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ASU students to be empowered by 'technofluency'

School of Arts, Media and Engineering Director Pavan Turaga wants students to consider implications of technology

Students in the transdisciplinary School of Arts, Media and Engineering at Arizona State University will be empowered by “technofluency,” a concept embraced by the school’s faculty and new director, Pavan Turaga.

Turaga, an associate professor in the school and also in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, had served as interim director of the school, a collaborative initiative between the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

The school, with about 400 students, will expand into the new Creative Futures initiative in the ASU Mesa City Center, set to open in 2022.

Turaga answered some questions from ASU News:

Question: What is “technofluency”?

Answer: One of the good things that emerged during the past year was in the last faculty meeting of spring 2020, we had a marathon writing session and framed our first vision and mission statement

We identified a key word, technofluency, and we said that, as a school, we will engage with this work. So it’s three things: fluency with technology, application development and implications. Those are the three pillars.

We want students to develop fluency of the tools of technology, how to apply them and ask, what are the implications?

All technology tools have certain tradeoffs and it’s become more and more clear, especially in the fields of media and social media, things driven by artificial intelligence, that those methods amplify certain biases that are prevalent in media already.

We are creators who make art and media and engaging products, but let’s pay attention to the underlying assumptions that exist.

Q: And how will students consider the implications of the technology they create?

A: That is one of the questions that we’re addressing. Is it in every class, or a specific class or the capstone project?

If we cover it in every class, it limits the work you can do. Some classes need to be just development or just application. They’re deep technology classes.

Maybe it’s developing new classes.

We’d like to see students use all three muscles in developing their yearlong capstone projects. I would like to see them embrace it fully and see if we can do community-impact projects at full scale. I will be working with a new team of capstone instructors including incoming faculty DB Bauer, Luke Kautz and David Tinapple to start achieving this vision.

Q: When you became interim director, you discussed how the school focuses on artificial intelligence and games. What’s going on with those areas?

A: We are in the advanced stages of launching a certificate around the idea of artificial intelligence for media development applications, led by faculty directors Suren Jayasuriya, Ed Finn and Sha Xin Wei.

We’ve been finding a lot of interest from middle schoolers and high schoolers who want to understand AI, and we’re working on a summer program, as part of our Digital Culture Summer Institute, led by faculty directors Kim Swisher and Loren Olson.

The idea of gaming really took off during the pandemic, with games as a means of connecting with a community and gaming as a way of learning and promoting a sense of equity. I feel like the games sector, as a business, exploded during the pandemic and our students were soaking that up and it manifested in their projects.

One student built a Spanish language game for their capstone. They chose a prison for the setting and the purpose of the game was to break out of prison by trying to communicate with the people in the prison in Spanish. It was, “How do you immerse yourself in a language-based community during a pandemic?” And gaming is one way to do that. I saw it as an impressive project to encourage language fluency.

Q: Your area of expertise is wearable technology. What are you working on?

A: My interest is in AI methods as applied to data from wearable devices.

As wearables take off, there’s a huge opportunity for understanding movement data and other kinds of physical measurements of movement that come from these sensors and try to understand the full spectrum of human behavior, which has a lot of applications.

There is a strong interest in using noninvasive, wearable technology to measure biomarkers, which, in the old days, could only be measured with a blood test. For example, blood glucose levels can’t be easily measured with a wearable, but we can correlate changes in those levels with physical activity measured by biosensors.

Many of our faculty are interested in using wearables for performance, such as Seth Thorn, Grisha Coleman and more.

We just received a gift, $250,000, from the Edson Foundation to develop a wellness-based experience to create a reprieve for caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients. One idea was to use interactive methods, such as screens at homes or virtual reality, to create an experience to immerse them in a pleasant world. We are working with a team of faculty, students and consultants, including Tejaswi Gowda, Max Bernstein, Xavier Nokes, Ri Lindegren, Todd Ingalls, David Coon, Dennis Bonilla, Elle Spencer Lewis and more.

I’ll be involved in this project over the next year.

Q: You recently completed work on a project involving people with Parkinson’s disease. How did that go?

A: I worked on that for five years and that project is now done. The Parkinson’s project also was about interactive systems that create biofeedback, led by colleagues in nursing and bioengineering: Narayanan Krishnamurthi, Jimmy Abbas and also Todd Ingalls. We were looking at sensors attached to people’s feet that could signal gait cadence to drive feedback so they could hear themselves walking and correct their walk cycles.

Q: What kind of jobs are graduates of the School of Arts, Media and Engineering getting?

A: We are primarily a liberal arts program, which means they have broad-based skills. Many are doing startups. A recent graduate began an entry-level position with Amazon. Others become video editors, media (and game) designers. Many have gone to Unity, a big software platform for a lot of virtual reality and augmented reality games, with some of our faculty like Robert LiKamWa and Garth Paine playing a significant role in that pipeline.

Many go into jobs that require hands-on technology fluency, but they’re also good with leading and managing people.

Top photo: Portrait of Pavan Turaga by Charlie Leight/ASU News

marybeth.faller@asu.edu