ASU professor, student honored at Engineers Week


February 25, 2014

A professor who has reformed the teaching of mechanics and a graduate student studying urban landscape irrigation were recently honored at the Greater Phoenix Area 2014 Engineers Week awards ceremony.

Keith Hjelmstad was named 2014 Engineering Educator of the Year. He is a professor of civil, environmental and sustainable engineering in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. headshot of Keith Hjelmstad Download Full Image

Thomas Volo, who is working on his doctorate in civil, environmental and sustainable engineering in the same school, was named Engineering Student of the Year.

The awards, which recognize engineers, students, educators and projects that have made outstanding contributions to the profession, were presented at the EWeek Gala on Feb. 20 at the Hotel Palomar Phoenix.

Hjelmstad, who has been an educator for more than 30 years, has taught thousands of students and mentored 21 doctoral students.

“Keith Hjelmstad has made an outstanding contribution in improving engineering education at ASU,” wrote Michael S. Mamlouk, professor and chairman of ASU’s Civil, Environmental and Sustainable Engineering Program, in a letter nominating Hjelmstad for the award. “Recently, he changed the instruction method of our mechanics classes at ASU, which resulted in greatly improving the performance of our students and enhancing their engineering understanding.”

Hjelmstad led The Mechanics Project, an effort to improve undergraduate mechanics courses based on research that shows people learn best when engaged and curious. The first course Hjelmstad tackled was dynamics.

The new approach involves minimal lectures – only eight per semester – with most work done in a recitation-based format in which small groups of about four students work on problems with peer instructors. Because traditional textbooks didn’t work well with this model, Hjelmstad created new materials that provide fundamentals and focus on problem solving. Students learn in multiple ways, including computing projects, formal reports and peer review, and have multiple opportunities to show mastery through assessments, reducing the stress of testing.

The result is that more students are thriving and fewer are failing or withdrawing, with the promise of increased retention of engineering students. Hjelmstad is currently working with colleagues to reform two other mechanics courses, statics and solid mechanics.

Students have called Hjelmstad a rock star and a genius, and say they have learned more in his classes than in any others.

“Keith has done a wonderful job in focusing on a weakness in our civil engineering curriculum and making our mechanics course sequence an outstanding experience for our students,” said G. Edward Gibson, director of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment. “He is truly revolutionizing the way these classes are delivered in civil engineering curricula, after almost 60 years of teaching these classes in a manner that reached some students, but not all.

“I feel that this ‘reinvention’ of how to teach these materials will continue to pay large dividends as we work to retain more students in the civil engineering field and provide the skill sets to them that will make them lifelong learners.”

Before moving to the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, Hjelmstad was university vice president and dean of ASU’s College of Technology and Innovation, and was on the faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for 25 years. He has a doctorate in civil engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.

Volo, who has received a Dean’s Fellowship for his doctoral work, is studying the ecohydrology of desert cities. Specifically, his research uses numerical modeling and eddy covariance techniques to investigate the impacts of landscape irrigation on urban surface energy and soil moisture fluxes.

He was nominated by Braden R. Allenby, the Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics, and President’s Professor of Civil, Environmental and Sustainable Engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Volo has been an instructor for Allenby’s Technological, Social and Sustainable Systems course. Volo, who has received a Dean’s Fellowship for his doctoral work, is studying the ecohydrology of desert cities. Specifically, his research uses numerical modeling and eddy covariance techniques to investigate the impacts of landscape irrigation on urban surface energy and soil moisture fluxes.

“He is capable of the quick and clear reasoning, and the response to complex challenges that mark the true leader and professional,” Allenby states in his nomination letter, writing that Volo regularly excels in highly technical research and the challenging interactivity of student mentoring.

Volo wrote in his nomination materials that even though most of the municipal water supplied to people in the Phoenix area is used outdoors, there is little scientific understanding of what happens to the water used to maintain lawns and urban landscaping.

Volo’s research seeks to conserve urban water use through improved scheduling for residential irrigation. In addition to giving numerous presentations of his findings and recommendations to the academic community and the general public, Volo has submitted his work for publication in the journals Ecohydrology and Landscape, and Urban Planning.

“Of course, engineering is also about communication, because even the greatest solutions to the world’s most challenging problems would be for naught if they are not communicated effectively,” Volo stated.

The Greater Phoenix Area 2013 Engineers Week group considers dozens of award nominees from almost 40 local chapters of various professional engineering associations, and roughly an equal number of engineering and construction companies, along with several public agencies and educational institutions.

ASU engineer receives NSF award to conduct privacy research


February 25, 2014

Arizona State University engineering faculty member Lalitha Sankar has received the National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development Award, or CAREER Award.

Sankar is an assistant professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. headshot of Lalitha Sankar Download Full Image

The award provides $455,000 for Sankar’s research project, "Privacy-Guaranteed Distributed Interactions in Critical Infrastructure Networks." The project will develop information-sharing protocols between distributed, and often competitive, entities in critical infrastructure networks such as the electric grid.

Such protocols can enable better monitoring of the grid while allowing control over what, and how much, information is revealed.

Information sharing is essential for situational awareness and for ensuring timely response to changing events. It can be the difference in whether your air conditioning stays on during a heat wave, for example.

Sankar calls this information-sharing problem competitive privacy.

The award, described by the NSF as its most prestigious for junior faculty, supports those who are teacher-scholars conducting outstanding research and demonstrating excellent teaching. Faculty members given these awards are expected to become leaders in integrating education and research.

The NSF uses CAREER awards to foster innovative developments in science and technology, increase awareness of careers in science and engineering, give recognition to the scientific missions of the participating agencies, enhance connections between fundamental research and national goals, and highlight the importance of science and technology for the nation’s future.

“I am just delighted with the opportunity to work on these topics,” Sankar said.

Sankar also acknowledged the valuable feedback she received from her mentors and colleagues, as well as the support of “amazing” ASU and Fulton Engineering staff members.

The U.S. energy grid is a patchwork of competitive private and public entities connected from coast to coast. While those entities need to communicate to keep electricity flowing, they are also concerned about revealing proprietary information. At the same time, the grid has to become more flexible, incorporating energy from renewable sources such as wind and solar.

“Extreme weather patterns are leading to dynamic and ever-increasing demands on the grid,” Sankar said. “The grid needs to be more responsive and resilient to avoid catastrophic outages.

“My goal is to develop optimal communication protocols so that the network operators can share just enough data for reliable functioning in a distributed manner.”

Given the competitive nature of the entities involved, Sankar’s research will also develop incentive mechanisms for operators and other data-centric entities in the electric grid to share information. She said she believes that the project results have broader applicability to other cyber-physical systems, including electronic health care, transportation and water-distribution systems.

Graduate students will be assisting Sankar in further developing her research ideas. She is also incorporating her research into an advanced graduate class, Cyber-security and Privacy in the Smart Grid, which she recently introduced at ASU.

The CAREER award also requires education outreach efforts with focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education for K-12 students. Sankar plans to work with middle-school students, particularly girls, to explore the idea of privacy and their use of social media applications, such as Facebook.

Sankar has a doctoral degree in electrical engineering from Rutgers University. Her master’s degree is from the University of Maryland, and her bachelor’s degree is from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. Prior to joining ASU, she was a science and technology postdoctoral fellow and research scholar at Princeton University.