ASU students enable peers worldwide to navigate internship uncertainty

May 28, 2020

What started as a fun project for three Arizona State University computer science majors has become a lifeline for university students worldwide looking for summer internships during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Second-year student Ananay Arora and graduating students Kaan Aksoy and Devyash Lodha from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU decided to put their skills to work with, inspired by other event cancellation websites. An intern works at a computer in an office. Many in-person internships are being canceled or moved online as the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic upheaval cause companies to change their programs. To help students learn the status of their internships or find open internship positions, three computer science students in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University built an internship tracking website, Photo by Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU Download Full Image

Internships, especially for software engineers like Aksoy, Arora and Lodha, are critical to building a variety of skills and connections for future full-time jobs. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic upheaval have resulted in many companies canceling their internship programs. This meant students who had been searching and interviewing for months were left without this crucial step in their career trajectories. In April, Glassdoor reported half of its posted internship opportunities had closed. The job review and recruiting website is one of the dozens of companies listed on

While Aksoy, Arora and Lodha all had their internships and jobs secured, they knew many students who weren’t as fortunate.

“A lot of these companies are so selective in the first place,” Aksoy said. “These aren't students who are stumbling into an internship; they’ve worked very hard preparing and now they’re leaving empty-handed.”

The three friends saw how other websites were displaying internship data, but thought they could do a better job — something more visually interesting with a dash of levity by incorporating emoji.

Other websites also made it hard to add internship status updates. Aksoy says he thinks their site rises above the rest because of the ease of making contributions and the accuracy of submitted information.

Misinformation is rife across the internet. So, it was important for them not to display rumors, but actual, verified information from recruiters and contributors with official company email accounts. They also want to be transparent by showing the source of information about each company’s internships, whether it’s a crowdsourced submission or came directly from a recruiter.

Launched at the end of March, has expanded from information about a handful of software engineering internships to opportunities in many fields across more than 60 countries. Their website traffic has grown from a couple thousand views to more than 50,000 views in less than two months.

The rise in popularity happened by word of mouth — first on their social media and Reddit accounts, and then organically and from mentions by Bloomberg business news, and more. Now, the founders often see their site spontaneously mentioned in group chats.

“The way it spins and comes back, that’s the best part,” Arora said. “It has really become a worldwide utility for students.”

The website isn’t popular only among students looking for internships. University career centers across the country are listing it as a resource, and big companies are even taking notice.

“(Website infrastructure and security company) Cloudflare saw our website and internship statuses and doubled their internship opportunities,” Arora said.

Because the website team believes a canceled internship can hurt the reputation of a company among potential future candidates, bringing attention to businesses that are canceling internships holds them accountable. Lodha says some companies have even revived canceled internships to be held remotely, possibly in response to the website putting their companies in the spotlight.

Even when some internship opportunities move online, there are still disadvantages. Remote interns are missing out on close connections with other students and industry professionals, and the experience of working in an office environment that provides opportunities to build soft skills.

“We want to preserve this information for after the pandemic, so it’s always embedded in people’s minds,” Arora said.

Aksoy, Arora and Lodha aren’t done developing Though they’d like to keep it simple, they’re adding a more robust hiring side of the website, collaborating with recruiting companies to expand their reach, finding ways to add social and commenting features, and building up their back-end resources to be able to handle all the new data.

As the website expands, it’s also becoming a snapshot of the state of companies and internships in areas hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The team added a map feature with locations of company headquarters and their internship program statuses, which can be compared to hotspot maps of COVID-19 case counts.

“We’re seeing a correlation between coronavirus cases in an area with the number of cancellations and remote internships, for example in the San Francisco Bay Area and in New York City,” Aksoy said.

The treasure trove of data they’ve collected has also caught the attention of researchers who want to study the current situation.

Arora and his team members say they believe the lack of opportunities for students this summer will have far-reaching effects for new graduates beyond 2020. When this year’s juniors graduate in 2021, they might be lacking experience on their resumes that would make them competitive candidates for prestigious jobs.

However, the trio believes will have a life beyond the pandemic as a resource to find internship opportunities.

Aksoy and Lodha know from firsthand experience the importance of internships, and the two graduating students owe the start of their careers to internship opportunities.

Lodha will start a full-time position with American Express after he graduates in August. It’s a return offer resulting from an internship he had last year — one of three he’s had as a college student.

Aksoy had six internships before he graduated in May, starting in high school. He will begin a full-time position with the highly selective investment management company Two Sigma in New York City, likely in the fall if the COVID-19 situation in the city improves.

“I wouldn’t have received an interview with the company if I hadn’t done the internships I had,” Aksoy said. “My experience reiterates the importance of doing internships.”

Arora believes he’s one of the fortunate ones to have secured an internship with Apple that will continue online, though he’s disappointed to be missing the opportunity to be working at Apple Park in Cupertino, California.

“This is my first internship in the U.S. and it’s a big one for me,” Arora says. “It’s a door-opener for future employment options.”

The team members are proud of what they’ve accomplished in a few short months.

“The fact that we might be helping a cause is surprising because we thought it would just be a fun website,” Arora said. “We’re very happy we were able to create this resource to provide any sort of support that we can.”

Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


American Astronomical Society awards ASU students Chambliss medals

May 27, 2020

Three ASU graduate students — Santosh Harish, Rashmeet Kaur Nayyar and Mansi Padave — have been awarded prestigious 2020 Chambliss Astronomy Achievement Student Awards by the American Astronomical Society (AAS).

Chambliss medals recognize exemplary research by students who present at one of the poster sessions at the meetings of the AAS. Only six awards were granted nationwide to graduate students. American Astronomical Society Chambliss medal The Chambliss medal is awarded annually by the American Astronomical Society. Download Full Image

 Each awardee is honored with a Chambliss medal, which is named after Carlson R. Chambliss of Kutztown University, who donated the funds to support the prize.

Santosh Harish 

Harish is an astrophysics doctoral student in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, whose research is primarily focused on galaxy formation and evolution using emission-line galaxies. He plans to continue exploring such galaxies to better understand the dynamics of galaxy evolution, using multiwavelength studies. 

“It is an honor and privilege to be the recipient of the Chambliss Astronomy Achievement Award,” said Harish.

“This recognition instills great confidence and encourages aspiring astronomers like myself to reach greater heights in our research.”

Santosh Harish

Harish’s mentors are ASU adjunct professors James Rhoads and Sangeeta Malhotra, who also work at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Facility. 

“Santosh is a fantastic scientist with great attention to detail,” said School of Earth and Space Exploration astronomer Sanchayeeta Borthakur. “I am truly excited to see him grow and shine.”

Rashmeet Kaur Nayyar

Nayyar is a computer science doctoral student at ASU’s School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering. She is also a member of the Autonomous Agents and Intelligent Robots (AAIR) research group.

Her research focuses on key artificial intelligence principles to help build efficient systems that can reason, plan and act under uncertainty. In collaboration with co-adviser professors Sanchayeeta Borthakur and Siddharth Srivastava, she studies probabilistic approaches to automate physics-based detection and identification of intergalactic clouds.

Rashmeet Kaur Nayyar

“My experience at the American Astronomical Society meeting has opened my eyes to the immense potential of interdisciplinary collaborative research,” said Nayyar.

“I believe in, and remind myself every day, that satisfaction in research comes with a struggle for discovery. I hope my work now, and in the near future, will help in advancing our understanding of the universe and its evolution."

Nayyar’s achievement is particularly exciting because she won this award as a computer science student and presented her AI research on using first-order probabilistic logic for reliably inferring properties of intergalactic space far beyond our own galaxy.

“Not only did she succeed in explaining her work to an entirely different academic community, but she did it so well that she won an award for it! She's helping build bridges across research communities in true ASU style,” said Srivastava.

Mansi Padave

Padave is an astrophysics doctoral student in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. Her current research is an investigation of the connections between stars and interstellar gas in the outskirts of galaxies, which helps us understand galaxy growth and evolution. 

Mansi Padave

“I am honored to receive this award and grateful for being recognized,” said Padave. “Winning this award is a big boost for my career. I feel like I have taken the first step on the long staircase of success but there is always more to learn, experience and achieve. It also makes me believe a little bit more in myself and it motivates me to work harder to successfully complete my PhD and pursue a career in research.”

She is currently working with School of Earth and Space Exploration professors Sanchayeeta Borthakur and Rolf Jansen.

“Padave is an extremely motivated and budding scientist, who is forging her own path,” said Borthakur. “Her work uses state-of-the-art observational facilities available to our graduate students through the Arizona telescope system.”

Karin Valentine

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


ASU honors graduate wants to use data and education to empower communities

May 12, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

Pratik Nyaupane sees a nexus among soccer, spirituality and business, with fan fervor and the complexity of worker’s rights coming into play. Pratik Nyaupane Photo courtesy of Pratik Nyaupane Download Full Image

This week, Nyaupane received a bachelor’s degree in informatics from the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, a minor in political science, and with honors from Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University.

He entered ASU as a New American University Scholar and was on the Dean’s List every semester since his sophomore year. He graduated summa cum laude and was named the Outstanding Graduate in his degree program.

Nyaupane focused on soccer pilgrims and migrant workers’ rights in undergraduate sports-related research projects.

“One of my most exciting moments (at ASU) was when I took a Global Intensive Experience program and we studied sports, politics and culture in Catalonia,” he said.

In Spain, Nyaupane worked with his professor, Jeff Kassing, on researching the behavior of so-called soccer pilgrims from the United States who travel internationally to matches, immersing themselves in the sport in a way that is akin to spiritual believers participating in a ritual.

Nyaupane and Kassing co-authored an article titled “I Just Couldn’t Believe I Was There: An Exploration of Soccer Pilgrimage” in the International Journal of Sport Communication.

The article pointed out that the pilgrims “socially constructed the social atmosphere, the sacred nature and the authenticating capacity of soccer pilgrimages.”

While soccer pilgrims are the very visible face of soccer fandom, migrant workers are the hidden face of struggle associated the sport.

Nyaupane got to see this side of soccer when he conducted his honors thesis research on human rights abuses of migrant workers in Qatar in preparation of 2022 FIFA World Cup. He studied the exploitation of Nepalese migrants, who, along with workers from Bangladesh and India, are refurbishing the Khalifa Stadium and surrounding sports facilities. These workers are subjected to unsafe working conditions, forced labor and substandard housing.

We caught up with Nyaupane to get his thoughts about his undergraduate experience at ASU and his future plans.    

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: My passion lies in advocating for social justice and equality in marginalized communities, and I wanted to be able to do that with an informatics degree. When I met Dr. Kirk Jalbert, he introduced me to the world of civic informatics and using technical knowledge as a tool for justice. I work as a research fellow at the Civic Science for Environmental Futures Collaborative, headed by Dr. Jalbert, where we study environmental justice movements and how technology and data empower communities to mobilize and organize in order to protect the environment.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I didn’t really know what to expect coming into ASU. Many students start off their undergraduate degrees knowing they want to be a doctor or lawyer or work for some dream company. I have been fortunate enough to be a part of several research projects, including conducting my own research as a Barrett honors student. I also completed my thesis on the ongoing human rights crisis affecting migrant workers in Qatar in preparation of 2022 FIFA World Cup. Through Barrett funding and resources, I went to Nepal to conduct field work and talk to migrant workers and government officials to collect data for my study. My research experiences at ASU really opened my eyes to the world of research and how important it is to ask difficult questions and then to work to solve them in hopes of finding answers and sharing your discoveries.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I grew up in the Valley and regularly attended ASU football games with my family. My father is an ASU professor, and my mom is an ASU alum. I always knew that I wanted to be a Sun Devil, and I’m so glad I did!

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I am so glad that I got to work with many smart and scholarly faculty members as an undergraduate student. I can’t name a single professor because all of the professors I did research with have taught me so much and I appreciate their lessons in research, hard work and dedication to contributing knowledge to society. Dr. Kirk Jalbert, Dr. Jeffrey Kassing, Dr. David Siroky, Dr. Pauline Cheong, Dr. Uttaran Dutta and Dr. Gyan Nyaupane have all had a significant impact on me and my passion for research.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Take classes in areas outside of your discipline. If you are a science major, take a policy course. If you are a business major, take an art class. If you are a political science major, take a computer science class. It is so important that we share knowledge and learn from each other. ASU offers thousands of interesting and fun courses, so take advantage of them!

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: One of the coolest places to be is near the Memorial Union. There are always so many interesting and amazing clubs and organizations that table in that area. I was a part of NextGen America at ASU and Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA) just because I went up to the tables and asked about them. It is a great way to get involved and meet people with similar interests.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After graduation I will be pursuing grad school. Specifically, I hope to be doing research and studying technology and social impact. I plan to enroll in a graduate program in the near future, and I am very excited to continue learning and growing as an individual!

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I believe education is the single most important resource that we can invest in for our communities. Unfortunately, many marginalized communities have been intentionally stripped of funding and resources to inhibit their liberation. Technology is such a powerful tool, and we must use it to empower communities rather than perpetuate the digital divide and the big data divide. I would invest in interdisciplinary education to empower and connect people all around the world.

Nicole Greason

Public relations and publicity manager , Barrett, The Honors College


Sun Devil makes waves in tech way before graduation

May 10, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

Hari Meyyappan describes himself as a learning machine. But he also helps build machines that learn. Portrait of Hari Meyyappan ASU grad Hari Meyyappan's advice to current students: "Figure out a feedback mechanism to improve your skills. For me it was hackathons. Aim higher than you think possible, and keep looking for opportunities where you can add value." Download Full Image

Meyyappan is a tech enthusiast and a proud Sun Devil graduating this semester with a master’s degree in computer science with a focus on machine learning and human-computer interaction. The international student from India is currently working with the Luminosity Lab as part of the Big Idea Challenge team awarded funding by NASA. 

“I read widely and describe myself as a learning machine. I love exploring exponential technologies and creating useful tools. I blog on Medium and link my projects on my website,” Meyyappan said.

The ASU grad’s enthusiasm for learning and technology has led him to many academic and professional accomplishments in his time as a student. He served as the vice president of the Artificial Intelligence Club and worked hard to build up the club and teach students more about AI. He also built up a lot of practical professional experiences. 

“I've built products for companies like Pizza Hut, Ultraworking, 24Crafts. In my internship over the summer, I built a chatbot for a large education nonprofit that is being used by thousands of teachers and students all over the country,” he said.

As a hackathon enthusiast, he has consistently won some of the top spots in over 10 hackathons he has participated in as a student at ASU, including Sunhacks and Hacks for Humanity. He is also writing a guide to share his experience and giving some key insights on how to win a hackathon. 

Meyyappan said that hackathons are the perfect environment for innovation and learning that can change the world.

“I have been a UX designer, product manager and machine learning engineer. I've done front-end, back-end and everything in between. It is an incredible learning experience,” he said. “You can create useful products. Facebook organizes internal hackathons to spur innovation. Several startups were born at hackathons, like the automation behemoth Zapier.”

As Meyyappan prepared to graduate, he reflected with ASU Now about his time as a Sun Devil.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: If there was a single “aha” moment, it could have been when I realized that machine learning allows you to automate the creation of code. There’s just so much value that can be created by applying it to different business problems.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: ASU is located in one of the fastest-growing states in the United States, and I was positive about professional opportunities. Also, I liked the profiles of the professors.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I would like to thank Professor Hemanth Venkateswara, whose statistical learning class I took in my first semester really provided a solid foundation for my future classes. Also Professor James Collofello, who taught me that the real answer to most questions starts with “it depends.”

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Figure out a feedback mechanism to improve your skills. For me it was hackathons. Aim higher than you think possible, and keep looking for opportunities where you can add value.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life? 

A: Wakanda room at Armstrong Hall (lower level of the Literature Building). Also the Design School library. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am starting my career as a software development engineer at Amazon in Seattle.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I’d probably create a fund with which kids in developing countries can buy whatever books they want. 

Written by Venu Gopinath Nukavarapu, Sun Devil Storyteller

Hannah Moulton Belec

Marketing content specialist, Educational Outreach and Student Services


Modifying the manufacturing mindset

ASU Assistant Professor Feng Ju creates tools for real-time factory floor decisions

May 6, 2020

Global manufacturing has entered a new era. Some people call it smart manufacturing or Industry 4.0. Companies apply complex information systems to manage what happens on a factory floor, where almost everything is monitored and processes are streamlined.

“Even so, uncertainties happen all the time,” said Feng Ju, an assistant professor of industrial engineering in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering at Arizona State University. “A production component may fail, or new orders arrive that demand rush delivery. There are many possible sources of disruption at a factory, and any one of them can mess up scheduling or production execution.” four men using a tool in an automation lab Feng Ju and his team at ASU's Manufacturing and Service Automation Lab are developing tools to advance factory operations and minimize production disruptions. Photo by Connor McKee/ASU Download Full Image

Consequently, Ju’s Manufacturing and Service Automation Lab team at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering is developing novel computational tools to prevent or minimize the cascading effect of any production disruptions. They do so by applying huge amounts of manufacturing data to support real-time decision-making that enhances production efficiency, quality and safety.

“Our work seeks to support a new generation of manufacturing automation,” Ju explained. “Forty years ago, we saw computer-aided control introduce electronics to the factory floor. That level of automation delivered tools with mostly single purposes. It was very stiff or static.”

Ju points to the example of car manufacturing. Automotive production does rely on complex assembly lines, but the architecture of those same production facilities actually limits the design options for new cars.

“Ideally, the robots and controllers that assemble one type of vehicle should be able to support the assembly of new car designs, too,” Ju said. “However, traditional industrial systems are quite rigid. They are configured and installed to manufacture specific things, and require a lot of engineering effort to reconfigure.”

Ju says that industry now needs the ability to design applications or tools for novel purposes.

“We are moving from high-volume manufacturing with very limited variation in output to low-volume production with constantly varying demands,” he said. “So, we need production facilities that are dynamic. But this kind of change requires a completely different mindset.”

Ju explains why most manufacturing has not innovated to the extent of consumer electronics, for example. When consumers want a new smartphone, they want all the latest features and functions. By contrast, manufacturers traditionally don’t pursue novelty. They acquire industry-standard components for their production system.

“They are thinking about just the final product, and their factory is simply the means of fabricating it,” Ju said. “Moving forward from this model requires thinking of the design and manufacturing process as actually part of what businesses are delivering to customers.”

Enhancing local manufacturing

As a case in point, Ju and his team have been commissioned by Tennessee-based LM Industries Group, or LMI, for a project meant to improve a large-scale additive manufacturing process that fabricates an autonomous, multipassenger shuttle bus called Olli.

“It’s similar to a home 3D printer in that it works through a layering process, but it’s obviously much larger and more complex,” Ju said. “One of the things we are doing is gathering a vast number of thermal images of the print bed to get a sense of real-time changes in layer temperatures during production. We can use this information to create predictive models about the thermodynamics or temperature changes that occur over time in this setting.”

With these models, Ju explains that LMI can identify a production strategy to permit the most efficient, layer-by-layer printing process as they speed up production and increase quality.

“Large-scale additive manufacturing processes are still a fairly new technology,” said Nils Hofmann, director of labs for LMI. “I am certain that this research will uncover additional potential for LMI and ASU to cooperate and create further research opportunities.”

Ju is particularly excited about those future opportunities, since the Olli shuttle bus is just one application of a broader concept.

“The focus of their work is developing flexible, local manufacturing,” he explained. “Consider it a microfactory. The idea is to bring design and production capabilities to individual neighborhoods. People could design and 3D print their desired products right down the street, and then pick them up locally with short lead time. Think of the logistics and warehousing savings, and the reduction in waste. The potential is very exciting.”

Streamlining factory-floor performance at Intel

Ju and his research team also have just started a three-year research project with the Intel Corporation at the company’s campus in nearby Chandler, Arizona. Nital Patel, the principal engineer for assembly test manufacturing systems at Intel, says Ju’s efforts will address a fundamental problem.

“How do you make real-time decisions to keep your manufacturing flow on target given unanticipated disruptions?” Patel said. “Traditional methods look at using simulation coupled with optimization to make these decisions, and these cannot provide answers in real-time. This is of extreme interest as we push the boundaries of using advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence in an industrial decision systems setting.”

Ju explained, “The Intel factory produces many different semiconductor products in a broad range of quantities. And with so many manufacturing processes taking place in the same space, there always are questions to consider about how to make sure that production facilities are being used in the most efficient manner. So, our team is working on several different decision-making tools to better streamline production on their factory floor.”

These projects with LMI and Intel demonstrate the commercial value of the research that Ju and his team are conducting at the Fulton Schools. But recognition of Ju’s innovative work extends beyond these projects.

The National Science Foundation awarded Ju a new $400,000 grant this spring to support research enabling more proactive control of industrial production systems. Also, Ju has been recognized as a 2020 Outstanding Young Manufacturing Engineer by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. This SME award honors just 15 people under the age of 36 for exceptional accomplishments and contributions to the manufacturing industry.

Alongside such significant professional acknowledgment, Ju remains devoted to advancing new talent within his team at ASU. He doesn’t recognize a boundary separating research and teaching. They happen simultaneously, in real-time.

“It’s very important for my work with students to stay at the front-end of the technology used around the manufacturing world,” Ju said. “We all are fascinated by the opportunities that we have to make a real difference to industry.”

Gary Werner

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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Essential reading: Books that edify, elucidate and enthrall

May 6, 2020

“Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.” — Margaret Fuller

This is the ninth edition of the annual compilation of books recommended to students by faculty and staff members in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

As in previous years, their assignment remained the same: Select books that point the way to vital knowledge or teach useful or even life-changing lessons — or just suggest a book with an absorbing story that takes readers to fascinating places and times.

There’s a bit of an unplanned twist this time, no doubt an example of the saying “Great minds think alike.” Two professors have — unbeknown to each other — chosen the same book. It’s interesting to compare the contrasting styles in which each describes what they find valuable about the book.

You’ll find more instances of multiple viewpoints on the same books in different years’ editions of Essential Reading. See the links following these recommended reads.

'Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,' by Greg McKeown

Recommended by Mounir El Asmar, an associate professor of construction engineering and management in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment

Mounir El Asmar

I was on the phone with a friend, Elie, and I mentioned being overcommitted and stretched too thin. He said he has something for me. The very next day, I received a package at my front door: “Essentialism” by Greg McKeown. Do you feel overloaded, overwhelmed at work or at school? Do you have too many decisions to make? Do you find it difficult saying no? Are you struggling to find that often-unattainable work-life balance? If you answered yes to at least one of these questions, then you should read “Essentialism.” Essentialism is a systematic discipline about better investing your time and energy and only focusing on what really matters to you. Essentialists are powerful observers and listeners who focus only on what is absolutely essential, and eliminate everything that is not.

Also recommended by Marco Santello, a professor of biomedical engineering and director of the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering

Marco Santello

The original meaning of priority in the English dictionary defined it as a singular word. Today, we are accustomed to the concept of priorities — so many of them that they absorb our time and make us lose sight of what our one priority should be at any given time. Greg McKeown uses his experiences working with CEOs and other leaders of successful and innovative companies to develop his concept of “the Way of the Essentialist.” He provides an approach to releasing ourselves from the trap of unrealistic expectations and the idea that doing more is always better than doing less. Essentialism is about clearing away the clutter in our minds and simplifying rather than complicating our lives. In getting weighed down by a plethora of priorities, McKeown says, we are kept from focusing our energy on the pursuit of what will truly enable us to make the most important contributions we can.

'Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic,' by David Quammen

'The Founders Mentality,' by Chris Zook and James Allen

Recommended by Kerry Hamilton, an assistant professor of environmental engineering in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment

Kerry Hamilton

“Spillover” is relevant at this time, of course, because of the fast-spreading COVID-19 pandemic, which likely originated with animal infections passed onto humans. With skillful storytelling and investigative reporting, David Quammen offers a gripping look at the causes of some related types of recent pandemics — Ebola, SARS, AIDS. Most importantly, the book predicts the daunting challenges we may face with a seemingly growing risk of eruptions of highly contagious new diseases. He also presents an interesting look at some leading disease scientists and how their personalities are reflected in their work.

“The Founders Mentality” is a straightforward and in-depth study of the essential principles of managing — whether it be managing businesses or other organizations. Leaders with a “founder mentality” are able to build cultures that produce the foresight and adaptability necessary to achieve sustainable growth. Students can apply the lessons provided by the authors to formulate their own strategies for both personal growth and well-grounded career planning and management. 

'Pattern Recognition,' by William Gibson

Recommended by Prescott Perez-Fox, a lecturer in the graphic information technology program in The Polytechnic School.

Prescott Perez-Fox

A generation of design professionals, myself included, learned more about observing and questioning the world around us from this novel and the adventures of protagonist Cayce Pollard than we did from four years of higher education. “Pattern Recognition” reiterates what we know about our ancient human nature, but crosses that with modern practices in fashion, art, architecture, music, commerce, graphic design, advertising and our entire civilization itself. Funnily enough, the book is now a bit of a period piece. Much like an episode of “Seinfeld” would never have been written in the era of the cellphone, this book would never have been written in the era of YouTube.

The story is essentially a mystery/adventure, so I’ll leave the plot for you to discover. But more than a story of Cayce Pollard and her travels to Russia, Britain, Japan and elsewhere, Gibson’s book explores the principles of pattern recognition itself as a concept. Readers’ worldviews can’t help but evolve as this book turns them into students of critical observation — a valuable skill for students and professionals alike. 

'Slaughterhouse Five,' The Sirens of Titan' and other books by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Recommended by Konrad Rykaczewski, an associate professor of mechanical engineering in the School for Engineering of Matter Transport and Energy

Konrad Rykaczewski

In these especially troubled times, I highly recommend Kurt Vonnegut’s novels. Vonnegut’s works reflect a deeply sarcastic take on life that is balanced by his sense of humor. When I read his books, I need breaks because I’m laughing too hard. If you are pondering the meaning of all things, his book “The Sirens of Titan” explains it clearly. Absurdity is a theme that runs through Vonnegut’s stories. An outstanding example is “Slaughterhouse Five,” in which the absurdity of war is masterfully presented from the perspective of an involuntary time traveler. And in this age of massive barrages of misinformation on the internet, “Mother Night” (published 60 years ago!) refreshingly reminds us that the purposeful spread of stupidity is nothing new, but has been a major endeavor of many political regimes throughout the past century, and that often things are not what they at first seem to be. I cannot pick a favorite, but any of Vonnegut’s tales provide a much-needed escape from these anything-but-ordinary days of self-containment.

'Rocket Men,' by Craig Nelson

Recommended by Kae Sawyer, Fulton Schools associate director of Diversity, Inclusion and International Student Initiatives

Kae Sawyer

There is no shortage of books, articles and documentaries telling the story of the Apollo 11 moon mission. In the collective consciousness of most people, this feat was the culminating event of the “space race” initiated by President John F. Kennedy in his seminal speech committing the United States to putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. What makes this telling so fascinating is that through extensive interviews, transcripts and declassified government documents it attempts to present in scrupulous detail a comprehensive history of the intersecting and sometimes conflicting endeavors that went into the crowning achievement. Beyond the government’s role, the book ambitiously recognizes the intertwining contributions from those in science, engineering, the military, news media, public relations, corporations and industries, along with some notable individuals. The story also reaches back across many decades to tell the history of early visionaries who imagined and worked to realize the possibilities of rocketry and space travel, as well as of geopolitical aggressors and defenders whose actions, both moral and immoral, led to the development of the Saturn V rocket, which made it all possible.

'True Genius: The Life and Science of John Bardeen — The Only Winner of Two Nobel Prizes in Physics,' by Lillian Hoddeson and Vicki Daitch 

Recommended by Jennie Si, a professor of electrical engineering in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering

Jennie Si

We researchers seek to discover new knowledge and to create innovative solutions to new problems. How do brilliant minds generate groundbreaking ideas? Famous and somewhat eccentric physicists such as Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman immediately come to mind as inspirational figures. But the biography of John Bardeen, co-authored by two science historians, tells us about an unassuming, remarkably modest and quiet person who was not particularly eccentric, but a typical man who loved his family and playing golf. Because Bardeen’s persona was radically different from the popular stereotype of a genius physicist, he did not attract the media attention some other physicists in his league did. This book gives us a glimpse of his life and provides a detailed account of his two great scientific achievements: the invention of the transistor and the theory of superconductivity. Bardeen showed the world how to use simple mathematics to approach complex problems, and he taught his students how to break down problems into manageable pieces rather than trying to solve them as a whole.

'The Overstory,' by Richard Powers

'Talking to Strangers,' by Malcolm Gladwell

Recommended by Violet Syrotiuk, an associate professor of computer science in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering

Violet Syrotiuk

Richard Powers’ book is a novel that is ultimately a story about environmental activism. It weaves together the lives of nine characters involved in an effort to stop logging of old growth forests on public lands. The book describes the interconnected lives of trees, the ways in which the trees help each other (did you know trees can communicate with each other?) and the ways they help other living things, including people. After reading this book, you may never look at trees in quite the same way.

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book describes a theory of human nature he describes as “default(ing) to truth.” In other words, we assume people tell the truth, and we assume “transparency,” the idea that we can size up someone correctly by their facial expressions and body language. Mistakes in these assumptions can have tragic consequences, which Gladwell illustrates through descriptions of real events involving CIA double agents, police misconduct, campus rape, Ponzi schemes and parole decisions, among others. The message is not that we should be paranoid, but to learn that when talking to strangers, we should depend on more than our initial gut reaction to them in making judgements.

'Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence,' by Max Tegmark 

Recommended by Georgios Trichopoulos, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering

Georgios Trichopoulos

Physicist and cosmologist Max Tegmark defines humans today as Life 2.0 that will soon be an old version of human life. Life 1.0 was when human success involved mainly surviving and replicating itself. Today, in Life 2.0, we can essentially change our software through learning complex new skills. Tegmark envisions that artificial intelligence, or AI, will enable the next version of life — Life 3.0, in which humans will also be able to change their hardware, the biological body, rather than wait thousands of years for natural evolution to do it. Based on this bold and controversial premise, the author attempts to predict various scenarios for humanity, some good but others not so good. For Tegmark, it is a matter of when and not if AI will eventually surpass human intelligence. That tipping point will be the beginning of unforeseeable developments. “Life 3.0” is great entertainment, offering fascinating possibilities for life in the near and distant future that explore ethical issues and the potential impacts of AI on governance, and can serve as a stimulant for societal and philosophical discussions about how humanity should prepare for life’s not-so-distant new version.

'Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,' by Yuval Noah Harari 

Recommended by Yang Wen, a research advancement administrator in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering

Yang Wen

“Sapiens” provides keen insight into human history through entertaining stories of historical events. Harari examines three momentous stages in humankind’s progress to explain how homo sapiens became the dominant species in their world: the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution and the Scientific Revolution. The author offers a unique point of view as he explores the formation, unification and evolution of human societies. The book will make you rethink what you thought you already knew about our species as it presents many interesting discoveries about humankind’s rise, helping you better understand the organizational and group behavior exhibited by people today. I recommend the book to anyone interested in finding the truth behind the facts of human history to shed light on our current society.

For more books to explore, check out book recommendations from Essential Reading features of past years:

2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012

Top photo: More than 30 featured book collections are on the shelves of Arizona State University's newly renovated Hayden Library. Designed for students, each book collection is university-inspired and data-driven for maximum Sun Devil engagement. Photo by Jarod Opperman/ASU

Joe Kullman

Science writer , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Tracking a silent killer

ASU professor receives major award for work in heat mitigation

April 16, 2020

Ariane Middel is from a small village in western Germany where the weather is generally cold and rainy. When she moved to Phoenix in 2009 to do her postdoc at Arizona State University, her original focus was on water modeling research.

“Most things you’d do to increase people’s comfort in the desert involve water,” Middel said. “Water is tightly connected with temperature and people’s comfort.” ASU professor Ariane Middel has received an NSF CAREER award for her research in the field of urban climate. ASU Professor Ariane Middel has received an NSF CAREER award for her research in the field of urban climate. Download Full Image

But once Middel spent some time in Phoenix, she realized that she was more interested in the climate and in heat, and she switched her focus to a field called “urban climate.”

“As we build cities, we bring in all these artificial materials such as asphalt and concrete,” Middel explained. “And as we change those surfaces, we change the thermal property of the city, and that has an impact on our local climate.”

Now Middel, an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering, has been awarded an NSF CAREER award to further pursue her research in the SHaDE lab, which looks at heat from a human perspective.

The panel that reviewed her work particularly valued Middel’s integration of research and education, with K–12 outreach and a special focus on attracting women to STEM fields, and the academia-practitioner partnerships she is building with cities in the Valley.

“The proposed research will help us understand how people experience heat by including other atmospheric variables, such as mean radiant temperature (MRT),” Middel said. “MRT represents the heat load on a human body and varies significantly if somebody is standing in the shade or sun. We will use an innovative mobile sensor platform called “MaRTy” to measures how people experience heat in Phoenix and Los Angeles.”

heat-sensing robot

MaRTy, a mobile heat-sensor.

“MaRTy is a fairly expensive setup,” Middel added. “It’s a $20,000 cart. As part of this project, we’re trying to build some low-cost versions of this cart that we call MaRTiny. These tiny versions of the MaRTy will be more like $120. Very affordable.”

"Professor Middel's research has been nationally and internationally recognized for increasing our understanding of urban climates,” said Pavan Turaga, interim director of the School of Arts, Media and Engineering. “The knowledge she has generated is of great value to policymakers and urban planners. Specifically, the work will result in new planning recommendations for the next generation of livable cities, with special emphasis on modulating and mitigating the human experience of heat. Her work is already being deployed in Phoenix and Los Angeles as well in cities across the world, such as Kolkata and Tokyo. In the longer term, her work will influence lives in urban centers across the world, many of which are grappling with the effects of thermal extremes."

It was after Middel moved to Phoenix, she said, that she understood heat as an invisible hazard that urban desert dwellers have to live with.

“Heat is the No. 1 weather-related killer in the U.S. It’s not like an earthquake or a flood or something disastrous that comes in and kills people. It’s this silent killer. There are a lot of people who are not going to be fine (in the heat) because they can’t afford to run AC. For those people, it’s really important to investigate how urban form and design can be used to mitigate heat.”

Middel says the city of Tempe, among others, has been an active collaborator in assessing parks and other public areas. Her hope is that the cities can use the findings from her research to inform their design guidelines for the amount of shade a path or a playground should have.

“I am very excited about this project,” Middel said, “because it can actually lead to change in our communities. I really hope that outcomes of this project will not just collect dust on a shelf but will lead to actionable best practices for urban infrastructure management and human-centric heat hazard mitigation.”

Middel credits ASU with offering her “a vibrant research and education space” in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering, a collaboration between the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“It’s this place where boundaries between traditional domains disappear,” she said, “a transdisciplinary melting pot for innovation right in the center of engineering and the arts.”

Deborah Sussman

Communications and media specialist, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts


ASU engineering schools find success in a new digital environment

March 31, 2020

Coming back from spring break, students in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University were faced with adjusting to a new normal.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for physical distancing, ASU transitioned all in-person classes, advising and other student services, and community-focused activities to online delivery. A graphic depicting a desktop with many items on it. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Arizona State University transitioned all in-person classes, advising and other services and activities online. Faculty and staff in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU have found engaging and effective ways to carry on these activities remotely. Graphic by Rhonda Hitchcock-Mast Download Full Image

Students, faculty and staff members sprang into action — trying new things, finding solutions and adapting to a new mode of learning.

Establishing a successful digital classroom

The transition to distance learning might have some students missing the daily interaction with their peers, faculty and other university staff. However, the online video conferencing tool Zoom helps bring facetime to digital classes, while the instant messaging platform Slack encourages conversation within the ASU community. Nontraditional tools like the livestreaming platform Twitch have even helped some instructors keep their classes engaging.

On the first day of online course delivery, more than 15,000 ASU classes were taught on Zoom and 55,000 students logged in to attend their now-online courses. The numbers have been growing since they launched on March 16, with the Fulton Schools’ more than 24,000 students adding to that number.

Angelique Mowery, a fourth-year computer science major, finds that she prefers online classes, and has enjoyed attending her courses online in the past week.

“I feel like classes are much easier to focus on when they are online versus in person,” Mowery said. “I personally can learn more and focus better in this format.”

When students always have a front-row seat to the presentation and interruptions that can occur in large classrooms are minimized, instructors can get their lessons across more efficiently.

While many students and instructors haven't used tools like Zoom much before, Mowery’s instructors are helping her and her classmates be successful by posting reminders, extending assignments and also spending the first few minutes of the class going over any questions.

Jeffrey Kleim, an associate professor of biomedical engineering, is taking his classes to Twitch, a livestreaming platform popular with gamers.

"It was just happenstance that a friend was staying with me who is an accomplished film and postproduction graphics editor," Kleim said.

Dave Sarbell, who has worked at CNN and on many television shows and Hollywood movies over the past 25 years, helped Kleim set up a new classroom in his condo.

"When the lockdown occurred, he showed me how to convert my living room into a greenscreen studio with fairly minimal investment and how to broadcast live on," Kleim said.

Kleim presents slides and walks around just as he would in class, while attendees participate in a live chat. While the chat interaction is difficult to monitor while lecturing, iterating is part of the process of the transition. He'll continue to work on the best way to deliver lectures and encourage effective engagement.

However, the results of this "trial by fire" have so far been well received by his students.

“The students are loving it,” Kleim said. "The site is normally used by gamers, so the students were all familiar with it."

Christina Carrasquilla, a senior lecturer of graphic information technology in the Polytechnic School, one of the six Fulton Schools, is no stranger to online learning. She completed most of her master’s degree online and has been teaching online courses for more than a decade.

With students making the abrupt transition to all online learning, Carrasquilla makes an extra effort to check in with how her students are doing.

“I start and end every remote lecture by asking the students how they are and if they’d like to share their experiences, both successes and challenges,” she said. “I think it’s validating to hear that others are having the same struggles and learning from tips and tricks the others have discussed.”

Carrasquilla notes that remote learning has synchronous elements that don’t often happen in class. To help facilitate learning class material, she has taken advantage of Zoom’s breakout rooms for group work and student interaction.

“The ‘raise hand,’ ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘thumbs up’ and ‘thumbs down’ buttons actually give me more feedback than face-to-face classes,” Carrasquilla said.

The week has also involved a dose of fun, with opportunities to meet students’ families, roommates and pets.

“One student’s family had a dance party behind her and we all had a much-needed, good laugh,” Carrasquilla said.

Olivia Burnsed, a lecturer of biomedical engineering in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, says online classes have led to her getting more feedback from her students and to giving them more individualized instruction.

After the first week of remote learning, she surveyed her BME 200: Conservation Principles class to see how students felt about the transition online.

“It felt more one-on-one than in class,” read one response to a question about what aspects of the class were most valuable.

Like Carrasquilla, Burnsed uses breakout rooms, which students say make it easier to ask questions and engage with teaching assistants.

“(Breakout rooms give students) a better opportunity to engage with the (teaching assistant) rather than wait for the TA to walk around the class and offer feedback,” another student said.

The screen sharing feature also gave students personalized attention to get help with assignments and share information with other students, TAs and Burnsed.

Instructors adapt exams with digital tools

Exams, a fundamental part of many university classes, are also still going smoothly for Keith Hjelmstad, President's Professor of structural engineering in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of the six Fulton Schools.

Hjelmstad typically gives mastery-based exam problems that involve pencil and paper calculations for CEE 213: Introduction to Deformable Solids and CEE 212: Engineering Mechanics II – Dynamics. With exams scheduled during the first week of the online transition, Hjelmstad worked with undergraduate teaching assistant Amanda Minutello and Lecturer Efthalia Chatziefstratiou to come up with a solution.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Hjelmstad said. “It seemed we had exactly one option and we did that.”

Hjelmstad thought it would be possible to use Zoom’s video conferencing to watch the 120 students split between the two classes work on their written exam. With a scanning app or smartphone camera, students would then be able to send their exam paper to the teaching team. They tested it and planned the process as much as possible before class time, even having students attend an optional Zoom session to test their systems.

During the online class period, Hjelmstad and his assistants watched the students to ensure there was no academic dishonesty, just as they would have done with an in-class exam.

“In many ways, I felt like I got a better view of the students than in an in-person exam,” Hjelmstad says. “I asked the students how they felt about it and they said they liked it much better than one of the ‘lockdown browser’ apps. They appreciated that we trusted them.”

Hjelmstad has established a good rapport with his students in their face-to-face environment, and credits that to his students’ positive experience with a new exam format.

Ram Pendyala, a professor and the director of the School of Sustainability and the Built Environment, praised Hjelmstad’s effort and says he believes this is a positive outcome of the transition.

“Every student is essentially in the front row of the classroom” using this approach, Pendyala said. “There are no backbenchers who are invisible to the instructors anymore. This is an advancement in engagement in some ways because everyone feels more accountable being so visible to their instructor.”

Hjelmstad uses a flipped classroom environment, which he considers the opposite of an online classroom. However, in the week since moving online he has found new ways to improve his teaching toolkit.

For example, rather than trying to do his typical biweekly class lecture, he tried a new approach.

“I got Camtasia, learned how to make videos and recorded four shorter videos of the lecture that are probably better than what we would have given in the face-to-face session,” Hjelmstad said. "We then repurposed the lecture session to provide additional support for projects."

“I think most faculty are taking this as a problem to be solved, which is something we do pretty well,” he said. “In talking to my colleagues, I am quite impressed by the creative ideas that are popping up all over the place.”

Bringing the lab off campus

Live and recorded videos are helping to maintain some normalcy in the classroom experience.

For lab courses requiring the use of specialized equipment, many instructors and their assistants are creating video demonstrations of lab equipment and techniques for assignments to help bring the lab to students wherever they’re attending class remotely.

Mackenzie Boyer, a lecturer of civil and environmental engineering, is using a combination of Zoom, the learning platform Canvas and an iPhone to pull off a virtual lab for her class CEE 361: Introduction to Environmental Engineering.

One of Boyer’s teaching assistants, Thiago Barbosa, a civil, environmental and sustainable engineering graduate student, recorded himself doing a lab experiment on biochemical oxygen demand. Barbosa also provided the lab data for students to use to calculate results for lab reports and generate an understanding of the lab's concepts and applications.

Later, while he was conducting class via Zoom, Barbosa played the video and answered student questions and held additional Zoom office hours for lab report help. He then used Canvas to give pre- and post-lab quizzes.

ASU courses moved online just as the class was moving toward its last “wet lab” of the semester.

“The students missed out on the opportunity to measure the dissolved oxygen in raw wastewater dilutions, but were still able to come away with a good understanding of concepts behind biochemical oxygen demand tests,” Boyer said. “If only Zoom could transmit smells too.”

The next lab assignment will be computer-based.

Giuseppe Mascaro, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, has been using a two-camera approach to teach his classes. He combines high and low tech by pointing one camera at himself while teaching and another to a piece of paper that serves as a whiteboard. For the course’s labs, he posts instructions for each experiment and a video of the experiment itself on Canvas.

“We are uploading the results of multiple repetitions of the same experiment from past years so that the students can complete their report with realistic outcomes,” Mascaro said.

Other school services continue online

As learning continues online, fall 2020 class registration gets underway and graduation approaches, tutoring, advising and career center services move online.

For Lynn Pratte, academic success coordinator in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, one of the six Fulton Schools, this is a very busy time of year for graduate advising.

“Graduate registration for the fall semester started March 20, so we typically see a lot of students regarding classes for the fall semester,” said Pratte, who advises graduate students.

Drop-in advising for the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering is going on as usual, as Zoom offers features that mirror what it’s like to be in an advising office.

When one of Pratte’s undergraduate advising colleagues was chatting with a student who showed interest in a doctoral program, the adviser sent a link to Pratte’s drop-in advising meeting room on Zoom to continue the conversation.

“This exactly mirrors what would have happened in the office if they were speaking face to face,” Pratte said. “It is great that we are still able to provide quick and continuous service to our students.”

Support is key during a time of change

While many classes are running smoothly, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.

The School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering information technology team — including Brint MacMillan, a senior systems support analyst — has been hard at work preparing resources for students, faculty and staff to work remotely.

“We have a big faculty and a big staff and we were able to get everybody working from home in a matter of a couple days,” MacMillan said. “The last two weeks we’ve been talking on the phone with people and getting them support at home such as how to use Zoom and remote desktop software to keep connected to servers to stay connected (to resources used for labs and research).”

A couple of staff members didn’t have internet access at home, so MacMillan and the IT team helped them acquire Cox Communications internet service at a reduced rate.

The School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering is the largest of the six Fulton Schools, with nearly 8,000 students, more than 70 faculty members and over 50 dedicated staff members. As their numbers continue to grow and classroom and lab space is limited, IT staff have been setting up remote systems for months to expand capacity.

“A couple of our classes were getting too big. So, we were having to find new ways to do things, and the biggest way we found was a virtual desktop environment,” MacMillan said.

In one of the Brickyard labs, racks of circuit boards and virtual computing environments are set up with cameras pointing at them. Students taking particular computer science classes can remotely access the equipment and do their assignments.

“Students log in remotely and when they’re doing coding assignments they can see lights blinking on the board through the camera so if the lights light up the way they are supposed to the students and professors know they did the assignment correctly,” MacMillan said.

The team already has planned to expand the number of virtual work environments like this for students to access.

“We’ve always been trying to make things better and easier for our students and for students in all of the Fulton Schools,” MacMillan said. “We’ll design systems and they get passed off to the Engineering Technical Services team and they’ll implement it for the whole Fulton Schools community.”

Some resources are still necessary to have on campus, so staff and student workers have set up a lab space in the Brickyard building to comply with social distancing practices — every other seat in the computer lab is taken away to keep the desired distance. And at the beginning of the day and after each student uses a computer, workers wipe down the equipment.

Interfacing with the community amid social distancing

Outside of the classroom, many students participate in organizations that conduct community outreach, which has also been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Society of Women Engineers section at ASU often conducts outreach events in addition to member meetings. While large group events have been canceled, Cassidy Michaels, a biomedical engineering major and the society's student co-director of outreach, says the lack of local group events offers an opportunity to help an even wider community.

Together with aerospace engineering major and co-director of outreach Rhiannon Lewis, and Society of Women Engineers sections across the country, members are creating online tutoring and videos for parents, guardians and educators to facilitate fun, easy engineering activities that can be done with materials most people have at home.

“The idea of helping local schools was brought up as a way for our outreach program to still be involved in the community despite us having to cancel or postpone all in-person events,” Michaels said. “We saw this as an opportunity to expand our reach and help more people since we are no longer limited to only reaching out to schools within driving distance of ASU.”

The group is still in the planning stages of the project and assessing community needs to see what grade levels and lessons are most needed. The resulting materials will help them pursue many of the same goals they would normally be pursuing at any other time.

“We are hoping this initiative will allow us to continue to help and inspire the next generation of students through this challenging time,” Michaels said.

Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Young patients use virtual reality to focus on healing

March 6, 2020

Physical therapy is an important part of healing and recovery for children experiencing mobility impairments, but it can be distracting, difficult and dull.

Arizona State University lecturer Javier Gonzalez-Sanchez spent fall 2019 as a visiting professor at the Panamerican University Guadalajara campus in Mexico. When a former student invited him to collaborate on a project to improve rehabilitation for children, Gonzales-Sanchez was eager to get involved. boy wearing a virtual reality mask Above: Children undergoing rehabilitation for mobility impairments use virtual reality to stay focused and motivated throughout their physical therapy session. The introduction of virtual reality into treatment is part of a project with Arizona State University lecturer Javier Gonzalez-Sanchez and faculty at the Panamerican University in Guadalajara, Mexico. Photo courtesy of Javier Gonzalez-Sanchez Download Full Image

Gonzalez-Sanchez’s research is focused on the intersection between software engineering and human-computer interaction — two areas involved in rehabilitative robotics as well as virtual reality technology. His work examines how further combining them would make the robot-aided physical therapy experience more effective and more enjoyable.

A busy therapy environment

The children in Mexico receiving therapy use rehabilitation robots in a large, flat space that also houses other instruments. While young patients undergo rehabilitation with the robots, there is plenty of activity going on in the space. Other children, therapists, parents, visitors, machinery and additional factors can make the physical therapy environment detrimental to a child’s rehabilitative progress.

“You can have a kid of around 6 or 7 years old using the robot, but at the same time there can be small kids around crying,” said Gonzalez-Sanchez, who teaches computer science and software engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. “The kid doing rehabilitation gets distracted.”

Often, visitors are touring the facilities and observing the robotic equipment. Children undergoing rehabilitation may also feel uncomfortable being observed.

“When doing rehabilitation in the robot, you should be really focused and you should be making an effort to make it count,” Gonzalez-Sanchez said. “They only have 30 minutes. It’s a small period of time, and if they don’t put in the effort to make progress, it doesn’t work.”

The number of sessions patients undergo varies widely, but depending on their progress they may require a significantly longer treatment.

Other distractions that affect the patient’s progress come not only from people in the area, but also from the machine itself.

The device provides feedback about performance, but that information is for the therapist, Gonzalez-Sanchez said. The data is graphically displayed in view of both the therapist and the patient, but this is distracting for the patients because they try to interpret the meaning behind the plots.

Real problems solved by virtual solutions

The amount of activity surrounding the patient can be detrimental to their efforts to concentrate solely on their rehabilitation.

Enter virtual reality — the technology that can keep kids focused on the surroundings in a way that is productive for their physical therapy. Instead of paying attention to people touring the facility or data on a screen, children can focus on moving their legs in the correct way.

“The university started using virtual reality to put the kid in an environment where they forget that they are there,” Gonzalez-Sanchez said. “There’s no noise, the audio from outside is canceled, and basically you are in a different place.”

With distraction addressed, the team faced the challenge of keeping patients engaged throughout rehabilitation. Once the children got used to the virtual reality environment, the novelty wore off and the experience was repetitive and boring.

“We started thinking about what we can do to keep engagement high,” Gonzalez-Sanchez said. “We wanted to measure the engagement and the emotional factors in the kid, but we didn’t want to ask them because that distracts them from the therapy.”

The team initially considered measuring emotions using facial gesture tracking, skin conductivity and heart rate, but eventually settled on using a headpiece to measure brain activity during rehabilitation.

“We measure the engagement they have during activity, and with the measure of emotion, we can trigger changes in the virtual reality environment,” Gonzalez-Sanchez said.

After testing headpieces to ensure they fit well and were comfortable, the team was able to take measurements without interrupting the patient’s progress. With the data, they altered the virtual reality setting to be more dynamic and more personalized to what the patients need to stay focused during rehabilitation.

In a real environment, therapists typically provide a ball or a toy and encourage the patient to reach for it or move toward it, providing some kind of reward incentive. Similarly, challenges and incentives are provided in the virtual reality environment.

“It’s like a video game, where at some point you change the level. But it’s not about ability, it’s about how you feel,” Gonzalez-Sanchez said. “You start working, you have a goal to move from one point to another, and once you achieve that goal we want to see if you’re still engaged and if you’re enjoying this. Then we move to another level. If you get bored, we introduce some type of new element to the environment.”

Gonzalez-Sanchez, who is back at ASU this semester, plans to further develop the project with the team in Mexico. He and his collaborators, Carolina Del-Valle Soto and Jafet Rodriguez Muñoz from the Panamerican University (Universidad Panamericana), plan to focus on improving the intelligence of the system in terms of different approaches to keep patients engaged throughout sessions.

“The ultimate goal is to deploy the system with children’s rehabilitation centers, particularly the two that have a strong collaboration with the Universidad Panamericana in the cities of Guadalajara and Aguascalientes,” Gonzalez-Sanchez said. “We hope this deployment will be beneficial and other centers could adopt it. As a team, we look forward to continuing to provide solutions that enhance patients’ recovery.”

Karishma Albal

Student Science/Technology Writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


image title

Giving back to the future

February 27, 2020

ASU students invest in outreach that helped them become engineers

When we ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, “engineer” isn’t usually among the top answers. Being an engineer isn’t as obvious as a doctor, athlete, teacher or other common dream careers. However, all these jobs rely on engineers, computer scientists and other technology professionals.

Introducing engineering concepts in fun ways and meeting engineering students and professionals can spark young people’s interest in these careers.

In fact, engaging outreach activities led many current engineering and computer science students to study at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. Some now return the favor and mentor young students through these same programs.

A pipeline for the next generation

The Fulton Schools conducts school-year and summer outreach activities for children as young as kindergarten. Students can learn how to code, make video games, build robots, explore sustainable energy production — all fun ways to introduce concepts they may never have associated with engineering. For even the youngest students, the experience means getting to practice being an engineer and planting the seed that this can be their future.

“At the elementary level and younger, outreach is about raising awareness for engineering. It’s about what engineering is and what engineers do,” said Jennifer Velez, coordinator senior of the Fulton Schools student outreach and recruitment programs. “It’s tapping into that curiosity and giving kids an opportunity to explore and develop what we call engineering habits of mind, which include creativity, collaboration and problem-solving.”

The youngest students accomplish this goal by tinkering and exploring, whereas older elementary and middle school students start to learn skills and apply them in coding and robotics projects.

Velez says it’s important to generate interest in engineering early, so by the time students are in middle and early high school they are on a technical academic path and have the foundational skills that will help them accelerate their engineering studies in college.

Many summer programs take place at ASU’s Tempe and Polytechnic campuses, where the young participants get to see university life and interact with undergraduate students. The experience makes engineering and the possibility of college in general feel more accessible.

“This exposure gives participants a comfort level and familiarity with the university — and it demystifies college a little bit,” Velez said. “That’s especially important for students who are underrepresented in STEM. They have this opportunity to ask questions, especially of their mentors and role models who look like them.”

Regardless of what the participants go on to do, they cultivate a new mindset and learn valuable skills that can be applied anywhere.

An early start to engineering

Along with running its own outreach activities, ASU facilitates robotics programs in Arizona for the nonprofit organization FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).

From kindergarten through 12th grade, students can participate in multiple levels of robotics activities — FIRST Lego League Jr., FIRST Lego League, FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST Robotics Competition. The organization uses these programs to encourage students to pursue engineering and STEM careers, and to become leaders and innovators with a strong grasp of work-life skills for the 21st century.

Arizona FIRST Lego League aims to “ignite an enthusiasm for discovery of the basic principles of science, technology, engineering, arts and math” by tasking teams of students aged 9 to 14 to solve community problems through robotics challenges. In the past year, more than 2,700 students across the state have participated in Arizona FIRST Lego League.

The Fulton Schools outreach program holds weeklong FIRST Lego League summer camps for beginner and intermediate levels of robotics knowledge. The university also helps with team activities that run from August through December, as well as helping to coordinate statewide tournaments for more than 360 teams throughout Arizona, including state championship tournaments held on ASU’s Tempe campus each January.

“For kids who have been intimidated by (robotics) or haven’t had the opportunity to try it, the summer camp takes away the mystery and it develops their excitement for these different projects,” said Laura Grosso, senior coordinator for Fulton Schools student outreach and retention programs. “From the kids’ perspective, it helps give them the experience and foundation to move on to a team.”

Zach Smith, a first-year computer science student at ASU, says he knew he wanted a computer-related career as early as third grade. That’s when he began participating in FIRST Lego League in Flagstaff, Arizona, and realized not only could he become an engineer, but that elementary school wasn’t too early to start building his skillset.

Smith notes that learning to program a Lego robot to navigate through challenges helped him to pinpoint which area of computer science most interested him.

Grosso said, “People who have been through this program learn skills that are critical for engineers — not just the hard skills and the ability to understand complicated technical concepts, but the courage to tackle these really challenging areas of study.”

As Smith moved through the FIRST ranks and participated in the more advanced FIRST Robotics Competition during high school, he also strengthened his technical and teamwork skills.

He also became familiar with the college engineering experience as his team competed in tournaments hosted at ASU, where current Fulton Schools undergraduate students gave firsthand accounts about their experiences. Seeing what life could be like as a computer science student at ASU made him all the more eager to become a Sun Devil.

Seeing how engineering impacts society

While some students have an early interest in engineering, others get a later start.

The Fulton Schools outreach team aims to help middle school and high school students see themselves as engineers through a beginner version of one of its college extracurriculars, the Engineering Projects in Community Service, or EPICS, program.

EPICS enables college students to solve real-world community challenges through service learning projects. The same concept is used by 10 middle schools and 19 high schools in EPICS High.

Some schools use the program as a way to introduce engineering to middle school and first-year high school students, while others use it to help advanced junior and senior students apply technical skills they’ve already learned over the course of their STEM education, or anywhere in between. More than 700 students currently participate in EPICS High in Arizona.

Typically, students work with their teachers and not-for-profit organizations to make an impact in their community with engineering concepts and human-centered design skills.

“Students can deliver a complete project, and it is important at that age for them to experience failure, learn to push through failures and iterate to deliver something,” Velez said. “It allows them to feel good about their success, which is a strong motivation to continue into engineering.”

Seeing how engineering tackles issues that students see in their own communities also helps them create an engineering identity and see themselves in engineering careers down the line.

Some EPICS High groups also have ASU student mentors helping to guide the middle- and high-schoolers to learn skills they need to create successful community solutions.

Seth Mazza, a second-year aerospace engineering major in the Fulton Schools, was already interested in engineering, but his two years of EPICS High experience at MET Professional Academy in Peoria, Arizona, gave him a new perspective and motivation to pursue it as a career.

He worked on two projects: a modular electric piano keyboard and an elastic wristband to help people with hand and arm impairments more easily use wearable devices.

“One of the most memorable moments for both of these projects was reaching out to potential stakeholders and getting real validation of the idea,” Mazza said. “These experiences also made me want to attend ASU even more and join the EPICS program at the college level.”

Creating a culture of giving back

Not only did their experiences help lead Smith and Mazza to study computer science and aerospace engineering at ASU, they also encouraged them to give back and return to the same outreach programs as mentors.

“Students who had an EPICS High mentor seem more likely to become mentors themselves,” Velez said. “They value those relationships.”

Velez says when students come back to mentor in the same program, it shows how influential and valuable the experiences were when the mentors were participants.

“It shows how involved and invested they were in their projects when they were in EPICS High, and now they’re excited to help other students get the same kind of experience.”

Mazza, who has now been an EPICS High mentor for two years at the same high school he attended, exemplifies this idea.

“I wanted to make sure other EPICS High students gained everything I did in the program and more,” he said. “I can help them through the rough patches of a project without taking away the learning experiences.” 

Mentors also feel like they’re making a difference in the lives of others, and for themselves. For Mazza, mentorship is often an inspiring experience.

“Any day where I can get students to come to some sort of realization and figure out what they were stuck on or missing is a great day,” Mazza said. “The way their faces light up when they reach said realization alone, is enough to make me want to continue being a mentor.”

For others, helping people is the core value they are most drawn to. FIRST programs emphasize the importance of support just as much as technical skills.

FIRST mentors — who range from high school and college students to industry professionals — play a key role in imparting the value of teamwork. Smith’s FIRST mentor was a high school student who ended up earning a master’s degree in software engineering from ASU. Smith remembers his mentor’s enthusiasm influenced his desire to “pay it forward in the future.” 

Now, as a mentor himself, Smith works with his FLL team of elementary school students who are the same age he was when he started participating. He teaches them important lessons for all areas of robotics competition: robots, research projects and core values.

Like the college students he met at youth competitions hosted by ASU, Smith also enjoys talking with teams and “showing the kids that college is something they can attain in the future.”

Overall, it was a valuable experience when he was in third grade, and it continues to be rewarding as a mentor.

“Seeing these students grow in the same way I did gives me hope for future engineers,” Smith said. “I know they have the skills necessary to solve the problems of tomorrow.”

Top photo: Elementary and middle school students participate in the FIRST LEgo League state championship tournament held at Arizona State University. Outreach programs such as FIRST Lego League and Engineering Projects in Community Service for middle and high school students, known as EPICS High, help introduce complex engineering concepts in a fun way starting at an early age. Photo by Connor McKee/ASU

Monique Clement

Communications specialist , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering