National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Welcomes Thunderbird School of Global Management

Jake Taylor

Jake Taylor

Guest Writer

This year marks Thunderbird’s admission to a National Science Foundation’s Research Traineeship (NRT). Currently in its fourth year, the prestigious Citizen-Centered Smart Cities and Smart Living grant program at Arizona State University welcomed five MGM students bringing the Thunderbird Mystique to smart cities research. The NRT traineeship brings students from interdisciplinary fields of study spanning public affairs and computer science to global management and applied engineering programs to employ research seeking to redefine the future of smart cities. 

The Program

According to nrt.asu.edu: “The National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) project at Arizona State University, Citizen-Centered Smart Cities and Smart Living, will train the next generation of master’s and doctoral students through an interdisciplinary focus on the technological, societal and environmental aspects of citizen-centered solutions and smart cities and smart living.” This description, however, barely scratches the surface. 

NRT recipients receive a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, working one-on-one with industry experts ranging from Human Systems Engineering to Robotics and Autonomous Systems; whichever the course of study, the NRT has brought in some of the best minds from around the world. Small cohorts of students have exclusive access to front line ASU research and technology, including extensive networks of field expertise and corporate and governance partners. Each NRT trainee has at least one faculty member to mentor them in tandem with several other leaders as they learn the smart city field and ultimately begin their research. 

The full NRT experience entails core courses on the infrastructure, sustainability, resiliency, ethics, and governance of smart cities and smart living. Students then diverge into electives and mentorship aimed at their research interests, whether it be Multi-Robot Systems, Socio-Eco-Technical Systems, Human-Computer Interaction, Technology and Public Affairs, or myriad other potential subjects. Additionally, regular workshops on communication skills, entrepreneurship, and other soft and technical skills aim to elevate NRT students to applied learning and professional development. 

As students begin their specific research alongside their NRT faculty advisor and additional mentors, they are introduced to the network of working partners. These can include Cisco, Intel, SRP, Amazon, and local municipalities like the cities of Phoenix, Mesa, Chandler, and Tempe as well as the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG). Ultimately, the students will not only conduct research related to smart cities and smart living but work alongside these local partners towards the development of a testbed and advance towards application and published research. 

In discussing the “Citizen-Centered” focus with Ding Ding Zheng, NRT’s coordinator and manager of daily operations, she explained the program’s roots and evolution. The seeds of the NRT were first planted with an NSF Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) grant, Alliance for Person-centered Accessible Technologies (APAcT), awarded to Dr. Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan (formerly the Executive Vice President of ASU Knowledge Enterprise and Chief Research and Innovation Officer, currently on extended leave of absence from the University as he serves as the Director of the National Science Foundation). Through the IGERT grant, Dr. Panch and his team of faculty and students explored research in human-centered and person-centered multimedia computing, focusing on assistive, rehabilitative, and healthcare applications. 

Person-centered design concentrates on the people and communities one designs for, and researchers must learn and understand the users’ needs. The team found that when one works with individuals with disabilities, and one understands the problems to solve, one then finds solutions that are fundamental and pertinent to a large portion of society, including the so-called “able-bodied” individuals. For example, developing a note-taking device that helps individuals who are visually impaired may then also be used by the general population. After the success of the IGERT, the team ventured further and were awarded the NRT grant program. 

Ms. Zheng elaborated: “Through the IGERT, the team found that person-centered design and solutions for individuals with disabilities could produce technologies that benefited the general population.” Likewise, with the NRT and its theme of Smart Cities and Smart Living, Dr. Panch and Dr. Troy McDaniel (the current PI of the NRT) wanted to explore how citizen-centered design and solutions for individual residents or “citizens” of a community could then help the overall district, city, region, or the world. She also explained the methodology – that smart cities and smart living is not simply about gizmos and gadgets but inherent design “affecting things like civic engagement, fairness in AI, health, transportation, and aging in place. It’s the bridge between cities and citizens – and improving the quality of life for everyone.”

The Students

Das Tor also spoke with Dr. Diana Bowman, Associate Dean and Professor from ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. She expressed that T-Birds bring a unique multidisciplinary aspect, including digital transformation, management, and leadership – all which are critical to the design and deployment of smart cities. Acting as a faculty advisor in the NRT program and one of the committee members that reviews each NRT candidate, she went on to say a key metric she looks for in an application is passion, something Thunderbirds have in spades. 

Working with Dean Sanjeev Khagram, the program was introduced in Fall 2020. By the start of Summer 2021, Thunderbird was welcomed into the fold, and recruiting began. Of the eleven new recipients to the program, almost half were from the Thunderbird School of Global Management. Inaugural recipients from our institution include T-Birds David Lugo Robles, Julie Schuldt, Caden Lyon, Jacob Taylor (myself), and another who wished to remain anonymous. Already, these five represent the transdisciplinary mindset the program wishes to develop: David worked for several years in the nonprofit and public policy space; Julie boasts over 10 years of international experience and global entrepreneurship; Caden brings his experience in Urban and Regional planning, having worked with refugee housing and myriad other social impact programs; I am a creative serial entrepreneur, having acted as both producer and creative director in game design, as well as in a host of entrepreneurial endeavors spanning construction and product design.

What would Thunderbirds bring to the table in a program that is so dominated by computer science and systems engineering? In an interview with Bas Boorsma, Chief Design Officer for the City of Rotterdam, Netherlands, and former Chief Digitalization officer for Cisco, he explained: “T-birds take a more applied perspective on the subject matter they are on, one that is about leadership, framed in a larger set of values plus very international in outlook.” In respect to the ultimate impact Thunderbirds will have on the program, he went on to add, “T-birds have always had the ability to see connections and make it practical.” 

This sentiment was mirrored in an interview with Dean Sanjeev Khagram, CEO, Director-General and Dean of the Thunderbird School of Global Management. In respect to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it isn’t enough to have technology and gadgets. “It’s about application,” he said. Together, Dean Khagram hopes these Thunderbirds will champion and spearhead the internationalism and cross-disciplinary mindset the NRT wishes to develop.

The Future

The initial grant from the NSF spans five years, but ASU hopes to extend or reapply for an additional grant. Ultimately, the goal is to establish a permanent Smart Cities program at ASU covering the various disciplines within and beyond. Dean Khagram added that the initiative would segue into a new concentration that would build on the NRT program and bring smart cities permanently to Thunderbird’s curriculum. 

To current and prospective Thunderbirds, Professor Boorsma added, “if you want to be among the very best, working on the next frontier in a highly disciplinary fashion, pushing the envelope of yourself, your faculty, your peers,” this is the program for you. Dr Bowman encouraged those interested to explore nrt.asu.edu and come to the presentations. “It is a rich and phenomenal program like nowhere else in the world.”

For additional insights or questions into the NRT program at ASU and Thunderbird, please contact this article’s author at jdtaylo5@asu.edu.

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