College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Engineering research project studies active shooter situations in schools

Researchers at Iowa State University are using their expertise to create a system that will provide students, teachers, police officers and others with accurate, real-time information in the event of an active shooter situation in a school.


Soumik Sarkar, associate professor of mechanical engineering, is serving as the Primary Investigator (PI) at the Iowa State site for a nearly $650,000 NSF-sponsored research project titled CPS: Medium: Collaborative Research: Active Shooter Tracking & Evacuation Routing for Survival (ASTERS). Co-PIs on the project include Stephen Gilbert, associate professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, and Joanne Marshall, associate professor in the School of Education.

The researchers will develop the Active Shooter Tracking and Evacuation Routing for Survival (ASTERS) protocol, which will track a shooter in real time across multiple cameras and microphones, and calculate the optimal evacuation path to safety for each student, teacher and staff member. The program will communicate this information through a mobile app interface that is co-created in partnership with a community of students, parents, educators and administrators as well as school resource officers and school safety officers.

Sarkar will provide expertise to the project in the areas of multi-modal sensing, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.

“ASTERS is about building a decision system that will incorporate multi-modal sensing, AI and machine learning techniques to accurately localize a gunman and weapons while preserving privacy of school community members. It will also use new computer vision and high-performance computing solutions to estimate crowd density and movement of people, and novel optimization and real-time simulation algorithms to predict ideal evacuation routes based on the building layout and predicted movement of the shooter,” he said.


Gilbert will examine the project from a cognitive engineering perspective.

“After the intelligent surveillance system can calculate the optimal evacuation routes, we have to communicate those to panicked people. That’s where I will be applying principles from cognitive engineering,” said Gilbert. “Communicating an evacuation route during a panicked time is a cognitive challenge because when people won’t spend much time to think, they’ll just act, so we don’t have a lot of time and we need to get it right,”

Marshall will studies ways in which the ASTERS protocol can be applied the pK12 contexts and will work with a school in Iowa during the third year of this three-year project to test the protocol.

“Building a system such as ASTERS demands a range of expertise from computer science, human-machine interaction, and engineering to social science and education. Therefore, inter-departmental and inter-college collaboration is indispensable in this case,” said Sarkar, adding that the project will also rely on expertise from Darin Van Ryswyk, Deputy Chief of Police at Iowa State University, who will help the researchers to understand the mindset of first responders during school shooter crises, what they are trained to do and how ASTERS might help them.


The team will also work with researchers from the University of Tennessee (UT), which is the lead institution for this project. Subhy Chakraborty, associate professor of mechanical, aerospace and biomedical engineering will serve as the PI at the UT site. His previous experience involves calculating optimal evacuation paths under different contexts. Michael Olson, professor of psychology at UT, applies findings from his past research, which has studied how cognition works when an individual is panicked.

One advantage of this inter-university collaboration is that it will allow the researchers to examine a variety of school settings in both urban and rural areas, according to Gilbert. The research team hopes that one day this research can be applied to other active shooter situations at places other than schools.

“ASTERS is important for saving lives under a life and death situation. Plus, figuring out how to communicate most effectively with a crowd that’s panicked could be useful in many circumstances outside schools,” Gilbert said.