'Seize the Moment': Coalition of ASU leaders launch vision to address the intersecting crises of the pandemic

Shaping tomorrow requires path-breaking, creative solutions. That challenge has never been more critical than it is today, as a “syndemic” of intersecting crises — the coronavirus pandemic, racial injustice and accompanying civil unrest, and cascading environmental hazards — have had a cascading effect on social systems and death rates around the world.

At this critical time in human history, Regents Professor Sally Kitch, Professor of Practice Diana Ayton-Shenker and a coalition of influential leaders across Arizona State University have launched Seize the Moment, a new initiative designed to address the challenges of the current moment through transdisciplinary collaborations in the arts, sciences, humanities and technology in pedagogy, research and public engagement.

“We know that complex problems require creative solutions,” said Ayton-Shenker, CEO of Leonardo/ISAST and executive director of the think tank's partnership with ASU. “Creativity is what the world needs today. To seize this moment at ASU, Leonardo is honored to collaborate with the Humanities Lab and the Global Futures Lab, centering arts, science and technology together with the humanities as key drivers to reimagine higher education.” 

Centering around themes of social justice, environmental action, public health and future building, Seize the Moment features a diverse array of interdisciplinary, collaborative engagements within and beyond the university, ranging from academic classes and online courses to research grants, public events, pitch contests and more. 

"Often, humans are limited to addressing the symptoms of the problems they really need to solve,” said Kitch, founding director of the Humanities Lab. “Fully probing global challenges requires addressing the questions considered by artists and humanists: How is environmental injustice related to racial injustice? Why have humans allowed their planetary home to reach its current degraded state?” 

Working in transdisciplinary student and faculty teams, the Humanities Lab offers students hands-on opportunities to tackle complex problems in society. 

“Your assignments aren't just ... quizzes or papers,” said student Sofya Pangburn, “but projects that can make an impact.” 

Seize the Moment also features new Leonardo Labs, a series of online courses developed in partnership with Leonardo/ISAST, one of the foremost arts-science-technology organizations in the world. Drawing on over 50 years at the forefront of publishing, fellowships, residencies and more, Leonardo Labs use experimental art and publications, augmented reality and other game-changing, creative technologies to navigate crises, build resilience and shape the future.

With the Seize the Moment initiative, students and faculty will have the opportunity to take their impact outcomes to the next level through Amplifier mini-grants and Beyond the Lab fellowships, which provide competitive funding to create projects and reach new communities.  

Inspired by his experience in the “Humanizing Digital Culture” course earlier this fall, graduate student Jason Robinson is currently working on a proposal to transform elevators into a public art space through augmented reality. 

“As a user experience designer and master's student in public interest technology at ASU, I spend a lot of time thinking about how we express, communicate and function in our digital lives. We’re currently putting together a detailed feasibility study of the proposal we formed in the lab: a distributed, place-based public gallery exhibition that uses augmented reality (and elevators) as tools to tell impactful human stories. I can’t wait to see where this investigation takes us.”

Other outcomes from this semester’s labs include a performance art piece on greenwashing, a video series on the intersection of race and disability, and a brochure on vaccine hesitancy among immigrant populations. Student outcomes will be featured in a dynamic variety show on Dec. 2. 

This spring, Seize the Moment and the Humanities Lab are offering eight new courses across a wide variety of subjects and disciplines. In "Language Emergency," students will collaborate with the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian community to document and revitalize the O’odham and Piipaash languages. In "Decolonizing 'Madness,'" students will map the cumulative effects of intergenerational trauma and amplify Black, Indigenous and people of color's resilience and strategies of resistance. 

For all the impact labs have on students, they’re also powerful experiences for faculty, who rarely have the opportunity to collaborate outside of their own discipline.

“For me, integrating creative fiction, films and documentaries into the course was a very unique and enriching experience,” said Rimjhim Aggarwal, who co-taught "Food, Health and Climate Change" with Joni Adamson in fall 2021. “It led to the kinds of conversations I have never had in my own classes related to the historical roots of conditions we are facing today.”

Adamson concurred: “Although Professor Aggarwal and I had worked together on grant projects before, I had never had the pleasure of seeing her teach. Nor was I as familiar with the policy issues as she, so I was able to put fictional works into a much deeper and more policy-oriented context. I had not known before how these facts shape our current climate, economic and social issues when it comes to food and agriculture.”

Outside of teaching a lab, ASU faculty have additional opportunities through Seize the Moment seed grants, which offer up to $10,000 to support the collaborative, transdisciplinary, solution-focused scholarship called for by the current syndemic. Explicitly designed to bring together the arts and humanities with science and technology, the seed grants are one of the most transdisciplinary programs of its kind at Arizona State University. For its first cycle, Seize the Moment received over 30 pitches. The recipients will be announced in January 2022. 

This spring, Seize the Moment and Leonardo will launch Leonardo Liftoff, a dynamic showcase for art-centered enterprise and creative economy entrepreneurs, shining a spotlight on the ideas, people and projects that can change the world.  

Over the last 10 years, Arizona State University has dedicated itself to becoming a New American University, serving as model for how transdisciplinary, socially-embedded research can advance research and discovery of public value, improve the lives of individual people and assume fundamental responsibility for the communities it serves. 

As a deeper meditation on the values and principles contained in ASU's Charter and Design Aspirations, Seize the Moment represents the next stage of higher education, serving at the forefront of Arizona State University's commitment to create a more just and livable global future. While the program has received funding for two years through a Strategic Initiative grant from the President's Office, the hope is to effect a permanent transformation in higher education.

To learn more about Seize the Moment, individuals can sign up for the mailing list or visit the initiative’s website at http://stm.asu.edu

Jake Friedman
jsfried2@asu.edu