoluted slot canyons; silent, towering stone hallways; glittering creeks and waterfalls; and yawning chasms. 

“The Grand Canyon is not just a natural environment,” said ASU history Professor Paul Hirt. “It’s an environment that takes your breath away. It’s an environment that hits you over the head with the profundity of the evolution of the planet. Looking into that incomprehensibly huge hole in the earth and thinking about the forces of erosion that shaped that, and how long it took, gives you an ability to think about things way beyond the human timescale and the human perspective.”

The best way to tell the story of the canyon and the draw it has had on the university community is that way, by examining one small world at a time. You will hear the experiences of a disparate group of people. Some of them have only gazed into its depths from the edge. Some have vanished into the place for months at a time. Their stories join to tell a single story, in the way hundreds of side canyons snake together to form one Grand Canyon.

The canyon’s story is a story of love and death and loss, fascination and obsession, of the passions of humankind and how a place reflects them.

“Every time I go I’m like, ‘My God, why don’t I go here more often?’” said geology Professor Ramon Arrowsmith.

Moon over canyonA yellow full moon just above the horizon of a canyon rim. On the left a pointed peak of orange and white stone layers. The view is from Powell Memorial on the South Rim of the park. Photo by Michael Quinn/National Park Service

The university president

It’s 1962. A carsick 7-year-old Michael Crow and his three siblings are in the back of a 1956 Pontiac Star Chief, driving from San Diego to Iowa. They ate ham — from a can you opened with a key — with saltines and drank Pepsi. His father was the type of driver who usually stopped only for gas. On this trip, he also stopped at the Grand Canyon. Crow’s father liked to frighten his kids, so he pretended he was mad and gunned the car toward a rim overlook.

“I remember seeing it and being inspired by not just its size, but what somebody told me: that most of the erosion was not the water, it was the wind,” Crow said. “Even as a kid I was like, ‘How is that possible? How can the wind do that?’ And I had no concept of time and what the wind could do over millions and millions of years, or water and the wind. I just remember being awe-inspired by the thing.”

The family got back in the car and went to the Painted Desert, where Crow got in a fight with his brother, dirtied his clothes and had to spend the rest of the trip in his underwear.

His subsequent Grand Canyon adventures have been no less memorable. He has hiked down to the river and back in a day seven times, and he has done two rim-to-rim hikes.

One of those two rim-to-rims was a contest hosted by former Arizona Regent Greg Patterson. Two months before the hike, Patterson ran into Crow. “You don’t look like you’re training,” he said. “You look fat.”

“I’m training,” Crow said, tapping his temple. “Right here.”

“Well, I hope that works out well for you,” said Patterson.

Crow decided to make the hike a mental challenge, inspired by natural beauty and the challenge itself. His objective was to hike the whole thing nonstop. No breaks at all.

The group started on the North Rim before dawn on a beautiful October day. Crow and a 17-year-old lacrosse player took off at the same time.

“He was like a rabbit to me,” Crow said, referring to the fakes that racing greyhounds chase. “I’m going to do my best, whatever it takes to keep up with that kid as if everything depends on that. I kept up with him until Indian Gardens.”

At that point it’s another four and a half miles to the South Rim, but it’s very steep, with about 3,800 feet of elevation gain. Crow discovered the big toenail on his right foot was no longer attached.

“It’s causing me a little bit of pain, so I decided to pull it off. My wife is always thrilled when my toenails fall off in my hiking boots. For whatever reason, I was probably going too fast, didn’t have my toenail trimmed to perfection. That was the one time I stopped. … After that I’ll say I was much less effective.”

The last mile and a half was the hardest part for him, but he went through the canyon in eight hours and 45 minutes, finishing in the top five.

Patterson took 16 hours, finishing 34th out of the group of 34. “I was back in Phoenix before he got out of the canyon,” Crow said with a laugh.

Four years ago, Crow almost drowned in the Colorado River.

“That was the second-closest I’ve ever come to drowning,” he said.

He was on a six-day August paddle boat trip from Lees Ferry to the Bright Angel trail when the guide told everyone they could ride through a small rapid in their life jackets. The river is bitter cold because it comes out of Glen Canyon Dam from the bottom of Lake Powell. It doesn’t heat up, even in summer.

Crow watched his teenage daughter and a few other people plunge in and shoot through the rapids without incident. So he jumped out of the boat.

“I had not checked my life jacket carefully enough. I’m a pretty good swimmer, but my life jacket didn’t fit, so it shot up over my head.”

He was underwater, with the life jacket pinning him down and the 40-degree water sending him plunging into hypothermia.

“It’s not allowing me to get any air. I thought to myself, ‘Really? You? Eagle Scout? Trained lifeguard? A person that knows how to hike and swim and all that? You’re going to drown from some stupid little life jacket problem with your kids down there waiting for you?’ I guess the only thing I could think to do was try to pull it down and hold it, and then kick with my legs.”

Meanwhile, his son and another passenger were in the boat, laughing their heads off.

“They thought this was the most hilarious thing they’d ever seen. They dragged me in. I had a few superlatives to say about my life jacket. They throw me in the raft, which had about this much water in it, and my head is underwater. They let me drown in that for a little bit and pulled me out and said, ‘Are you relaxed?’”

Other than almost drowning, it was a great trip. They hiked to waterfalls and Anasazi granaries high above the river and lay on warm sand at night gazing at the stars. Would Crow float the river again?


Rafting Lava Falls

Boaters running Lava Falls Rapid on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park. Photo by Mark Lellouch/National Park Service

The floating professor

Paul Knauth is a professor emeritus of geology who retired in 2016. While at the university, he led 32 geology rafting trips sponsored by the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Knauth also led 70 student field trips to the South Rim. “With the student trips, we’d do some 'death marches' down the Kaibab Trail, have them work on the rocks, and then have them come out — (we'd) do that two days in a row,” he said.

Back in camp, his students would work on describing and interpreting the stories in each layer of rock. What was it? What did it look like the day that unit was made and deposited? What caused it?

“That night, sitting around the campfire in Mather Campground, which is my second home, was the most satisfying thing to me in teaching,” Knauth said. “Those people were on a high. They had confidence. They felt like they were geologists. Not only that, they felt they owned the Grand Canyon because they had not just stood at the rim and looked, they’d gone down there and interacted with it in the deepest way possible. To be around a group of people like that, with that kind of feeling … it was a wonderful experience for me as a teacher. If they didn’t have that, I would have been very disappointed. You let the canyon do that to them. I just got out of the way.”

ASU's first float trip was in 1962. A PhD candidate named Everett Gibson decided the university needed to do a geology rafting trip. He contacted Hatch River Expeditions and set the idea in motion. They did three day trips from Lees Ferry to Phantom Ranch, then hiked out.

Knauth went for the first time in 1984. The next year he led the trip.

Calm boating Colorado Grand Canyon

Boating down the Colorado River below Havasu Creek in Grand Canyon National Park. Photo by Mark Lellouch/National Park Service

The ASU geology trip is open to the public and costs $3,000. It’s not advertised, but it sells out every year. People come from all over the world for it. For many years it was 36 people on three boats. Eight years ago the park service cut them down to two boats.

“Now it’s even harder to get on this trip,” said Knauth, who will be going again this year. 

While at ASU, Knauth taught sedimentology, geology of the Grand Canyon and astrobiology, among other courses.

“Where else in the country can you teach a class, go up on a Friday, do a day and a half in the canyon, and be home for supper on Sunday night?” he said. “I took full advantage of it when I taught geology. … It’s the greatest teaching resource you can have. … That’s recreation and tomfoolery and research. I’ve done it all at the canyon.”

The geomorphologist

Kelin Whipple is a geomorphologist at ASU. He studies how wind, water, climate and tectonics shape the Earth.

How the canyon was formed is a bit of a chicken-and-egg question. Before 6 million years ago, there was no river running along that path.

“It’s a young river, geologically speaking,” Whipple said. “The canyon was cut quite young, cut quite quickly sometime soon after 6 million (years). After that, everything is debated. How much is uplift of the plateau playing a role, and how much is just a river cutting back into a preexisting uplifted plateau? It’s very much a topic of debate.”

How was the canyon cut, and when did the Colorado River appear in that formation? It’s tough to study, because the canyon is a net erosional environment. Simply put, most of the evidence is gone. The river is silty and the plateau is windy.

“It’s been studied a lot, and it’s been debated the whole time, for the 100 years (of the park's existence) and before that, since Powell 150 years ago,” he said. “Today, it’s about the age and timing of the Colorado and other rivers, the San Juan and the Goosenecks. It’s been debated constantly.”

Mather Point inversion Grand Canyon

View from Mather Point on the South Rim. Cloud inversions are formed through the interaction of warm and cold air masses. Photo by Erin Whittaker/National Park Service

A controversial 2012 University of Colorado study made quite a splash when the authors put the canyon at 70 million years old.

“But the main, young, canyon is less than 6 (million), we think,”” Whipple said. “In my view, that thermochronology data — clever as it is — there must be something incomplete in our understanding of how to interpret that data to allow it to look like it’s that old when it’s not. That’s an unresolved debate that’s going on. There’s more scientists that believe in the Younger Canyon side than the Older Canyon side.”

Whipple looks at erosion rates outside the canyon vs. inside the canyon. Erosion rates are faster in the canyon, and the rates are about right to carve that deep of a canyon in about 6 million years.

Most of Whipple’s work has either been remote or done on rafting trips. He’s gone on a two-week raft trip where they stopped everywhere they could get access to a new rock unit.

“Pile out of the raft real quick, pull out all the seismic gear, run out a line of geophones, do the rock hammering thing on a steel plate, record the signals that give you the velocity that the acoustic waves go through the rock, and that is correlated with the rock strength and its density and all that stuff,” he said, describing a typical day. “You gather the stuff back together, you get it in the raft, fight for your life to survive the next rapid, and get out and do it again. We’ve done a couple of trips doing that.”

If scientists want to float the river for research, they need a research permit and they have to apply in the lottery as well. On Whipple’s trip, the crew of about 20 all entered the lottery. (He got the permit, earning him the enviable position of trip leader. The trip leader sets the rules — they usually don’t cook, for instance. “TL does nothing,” Whipple said with a laugh.) “There’s a great community sense on those trips, when you’re all cooking and cleaning together and you’re pretty isolated. It’s pretty fun.”

And, of course, he goes to the canyon for recreation.

“It’s still astounding to me,” he said. “I feel like every time we approach that canyon it’s like a religious experience. You just drive across this low-relief plain. There’s no indication a canyon is coming, then all of a sudden, WHOOSH! There it is — this incredible hole in the ground, with really spectacular scenery with all the colors and different ledges. It’s mind-blowing to me every time.” 

The volcanologist and the ecosystem scientist

Heather Throop is an ecosystem scientist in the School of Life Sciences and the School of Earth and Space Exploration. She studies drylands across the globe. Christy Till is a volcanologist in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. Both run trails for fun, often together. Last fall they decided to do a rim-to-rim run.

“I like having goals, and planning for trips, and this seemed like a really good goal to have,” Throop said.

ASU professors Heather Throop and Christy Till take a selfie during a trail run in the Grand Canyon

ASU faculty Heather Throop (left) and Christy Till did a rim-to-rim trail run last fall, just for fun.  

They ran from the South Rim to the North Rim, down the Bright Angel Trail and up the North Kaibab Trail, “to torture ourselves with more uphill,” Throop said. “I think most people go the other way, but we very intently went the other way.”

They enjoyed the geology during the run. Till has hiked the canyon before, spending more time staring at rocks than she did during the run.

“But it’s also nice to see it all in one go,” she said. “You’re always impressed with the scale of it, but you’re moving very quickly through units, so you get a little bit more of a story. ‘Oh, now we’re in a marine unit; we’re underwater. Now we’re in a shallow, beach-like environment’ — things like that. You kind of get that story as you move through everything, which is fun.”

They checked out every major rock layer. They brought a cheat sheet, but Till amused herself by looking at it with a scientist’s eye.

“Part of the fun as a geologist is trying to see if you can reason your way through it rather than memorize it; ‘Oh, yeah, I can see these ripple marks or these cross-beds that tell me they were sandstone dunes in the past,’” she said.

They stopped at the Great Unconformity for pictures. An unconformity is a surface in the rock record representing a time from which no rocks are preserved. It could represent a time when no rocks were formed, or a time when rocks were formed but then eroded away. In the Grand Canyon the length of time varies along its length, anywhere from 175 million years to 1.6 billion years, depending on where you are.

“We were going quickly, but we were stopping a lot,” Throop said. “That was way more satisfying to me than someone who just wanted to run it for a goal of the time.”

At the river they stopped on the bridge, then for a lemonade break at Phantom Ranch.

“It’s kind of fun to be down there,” Till said. “There are people who are on a river trip or whatever. There are people who are staying at Phantom Ranch, and everyone is having a different experience. ... Everyone is very nice and sort of courteous, and there’s sort of a trail culture where everyone says hello to each other.

“I hadn’t been up on the north side since I was a child, and getting to experience how different the South and the North Rim are from each other, you see slightly different rocks going up and down both sides,” Till said. “It was a wonderful way to take it in as a whole. ... That was really cool.”

Throop was stunned by the contrast in vegetation between elevations.

“You’ll go around a corner in the canyon and the vegetation changes completely,” she said. “That was pretty neat to see at the speed of running.”

Commercial raft launch Lee's Ferry Grand Canyon

Rafts at Lees Ferry prepare for a trip through the Grand Canyon. Additional side floats will be attached for the downriver trip. Essential supplies await loading. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The resource management expert

Legendary boatman Regan Dale and his extended family spent a whopping 103 days in the canyon, the crowning glory of the '70s trend of slow-boating — making a trip last as long as possible. Called the Hundred Days Trip, it has not been repeated. 

Dave White came close, though. A professor in the School of Community Resources and Development at ASU, White was a grad student in the summer of 1998 when he spent 60 days on the river for a social science research project studying how visitors experience it, to inform the National Park Service's Colorado River Management Plan. 

“What struck me the most was the quirkiness of the people who recreate and work down there,” White said.

For the research, White was randomly assigned to travel with commercial and private trips where he conducted observational research and administered survey questionnaires to rafters and guides. On commercial trips, he contributed to the chores as part of the crew and blended in. Private trips, where everyone usually knows each other well, were another story. Imagine going to a stranger’s house for Thanksgiving — and Thanksgiving lasts up to 18 days. He floated with Christians who sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” through the rapids and with partiers who enjoyed various substances throughout the trip.

After two months of sleeping under the stars and listening to the trill of canyon wrens and the gurgle of water, White got off his last trip and flew from a dirt airstrip to Las Vegas. Ninety minutes later he was in a busy casino restaurant, gobsmacked by the noise and bustle and lights.

That summer on the river inspired White’s work as director of the Decision Center for a Desert City, where he carries out climate, water and decision research for cities dependent on Colorado River water. The river reaches far beyond its banks. It is in our food, the cotton on our backs, our yards and in every aspect of life in the Southwest. Twenty million people directly depend on the river, and White works to ensure that it will be sustainable into the future.

Anasazi granaries Nankoweap Gran Canyon

Prehistoric granaries along the Colorado River above Nankoweap in Marble Canyon. The oldest human artifacts found within the park are nearly 12,000 years old and date to the Paleo-Indian period. There has been continuous use and occupation of the park since that time. Photo by Mark Lellouch/National Park Service

The education researcher

Sports like baseball and basketball are taught in schools, but outdoorsmanship is not. Like hunting and fishing, it’s usually passed down from generation to generation. This is a story of three generations at the Grand Canyon.

It was 1973 and Scott Marley was 2 years old. The Marley family visited Havasupai Falls in the canyon. They carried him down there, but on the way out they let him do the final mile, a steep climb up a switchbacking cliff trail.

Marley now is an associate professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. Each year he spends about 50 to 60 days backpacking the canyon. He’s working on finishing up his sectional hike of the canyon’s full length.

“It’s one of those things where if I took two weeks off I could probably go finish it,” Marley said. “You’re kind of just plunking along at whatever you feel like. Eventually you’re like, ‘Oh, I’ll go sew the line up.’ It’s not as dedicated as ‘I’m going to do this piece, this piece and this piece.’”

His father is one of the few people who have hiked the length of the canyon. Robert Marley did it with a partner in 55 days on the south side in 1980.

“We spent our summers up there, bouncing around the rim on the dirt roads, camping out for weeks,” Marley said. “He was always poking around, trying to find some line or something. That was a pretty lucky childhood, I’d say. We thrived off of it.”

Before his epic hike, Robert Marley was involved with a Phoenix Boy Scout troop in the 1970s, along with a lot of fathers who were hiking fanatics.

“They did a lot of lines that break the norms,” Marley said. “I don’t think anyone else has really done it since. Everyone’s Boy Scout troop has been down to Grandview. Everyone’s troop has been down to Bright Angel campground. But whose troop has hiked the Walter Powell Route? (A 2.4-mile beast with 3,200 feet of elevation gain.) Whose Boy Scout troop has done the Freefall Route in Marble Canyon? The fact that parents would let their kids go on some of these hikes, it has to be because they just didn’t know.”

By the time Scott Marley came of age to tackle those envelope-pushing trips, the Boy Scouts hit the brakes on them. His father went off to do his own thing, eventually culminating in his epic 1980 hike. Then he became obsessed with rafting. The Marleys rafted the Colorado and rivers across the West.

Marley has a 3-year-old son. “I took him down to Havasupai to re-enact it, and he had a blast down there, playing around the waterfalls, that kind of thing. It was good stuff. I hope he buys into it the way my brother and I have. I just think it’s good for kids, a good thing for them to do.”

Hilairy Hartnett field geochemistry class at Horseshoe Bend

Oceanographer Hilairy Hartnett's field geometry class at Horseshoe Bend. As part of Hartnett's project to study carbon cycling in the Colorado River, the students took samples at 12 sites along the river, from Yuma to Wyoming. Photo courtesy of Hilairy Hartnet.

The oceanographer

Hilairy Hartnett, an oceanographer in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the School of Molecular Sciences, won a National Science Foundation award to study carbon cycling in the Colorado River. The study ran from 2009 to 2014, and the last papers are being written up now.

The work was to understand the types of carbon that get put into the river from the land, from bacteria and algae in the river that create organic matter, from human-influenced material and from other sources. How does that carbon change as it moves downstream? Is it broken down by sunlight in the reservoirs? Does it get buried in sediments in reservoirs? What happens to it?

The award has a strong education component to it, and this one was to develop opportunities for undergrads to do field research associated with the main research project. As a local project with large-scale scope and impacts, it was a great opportunity. 

“It’s great for Arizona students because it’s place-based,” Hartnett said. “They know the Colorado River. It’s familiar because we live here.”

The project took samples at places like Lees Ferry, where the Grand Canyon begins; at Willow Beach below Hoover Dam; on the river at Blythe; down at Yuma; as far north as Green River, Wyoming, and other places — 12 sites along the river in all. 

Even if those students didn’t go into science as a career, they learned about a vital resource and are more informed and concerned citizens as a result. Twenty million people depend on the river.

In the summer of 2016, Hartnett and her husband went on Paul Knauth’s geology raft trip through the Grand Canyon. Despite years of experience as an oceanographer and studying deep-sea sediments and teaching about geology and inland seas, she wasn’t prepared for the experience.

Hilairy Hartnett and Stan Klonowski during a Grand Canyon rafting trip

Associate Professor Hilairy Hartnett and her husband, Stan Klonowski, on Paul Knauth’s geology raft trip through the Grand Canyon. Klonowski, a lab manager in the Fulton Schools, had previously been Knauth’s lab technician for almost 15 years. Photo courtesy of Hilairy Hartnett  

“I think of it as I know the Colorado,” she said. “It’s my river. I study it. I’ve taken students to it. I teach about it. And until I’d gone down the river in a boat, I didn’t know anything about the river. ... Until you’re at the bottom of the Colorado, looking up at essentially a mile of sedimentary rock, imagining oceans over your head depositing sediment very slowly over billions of years, you don’t ever internalize the idea that you’re sitting in a place that was a lot of the ocean once. It was amazing — amazing!

“Then you realize this river has carved down through billions of years of time. Those rocks are ancient. It was pretty spectacular. It was astounding to me as a geoscientist and earth scientist. It’s mind-blowingly beautiful, even to someone who studies rocks. ... If you haven’t been to the bottom, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like.”

Hartnett loves the fact that through science, she has a strong connection to a quintessential piece of Arizona.

“I’m not from Arizona, but when I moved here I wanted something regional with real science attached to it that I don’t know much about,” she said. “The biogeochemical study of the river surprisingly hadn’t been done much before I started that project. That was cool.”

She and her husband are planning a kayaking trip on the river.

The historian

Paul Hirt is an ASU history professor who specializes in environmental history and sustainability. His first trip to the canyon was in 1976. That summer he was hanging out with some friends in Flagstaff, camping out in City Park. A German tourist stopped by, looking for someone to backpack into the canyon with.

“I said, ‘I’ll come,’ because I had my backpack and I had nothing better to do,” Hirt said.

They got a ride to the South Rim and picked up a permit to enter the canyon, but all the campgrounds were full.

“The only campground that had a space left in it was all the way down to the river and all the way up Bright Angel Creek to Cottonwood Campground, so it was like 13 miles,” Hirt said. “It was my first hike into the Grand Canyon, with inappropriate equipment, a crappy old backpack from Boy Scout days … I had more blisters on my feet that day than I’ve ever had in my life.”

Hirt directed a multimedia educational project, “Nature, Culture and History at the Grand Canyon,” that includes a digital audio tour of Grand Canyon Village, a walking tour brochure and Travelin’ Trunks for K-20 teachers.

“First I researched the Grand Canyon because I loved it, rather than loving the Grand Canyon because I researched it,” he said. “I was going to the Grand Canyon long before I turned it into a scholarly project, and I will go to the Grand Canyon long after I retire from my scholarly career.”

Hirt may be inspired by the creative things found in cities, like great restaurants and art exhibits and craft beer and performances, but not fulfilled.

“There’s so much to do in the city, but the city doesn’t bring me equanimity,” he said. “I get perspective and inspiration that lasts when I go to nature, when I’m quiet, when the noise around me is silenced and I’m filled with the environment around me, rather than hundreds of details of things competing for my attention in the city: honking cars, traffic lights changing, neon signs and stuff like that. The universe has been here for 12 billion years. The planet has been here for 5 billion years. The Grand Canyon has been here for 5 or 6 million years. Our lifetime, this year, this presidential administration, this career that I have, is such a small, tiny piece of the larger world. When you go to a place like the Grand Canyon you really gain the kind of perspective that lets you put your own life in perspective when you get back from it.”

Trail of Time Grand Canyon

The geographic Trail of Time is set up at the Grand Canyon. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

The geoscience educator

Steve Semken was part of a project at the canyon that helps visitors put things in perspective.

A team from different universities created an interpretive project to explain the canyon’s geology to visitors, helping them make an “intellectual and emotional connection” to the park, as officials say.

“It was the most fun project I’ve ever been a part of,” said Semken, a geoscience educator in the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

The Trail of Time is a 2.83-mile interpretive walking timeline focusing on Grand Canyon geology. It helps visitors to explore and understand the geologic time of Grand Canyon rock layers and landscapes.

The exhibit follows the paved rim trail on the South Rim of Grand Canyon between Yavapai Observation Station and Grand Canyon Village and is marked by brass markers every meter, representing 1 million years of time.

“Basically one long step represents a million years, which is an amount of time in itself almost incomprehensible. … You actually walk out the history,” Semken said.

The team spent four years at the canyon working on the Trail of Time, visiting at least once a month. Almost 50 rock samples were brought up from the canyon by raft and helicopter. They brought parts of the canyon that are usually very difficult to get to up to the rim. Mockups of the design were built and tested at ASU. The trail was completed in 2010.

“We think the Trail of Time is one of the most rigorously evaluated exhibits in the whole National Park system,” Semken said. “Our evidence suggests it is.”

Semken leads an ASU field trip to the canyon at least once a semester. He has three river trips under his belt. He enjoys hiking up side canyons on his own, where it’s just him and the wildlife.

“As big as the canyon seems from the rim — and it does seem very big — when you’re down in the bottom of it it seems endlessly bigger,” Semken said. “Your entire reality is down there. We talk about the rim world, which is everything outside of the canyon. When you’re down there, you’re usually down there for two weeks. You start at Lees Ferry and you end at Pearce Ferry. It’s 277 river miles, and very little interaction with civilization. You stop at Phantom Ranch perhaps and provision yourself and get water and maybe make a phone call and have an ice cream cone, and then you’re back on the river again. The only other people you see are fellow river travelers. … Communication is spotty. We take a satellite phone, which works most of the time but not always. … So you’re really isolated for two weeks. You’re just there with your companions and the wildlife and the river.”

Mark Klett Anvil Pan

Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe, 2008 photograph: "At the canyon's edge: From the foot of the Toroweap to the 'Devil's Anvil' overhang with an upstream view of the Colorado River" contains pictures from William Bell taken in 1872. Bell's photos are courtesy of the National Archives.

The fine art photographer

Family hops out of car, runs to rim, stands in a row in front of viewpoint, has picture taken. It happens thousands of times a day at the canyon, and it has been happening since 1883, when organized tourism began. Canyon photos through the decades show women wearing Victorian high-collar blouses in the 1890s, cloche hats in the 1920s and bouffants and miniskirts in the 1960s.

Canyon photos have been made for all different reasons. Photographing the canyon began during the 19th-century surveys, when the government was trying to figure out what was there. Ansel Adams and others made fine art photos. High modernist photos were made in the 20th century. Commercial photos were taken to sell to tourists. The railroads and park service made promotional photos.

“People don’t really know the visual history of the canyon — seeing all the relationships that were occurring there between different kinds of photographers making different images of the same spot,” said fine art photographer Mark Klett, a Regents' Professor in the ASU School of Art.

Klett and partner Byron Wolfe, a former MFA student, have collaborated on projects for more than 20 years. They did a project in Yosemite where they overlaid contemporary photos with vintage illustrations and photos. They began thinking about the history of photography in national parks. Klett suggested they work on Grand Canyon.

“We realized there was just thousands and thousands of pictures made there in the 19th and 20th centuries that we could start to mine,” Klett said. “There’s this really broad range of all these different kinds of pictures of the same subjects. You never see them put together in a way that’s meant to show the contrasting ways of seeing the canyon, made by different people with different purposes. ... Now, with tourist images, since the advent of digital and smartphones and so on, social media is just packed.”

They began in 2007. Digital cameras had just gotten good, and the duo could do research online, onsite.

“We could go to the El Tovar and sit in the lobby and get on their wifi and look at the images in the National Archives or the USGS or any number of places where we could tap into and start downloading pictures, then we could just get out there and check them out. It was pretty cool, having all the resources right there,” Klett said. “Everything was incredibly convenient, working at the canyon. We loved it there.”

"Reconstructing the View: The Grand Canyon Photographs of Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe" was published in 2012 after five years of work.

Klett Adams Point Imperial

Point Imperial was photographed by Ansel Adams in 1941 and Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe in 2008. Adams' photo courtesy of the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona.

“We had a really good response to it,” Klett said. “I think people really like that idea of linking history to their present experience.”

Technically the project was challenging. It wasn’t as simple as holding up an image to a view and going, “That’s it; here’s the spot.”

Klett explained: “Once you get to that spot, and you know where that picture was made, then you have to think about things like the lens, focal length, time of day and stuff like that. The time of day and time of year can matter.”

Almost all survey photographs in the 19th century were done in the summer, because that's when the crews were there. But Klett found one photo from the North Rim that couldn't have been done in summer because the light was too low.

“I went back every month for like a year until I finally figured out it was done in late December or early January,” he said. “It was totally unexpected. … Sometimes you just have to keep going back.”

He still keeps going back. He first went to the canyon in 1983, and he has grown fond of a few particular spots over the years: the North Rim in general, Point Sublime, the remote stretches around Kanab Creek where he has had to lower bags of camera gear down 50-foot pour-overs and Toroweap.

“That’s maybe the best spot where you can get literally right over the river and there’s a big drop and you can look both upstream and downstream. You’re sort of right above Lava Falls, and it’s just a gorgeous part of the canyon.”

The geologist

Ramon Arrowsmith, a geology professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, has published a couple of papers on active faults in the western part of the Grand Canyon. This summer he is doing interpretation on a weeklong float down the river sponsored by the Institute of Human Origins. He and another ASU faculty member will tell stories during cocktail hour on the beach.

“It’s a chance for us to talk about our work,” Arrowsmith said. “Our idea is to share our enthusiasm for the history of the Earth and the history of life on Earth by this really amazing field experience.”

Arrowsmith has floated the river six times. His first time was on a private trip, when he was in grad school.

Flatwater rafting Grand Canyon

Two rafts float on the Colorado River. Photo courtesy of Getty Images/iStockphoto

“We were down there for 18 days,” he said. “Talk about an attitude adjustment. It was amazing. We were in oar boats and we took our time. … I was kind of an inefficient rower, and we’d get caught in those late afternoon up-canyon winds, and if we weren’t careful we’d be pulling ourselves down the canyon. That was hard work. They gave me that job because I was the drone, you know?”

At the bottom the canyon is 1.8 billion years old. There are trilobite trails and nautiloid fossils.

“It’s so cool,” Arrowsmith said. “We always talk about the rim world and the river world. As you go down, your sense of time changes because you tell time by sunlight rather than by your clock.

“The idea is to get up early and get on the river and get going, and pull over to some side canyons and do some hikes and see some spectacular features both kind of the modern flora and fauna and geomorphology of the river — but also it’s an amazing opportunity to look back in time. When you talk about Earth science and geology as a sort of time machine, that’s the place you really feel it.”

Colorado River night camp

"River Mile 202, melancholy about the end, buoyed by star- and firelight." Photo by Phillip Engle, courtesy of Ceiba Adventures River Outfitting Services   

The unbearable lightness of insignificance

Being deep within the bones of the Earth, surrounded by silence and towering cliffs that blot out much of the sky, can bring on the realization that we are nothing but tiny specks and our whole lives are an eyeblink.

Hirt finds that stimulating rather than depressing.

“Some people, when they’re made to feel small, it’s really oppressive,” he said. “I think that the way the Grand Canyon makes you feel small is expansive. … Most people, you stand on the rim and look down: It’s really, really hard not to be silent and awestruck. We use that word ‘awesome’ all the time. It’s kind of overused, but there is a deep cultural meaning to the word ‘awe’ and ‘awesome.’ I’d say the Grand Canyon is one of those places — if you’re not sure what ‘awesome’ is, in the most literal sense, go to the Grand Canyon and stand on the rim and you will understand for the first time.”

Klett feels the solitude and sense of feeling insignificant is substantial and important.

“Everything focuses on the here-and-now when you’re there," he said. "You realize that you’re, in some ways, less significant in that situation. You wouldn’t think about that sort of thing when you’re not there. You think about your daily routine and how much you have to do and stuff like that. It puts you in a different place. … It’s liberating, and I think it’s wonderful. It’s a little humbling. … You look all around you and realize this is a place that took a long time to form. Not only are you this little speck down there, but the time that you’re spending there is just this blink of time.”

Andrew Holycross is a herpetologist and an adjunct professor in the School of Life Sciences. He is the ninth person of 10 to thru-hike (to walk without leaving) the length of Grand Canyon and only the third person to walk the length on both north and south sides. There is a yin and yang to his view of the sensation.

“I feel that in terms of the physicalness of existence, because of the scale of the canyon and the stars at night and things like that, you realize how small you are physically in the universe," Holycross said. "But from a spiritual point of view, you feel more a part of everything, so maybe bigger in a way. It’s kind of weird those two things are opposites.”

Top photo: End-of-day sun hits the tops of the canyon walls. Photo by Craig Zerbe/Getty Images/iStockphoto 
Special thanks to Ceiba Adventures, River Outfitting Services, Flagstaff, Arizona. 

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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Hawaii faces cultural roadblocks to combatting sex trafficking

February 20, 2019

Pair of studies demonstrates that the state has created an environment where sex trafficking thrives with little interference

Known for its palm trees, beautiful beaches and nearly perfect year-round weather, Hawaii is rightfully called paradise.

But underneath that idyllic image is something darker: sex trafficking. According to one Arizona State University researcher, pretty much anything goes in the land of aloha.

Her two recent studies, “Sex Trafficking in Hawaii: Exploring Online Buyers” and “Sex Trafficking in Hawaii: The Stories of Survivors,” were funded by the Kaimas Foundation. The findings lay out the case that Hawaii does not have an organized effort to combat sex buying, fosters a culture of turning a blind eye and demonstrates a crisis of priorities in the general lack of response by law enforcement. 

“It is genuinely troubling that more people are penalized for homelessness and jaywalking in Honolulu than for buying sex,” said Roe-Sepowitz, who worked with the Hawai’i State Commission on the Status of Women to explore the issue. 

ASU Now spoke to Roe-Sepowitz about her studies and the world of sexual exploitation. 

Editor's note: Responses have been edited for clarity.

Question: Why do you think Hawaii is lacking in combatting sex trafficking? 

Answer: There are a number of factors that have slowed the progress of building awareness and providing services for victims of sex trafficking in Hawaii. These include widespread disinterest, collusion or corruption within law enforcement who are the front line of access to victims, a pro-sex work community that encourages the idea that sex trafficking in Hawaii is a myth, a culture of misogyny and the cultural silencing of victims of all types of abuse.   

Multilayered issues such as the easy availability of drugs, high rates of homelessness and residents being limited in their movement to escape trafficking situations due to Hawaii being an island add to the complexity of providing services to sex trafficking victims.

In Hawaii, we have been told this work is much needed, and we have also been told that our research isn’t going to change anything. We hope that this research will help to infuse new information to support the good work that has begun and help to design future anti-sex trafficking activities.  

Some services specific to sex-trafficked children are being provided, and new programs are being developed on some islands including crisis shelters, mentoring programs, residential sites and family therapy, but there continues to be a lack of resources for adult victims.

Dominique Roe-Sepowitz

Associate Professor Dominique Roe-Sepowitz is the director of the ASU Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Q: Your study shows that 1 in 11 men in Hawaii search online to pay for sex. Is this higher or lower than the average state?

A: This was a surprise. We were under the assumption — (as is) common lore in Hawaii — that sex buyers were mostly outsiders. Nearly three-quarters of the sex buyers responding to our decoy sex advertisements called from the 808 Hawaii area code. On average, the volume of unique sex buyers in Hawaii was nine times higher than an average call volume for a similar decoy advertisement in Phoenix, Arizona (407 unique callers compared to 45 unique callers). This indicates that not only is the online sex-buyer population in Hawaii large, but the majority of the customers are locals. In our most recent study exploring the experiences of sex trafficking victims, sex buyers were described as visitors, military and locals. They were politicians, law enforcement, doctors, judges, businessmen and travelers. Sex buyers self-identified in the sex-buyer study as surfers, locals, tourists and military personnel.  

The estimate of sex buyers in Arizona in an identical study that we conducted was 1 in 20 men in Arizona is searching online to buy sex. 

A well-known and well-researched element of deterring sex trafficking in a community is to address the demand for prostitution (the primary component of sex trafficking). The lack of attention by law enforcement in Hawaii has created a situation where people can be bought and sold online with no detection and no deterrence. That is a formula for disaster for sex trafficking victims as human traffickers can recruit and victimize them online without any interference.  

Q: Sex buying is illegal under Hawaii law. What do you think is the attitude of Hawaii law enforcement toward sex trafficking? What could they change?

A: Within the context of culture and social pressure by pro-prostitution groups, there has been a general lack of response by law enforcement and the state. This demonstrates a crisis of priorities and a fundamental misunderstanding of the issue. That there are more citations for being homeless (sit-lie violations) and jaywalking in Honolulu than for buying sex is troubling, and our study definitely highlighted that finding online sex buyers was not difficult.  

Stopping sex buyers from buying is the greatest method to change the sex market. To do this, Hawaii must say that buying and selling another for sex is unacceptable, is based on the privilege of dominance and power and is an act of violence. If there was a significant drop in sex buyers, sex traffickers would be deterred from recruiting victims. 

Q: Is sex buying part of Hawaii's culture?

A: Sex buying opportunities can be found on almost every island in Hawaii in some form. There are streets of massage parlors and hostess bars on Maui and Oahu; there are game rooms and drug houses in other towns and cities. These are known fronts for prostitution, and many of the sex trafficking victims I interviewed identified those as places they were sold. 

Online, sex buying is available everywhere in Hawaii.   

Expectations for business visitors in Hawaii continue to include the provision of "entertainment," including prostitutes or being taken to sex-selling establishments by their hosts.  

The lack of a strategy to address sex buying is not unusual to Hawaii — many states and large cities struggle with how to balance what is often seen as a low-level crime with higher levels of more violent crime. 

Q: Your findings show that there’s cultural pressure to remain silent on sex abuse. 

A: I was told by a number of the sex trafficking victims that I interviewed in Hawaii, if they told anyone what was happening, it would bring bad things to their family.  

This included all types of abuse. The tacit acceptance about men in the community buying sex and the silence within families are strong factors that perpetuate the sex trafficking victimization of children and adults in Hawaii.  

Q: What is being done to address sex buyer demand?

A: Sex buyers create the sex trade business: Without their demand, there would be no business.  

In Hawaii, there is limited action to deter sex buying with few arrests. In other cities, like Phoenix and Cincinnati, a clear message has been sent that buying sex is unacceptable and the punishments are significant. In Phoenix, if you are a city employee and are caught buying sex you will be fired, along with your car being impounded for 30 days and a $1,000 fine. In Cincinnati, the sex buyer’s photo is posted on a billboard.  

Around the U.S. there are dynamic interventions being used that have been found to have significantly disrupted the sex buyer market. Seattle arrested and prosecuted a group of sex buyers who used a private chat board to rank and promote prostituted persons around the country. Many of them worked for tech companies and had families.  

Other techniques being used include using bots to lure and respond to sex buyers with deterrent messages. Other states are using marketing campaigns like “Arizona isn’t buying it” to explain the belief that buying sex is a crime.  

Somehow we have to find a way to get people to care about the victims of sex trafficking. The first place to start, I believe, is to change the hearts and minds of men who believe that buying sex from another person isn’t harmful to that victim. 

Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Reporter , ASU Now


Meet the 2018-19 outstanding faculty mentors

Graduate College celebrates 31 years of excellence in mentoring

February 15, 2019

The Graduate College Outstanding Faculty Mentor Awards bring attention to a crucial component of graduate education — the many hours faculty invest in nurturing and developing the academic identities and technical acumen of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars outside the classroom or lab.

Being a mentor is much more than being a professor. A mentor works diligently to guide students through their early years as a student, teaching them the cultural intricacies of their academic colleges and helping them navigate the larger professional and scholarly communities so they can form long-lasting relationships with colleagues. Some mentors also offer socio-emotional support, bolster students’ self-esteem and help them navigate work/life balance. These are no easy tasks. Recipients of 2019 Outstanding Faculty Mentor Awards The recipients of the 2018-19 Oustanding Faculty Mentor Awards. Download Full Image

Every year, the Graduate College recognizes these efforts and awards outstanding graduate faculty for their service in mentoring graduate students and postdoctoral scholars at ASU. The 2018-19 awards were presented to Linda Luecken, outstanding doctoral mentor; Anca Delgado, outstanding master’s mentor; Barbara Klimek, outstanding instructional faculty mentor; and Gabriel Q. Shaibi, outstanding postdoctoral mentor.

Deborah Clarke, vice provost for academic personnel, opened the 31st annual Graduate College Outstanding Faculty Mentor Awards ceremony.

“When you’re floundering, surrounded by messages that you’re not good enough, to have somebody step in and tell you, ‘Yes, you are smart,’ and ‘You can do this,’ means more than we can convey. If someone is there for you when you really need it, you never forget it,” Clarke said.

Completing graduate school takes persistence and perseverance. Graduate students often become discouraged, comparing themselves to their peers and suffering from impostor syndrome. A great mentor is able to both teach and inspire students to believe in themselves.

The Outstanding Faculty Mentor Awards reception is a great venue for recognition and also serves as a mirror in which faculty can reflect upon their own mentoring philosophies and learn from others. In addition to Clarke’s remarks, the reception was highlighted by brief but poignant statements by each of the award recipients in which they reflected on their own mentoring journeys, philosophies and student success stories.

“This event demonstrates that ASU places an extremely high value on mentorship,” said Shaibi. “Honoring faculty for their contributions in the area of mentorship is an additional mechanism by which the Graduate College displays its commitment to supporting the success of graduate students and postdocs.”

All award recipients said that the most rewarding part of receiving the award was that the nominations came from graduate students and postdoctoral scholars themselves.

“I was thrilled to learn I had won the award,” said Luecken. “It means so much that it came from my students.”

Delgado echoed the sentiment.

“This award has and will continue to have the most profound meaning for me because it was initiated by my students,” she said. “They are the reason why I became a faculty (member). I am beyond grateful for their support and the support of ASU in this beginning stage of my career.”

For Klimek, the fulfillment of her mentoring relationships — watching graduate students grow and succeed — is a reward in and of itself.

“Mentoring energizes me,” she said. “The most rewarding thing about being a mentor is seeing my mentees go their own way and achieving not only their educational goals but their social and personal goals.”

About the recipients

Read the mentoring philosophies of awardees at the Outstanding Faculty Mentor Awards webpage.

2018-19 Outstanding Doctoral Mentor — Linda Luecken

Luecken is a professor in the Department of Psychology and the associate dean of faculty in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Since 2000, she has been a member of the clinical psychology faculty at ASU. Her research interests include health psychology, women’s perinatal health, the impact of early life adversity on the development of cardiovascular and hormonal stress responses and cultural and environmental influences on children’s obesity risk.

2018-19 Outstanding Master’s Mentor — Anca Delgado

Delgado is an assistant professor of environmental engineering in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment and a faculty member of the Biodesign Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology. Her expertise is in bioremediation processes and environmental biotechnologies that combine microbial catalysts and chemical oxidants and reductants. Delgado researches microbial processes that sequester and transform carbon and chlorine compounds to remove contaminants and improve soil and groundwater quality.

2018-19 Outstanding Instructional Faculty Mentor — Barbara Klimek

Klimek is a clinical associate professor and Master of Social Work coordinator at the School of Social Work. She is the director of the Office of Global Social Work, senior sustainability scientist with the Global Institute of Sustainability, affiliate faculty of the Master of Social Justice and Human Rights program at ASU and affiliate faculty of the Melikian Center. Klimek engages in research related to issues of cultural diversity, social justice for refugees and immigrants, community development and international social work.

2018-19 Outstanding Postdoctoral Mentor — Gabriel Shaibi

Shaibi is an associate professor and Southwest Borderlands Scholar at the College of Nursing and Health Innovation. His research focuses on understanding and preventing obesity-related health disparities among Latino youth and families. Shaibi’s work spans the translational spectrum and includes collaborations with a transdisciplinary team of researchers, clinicians and community partners to improve health equity among vulnerable and underserved populations. In addition to his research, Shaibi directs the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at ASU, is the research director for the Division of Endocrinology and Diabetes at Phoenix Children’s Hospital and is an associate editor for the journal Obesity.

MORE: Learn about the Outstanding Faculty Mentor Awards, including evaluation criteria, nomination processes and timelines

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Downtown Phoenix campus opens doors to excitement

February 10, 2019

The schools and units of ASU's downtown campus enthralled guests with learning activities and demonstrations

The fun kept rolling Saturday with the second of Arizona State University's Open Door events, where members of the community were invited to check out the exciting work being done by the schools and units of the Downtown Phoenix campus.

Visitors to the campus learned about drone piloting, had a chance to hold a sheep brain, crafted origami cats, got hearing screenings, saw a Van de Graaff generator in action and uncovered the wonders of DNA.

If you missed out, don't worry: There are two more free Open Door events:

  • West campus: 1–5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16
  • Tempe campus: 1–6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23

Read more about what's in store at each campus here, including information on the free app that can help visitors map out the activities they want to visit. Get free tickets in advance online. 

Video by Dana Lewandowski/ASU

Check ASU Now after each event for photo galleries and video.

More: Open Door at the Polytechnic campus

Top photo: Marcos Hernandez tries his hand at a gong at Health North during the 2019 Downtown Phoenix campus Open Door on Feb. 9. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

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ASU Online undergraduate degrees ranked No. 2 in the nation by US News & World Report

ASU online master's in education is ranked 13th in US, up from 36th last year.
January 15, 2019

Four online master’s degree programs at ASU also were ranked in the top 10 in the country

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. Read more top stories from 2019.

The online undergraduate program at Arizona State University has been ranked No. 2 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, earning a score of 98 out of 100.

The program moved up two spots, having ranked fourth in the magazine’s 2018 list with a score of 95. ASU Online, with 90 undergraduate and 64 graduate degree programs, reached more than 50,000 students in the 2018 calendar year. Embry-Riddle University grabbed the top spot for online bachelor’s degree programs, with a score of 100, while Ohio State and Oregon State universities tied for third place, each with a score of 96. The list was released Tuesday after the magazine assessed 1,545 online degree programs for 2019.

U.S. News & World Report provides several higher education rankings throughout the year, most recently rating ASU as the most innovative university in the country for the fourth year in a row. 

Four online master’s degree programs at ASU were ranked in the top 10 in the country: The online MBA and non-MBA graduate degrees in the W. P. Carey School of Business both were ranked sixth, and the master’s degree in criminal justice in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions also was ranked sixth. The master’s degree in engineering, in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, placed ninth in the country, up from 11th last year. 

The online master’s degree in education, in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, was ranked 13th in the country with a score of 92. That program was ranked 36th last year, with a score of 82, and 40th in 2017.

U.S. News & World Report did not rank individual online undergraduate programs. The magazine scored its “Best Online Bachelors Program” based on four categories: engagement, services and technologies, faculty credentials and training, and expert opinion. 

Engaging students for success

ASU Online provides high levels of engagement to its students, each of whom is assigned a “success coach.” 

“My favorite part of the job is being able to connect with students and make an impact on how they do and help with any challenge they have at that time,” said Erika Stiller, one of the success coaches.

“A lot of times, students don’t know who to reach out to when they have questions, and a lot of it is helping with timing — learning how to manage your family, your work and other responsibilities on top of school.”

Part of encouraging success is helping students learn how to address issues as they come up.

“I’m helping them learn to think critically and figure out their own problems, not just tell them what to do,” she said. “I’ll ask, ‘How did you handle a situation like this before?’ I help them to figure out the answer on their own.”

Stiller said that online programs are sometimes stereotyped as being impersonal, but the success coaches offer that personal touch.

“It’s having that person you know you can always go to who wants you to do well.”

Online students enjoy flexibility, services

Online students have access to many sources of support. Nibia Orona, an Air Force veteran who’s majoring in corporate accounting, said she has gotten help from the Pat Tillman Veterans Center and also from career coaches.

“For me, being old-school, it was hard to ask for help,” she said. “I was trying to trudge through and get those answers on my own. But I realized I had to reach out and use those resources, and come to find out, I made serious progress in what I was having issues with.”

Orona, 61, said she chose ASU Online because she had been out of school for many years and couldn’t see herself sitting in a traditional classroom as she pursued her degree.

“I would tell people to not be afraid to take that chance as they get older because I run across a lot of different age groups in my classes,” she said.

“It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up — I get to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.”

Top-notch faculty and new technology

ASU Online has also made advances in technology. Last year, it became the first program in the country to offer a virtual-reality biology lab course, with students using headsets to complete their lab requirement as part of a partnership among ASU Online, Google and Labster. Several courses, including ecology, physiology and cell biology, are piloting the technology this session, according to Michael Angilletta, a professor in the School of Life Sciences who teaches the lab.

“Many faculty think the learning outcome of a lab is for students to do a specific skill, like pipetting fluid, but in reality a very tiny fraction of students, fewer than 1 percent, actually go into a research lab like the one we work in,” he said.

“So the important thing is the critical thinking, the quality of reasoning, and putting into practice how you solve problems and draw conclusions with data. That’s what you can capture in real-life simulation.”

Angilletta said that storytelling in the virtual-reality world allows for a deeper learning experience. In the ecology course, the lab is set on a newly discovered planet.

“You’ve been sent to this planet to discover what lives there,” he said. “You follow the chemical and physical laws of science, but everything is novel. You can’t Google the answers.”

In physiology, the students “travel” to Antarctica.

“They study seals who dive in freezing cold water, and they’re doing (virtual) experiments on animals they would never get close to,” he said.  

Angilletta emphasized that the online labs are just as rigorous as the immersion labs, with lab reports using real data from published studies.

“Labs hadn’t changed much over time — they’re very mundane, cookbook things and I hated them,” he said.

“I would much prefer problem-solving with a narrative that gets me engaged.”

Angilletta would love to see the virtual-reality technology advance to open-ended scenarios.

“In these labs, there’s a constrained path — it’s not like anything is possible. But imagine a situation where anything could be done,” he said.

“You want students to learn that they could blow something up if they do something wrong. That’s how the brain learns complex things.”

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now