grouperlab

Get, share, and use information well

Move ‘em Out!

In another context, this entry might be seen as “hijacking” the normal GROUPER blog. However, this is a very compatible issue, based on an activity that I have been asked to lead as a member of the Executive Council of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES). This activity is an experimental initiative called “Scout the Future”.   So, why do we want to go on a scouting expedition? HFES is a fairly small professional society, with about 5000 members. However, our impact expands throughout the range of home and work environments, including everything from safety improvements in transportation, products, devices, and workplaces, to enhancing our understanding of perception, cognition, biomechanics and decisions in the full range of home, play, and work throughout the lifecycle. That’s a lot. How do we get our voice out, and communicate with the larger world in a proactive way?

 

Over the past few years, this has been an important and critical concern (“existential” in the sense of our self definition and worry about the future of the HFES itself), especially as we consider the evolution of the discipline to a world of younger professionals who are working in industry contexts of apps and services and products (rather than primarily academics working with government grants and large-scale system developments). How do we adapt ourselves to such an environment? Well, this question came up during a strategic planning exercise just before the 2013 HFES Annual Meeting in San Diego. Frequently, a response to such questions is to set up a task force of very senior people who are charged to figure out the future of the organization and what to do with it. (In fact, that is what HFES has done.) However, there is other research and industry perspectives that suggests that such approaches are not great at identifying or tracking new and disruptive technologies or social trends. Also, examples such as the Lockheed Skunk Works suggest that taking a group of people outside of formal organizational structures may be an effective way of enabling radical innovations. So, I suggested the concept of a scouting expedition…

 

What if we did something else?

 

My “something else” is based on an imagined scouting expedition, not unlike the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore and map the newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase Territory and understand the lands between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean. As an exploration into the unknown, what and who and how much did Lewis and Clark want? Lots of provisions, of course—weapons, sample containers, pencils and paper, items for trade, salt for preserving food… and expertise. The right amount of a diverse set of experts, who could work well together. Not five people: too much material to carry, and too hard for all the expertise required to be available in such a small group. Not five hundred: that’s a bureaucratic organization, with poor lines of communication and unclear distributions of responsibilities. The Corps of Discovery, as the group was described, was about three dozen folks, and they were chosen well. Given the risks and dangers of scouting an unknown expanse with the limited capabilities of the first decade of the 19th Century, the Corps returned intact, with unparalleled growth in understanding of the continent of North America.

 

Now, when we talk about addressing Global Grand Challenges, or increasing the relevance of human factors in the cyber age, there is a similar expanse of unknown facing us. However, unlike the charge to map the physical wilderness of a continent, this challenge is one of mapping a philosophical territory known as the future. It’s said that humans are bad at making predictions, especially about the future. In fact, I think that’s one of the most significant mistakes we can make, to try to predict specific outcomes. We tend to overestimate technology trends, and underestimate or misread social change. We don’t recognize the impact of “black swans”. We try too hard to guess right in the details, and we get some major factors wrong in the grand picture. No one in the Corps of Discovery woke up one morning and said, “the area on the other side of that river looks like a good place for wheat farming. Let’s tell someone to build a city there… call it Rapid City”. There was no task force to determine the creation of a National Lab, or the potato lobby, or blue football fields, in that place we’ll designate as Idaho. You map the territory, create a good set of observations about how different it might be from expectations, and draw good pictures and tell good stories. (“No, really. We waited all day for the herd of bison to finish going by. You couldn’t see the ground, or hear anything else. You may want to pay attention to that.”)

 

On that train of graphite and glitter,

Undersea by rail!

Ninety minutes from New York to Paris:

By ’76 we’ll be A-OK….

 

Just machines that make great decisions,

Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision.

We’ll be clean when that work is done:

Eternally free, yes, and eternally young.

   From “What a Beautiful World / IGY”, by Don Fagen (putting actual predictions from 1957-58 to music)

 

What happened to those wonderful predictions? No undersea rail: drastically harder than expected. The only aircraft that could do the trip at that speed ceased operations over cost per seat and environmental concerns. No automated decision making. Would we have been better off with it, even if it were possible? People aren’t purely rational, and thus how would a rational machine handle a missile crisis? Revolutions in Africa and Asia? How would such a machine distinguish between Idi Amin and Nelson Mandela, or between a Shah and an Ayatollah?

 

I don’t want to make those mistakes. But I do want to do something better in terms of exploration and scouting, with those who are better in touch with the future… because they are helping to create it. (Yes, another quote: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” by Alan Kay, who gave us the computer mouse.)

 

Those of you who have spent time with me know that I like to “scan and connect”. The more I find to scan and connect, the better I do. But this isn’t just for me. It’s about creating a network of ideas and elements and people who move the edge of what’s possible in discussing the society. I posted in the first entry of the GROUPER Blog why the lab wouldn’t be tweeting anytime soon. The timing, activity level, and distribution were wrong. But now, there is an HFES Social Networking expert to help us, and a HFES LinkedIn community of discussions. So, let’s try it. I now have a Twitter account: @BSC_HFES_Scout.

 

BSC Scout

BSC in Scout Mode

 

Brand Loyalty

After two days at the IIE Annual Conference in Montréal, I was heading to Atlanta early Tuesday morning for the FAA PEGASAS Center of Excellence Annual Meeting. The FAA meeting is for briefing our program managers about our recent progress and technical results; the IIE meeting is about much more. It’s about catching up with old colleagues, prior students, and interesting ideas. I found myself presenting some of Liang’s work in a technical session chaired by one of my academic grandchildren (one of Sandra Garrett’s advisees at Clemson), and becoming an impromptu moderator at Siobhan’s presentation. But, in a dinner discussion with Siobhan and Jake, and two students from Clemson, we also discussed what seems to be another big element of the IIE Meeting: the polo shirts.

 

I have spoken and written before about GROUPER as brand, as an iconic representation and embodiment of the lab and our topics and style of applied human factors engineering and human-systems integration research / development. We have GROUPER pins, but sometimes I wonder if we need a GROUPER logo shirt. It’s always a good idea to talk to people when you get creative ideas, because I heard some interesting views over dinner. Let’s be clear: IIE Meetings are in part about branding, and presenting and highlighting particular brand is important for many of the attendees. Far from being immune, Purdue IE is one of the prime examples of blatant name recognition and placement. Since 2011, we have sponsored the badge holders for the conference, which means it looks like everyone at IIE is from Purdue. (The badge holders are actually quite nice for those of us who really are from Purdue, as they work well for carrying passports and travel documents. The name-themed, school-color holders are perhaps not quite so enjoyable for those from Ohio State or North Carolina State—whose logo has been emblazoned on hotel key cards longer than we’ve done the badge holders.) We are the home of “Rethink IE,” which is a call to consider the evolution of the profession. But there seems to be something else, and something that is not always seen as good, in pushing one’s brand too far.

 

Because I had to go directly to the FAA briefing after I get off the plane, I decided to wear my Purdue Industrial Engineering polo shirt this morning.   I also wore it at the Saturday night reception. Yes, I wore black and gold colors, and my GROUPER and Rethink IE pins (both pinned to the badge holder, on the other days of the conference. But a number of students at the IIE meeting do something I have never seen anywhere else in my conference experience. Several times I have found myself walking down the hall to a technical session, only to see a cluster of identically-clad students. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m not going to fixate on particular rivalries or comparisons. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the scarlet shirts with the O and buckeye leaves (Ohio State), or the white shirts with the Puerto Rican flag (University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez), or white shirts with a red stylized boar (Arkansas).   They are proud and pleased to represent their “team” in a coherent and unitary manner. (And, as I have previously written, I get it when you talk about who’s your team.)

 

Several of the comments over dinner expressed wonder and potential worry over this form of team representation. Would it be seen as a positive sign of camaraderie to have all of the lab appear in identical shirts, or would it be considered a demonstration of excessive conformity? Both Siobhan and Liang are working in the area of healthcare (which we describe as PERCH), but even though they both have the same advisor, they’re not using the same approaches or even addressing the same types of methods. This summer, we’re also making progress on DOLPHIN and CORAL elements of information visualization and sonification (Jake’s presentation at the IIE meeting). What I didn’t expect to hear is that this is something of a recruiting advantage for a subset of people, especially those who have a set of diverse interests and unique perspectives on the changing world of humans, engineering systems, and coordinated / distributed information and expertise in teams. While the lab has grown to a size and capability that active recruiting is not a priority for us, several of our current students started out as interesting conference conversations. GROUPER is not just a recognized brand in our community, but one to which our current students and alumni/ae are very loyal. Ours is not just a university level brand highlighting Purdue, but a unique brand at the level of the individual laboratory. What increases the value of the brand is exciting and transformative research, with excellent and compelling presentations, and not just fancy polo shirts worn in unison. We do have the logos on the slides, and we do wear our GROUPER pins with pride. (However, if you really want a polo shirt anyway, do let me know.)

 

Excellence in April

After Madness, comes Anticipation. In the sports world, April is a period of eager awaiting: as baseball teams take to the field, and professional football and basketball leagues highlight their drafts of college athletes, while colleges engage in “signing day” expectations and celebrations. Winter sports crown their champions. Hopes are fulfilled, or dashed.   While academics are seen as a very different world than athletics, I really don’t see it that way. In fact, graduate research programs have their own version of “signing day,” when offers of graduate fellowships are committed, and prospective students choose their new institution, advisor, and advanced degree emphasis. I am the Chair of our Graduate Committee, and I am highly sensitive to this process, from multiple perspectives. Over 400 students applied to Purdue Industrial Engineering for the Fall 2014 semester. Just over 100 have received the “happy letter,” indicating an acceptance of the application and an invitation to become part of the Purdue Rethink IE experience. Even fewer receive a “happier letter,” which includes an offer of fellowship support. Those are extremely challenging and competitive, and represent some of our expectations of who can be an outstanding contributor—not simply within the School of IE, but at the level of the College of Engineering or the University as a whole (where many of these fellowships are decided and awarded).

 

Every Spring, we in the lab discuss the culture of the lab, and what we need to do and think and be to maintain a focus on excellence, innovation, and productivity. Several years ago, I initiated a model of “360 recruiting,” where existing members of the lab are involved with the visits of prospective students who are invited by the School of IE to spend time on the Purdue campus and explore their options at an outstanding “full-service” IE program. I don’t commit lab funds to anyone right away, for two reasons (both due to experience). Some students find, after arrival, that our projects and my advising style may not work for them. Others may be searching for a project, but in fact are searching for financial support. Neither one of those types of students can effectively contribute or be well suited to the lab, and that lack of effective matching can hurt the overall productivity of the lab. While that first reason is strategic and philosophical, the second reason is more practical. GROUPER supports student professional development, not just research output. The students are not just workers in a research machine. Thus, we might not have funding for the project that a particular student wants to do when s/he first arrives… or they may not know which project they want to pursue. As of Spring 2014, there are six PhD students in GROUPER—not one is working on the specific project they identified in their application, or thought about during their first semester on campus. Four are working over the summer at internships in industry and government. These internships, rather than “interfering” with the research, provide additional opportunities for students to explore areas of professional and research growth, and identify areas they may want to work after graduation (or not—finding out you don’t want to work somewhere is also a successful outcome of an internship).

 

Nonetheless, GROUPER feels like an elite team. We try to “draft” well, and we try to develop and promote and sustain excellence in our performance. I was very pleased to learn that two of our “hopefuls” were offered Purdue Doctoral Fellowships for Fall 2014. I’m ecstatic to have received acceptances of both offers, meaning that our next set of GROUPERs can continue a history of diversity and excellence in doctoral development. Current members of the lab are also recognized awardees. Today, I get to celebrate Omar Eldardiry’s Outstanding Service Scholarship, due in large part to his excellent work as a teaching assistant and instructor (including his support for me with the senior capstone design project course last fall). And of course, I cannot finish this entry without once again celebrating one of our “First Team All-Americans”: Michelle (Shelly) Jahn, who was awarded the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. This makes two consecutive years that a member of GROUPER has been awarded a fellowship through the NSF GRFP. (Last year, the winner was undergraduate GROUPER Natalie Benda, who is working in Patient Safety and will be attending the University at Buffalo for her PhD.)

 

Excellence in research and student professional development. This is an ongoing source of tremendous pride, and the heart of a continuing commitment to improve how people get, share, and use information well.

Timing is Everything

Although it doesn’t always feel like it here in the lab, things are actually going very well.  The work calendar is quite full, and the project to-do lists continue to grow—not just in the number of items, but in the number of projects which require to-do items.  Three different Institutional Review Board (IRB) applications, with three different students.  Four research projects active, with two or three more coming on line.  The “March Madness” travel schedule I had last year is even worse: the lab has now officially declared it “Winter Madness” (from January 24 until March 14, there is only one week where I am not in an airport on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday of that weekend—and on March 21-24, I will be driving back from Chicago on Friday, and flying again on Monday).

 

Last Thursday, though, I was able to appreciate what some good timing could achieve.  A day earlier, I had escaped from the ice and snow storm that paralyzed the Southeast US: leaving out of western Virginia early Wednesday morning, on a rebooked flight through Detroit (all flights through Atlanta had been cancelled as of Monday evening).  I was only a few hours later arriving home than originally scheduled, even with delays and flight diversions (let’s hear it for multiple daily nonstops from Detroit to Indianapolis!).  Thursday was bright, clear, and even relatively “warm” (about 5F that morning, with a high temperature of approximately 30F) for a drive down to Bloomington, IN for a research meeting.  That research meeting was in support of one of our new grants, a project with the Purdue Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS) to look at sensemaking, distributed expertise, and information presentation in cyberinfrastructure network operations centers.  The meeting was unexpectedly effective in highlighting both people to talk to and additional directions for the research to pursue.  A positive attitude to go down on the one nice day where my schedule permitted the trip was better than putting the trip off for later (given “Winter Madness” and the frequency of airspace-paralyzing storms, I am not thrilled about trying to create new one-day visits anytime before April).  At the end of the day, I even received one more treat derived from an awareness of good timing.  As I left the office, the nearly full moon was visible to the east, while the International Space Station was a fast-moving evening star traveling from northwest to northeast.  (No, I don’t have the orbital tracks memorized, but there are NASA websites and software apps for that.)  Yeah, that was some good timing.

 

Timing is a fairly popular subject of GROUPER research, even if there’s only been a couple of blog entries highlighting time pressure (and only one on time perception).  But the topic is never far from our mind.  In our direct research investigations, we talk about the sense of time pressure as the ratio of time required to complete a task to the time available to complete it (TR / TA), with time pressure increasing as you run out of time to finish faster than you run out of task to complete.  We worry about the challenge of the age and “freshness” of data when making decisions about the current state of a dynamic world (and what you need to do based on that state).  We consider how experts trade other resources for time, including the decision to create an interim solution (“safe mode”) to stabilize a degrading system to allow for more time to consider a better, more stable recovery and repair.  But how does that play out in the lab’s daily activities, other than a posting an ongoing (and continuing growing) list of deadlines?

 

Fortunately, we have been working on a set of very promising solutions (processes, really).  As I go through my travel schedule, the students get a strong sense of the “windows of opportunity” (time periods of available work capacity) where I can respond to a task request or help them make progress towards an external deadline.  A few months ago, I described some of my thought process in working in a distributed way on these tasks; I think in terms of a set of scaled answers to the student’s question.  In essence, my thought process and general formulation goes like this:

 

Student:  Dr. C., I need you to do xyz by time TD.

 

(If (TD – Now) is under 12 hours, I tend to get really upset.  Don’t do that.)

 

BSC:  What do I need in order to do xyz?

 

Student:  You need A, B, and Q.

 

(If I don’t have A, B, or Q, and the student doesn’t provide it at the time of the request, I tend to get really upset, Don’t do that.)

 

Then I usually try to provide one of a set of answers, ranging from:

 

  1. NO.
  2. Not by TD; the best I can do is Talt.
  3. I can do xyz’ by TD.
  4. I can do that, but can’t start until TS.
  5. Yes, working
  6. DONE.

 

What I didn’t expect was how providing this type of information to the students could actually change the style of interactions in lab.  It’s not that I declared some specific required email format, or that I would refuse to read emails that did not conform to that format.  But, within a week or two, I started noticing emails with subject lines including the words:

 

ACTION REQUIRED / REQUESTED, or

INFORMATION ONLY.

 

The body of the emails would specify details like:

 

Estimated time to complete: xxx

Date / time needed:  dd mmm yy hh:mm

 

So, rather than simply complying with a command, the students now understand my motivations, and my constraints, and my strategies for organizing my time.  I also pointed out that I try to set aside windows of time in advance for everyone—not just in the weekly 1:1 meetings (which, I confess, is much harder to achieve during the Winter Madness travel), but when I expect tasks towards external deadlines.  Knowing in advance how much time to set aside helps me with schedules, and allows for slipping in new tasks on an emergency or opportunistic basis.  It’s all part of a goal of “Better Information Now” that we have worked with in our projects with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the United Space Alliance.  Sometimes, it works very well, and sometimes it still needs adjustment and improvement.  But at least, we’re making progress.

 

It’s about time.

 

 

Who’s Your Team?

(After a recent entry entitled, They Got Game, you might think that this is turning just into a sports blog.  I promise: neither that entry nor this one is only, or even primarily, about sports.)

 

After a glut of sporting festivity, the college football bowl season and first round of NFL playoffs are now history.  (Because of the winter storm and “polar vortex” that deposited 10 in / 25 cm of snow, followed by temperatures of -22F / -30C, my satellite receiver has been offline since midday Sunday.  Supposedly, there was a fairly entertaining football game on Monday evening.  I hope someone enjoyed it.)  People who know me know that I’m a fairly intense sports fan, and I have followed both college and professional football (and college women’s basketball) for most of my life.  I have also lived in a number of locations and developed attachments to quite a few teams.  (I’m going to assume that at least a few current or alumni GROUPERs were pretty pleased with the outcomes of the Rose and Orange Bowls.)  So, it’s not surprising when I’m asked, Who’s your team?

 

This was an interesting philosophical question put to me by a close friend while we were watching one or another of the various games.  It became a philosophical question when it was pointed out to me that I was getting more upset at the commentary by the announcers than who was actually winning on the field.  It’s understandable to be disappointed when the team you’re rooting for is losing.  However, my friend pointed out that I was annoyed even when I wasn’t cheering specifically for one of the two teams playing on the field.  Suddenly, I realized that this might not just be about sports.  Fortunately, my friend and I prefer very analytical discussions, so we started to analyze it.  When I have a team that I feel an affiliation to (I consider them a version of “us”), I want them to win.  (If I don’t have an affiliation to the other team, I am perfectly thrilled to have “us” win by a large margin, in what might otherwise be seen as a poor matching of teams.)  But more importantly, I want the game to be exciting and entertaining.  I want the officiating to be consistent, appropriate, and responsive to the rules as they are currently in place.  (Like many fans, I comment about the officiating.  However, I also will frequently observe the penalty and announce both the penalty and penalized player, before the referee does so.  Did I mention I’ve been an intense fan for a long time?)  I don’t like it when the official misses calls.  But I will frequently accept that “we” had a bad play instead of always assuming a “bad ref” when a penalty is called against “us”.  Why is this?  If I want the referees to do their job appropriately (without bias or favoritism), I feel obliged to acknowledge and “own” our errors as well.    I respect good announcers who point out important elements of the game play.  However, I found myself profoundly upset when an announcer would shift from one bias to another just based on the most recent event, using general references that they’ve heard as “it’s generally known” or “everybody thinks that”… (Using trite catchphrases, especially with wrong or mixed metaphors, will always draw specific ire from me.)

 

This suggests that there is another level of affiliation going on; this other affiliation applies both to the active participation in research at GROUPER and the spectator role for a football game.  It’s not just about sportsmanship, although that’s part of it.  Let’s call it the search for The Better Rule, Well Applied (BRWA).  As you know, academics have their rankings, the equivalent of the Coaches’ Top 25 poll.  The analogy is pretty strong: the rankings for the top US IE graduate programs are voted on by the department heads of those IE programs.  So, I can be excited or upset that Purdue is #10.  But wait.  Let’s look at MIT, ranked #3.  I have an affiliation with MIT, so I should see them as “us,” right?  They don’t have any degree program called Industrial Engineering.  How about Stanford or Cornell?  Great universities.  But there are more people in human factors in Purdue IE than at the corresponding programs (again, not all IE) in those three universities combined.  They don’t do IE human factors.  This issue challenges how we might use the rankings.  I’m actually less concerned about our actual ranking than the distortion.  Hence, this is an issue of BRWA, not just whether we’re better than the (logically nonexistent) competition at a specific other department.

 

Over the past several years, I’ve had a number of students trying to pick their dissertation topics.  Some of the topics were exotic; others were relatively mundane.  However, I am concerned at how often a topic is considered unworthy because there’s not enough funding in that area.  “Well, you need to compete for, and obtain, competitive grant funding.  You need to show your colleagues at the highly ranked programs how much money you’re bringing in, and place your students at those programs.”  But hold on, my BRWA affiliation screams.  The program at XYZ university doesn’t, and won’t, have an opening in human factors.  My student would rather work in (and is better suited towards) industry or government than a research academic position.  Isn’t graduate training about seeking out creative and innovative solutions that push the frontiers of knowledge and understanding?  Isn’t the PhD supposed to be about supporting the student’s career development, more than mine—in other words, preparing them for what suits them, and appropriately emphasizing their strengths towards their best fitting pathway?

 

Sometimes, it feels like it is playing a different sport.  Some football folks talk about “winning at all costs”; others talk about integrity and sportsmanship.  They’re supposedly playing the same game, but in reality, they’re not.  In sports, and in research, maybe I’m not just playing for “winning”.  It feels like I’m playing for Truth.  In the lab, what sport are we playing?  Which “Game” do we need to bring?  My sport seems to be University (knowledge, understanding, career preparation), and I want to be a starter—or even captain—on the special GROUPER squad on the BRWA team.  Our team colors include Consent and Connection. …

 

This may not even be recognizable to other people.  It could sound like I’m rooting for the Montana team in the NFL playoffs.  (Um, not only is there no professional football team in state of Montana, there is no NFL team in any US state that borders on Montana.  Alberta and Saskatchewan have Canadian Football League (CFL) teams.  The CFL championship was played last November.)  How do you recruit for a team in a sport that others might not even see as the right sport to be playing?  Again, this is an interesting philosophical point.  For instance, why is the team BRWA, instead of GROUPER?  GROUPER can’t answer all questions, about all subjects—we specialize in human factors and systems engineering, and you need more than that to do well in University.  These questions aren’t irrelevant to working at Purdue in IE, even if they seem to be ignoring “reality”.  If we don’t ask the question, or consider the options, we never make our team or our sport better.

 

(By the way, the 2013 CFL Grey Cup Most Valuable Player was Kory Sheets, who was a running back for Purdue.)

They Got Game

You’ve probably seen the highlight film.  If you happened to see the play live, you cheered (if they were on your team), or groaned—even then, you might have to admit it was a memorable play.  The game winning grand slam.  (Yes, I’ve got Red Sox gear, and Phillies gear, at home.)  The clutch goal in the 85th or 90th minute.  (Extra style points for headers or bicycle kicks.)  Or maybe the 90+ yard touchdown run.  (Just to show that I root for Purdue, as well as for Wisconsin.)

 

I’ve got to witness several of these plays this past Fall, either in the stadium or on live TV.   Even the thought of the play brings a smile to my face. These are peak experiences for athletes, and sometimes even for their fans.  Big plays on big stages, they say.  “Big-time Players make big-time plays.”  But, how do you compare those peak experiences to those of others in other domains?  Do academics have the equivalent of a highlight reel?  Especially those who are in academia, there is a sense of life in the research university as a different tier of performance and competition.  Getting promoted in a US News top-10 ranked program is seen as a major highlight.  Being selected as a Principal Investigator (PI) for a new grant from a major government agency can be a hallmark of one’s career.  Academics even use the metaphors of sports to describe such events.  Home run.  Slam dunk.  Major League.

 

For a few days this month, that’s how I felt regarding my own research activity right now.  After weeks, or months, or in some cases years of effort, some ideas have been coming to fruition.  At Space Grant, we submitted a proposal to the NSF to provide research experiences for teachers to use the Purdue’s HUB technology infrastructure to develop software models to teach STEM concepts to K-12 students in Evansville, Ft. Wayne, and Indianapolis—and highlight some of these software models in the local science museums there.  I was asked to lead a FAA project to help with improving the quality and safety of weather information provided to pilots during severe weather conditions.   And best of all… A NASA research project that I have dreamed about for months, to help with information flow and task coordination for human-robotic collaboration to do planetary science for lunar and martian moon surfaces—how cool is that?  And my team was selected for such a project, within the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute!  Time to practice my fist pumping, shoulder brushing, touchdown dance?

 

Not so fast.  It is, of course, November.  This year, “Surviving November” (one of the GROUPER “song titles”) for me has included doctoral prelim exams, grading statistics exams, and evaluating team project summaries in both the statistics course and the capstone design course.  The task lists, and the email inbox, both grow—sometimes faster than I can recognize that I have more tasks to do over the next day, or week.  This is when it’s tough.  Why did I sign up for this?  Why do I put myself under this pressure?  And, in a question that I have asked several of my colleagues… Why am I still trying to get tenure?

 

The answer to that question is both viciously insidious, and beautifully clear.  I’ve been working like this for the past 30 years.  I have lots of ideas, and am rarely satisfied with the standard way of doing things (or having people tell me there’s only one proper or correct way to do it).  In 1983, it was becoming convinced that it was easier to get two undergraduate degrees rather than one.  In 1993, I had to learn that I couldn’t put every cool idea into a single paper that could get me tenure immediately.  But I did like the idea of studying the effects of time delay on tolerance for group interactions using this new technology called the web browser, or examining how to evaluate different options for that new digital voice mail technology being considered for state government.  In 2003, it was believing that I could do more with Indiana Space Grant, and maybe we should try to write a proposal for an upgrade, less than 12 months after doing a complete overhaul of the program and award structure.  So really, what’s been happening is that I have been rewarded and reinforced for being this way.  Intermittent reinforcement works the best, as the operant conditioning psychologists have long known.  If you want to make sure a behavior sticks around for a very long time, reinforce it.  But only do so a fraction of the time—maybe 15% or so.  On a semi-random basis.  (That sounds like grant proposal writing.)  In baseball or in funded research, what do you call a person who has an overall success rate of 40%?  A member of the Hall of Fame.

 

It’s a tough world, and it’s a devastating level of competition that can emotionally and physically hurt.  There’s no need to make it harder than it is, or to be erratic and cruel just to show the students how hard it can be.  Can it be sufficient to just say, “We’re not going to tolerate less than excellence today”?  That attitude doesn’t start with the award, and it doesn’t end with the award either.  Every day is a struggle, but not necessarily against a competitor.  Maybe it’s against one’s own doubt or insecurity.  Perhaps it is just the need to push back the veil and curtain of ignorance.  And sometimes, it’s just the desire to do just a little bit better than last time, or see if one can do just as well as last time.

 

I don’t want to be on the sidelines.  I want to participate.  Even if I’m tired tonight, I want to be able to function tomorrow.  And tomorrow, the game starts anew.

Who Do You Think You Are?

Well, sometimes you get stuck on a theme.  There have been several topics that have been at the forefront of my thinking over the past month, coming largely from the experience at the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) Annual Meeting in San Diego.  Although there were only two current GROUPERs there, I did get to interact with a number of former students, as well as others who sought me out and seemed truly eager to interact with me during the meeting.  In that light, I thought about naming this entry, “Back from Cali”.  However, after reading the song lyrics, I decided that maybe I didn’t want to reference the song by Slash (even though Axl Rose, the lead singer of Guns N’ Roses, is originally from Lafayette, IN).  How about “Back to Cali”?  No, the LL Cool J lyrics aren’t suitable either.  Even becoming snarky didn’t help.  “Title of the Entry” reminded me immediately of the song by DaVinci’s Notebook.  So, yes, I am aware of a song reference above.  Apparently, I can’t escape it.

So, what was so important that I now have all of this music in my head?  Well, it was a great room, with a wonderful view, but it wasn’t just about the view, or even the boat.

20131001_112626

One thing I noticed frequently is that the capacity for positive effect that one may have on others should not be trivialized.   I’m not always aware of this, and the meeting in San Diego was a great reminder of the power of the effect.  Three former GROUPERs (and one honorary GROUPER) are now involved with the Society in positions of leadership.  Sandra Garrett is on the HFES Executive Council with me; members of the Technical Program Committee for 2013 included Michelle Rogers (Workshops) and Erik Wakefield (Product Design) as well as Ron Boring (Interactive Sessions and Posters).  Let me mention Erik for a moment.  When I first started working with him, he was working in the College of Technology, with what seemed to be a bizarre idea—let’s have sports scores and updates that can be pushed, real time, to someone’s mobile device.  Except that this was 2005-06, before iPhone and Galaxy smartphones.  He got the project done, graduated, got a job, and… developed.  First in one company, then another, and then another, with HFES as his primary professional affiliation.  He’s a senior engineer now, and working on some cool projects.  When I saw him in San Diego, I noticed the difference, and mentioned it.  And I said that I was proud of how he’d developed.  Apparently, that had an effect—he went out of his way to mention it in one of his status updates (check on October 1, 2013).  And that’s what got me thinking.  We can have an effect that we don’t recognize, until someone points it out to us.

In my previous entry, “Eaten up with Curiosity,” I mentioned how much I was affected as an adolescent by the Rudyard Kipling story about Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.  Well, as it turns out, the Chuck Jones Gallery was just a few blocks away from the hotel, right in the midst of the Gaslamp District.  I passed the gallery nearly every day, and Thursday evening, decided that I simply had to stop by.  I confess that I took along a young colleague who had been expressing the desire and enjoyment of engaging in conversation and challenge; although it’s hard (and a bit arrogant) to simply wake up one morning to say, “I think I’m going to mentor that person today,” I did truly enjoy helping and encouraging them to consider their capability and career path from a variety of perspectives.  So, in any case, we stopped by the Gallery, just for me to explore what might be there.  And, behold, in one of the smaller rooms of the gallery, was a picture of Rikki.  Actually, a production cel.  A nice piece of animation history.  So, there was a bit of passion expressed, moderated by a sense that such things were still beyond me.

Rikki_detail

Detail of Rikki cel. Copyright, Chuck Jones Entertainment

Who was Rikki?  Just a pet?  Or the hero of an epic confrontation, sung into history?  Again, this is an entry about who we think we are. Sometimes we forget, or get stuck in a past version of who we might have been at some point in the past.  I tend to call that past version “the ramen-eating guy in my head”.  As an undergrad (and somewhat as a grad student), I was always watching every penny; once, when I found a $20 bill on the street in a puddle, I rejoiced—that was food for a month!  This was someone desperate to show he could belong, that he could do something of note in the academic environment.  Thirty years later, that ramen-eating guy still shows up sometimes.  I have to remind myself that’s not where I am now.  I have students eager to work with me.  Former students greet me, and are thrilled to show me their new business cards.  Others whom I never would have guessed knew about me seem honored to meet me; they’ve heard such wonderful stories about me.  How I treat them now may not seem like much, but it can have a tremendous effect on their life and future.  Who knows which young and eager student will become the next leader of our field?

These are lessons that I am very pleased to learn, with importance for my life both now and into the future.  I thank all those who helped me with these insights and learnings.

Excuse me.  I have to open a package from San Diego.   It’s a reminder never to underestimate who we are.  Rikki has arrived.

Eaten up with Curiosity

The motto of all of the mongoose family is “Run and find out,” and Rikki-Tikki was a true mongoose.

–Rudyard Kipling

We find ourselves in the midst of a new academic semester, with the variety of challenges that face us in terms of schedules, task demands, and burdens both voluntarily and involuntarily shouldered.  In one sense, it is as it always has been; but for each individual, it may be the very first time of an experience that defines and influences the remainder of one’s life.  I have been thinking about this with the current configuration of GROUPER, and the need to help students make progress on existing dissertation topics or create new ones.   This is not always an easy task, and though I have gone through this process over 50 times (with over 30 MS students and 14 PhD students advised, plus the students whom I have assisted in various less formal ways) on this side of the desk, there are always elements worth learning and improving.

Maybe it is simply the number of times that an issue presents itself within the period of a few weeks that it becomes more salient, and the gap between what is and what could be becomes more evident.  Let’s assume that it may be no more than that, although a friend of mine was just mentioning today how there can be periods when one becomes much more open to insight and jumps in one’s self-learning.  But there has been something about the question, “What should I do for my research?” that has struck me in very different ways this fall than in the past.  I am asking myself different questions about my own research and career pathways; I am reminded of writings and insights from when I first arrived at Purdue.  And of course, in the senior project design course, there is always the sense of importance to get the students—so used to textbook problem configurations and well-organized linkages between the information given and the equation to use—to start creating for themselves a system definition and sense of their own active participation in defining the problem to solve as a necessary part of being an engineer.    And as an engineer myself, such gaps between what is and what could be are always met in my head with, “What do we do about it?”

And yet, there was something that I couldn’t quite bridge on my own in the conversations with the members of the lab.  Where does one go to get ideas?  How does one start the organization of facts and methods and tasks that gets one from classroom student to nascent researcher?  Over the past month, I began to see that it was not just as simple as a statement in our “1:1 meetings” (as the nearly weekly individual meetings I have with all of members of the lab are known) to go figure out an interesting question.  Interestingly enough, this recognition for me comes from a couple of sources, as I am again reminded that I don’t seem to approach the world in a way that is like most of those around me.  Apparently, there are graduate seminars taking place in departments around the country (not just engineering departments, but bench sciences, literature, philosophy, sociology…) where students are encouraged and instructed to read through a bunch of journal papers or monographs or book chapters and determine which questions still required further study.  (For the record, I took such seminars myself: it’s how I first learned, in 1985 and 1986, of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s work on cognitive strategies or the cultural specificity of the fundamental attribution error.  I loved those papers.  I just didn’t define my dissertation that way.)

Benson Snyder, in the 1960s and 1970s, discussed a critical issue affecting higher education, one that has come to be known as “the hidden curriculum”.   (The “hidden curriculum” of the book’s title and premise is the informal sociological and socialization process of how and when to learn, not just what to learn.) This book seems to have had a very significant effect on me—not just because I have read through it multiple times (I still own a copy of the 1973 edition of the book), but because I can now see that much of the curriculum I experienced at MIT was shaped in part by the studies Snyder reports of students there 20 years prior.  As I am teaching undergraduate statistics again after several years away from teaching it (but never far away from using it), I am also freshly sensitized to the processes of how to learn, and not just what.  And this is how I started to recognize some of what I was finding vaguely concerning in the lab.

As an undergrad, one of the most telling philosophies of innovation and excellence I ever heard was one that was directly told to me as to why I had so much latitude in organizing my activities for my work-study job.  “I’ve found that it’s best to give good people resources, and then get out of their way.”  For me, that was an excellent and empowering approach, since I was never at a loss for ideas or novel approaches or unusual ways of thinking (at least ways deemed unusual by teachers or professors).  In fact, I recently came to think about this as something I found exceptionally compelling in a cartoon I saw as an adolescent: Chuck Jones’ animated version of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, narrated by Orson Welles.   Rikki is perpetually curious, and fiercely protective, and powerful in ways that are belied by his small size and friendly interactions.  But isn’t everyone curious in this way of mongooses?  Isn’t everyone driven to “run and find out”?  Isn’t that part of the essential “inside” of every researcher?

No, says the hidden curriculum.  Students are socialized to learn which questions are the “right” questions, and these questions are “best” defined in an outside-in way.  The existing corpus defines the way the field is configured, and thus how new questions should be approached.  But wait… 60 years ago, we didn’t have plate tectonics or the cognitive revolution—just working from existing papers published in 1953 wouldn’t have gotten you there, and certainly wouldn’t have gotten you accepted within the “standard” configuration.  The same is true with statistical process analysis or scientific project management 100 years ago, or pharmacy or aerodynamics 150 years ago, or electrical and thermodynamic processes 250 years ago.  And yet, my learning and research now derives from all of those innovations.  Someone has to move beyond the standard, outside-in framework, and be ready to do the new work and meet the new challenges (and face the inevitable questions and criticisms that such an approach will engender).

It’s obvious to me now that it takes a lot more than a brief instruction to a graduate student to think in terms of the problems in the world of task environments, and interacting with people who live in those task environments.  (Although an introvert, I find it natural and obvious to talk to someone about the challenges of their work.  It’s easier for me than making other types of small talk.)  I begin to wonder, though—have I been assuming that, just by osmosis or creating a supportive environment, anyone and everyone will be “eaten up from nose to tail with curiosity,” as Kipling put it?  Might they need more help than that?

If you were expecting an answer to these questions… sadly, you will have to wait with me for that.  I’ve asked the lab to help me understand what I’m doing that’s different, and how the hidden curriculum has affected and shaped them up to this point (although I didn’t ask it of them quite that way).  But at the very least, asking the question is an important part of the process, and an essential element of making progress.  There are cobras threatening the bungalow of higher education… bringing in and raising a mongoose is not a bad idea.

NSF Video on Industrial Engineers (with GROUPER Alum)

NSF Profiles of Systems and Industrial Engineers

Ashley Benedict is a 2011 GROUPER PhD alumna, from the PERCH stream (of course).

Finishing with the Start in Mind

Hmm, Caldwell, that’s not how the Stephen Covey Habit goes.  Yeah, I know…

 

It’s not that the summer has parboiled my brain — I’ve had several pleasant vacations and focused quite actively on the concept of taking time for myself and prioritizing my own relaxation and recovery.  And in fact, we talk a lot in the lab about the excitement of connections and possibilities that come from having a bold imagination.  However, the steps involved with getting from being a brand new grad student to a freshly minted PhD combine a bit of imagination (beginning with the end in mind) with a lot of perseverance (focusing on the next step).  It’s great to have a great goal and imagine all sorts of wonderful outcomes… but as the Taoist Lao Tzu said, the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, with a focus on the ground immediately below one’s feet.

 

As a systems engineer, I also think of the world as a set of nested feedback control systems.  This weekend, I am getting ready to complete the graduation ceremony with placing the doctoral hood on my new PhD GROUPER alumna Marissa Vallette.  The joy of the weekend also has me thinking very intently about how Marissa arrived into the lab.  In our exit interview a few weeks ago, that initial meeting was the source of a very rich conversation.  Every student is different, with a unique mix of strengths and weaknesses (“opportunities for additional development”).  Marissa is one of the ones who, by all accounts, is likely to want to organize your files, keep track of the calendar, and ask several times exactly what is meant by that correction in paragraph 5 on page 73.  (This is by no means a complaint.  Sometimes, when you’re working on a dissertation, that’s exactly what you need to focus on.  And I am indebted to Marissa for taking on the role of organizing the GROUPER lab calendar and several of our lab documents for two years.)  And, please recall, GROUPER works on a somewhat unusual recruitment and selection model: existing members of the lab are strongly engaged in interviewing and providing feedback on potential new members.

 

I am amused when people ask Marissa how she started in GROUPER.  One version of the answer is that BSC passed the interview.  Yes, she started with a list of questions for me (reproduced with permission from MAV):

 

  • On average, how many years does it take to graduate an M.S. and/or Ph.D. student?
  • How many M.S. and/or Ph.D. students have you graduated?
  • How many M.S. and/or Ph.D. students do you currently advise?
  • Are you tenured?
  • How do you incorporate your background (e.g., research, industry experience) to industrial engineering?
  • What other commitments do you have both on- and off-campus?
  • What is your advising style? For instance, is it guided or un-guided?
  • What is your availability? For instance, how quickly do you respond to e-mails? How frequently would I be able to meet with you one-on-one?
  • Aside from departmental requirements, what is your philosophy on selecting a committee (for an M.S. and/or Ph.D. defense)?
  • How do you run your research lab?
  • What are your/the lab’s current research interests?
  • What are your/the lab’s current research projects?
  • What, if any, are the requirements/expectations of your graduate students? For instance, do you require them to publish journal papers and/or attend conferences? Are there lab meetings?
  • What funding opportunities are available both inside and outside your research lab?

 

Overall, not a bad set of questions, and if you are a student who considers themselves in need of a bit more “active involvement” from their advisor, you really want to get answers to these questions.   I admit that I would have had trouble answering these questions as a brand new faculty member—both because I wouldn’t have had positive answers to many of the questions, and because I wouldn’t have been able to articulate my philosophy as well then.  But, as Marissa said, it was good that a) I did have answers to these questions, and b) that I didn’t mind her asking them.  I certainly want to have a good fit and ongoing relationship with my students, and it is definitely not the case that my students are all reproductions of me.  I want that sort of interaction, and a mutual agreement on goals and priorities, because it is that sort of agreement that helps manage the rough patches of the graduate experience.

 

In retrospect, she’s not even the first (or last) member of GROUPER to have interviewed me with such questions.  For the new crops of students about to start their graduate careers in the next few weeks, I would recommend that they come up with their own list of questions, for themselves and for a potential advisor.  In the long run, my grad students can be seen as “colleagues displaced in time” (a phrase I adopted some years ago to reflect my desire to have a strong professional relationship with GROUPERs as they continue on in their careers).  In the short term, I have an exceptionally powerful and controlling role and responsibility for their progress and completion.  That’s not boastful egotism.  That is a recognition of the way academia works in a doctoral-granting research program.  In all of the research conferences I’ve attended, one of the most frequent questions asked (sometimes just after “Where’d you go to grad school?” but sometimes even before that) is “Who was your advisor?”  Those relationships are vital, and can easily make the difference in your life for decades after you leave that grad lab for the last time.  So, I am quite pleased that I was able to have this time, on this graduation weekend, to reflect on lessons I got to learn with a brand new doctoral student and her questions at the beginning of her GROUPER program.

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