Science at play: NSF funds ASU research on nanotechnology ethics, education


April 8, 2014

Students at Arizona State University are learning how to play.

ASU undergraduates have the opportunity to enroll in a challenging course this fall, designed to re-introduce the act of play as a problem-solving technique. The course is offered as part of the larger project, Cross-disciplinary Education in Social and Ethical Aspects of Nanotechnology, which received nearly $200,000 from the National Science Foundation’s Nano Undergraduate Education program. Candace Chan and students Download Full Image

The project is the brainchild of Camilla Nørgaard Jensen, a doctoral scholar in the ASU Herberger Institute’s design, environment and the arts doctoral program. Participants will use an approach called LEGO Serious Play to solve what Jensen calls “nano-conundrums” – ethical dilemmas arising in the field of nanotechnology.

“LEGO Serious Play is an engaging vehicle that helps to create a level playing field, fostering shared conversation and exchange of multiple perspectives,” said Jensen, a trained LEGO Serious Play facilitator. “This creates an environment for reflection and critical deliberation of complex decisions and their future impacts.”

LEGO Serious Play methods are often used by businesses to strategize and encourage creative thinking. In ASU’s project, students will use LEGO bricks to build metaphorical models, share and discuss their creations, and then adapt and respond to feedback received by other students. The expectation is that this activity will help students learn to think and communicate “outside the box” – literally and figuratively – about their work and its long-term societal effects.

Jensen works with a team of faculty members, including Thomas Seager, an associate professor and Lincoln Fellow of Ethics and Sustainability in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering; Cynthia Selin, an assistant professor in the School of Sustainability and the Center for Nanotechnology in Society, housed at the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at ASU; and Mark Hannah, an assistant professor in the rhetoric and composition program in the ASU Department of English, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Fifteen engineering students enrolled in the Grand Challenge Scholar Program participated in a Feb. 24 pilot workshop to test project strategies. Comments from students included, "I experienced my ideas coming to life as I built the model,” and "I gained a perspective as to how ideas cannot take place entirely in the head.” These anecdotal outcomes confirmed the team’s assumptions that play and physical activity can enhance the formation and communication of ideas.

“Technology is a creative and collaborative process,” said Seager, who is principal investigator for the grant. “I want a classroom that will unlock technology creativity, in which students from every discipline can be creative. For me, overcoming obstacles to communication is just the first step.”

Seager’s work teaching ethical reasoning skills to science and engineering graduate students will help inform the project. Selin’s research on the social implications of new technologies, and Hannah’s expertise in professional and technical communication will facilitate the dialogue-based approach to understanding the communication responsibilities of transdisciplinary teams working in nanotechnology. A steering committee of 12 senior advisers is helping to guide the project’s progress.

“Being a new scientific field that involves very complex trade-offs and risk when it comes to implementation, the subject of ethics in nanoscience is best addressed in a transdisciplinary setting. When problems are too complex to be solved by one discipline alone, the approach needs to go beyond the disciplinary silos,” said Jensen.

The ASU project will leverage LEGO Serious Play's promised “systematic creativity” in an immersive nanotechnology environment, which the team believes is a natural fit because of its micro-to-macro scale and its hands-on approach to experiential learning and deliberation.

“As we train the next generation of students to understand the opportunities and responsibilities involved in creating and using emerging technologies that have the potential to benefit society, we need to advance our capacity to teach diverse stakeholders how to communicate effectively,” said Jensen.

Kristen LaRue

communications specialist, Department of English

480-965-7611

Gusev Crater once held a lake after all, says ASU Mars scientist


April 9, 2014

If desert mirages occur on Mars, "Lake Gusev" belongs among them. This come-and-go body of ancient water has come and gone more than once, at least in the eyes of Mars scientists.

Now, however, it's finally shifting into sharper focus, thanks to a new analysis of old data by a team led by Steve Ruff, associate research professor at Arizona State University's Mars Space Flight Facility in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. The team's report was just published in the April 2014 issue of the journal Geology. Comanche outcrop, Columbia Hills, Gusev Crater, Mars Download Full Image

The story begins in early 2004, when NASA landed Spirit, one of its two Mars Exploration Rovers, inside 100-mile-wide Gusev Crater. Why Gusev? Because from orbit, Gusev, with its southern rim breached by a meandering river channel, looked as if it once held a lake – and water-deposited rocks were the rover mission's focus. Yet, when Spirit began to explore, scientists found Gusev's floor was paved not with lakebed sediments, but volcanic rocks.

Less than two miles away however, stood the Columbia Hills, 300 feet high. When Spirit drove up into them, it indeed discovered ancient rocks that had been altered by water. But to scientists' chagrin, no lake sediments were among them. Instead, scientists discovered evidence of hydrothermal activity – essentially hot springs like those in Yellowstone National Park.

But there's hope yet for Lake Gusev, thanks to a Columbia Hills rock outcrop, dubbed Comanche. This outcrop is unusually rich in magnesium-iron carbonate minerals, a discovery made in 2010 that Ruff played a major role in. While Comanche's carbonate minerals were originally attributed to hydrothermal activity, the team's new analysis points to a different origin.

Cool waters

Says Ruff, "We looked more closely at the composition and geologic setting of Comanche and nearby outcrops. There's good evidence that low temperature surface waters introduced the carbonates into Comanche rather than hot water rising from deep down."

Comanche started out as a volcanic ash deposit known as tephra that originally covered the Columbia Hills and adjacent plains. This material, Ruff explains, came from explosive eruptions somewhere within or around Gusev.

Then floodwaters entered the crater through the huge valley that breaches Gusev's southern rim. These floods appear to have ponded long enough to alter the tephra, producing briny solutions. When the brines evaporated, they left behind residues of carbonate minerals. As the lake filled and dried, perhaps many times in succession, it loaded Comanche and its neighbor rocks with carbonates.

"The lake didn't have to be big," Ruff explains. "The Columbia Hills stand 300 feet high, but they're in the lowest part of Gusev. So a deep, crater-spanning lake wasn't needed."

Today, the Columbia Hills rise as an island of older terrain surrounded by younger lava flows, Ruff says. "Comanche and a neighbor outcrop called Algonquin are remnants of the older and much more widespread tephra deposit. The wind has eroded most of that deposit, also carrying away much of the evidence for an ancient lake."

Return to Gusev?

Mars rover Spirit fell silent on a winter night in March 2010, and it has never been heard from since. Spirit left most of the Columbia Hills and other Gusev targets unexplored. Ruff says that as NASA evaluates landing sites for its new sample-collecting rover in 2020, Gusev Crater deserves serious consideration.

"Going back to Gusev would give us an opportunity for a second field season there, which any terrestrial geologist would understand," argues Ruff. "After the first field season with Spirit, we now have a bunch more questions and new hypotheses that can be addressed by going back."

Because the Mars 2020 rover mission will collect and cache samples for potential return to Earth, that makes going to an already visited site more important, says Ruff.

"Scientifically and operationally it makes sense to go to a place which we know has geologically diverse – and astrobiologically interesting – materials to sample," Ruff argues.

"And we know exactly where to find them."

The School of Earth and Space Exploration is an academic unit in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Robert Burnham

Science writer, School of Earth and Space Exploration

480-458-8207