Brains, bugs and bullfrogs highlight ASU after-school science program

April 4, 2013

Holding a real brain might seem a bit out of the ordinary, but for middle school students participating in a free Arizona State University after-school science program, it’s all part of the fun. Dozens of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders are learning about the life sciences during “hands-on” experiences focused on the theme “energy meets biology.”

Graduate students from the School of Life Sciences are the brains behind the free program. Mentors with “Graduate Partners in Science Education” (GPSE) develop lessons aimed at providing fun and interactive science experiences for students in underserved schools.   A graduate student mentor hands a live bullfrog to a middle school student. Download Full Image

“The goal of Graduate Partners in Science Education is two-pronged,” said Russell Ligon, co-director of the organization and graduate student in the school. “One, to bring high quality, hands-on scientific experiences to local middle school students, and two, to give the graduate student mentors experience in working with and communicating to children, to non-scientists, and to the public at large.”

Lesson topics vary from learning about brains and coral, to discovering the physiology and behavior of live bullfrogs, leaf cutter ants and black widow spiders. Students are exposed to topics such as thermoregulation, urban ecology, adaptation, and how some animals work together to survive. Each class provides the kids with an opportunity to be actively engaged in the topic.

“We dissected brains and took notes on the length, height, weight, and we touched them with the glove and it was all wet – eww!” exclaimed Jaela Mitchell, a sixth grader at Laird Elementary school. “I was surprised at the sizes. Some of them are so small, they don’t even look like brains.”

Five pairs of mentors worked with more than 80 students just this semester and GPSE completed its eighth year of classroom mentorship. For the past three months, the group worked with Gilliland and Laird schools in the Tempe Elementary School District, and Kenilworth in the Phoenix Elementary School District. Some of the schools’ science teachers aligned their lesson plans with the topics presented by GPSE mentors.

“Our theme for this semester was energy meets biology,” says Shelley Valle, a doctoral student in the School of Life Sciences and GPSE mentor. “Our lessons are based on that concept and we try to create hands-on, inquiry-based experiences for the students. I want them to have a positive impression of science, so they will realize that science is a good area to study as they get older.”

In the fall, GPSE mentors create lesson plans and learn basic teaching and mentoring skills. In the spring, the group works directly with students in their classrooms. At the end of the program, students create posters highlighting the science topics they learned and present them to their families and friends. Group leaders expect the program to expand next year as they continue exposing student to many different topics related to biology.

“At the end of the day, we really want them to have positive experiences with science because this is such a crucial age for whether you lose a student forever or whether you get them hooked on science,” shared Ligon.

GPSE’s faculty advisor is Andrew Webber, a professor with the School of Life Sciences. The group also receives support from the school’s director, Brian Smith, and Jürgen Gadau, the school’s associate dean for graduate studies. Brett Seymoure is GPSE's co-director and a graduate student in the school.

School of Life Sciences is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Sandra Leander

Manager, Media Relations and Marketing, School of Life Sciences


Hieroglyph teams up writers, researchers to turn sci-fi into reality

April 5, 2013

How can we get people thinking more creatively and ambitiously about the future? This week ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination is taking on this challenge by officially launching Hieroglyph, a collaborative project with renowned author Neal Stephenson.

The project teams up writers and other creative thinkers with scientists and engineers to write science fiction stories that envision a near future radically changed by technological innovation. Hieroglyph aims to break out of the gloomy, dystopian rut that dominates so many of our visions of the future by inspiring people to think critically and creatively about science, technology and society. Download Full Image

Join the conversation at, a new website designed to help writers and researchers work collaboratively, build communities around their big ideas for the future and share their stories and research with the world. The site will feature original content and creative conversations with leading writers and researchers at ASU and beyond. These stories, essays and interviews will serve as the foundation for an anthology of fiction and non-fiction under contract with HarperCollins.

Hieroglyph’s goal is to help create the necessary momentum to Get Big Stuff Done – to achieve ambitious, real-life technological breakthroughs that tangibly transform human futures. Stephenson argues that our global culture, our economies and our governments have invested in short-term, low-risk thinking and forgotten how to think big, take risks and invest in exploration.

“Any strategy that involves crossing a valley – accepting short-term losses to reach a higher hill in the distance – will soon be brought to a halt by the demands of a system that celebrates short-term gains and tolerates stagnation, but condemns anything else as failure. In short, a world where big stuff can never get done.”

By bringing writers and researchers together, Hieroglyph hopes to cultivate a different logic. The online platform and conversations driven by the project will support a “moonshot ecosystem” of innovative people, ideas and institutions dedicated to solutions. And science fiction has an integral role to play in this transformation.

The project’s name comes from the notion that certain iconic inventions in science fiction stories serve as modern hieroglyphs – familiar concepts like Arthur Clarke’s communications satellite, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ship that lands on its fins, and Isaac Asimov’s robot. Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research described hieroglyphs as simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.

“What science fiction can do better than almost anything else is to provide not just an idea for some specific technical innovation, but also to supply a coherent picture of that innovation being integrated into a society, into an economy, and into people’s lives. Often, this is the missing element needed to bring some new idea to life,” suggests Ed Finn, director of the Center for Science and the Imagination and assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the Department of English.

Hieroglyph’s pilot project is the Tall Tower, a collaboration between Neal Stephenson and Keith Hjelmstad, Professor of Structural Engineering in ASU’s School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment. The project began with a simple question: how tall can we build something? The Tower exemplifies Hieroglyph’s quest for ambitious, achievable ideas: it turns out that it might be possible to build 20km tall tower using high-grade steel within the next few decades. Stephenson, Hjelmstad and a growing circle of collaborators that now includes aerospace engineers, climatologists, architects and designers are hard at work solving structural problems and prototyping possible uses for such an immense structure.  

“One of the things that excites me about this project is the fact that this question immediately lights up my students as well as my colleagues. It’s a problem that is both concrete and challenging, connecting engineers to the ambitions that led them to the field in the first place,” notes Hjelmstad.

Other leading writers collaborating on the Hieroglyph project include Karl Schroeder, Madeline Ashby, Gregory Benford and Brenda Cooper. Author, activist and techno-geek icon Cory Doctorow is working with Kip Hodges, director of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and other researchers on a story exploring the possibility of sending 3D printers to the Moon to build structures from lunar dust for humans to inhabit later.

Starting later this year, Hieroglyph will begin sharing the best work from professional science writers, researchers and community contributors at The Center for Science and the Imagination invites everyone to participate by joining the Hieroglyph community to share ideas and insights about science, technology and the future.

Britt Lewis

Communications Specialist, ASU Library