ASU-developed app gives museum visitors an astronaut in the palm of their hand


April 14, 2015

Two Arizona museums will soon add an astronaut as a docent – a digital docent called “Dr. U.”

The Arizona Science Center and the Arizona Museum of Natural History are partnering with Arizona State University to offer visitors an app to complement their exhibits. Dr. Universe, a mobile app, encourages museum visitors to ask questions and the astronaut responds back from its database. Dheeraj Yennam and Jared Korinko Download Full Image

Dr. Universe is a project spearheaded by students and faculty in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering. A team of engineering students worked on programming as earth and space exploration and biology students created content – a student from the Herberger Institute from Design and the Arts designed the visuals.

Judd Bowman, associate professor at the School of Earth and Space Exploration, said during his wife’s graduate school career, she researched whether it’s possible to have a mentor relationship with a computer in an educational environment. Within the last three years, Bowman said he noticed how museum staff need help in evaluating its visitors’ experiences.

“It seemed like a natural fit to take this idea of a ‘computerized scientist’ and let people have it within the museums and let people ask questions with it,” Bowman said.

Bowman said museum exhibits tend to have a long lifetime, but they aren’t always updated as quickly as science advances. The app, funded by the National Science Foundation, currently covers more than 12,000 questions on various topics from astronomy to geology. Bowman said he and the team, which includes Cassie Bowman and Brian Nelson, both faculty, collected many of the questions three years before the development of Dr. Universe. Museum staff will also have access to a dashboard that aggregates the popular topics and questions being asked on the app.

“The idea is it’s a trusted database of information,” Bowman said. “It’s been screened through us, through our students. You know it’s going to be safe for kids, safe for your family members to use it. It’s not just whatever Google happens to bring up.”

Kyle Rogers, a geological science senior, said he goes to the two museums and figures out what content to develop based on the open exhibits. He also talks with the docents to see what questions are commonly asked. In addition to information provided by the museum, Rogers also utilizes textbooks, government websites and peer reviewed articles.

Rogers said he’s worked on approximately 2,500 questions in the past four months. With the previous database and his work, Rogers said currently the database houses around 12,000 Q&As in English. He works about 10 hours a week.

“It’s a great project because it’s furthering someone’s education,” Rogers said.

Ivan Fernandez, biological sciences junior, translates the questions, and Itxier Meziani, earth and space exploration senior, works on translating the answers. Meziani said she spends about 10 hours a week translating the answers.

Meziani said she conducts a lot of research to find the right word because certain words don’t translate exactly into Spanish. Meziani said she’s translated 4,000 answers so far in Spanish. She also helped Fernandez translate questions, and she said it takes her about one hour to translate 200 questions.

Dheeraj Yennam, a computer science senior, said his group chose the project because of the flexibility it provided. The engineering students meet up weekly with the professors to talk about their progress and best next steps.

“They’re asking us for our opinion instead of telling us their opinion and to do it,” Yennam said. “We appreciate that as programmers.”

He said their group has enjoyed working on the project that they use some of their own time to put in extra hours.

The Dr. Universe team had their first testing of the app earlier in the semester at the Arizona Museum of Natural History. Bowman said it was a good testing experience because they had the real museum environment. It helped the whole team see if the speech detection worked in a loud environment or if its design for the iPad mini provided a good feel.

Meziani said that the trial run at the museum went well for the Spanish portion. However, there still needs to be work done for the microphone to catch Spanish accents.

“I was really surprised how much people have done on this application,” Meziani said. “We were able to talk back, and I even had my kids try it, and they loved it.”

The next trial run will incorporate another feature involving iBeacons placed throughout the exhibits that will track when a user is nearby. Bowman said in one exhibit they noticed how photographs' descriptions were in English but not Spanish. If the beacon recognizes the app, it could do something like pull up the Spanish descriptions.

Yennam said they have the bluetooth beacons ready to be tested. He said the beacons have been tested in smaller rooms, but he isn’t sure how it will work in a larger environment.

He said the team is excited that there is potential for the app to expand to other museums. Yennam said the museum staff seem impressed that a user could speak into it and there wouldn’t be spelling errors.

The project is set to last for three years, but Bowman said he hopes it develops into a product that many museums use and tailor to their content.

“This project is a really cool example of ASU getting into the community, students getting involved with the museums and seeing how the things they’re learning and the work they’re doing here applies in that context,” Bowman said.

Written by Alicia Canales

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Movers and shakers of ASU honored for changing the world for the better


April 14, 2015

From harvesting oranges grown on campus, to spreading the importance of sleep in two languages, to creating engineering excellence half a world away, Arizona State University faculty and staff are helping to change the world for the better.

Those efforts and others were honored at the April 14 President’s Recognition Reception, where ASU President Michael M. Crow awarded university movers and shakers with the President’s Award for Innovation, the President’s Award for Sustainability and the President’s Medal for Social Embeddedness, as well as the SUN Awards for Individual Excellence. close up of President's Recognition Reception awards Download Full Image

Speaking at the reception, President Crow cited three key things the efforts of ASU faculty and staff are accomplishing: inspiring people through innovation, using those innovations to achieve university goals and demonstrating the model of enterprise.

“We have to move forward, adjust, be creative, leverage. All the things that you all do are a part of all that,” Crow told the crowd at the reception. “We are trying to inspire the rest of the institution and we are trying to inspire the rest of the community to be creative, to be adaptive, to move forward.”

President's Award for Innovation

Vietnam is home to the Intel Corporation’s largest test and assembly site in the world. To a company that is the world’s foremost producer of devices that make computers possible, having a staff of expertly trained engineers is essential.

In 2010, Intel approached ASU to pursue a USAID Global Development Alliance grant, which would bring co-investment from a consortium of higher-education, industry and government partners, allowing Vietnamese engineering faculty to train at ASU as well as participate in ASU-led, in-country workshops.

One of this year’s recipients of the President’s Award for Innovation, the Higher Engineering Education Alliance Program (HEEAP) is giving Vietnamese engineering faculty the knowledge and skills to graduate work-ready students who possess the applied and technical communication skills required by multinational corporations.

“It is gratifying six years into this project to see the transformation in the classroom by the faculty bringing a lot of the active-based, applied project and team-based learning approaches to their instruction,” said Jeffrey Goss, project director for HEEAP, executive director for the Office of Global Outreach and Extended Education and assistant dean in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Other recipients of the President’s Award for Innovation

• ASU Compressed Gas “Under Pressure” Program – This program raises the awareness of the serious hazards inherent in compressed gas use. Compressed gases are used in about 700 research laboratories at ASU.

• Ensuring High Quality Colonoscopy Through Innovative Informatics Solutions –  In collaboration with Mayo Clinic, the Imaging Informatics Lab in the Department of Biomedical Informatics at ASU has developed use-inspired innovative solutions to help reduce the polyp miss-rate of colonoscopy.

• The Cronkite Public Insight Network Bureau – Through this unique collaboration between ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and American Public Media, students work with professional newsrooms across the country to develop new ways of engaging communities in their reporting.

President’s Award for Sustainability

As a university known for its commitment to sustainability, it’s only natural that the ASU community would find several ways to implement sustainable practices on its campuses. One of them is the Seville Orange Juicing Partnership, which was one of the recipients of the President’s Award for Sustainability.

ASU Facilities Management Grounds Services, Aramark, Campus Harvest and local company Sun Orchard Juicery all work together to make the partnership possible.

This past year, volunteers and Facilities Management Grounds staff harvested 10,000 pounds of Seville oranges from the Tempe campus, and Sun Orchard processed and bottled 380 gallons of juice. Aramark then purchases the juice for their chefs to use in a wide range of dishes and drinks throughout the year in ASU residence halls, restaurants such as Engrained, the Pods and catered events. Even the orange peel is processed and used by local farmers as a healthy, all-natural feed for cattle and hogs.

“The campus harvest program is beneficial to the ASU community because edible landscaping combines form and function in an innovative way,” said Krista Hicks, a sustainability manager with Aramark at ASU.

Other recipients of the President’s Award for Sustainability

• Clinton Global Initiatives University Zero Waste – In March 2014, ASU hosted CGI U. During a two-day period, 3,000 pounds of solid waste were generated, but only 127 pounds went to the landfill; the rest was composted, recycled or donated to local food banks. ASU was the first host institution to achieve zero waste for the annual conference.

• Sustainability Science Education Project – This project from the Biodesign Institute partnered with the Teachers College to develop a new and innovative hybrid course called Sustainability Science for Teachers. This course is required leverages the power of digital storytelling to convey difficult concepts in an engaging and approachable manner.

President’s Medal for Social Embeddedness

Poor sleep is a lifestyle factor that plays a significant role in the development of obesity and diabetes; however, lay and professional health workers receive little training in sleep disorders, sleep health promotion or the importance of good sleep to encourage health and well-being.

“People generally emphasize diet and physical activity, but don’t realize that sleep is just as important a lifestyle factor,” said Carol Baldwin, ASU associate professor and team leader of the Your Sleep/Your Life; Su Sueño/Su Vida project, one of this year’s recipients of the President’s Medal for Social Embeddedness.

To address this issue, a bi-national team from the ASU College of Nursing and Health Innovation and community partners from the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization, Harvard Division of Sleep Medicine and the University of Guanajuato, Leon, Mexico successfully developed, implemented and evaluated an evidence-based sleep health training program tested with "promotores" (Hispanic lay health workers), ASU nursing students and health professionals in Mexico.

Other recipient of the President’s Medal for Social Embeddedness:

• University Service-Learning – This program connects ASU students with community agencies through academic coursework. Students in these courses complete 70-100 hours serving non-profits, high-needs schools and government organizations in the greater Phoenix area.

SUN Awards for Individual Excellence

Four employees are singled out for this extraordinary honor based on the quality of their work as recorded in the SUN Awards they received from ASU faculty and staff during calendar year 2014, and by their managers’ commendation of their exceptional performance.

• Mary Bauer, New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.
• Susan Metosky, Research Integrity and Assurance.
• George Mulloy, Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Student Services.
• Karina Richardson, School of Nutrition and Health Promotion, Student Services.

Emma Greguska

Reporter, ASU Now

(480) 965-9657