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Four Projects Selected for Funding From Spring Community Vitality RIR

Dan Kirkpatrick, Iowa State University Office of the Vice President for Research

Posted Jun 3, 2024

Pictured above: Iowa State researchers – including principal investigators Elizabeth Stegemoller (upper lefthand corner) and Alice Alipour (lower righthand corner) – surfaced and explored a range of creative ideas coalescing around the overarching issue of Community Vitality during the spring 2024 Research & Innovation Roundtable. Ultimately, four projects were selected for seed funding support.

The spring Research & Innovation Roundtable (RIR) – the second of two RIRs conducted during the 2023-24 academic year – resulted in four projects being selected for seed funding support from the Office of the President. All RIR projects are viewed as investments in the future of Iowa State University as outlined in the 2022-2031 Strategic Plan.

Iowa State University’s Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) launched the RIR program in the 2022 fiscal year as a platform for bringing together many different voices across campus to share varying perspectives and areas of expertise leading to self-assembly of multidisciplinary teams competing for Strategic Plan success funding.

The spring 2024 RIR focused on the overarching issue of Community Vitality. Nine self-assembled teams submitted proposals following the March 8, 2024, event; four were selected for support. All proposals were evaluated by program facilitators. To qualify for selection, projects were required to align with the Iowa State 2022-2031 Strategic plan and the teams had to be comprised of members from different disciplines who employ different research approaches and methods.

“Enhancing the vitality of our communities in Iowa is key to sustaining the economic and societal growth of our predominantly rural state,” said Vice President for Research, Peter Dorhout. “Communities, though, are defined by more than just geographies and city limits. Communities are about connectedness and shared experiences. All the proposals that were submitted, and particularly those that were selected, reflect our faculty’s awareness of the numerous factors that contribute to the ongoing health and vitality of the many diverse communities that comprise our state.”

Here are overviews of each Community Vitality RIR research project selected for strategic investment.

Project Title: Caregiver Buddy: Building a Community of Support

Principal Investigator: Elizabeth Stegemoller, associate professor, Kinesiology


  1. – Alenka Poplin, associate professor, Community and Regional Planning
  2. – Anuj Sharma, professor, Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering
  3. – Sukrit Pal, assistant professor, Supply Chain Management

Proposed project summary

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is the fastest growing neurological disorder, and its prevalence is expected to double over the next 20 years. PD symptoms have a tremendous impact on quality of life, and limit independence, detract from social and recreational activities, and lead to increased reliance on the healthcare system. In rural areas, distance barriers and reduced access to quality health care places greater reliance and pressure on caregivers.

The stress and strain of caring for someone with PD has created a need for a tool that reduces the isolation and day-to-day burden caregivers often experience. The PI and her interdisciplinary research team are focused on addressing this issue by developing a mobile application (Caregiver Buddy) designed to be an assistive support system in caregivers’ daily lives. The goals and functions of the application will be defined by conducting pre-design interviews and workshops with caregivers, and the seed funds will enable the team to create a well-designed prototype that the team can further refine based on caregiver input.

“In working with people with PD, I have noted for years the challenges that their caregivers face,” said PI Elizabeth Stegemoller. “During the roundtable, I met new colleagues that shared a similar passion for helping caregivers, and the idea of the Caregiver Buddy Application emerged. Each of us bring a unique perspective and ability to the team. This new collaboration and project idea would not exist without the roundtable and subsequent seed-funding. It is exciting to finally give back to the community of caregivers and potentially provide a new way to offer assistance. The seed-funding makes this possible.”

University Strategic Plan aspirational statement this project advances

  • – To be the trusted partner for proactive and innovative solutions

Potential external funding partners and opportunities

The long-term goal of the research team’s work is to implement a first workable version of the application, possibly translating it to other languages and extending it to other caregiver groups such as those supporting Dementia Spectrum Disorders and cancer patients. After completing the first prototype of the Caregiver Buddy Application, the team anticipates reaching out to federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) as well as foundations such as American Parkinson Disease Association (APDA) and the Parkinson’s Foundation.

Project Title: Electrifying Rural Vitality: The Imperative of Characterizing Losses Associated with Outages for an Equitable Power Infrastructure Management

Principal Investigator: Alice Alipour, associate professor, and Thomas M. Murray Family Faculty Fellow, Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering  


  • – Samuel Mindes, adjunct assistant professor, Rural Sociology
  • – Ian Dobson, Sandbulte Professor of Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • – Himar Hernandez, assistant program director, Community Development Specialist

Proposed project summary

Rural communities rely on public utilities for services such as power, water, and communication, yet these rural utilities are highly vulnerable to extreme weather events. In 2020, 96% of U.S. power outages were caused by severe weather events, and this impact is growing with the increased intensity and frequency of natural hazards. Adverse economic, social, and environmental costs of power supply disruptions are significant, especially in rural communities where resource limitations and longer transmission lines may make repairs or upgrades time-consuming and even unaffordable.

The overarching goal of this project is to establish the initial steps in creating a user-inspired and community-centered digital solution that ensures just and equitable access to power infrastructure across rural communities.

An interdisciplinary research approach – involving engineering and sociology – is required as the challenge demands: 1) Developing and demonstrating an assessment of risk resilience by combining qualitative methods, historical data, and physical models. The tool will rank and quantify the risks with metrics and communicate and illustrate the risks to utilities, customers, and regulators using displays powered by GIS; 2) Integrating qualitative and quantitative community engagement strategies to better characterize the consequences of outages in rural environments; and 3) Integrating and demonstrating the resilience assessments and solutions in a digital infrastructure platform of risk communication and decision-support tools powered by GIS and utility data.

“Inclusive planning for equitable power distribution in rural Iowa demands a comprehensive understanding of costs, including those related to power losses,” said PI Alice Alipour. “Recognizing these expenses is essential for effective mitigation and recovery strategies, ensuring fair and reliable electricity access for all communities.”

University Strategic Plan aspirational statements this project advances

  • – To be the university that creates opportunities and forges new frontiers; and
  • – To be the trusted partner for proactive and innovative solutions

Potential external funding partners and opportunities

Following the initial data collection and analysis phase, the team anticipates advancing the foundational scientific research via NSF funding. Additionally, there are plans for potential deployment and implementation supported by the Department of Energy (DOE), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Homeland Security, and various utilities.

Project Title: Iowa Mayors’ Design Workshop

Principal Investigator: Erin Olson-Douglas, associate dean for Extension and Outreach, College of Design


  • – Sara McMillan, professor, Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering
  • – Carl Rogers, chair and associate professor, Landscape Architecture
  • – Austin Dunn, associate professor, Landscape Architecture
  • – Julie Robinson, director, Institute of Design Research and Outreach
  • – Eli Wilson, program manager, Institute of Design Research and Outreach
  • – Himar Hernandez, assistant director, Community and Economic Development, ISU Extension and Outreach

Proposed project summary

Iowa’s mayors are committed to enhancing the vitality of their communities for both current and future generations, but they face complex issues such as providing safe and affordable housing, responding to increasing climate volatility and natural disasters, updating critical infrastructure, and attracting investment and industry to their cities and towns.

The multidisciplinary team behind this project are recommending a year-long workshop patterned after the Mayors Institute on City Design (MICD). Based on input the team has already received from interested community leaders, the inaugural Iowa Mayors’ Design Workshop (IMDW) will have a kickoff workshop focused on water-related issues, including opportunities for the enhancement of riverfront areas, resilient flood management, trails and parks for recreation, adjacent development, and integration of nature-based solutions.

Following the workshop, the team will prepare project scopes for each participating community as a roadmap for iteration and adaptive exploration. The team will collaborate with each mayor to determine which are suitable as undergraduate student projects in the Spring 2025 multi-disciplinary design studio and what projects (if any) are more appropriate for extension staff or faculty support. The full-year IMDW will engage upper-level undergraduate and graduate students in proposing design and planning responses to the challenges identified in each community and culminate with a spring 2025 multi-disciplinary design studio that will provide each mayor and his/her community with potential solutions to explore in further depth.

“Mayors are tasked with so many important aspects of their communities, including visionary leadership that is key to community vitality in our state,” said PI Erin Olson-Douglas. “The Iowa Mayors’ Design Workshop aspires to foster visionary development in our communities, with a multidisciplinary team shaping their visions and helping bring these ideas to life. The seed funding through the Research & Innovation Roundtable enables us to launch the inaugural Iowa Mayors’ Design Workshop and host several mayors from across Iowa on ISU’s campus this summer.”

University Strategic Plan aspirational statements this plan advances

  • – To be the trusted partner for proactive and innovative solutions
  • – To be the university that cultivates a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment where students, faculty, and staff flourish

Potential external funding partners and opportunities

Potential sponsors for continued support of the program following the inaugural IMDW include: National Endowment for the Arts (NEA); U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development and Water/Environment programs; NSF Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE); community foundations throughout Iowa; rural utilities; cooperatives; statewide organizations; and business owners with vested interest in Iowa’s workforce, economic development, and vitality.

Project Title: On Impact of Grade School Math Tutoring by MI-STEM Graduate Students and Faculty

Principal Investigator: Namrata Vaswani, Endowed Anderlik Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering


  • – Mohamed Selim, associate teaching professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • – Mollie Appelgate, assistant professor, Education
  • – Xuan Hien Nguyen, associate professor, Mathematics
  • – Shana Moothedath, assistant professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • – Pavan Aduri, professor and director of graduate education, Computer Science

Proposed project summary

PI Namrata Vaswani recently started a grade school math program in an Ames Elementary school. CyMath provides mathematics tutoring support to grade school students (grades 3-5) from backgrounds that are traditionally under-represented in engineering. Graduate student volunteers from Electrical and Computer Engineering, Statistics, Mathematics, and some undergraduate students from the Education department serve as tutors. The program’s long-term goal is to increase the proportion of these students that ultimately pursue, and thrive, in STEM majors in college and graduate school.

The goal of this project is to improve the overall quality of the CyMath program – by strengthening its planning and execution – and then assessing the enhanced program’s long-term impact. The team anticipates it will see significant gains in students’ math achievement, confidence, and their level of optimism regarding college attendance. If the team can quantifiably demonstrate such gains, they believe the results could: A) encourage other universities with large math intensive (MI)-STEM graduate populations to start similar programs that can benefit a much larger student population; and B) create collaborations that could attract significant external funding to further expand and evaluate ISU’s CyMath program.

“This funding is the first seed money grant that will enable us to grow CyMath systematically and research its impact,” Vaswani said.

University Strategic Plan aspirational statement this project advances

  • – To be the university that cultivates a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment where students, faculty, and staff flourish
  • – To be the university that creates opportunities and forges new frontiers
  • – To be the university that fosters lifelong learning

Potential external funding partners and opportunities

The CyMath team intends to use data obtained from this project to submit a proposal to the NSF Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) Alliance in January 2025 and 2026. Other potential funding sources include NSF’s Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE): Computing in Undergraduate Education, and MI-STEM alumni and local companies through the ISU Foundation.