Select Page

Beloved ASU mascot sparks innovation in design challenge

three students presenting a project on a stage during Ignite Sparky. With Sparky the Sun Devil sitting and watching.

Above: Ignite Sparky was a year-long design challenge for the Arizona State University community to bring Sparky up to the next level of innovation. Six finalist teams presented their final proposals at the San Tan Ford Club at Sun Devil Stadium with Sparky in attendance. Photographer: Erik Wirtanen/ASU

Arizona State University students have embraced the nickname “Sun Devils” since November 20, 1946, when a student body vote approved the now-famous moniker.

Sparky the Sun Devil first appeared on the football field in the early 1950s and has slowly evolved in appearance over the decades. And while no changes to Sparky’s look are on the horizon, some visionary ASU students are exploring ways to “level up” the adored mascot’s powers and create an innovative technology-enhanced version for the future.

Ignite Sparky, a year-long design challenge open to the ASU community of students, faculty and alumni, brings together Sun Devil Athletics, the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts in a collaborative effort that will see a new Sparky emerge.

More than 25 teams submitted proposals at the kickoff of the Ignite Sparky Design Challenge last fall. But as the school year has progressed, a series of mini-challenges have narrowed the field to six finalist teams and their innovative ideas for how to transform Sparky.

Now, three teams’ projects will move forward for further analysis and possible implementation by either Sun Devil Athletics or the university to promote the school and deliver a “wow” moment for fans. The three advancing teams were each awarded $1,000, while the three other finalists were each awarded $500.

The idea for the Ignite Sparky challenge came from Brian Swette, an ASU alumnus and president of Sweet Earth Natural Foods. Swette’s goal was to bring Sparky up to the next level of innovation, increase his power and even give the character a little bit of attention-grabbing flash.

“What makes me really excited about this is just to see how young people have come up with tremendous ideas,” says Swette. “They present them well, they work collaboratively and it’s been really heartwarming and exciting to see.”

Swette, a member of the Board of Directors for the Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation, is the primary donor for the Ignite Sparky Design Challenge.

The Sparky's Inferno team presenting during Ignite Sparky

The Sparky’s Inferno team — (left to right) informatics student Natalie Mason, Lecturer Anoop Grewal and mechanical engineering students Kenny Truong and Matthew Nolan — presented three separate ideas, including an enhanced pitchfork similar to the one held by Nolan. Photographer: Erik Wirtanen/ASU

Sparky’s Inferno

The Sparky’s Inferno team featured a trio of Fulton Schools students: informatics junior Natalie Mason, mechanical engineering seniors Kenny Truong and Matthew Nolan, and Lecturer Anoop Grewal, their faculty mentor.

a .gif showing smoke rings coming from scoreboard at ASU's Sun Devil Stadium

The Solar Fury idea from the Sparky’s Inferno team features a pair of large, articulated vortex air cannons that fire rings of fog and a blast of air into the crowd during football games at Sun Devil Stadium. Image courtesy of the Sparky’s Inferno team

The Sparky’s Inferno’s Solar Fury idea features a pair of large articulated vortex air cannons that fire rings of fog and a blast of air into the crowd during football games at Sun Devil Stadium. Image courtesy of Sparky’s Inferno team

The team created several concepts throughout the challenge but fused them into three big ideas for their pitch.

“Our inspiration initially stemmed from the ‘Stomp the Bus’ video,” says Nolan. “We wanted to more viscerally capture the essence of Sparky beaming down from the sun and marching with a dust storm in his wake.”

Their first idea is called Solar Fury, which features a pair of large articulated vortex air cannons that fire rings of fog and a blast of air into the crowd during football games at Sun Devil Stadium.

“We love this idea for two reasons,” says Truong. “One, it’s a freaking cannon! And two, it’s a multifaceted event. It is loud, it is visually incendiary and the audience will get to physically experience the energy as Sparky comes on the field.”

a .gif of a dust devil surrounding Sparky the Sun Devil

The Sparky Storm is designed to replicate a dust devil in which Sparky rides around a mobile robotic platform with fans and fog creating the illusion of a cyclonic dust devil surrounding Sparky. Image courtesy of the Sparky’s Inferno team

Their second idea, Sparky Storm, is designed to replicate a dust devil in which Sparky could ride around the field. In this scenario, Sparky rides out onto the field on a robotic platform that will emit smoke and create cylindrical air flow and the illusion of a cyclonic dust devil.

Their final idea was the enhanced pitchfork, which will take the traditional pitchfork that Sparky carries to an exciting new level. The new pitchfork would utilize compressed fog to shoot blasts of smoke from the prongs, which will then be illuminated by lasers. Another feature of the pitchfork is to dynamically react to Sparky’s movements to create a light show on the shaft of the pitchfork itself.

The group has been working together for three years now as part of the Sun Devil Robotics Club, including work on a planetary rover for a competition called the University Rover Challenge and for an ASU-hosted combat robotics competition called the Sun Devil Smackdown.

“Ignite Sparky is a really nice way to be able to give back,” says Mason. “The idea of our designs being used long term and earning a place in Sparky’s story is exceptionally cool.”

Sparky's Lightning team at Ignite Sparky

The Sparky’s Lightning team of mechanical engineering and industrial design dual-major Ben Weber (left) and aerospace engineering major Andrew Deros (right) demonstrated how Sparky could wield his new lightning powers with a Tesla coil during the Ignite Sparky event. Photographer: Erik Wirtanen/ASU


Sparky’s Lightning

The Sparky’s Lightning team featured Andrew Deros, a junior studying mechanical engineering and industrial design , and Ben Weber, a first-year aerospace engineering student.

a mock up up Sparky the Sun Devil between a pair of Tesla coils shaped like pitchforks

Sparky’s Lightning is an idea featuring Sparky rallying the crowd. As the noise level grows, more lightning is created by a pair of Tesla coils on the field of Sun Devil Stadium. Image courtesy of the Sparky’s Lightning team

The pair were inspired by an electrical aura around Sparky’s pitchfork and decided to create a Tesla coil that will use the energy of the crowd’s cheering to generate electricity in the Tesla coils beside Sparky.

“Our inspiration came from Sparky’s backstory,” says Deros. “It just felt natural to give him the ability to harness lightning. I envision Sparky using his new power to play AC/DC’s Thunderstruck with lightning and amping up the crowd to cheer on the football team and lead them to victory.”

The duo met during the original hackathon for Ignite Sparky, but have worked on other hackathons since then.

“In each stage of the Ignite Sparky challenge, we improved on the design. And seeing the side-by-side comparisons of this growth has been really fun,” says Weber. “I am looking forward to seeing Sparky embrace his power and command the lightning.”

Ignite with Light team at Ignite Sparky

Mechanical engineering major Oskar Kozieja (left) and business major Ci’mone Rogers (right) presented their Ignite with Light idea of using hundreds of drones to display assorted school spirit logos and sayings during the Ignite Sparky finals. Photographer: Erik Wirtanen/ASU

Ignite with Light

The Ignite with Light team consisted of first-year mechanical engineering major Oskar Kozieja and business (information security) junior Ci’mone Rogers, who is also a transfer student in her first year at ASU. Kozieja and Rogers first met at the initial Ignite Sparky Design Challenge informational meeting.

graphic to show possible drones flying over Sun Devil Stadium in the shape of Sparky the Sun Devil

The Ignite with Light plan involves choreographing hundreds of drones so they create images such as Sparky over the field during football games at Sun Devil Stadium. Graphic courtesy of the Ignite with Light team

“Virtually we both connected, made a quick bond and were driven to implement a plan for the judges, students, staff and community members to love,” says Rogers.

The team proposed a drone light show inspired by the ones that were performed at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

“I have a great appreciation for drones because of their versatility and usefulness in different settings such as photography, entertainment, the workforce and armed services,” says Kozieja. “I believe that it would be amazing if our design would be implemented Sun Devil Athletics and throughout the university.”

The team envisions 10-20 people working with 250 drones that can be programmed to display images over the stadium with sayings such as “Forks Up” or even a picture of Sparky himself.

The legacy of Sparky

Sparky has been inspiring ASU athletics for generations, and over that time he has become a symbol for the entire ASU community. How he gets “ignited” remains to be determined, but all of the teams provided some great ideas to be considered.

Christine Wilkinson, senior vice president and secretary of ASU, president and CEO of the ASU Alumni Association and managing director of the trustees of ASU, attended the Ignite Sparky event and shared what Sparky means to ASU.

“Sparky is not only the embodiment of Sun Devil athletics, but our university overall,” says Wilkinson. “Sparky represents the enthusiasm and innovative spirit that keeps us moving forward.”

All six teams lined up at the conclusion of Ignite Sparky

Brian Swette (far right wearing gold) talks to all six finalist teams at the conclusion of the Ignite Sparky Design Challenge. Photographer: Erik Wirtanen/ASU

About The Author

Erik Wirtanen

Erik Wirtanen graduated from Arizona State in 2001 with a BS in Recreation Management and Tourism. He got his start in the communications field as an undergrad with the ASU Athletics Media Relations office. He worked at UC Irvine from 2002 until 2014 in the Department of Athletics and then The Henry Samueli School of Engineering. In August of 2014, Wirtanen joined the communications office at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Media Contact: [email protected] | 480-727-1957 | Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering Communications

ASU Engineering on Facebook