Henkel Award winner combines scholarship and real-world learning

The Henkel Award is given each year to the undergraduate geography major who has earned the highest grade point average.  Steven Sifferman not only has a stellar transcript, but exemplifies a broadly-educated graduate -- with expertise in everything from “big data” analysis (an up-and-coming set of concepts and tools for understanding huge data sets) – to the 19th-century redesign of Paris.

Arriving at ASU from his home in Washington State, Steven initially declared a major in physics, but two experiences shifted his focus.  First, during the spring semester of his freshman year, he took a course on the geography of Europe, taught by Dr. J. Duncan Shaeffer.  Second, the following summer, he traveled to the some of the countries he’d studied that spring.

Steven’s summer in Europe began with an ASU-sponsored study abroad trip to France.  The group spent time in Paris, Normandy and the Loire Valley.  At the end of the program, Steven traveled on his own through Germany, Belgium and Austria.  As he traveled, he continually saw connections between the cities and landscapes around him and the geographic principles he’d learned in the spring.  He returned to ASU in the fall as a declared geography major.

With his inclination towards physical science and math, Steven determined that his geography degree would include a focus on GIS, and at the end of his sophomore year, he experienced digital data collection and mapping first-hand, through an internship with King County, Washington. 

His job was to map a sewer system that King County, Washington had recently acquired, and to do this, he drove and walked over the outskirts of the county’s urban area in search of the system’s manholes.  After finding each manhole, he used GPS to record its location.  Finally, he brought the location data in to GIS format, creating a database that King County now uses for managing the sewer system.

Steven’s junior and senior years continued the pattern of combining scholarship and real-world learning.  For three semesters he served as a preceptor in the introductory physical geography labs, working with students one-on-one to help their learning.  He continued to give campus tours to prospective students – a volunteer commitment he’d started as a freshman.  He did a second summer internship, working in the Technical Support section of major GIS software firm Esri, and completed a GIS certificate and a minor in statistics.

“Not only does Steven have a 4.0+ GPA,” comments Shaeffer, “he often gets 100% of all possible points in the classes he takes.”

In his last semester at ASU, Steven leveraged his GIS and statistics expertise to obtain a position as an Informatics Analytic Intern with Health Services Advisory Group, an Arizona-based quality-improvement and quality-review organization that focuses on health care.  Here he learned to evaluate large, complex data sets using cutting-edge analytic tools.

As a student in Barrett, the Honors College, Steven’s senior year included researching and writing an honors thesis.  Here he returned to an interest from several years before: a study of how, in just 17 years, Emperor Napoleon III and Georges-Eugène Haussmann oversaw the redesign of Paris, converting it from a “dirty city” to a model of modern urban layout and design. “This was the first instance of urban planning as a holistic, functional process,” explained Steven.  Duncan Shaeffer, who first introduced Steven to geography,  served as his thesis director.

As he graduates, Steven envisions a return to school at some point, but first would like to build professional work experience focused in GIS.  With the diversity of experiences and accomplishments of his years at ASU, he’s sure to have much to contribute in his next setting.