Get, share, and use information well

Tag: connections

Back to School

The Labor Day holiday weekend is drawing to a close, and I have finished up my second week of the Fellowship.  Even though the start dates of the semester and my tenure here in DC were the same, I have gotten to notice how much the routines differ between the two environments.  Unlike my academic routine that can adapt and adjust based on the day of the week and the differences between class and no-class, committee and research schedules, things feel distinct here.  There is a bus I catch, most days, between 8:14 and 8:40.  On Wednesdays, there will usually be lunch with the other Fellows.  There are Monday and Thursday morning “huddle” meetings.


However, that is not what I notice the most from the past two weeks.  I admit that I have developed a particular appreciation for my manager.  Each day, there is a specific new thing I have to learn.  How do I send a particular type of email?  What is the formatting for this kind of documentation?  Who do I contact for this activity?  Of course, he’s seen this all before, but it’s my first time.  And it’s not like I have had 3-4 weeks of easing into the situation.  I’ve already worked on international memoranda, and meetings between embassy staff and local representatives, and sat in on planning discussions with the offices of some folks whose name might appear on someone’s bumper sticker.  (But notably, the importance of the office is communicated by an acronym, or even a single letter; the people whose names are used are names I don’t recognize, and even those names go with acronyms.)  The most appropriate phrase for this experience is one that I learned during my first few weeks as an undergrad at MIT: “Drinking from the firehose.”


In that environment, where I’m supposed to come up to speed quickly, it seems like a luxury to have someone check in with me as many as 3-5 times per day to help me with one task or another.  In truth, some of the help sessions seem a bit remedial, teaching me things I do already know.  But he doesn’t know that.  And more importantly, I don’t always know when something I think I know how to do isn’t exactly how this organization does it.  So, I find myself learning to be more patient when being taught, and listening all the way through the lesson.  I even have a guiding document for goals to achieve over the next month or so—distinct from a to-do list of tasks, and an in-process list of assignments.


One of the things that surprises me most about this firehose experience is a new-found empathy and appreciation for the situations that confront new students in the lab.  We’ve been working on SoS and PoSE conceptualizations of ICT use in the SHARK and DOLPHIN and PERCH* streams for years—why are you nodding blankly at me?  Of course.  I’ve been doing it for years.  You just got here.  I just used a bunch of acronyms—shorthand for me, incomprehensible jargon for you.  Even when we get to time for a thesis outline, or a prelim draft, or a set of PhD defense slides, it does take some reminders to recognize that two dozen years of practice and 75 or more iterations don’t get transmitted easily to someone who is experiencing it all new and in an intense, nervous state.


I would like to hope that this lesson comes back to Purdue with me next Fall.  For a new student, or new faculty member, each new item can be part of an overwhelming onslaught of novelty and complexity.  Maybe it won’t stay that way for long, but it feels like that now.  In the senior capstone design course I teach, I remind the students to take the time to capture those initial moments of novelty and first attempts at processing and decision making, because it will be really hard to recall those feelings (and assumptions, and senses of confusion) again later.  I can tell them that, but it was a long time since I have felt that at the level I feel it now.  It’s good to be reminded of what the first few, chaotic weeks of new experience feel like.



Photo of Little Kern Golden Trout by Middleton and Liitschwager (1988), hanging in the C Street entrance lobby of the National Academies.



*Acronym decluttering:

SoS: Systems-of-Systems. or a description of complex systems engineering settings where individual components of an overarching system represent complex systems in their own right (such as individual aircraft, with pilots and co-pilots, in the airspace over Washington, DC while Marine One is traveling across town).

PoSE: Perspectives on Systems Engineering.  This is a course that I developed to teach about four distinct traditions of systems engineering, ranging across systems thinking, cybernetics, component-whole relations, and project management.  Only in its second iteration as a hybrid distance / on-campus course, it is one of the most subscribed courses in Engineering Professional Education (and I’m not even teaching it this semester).

ICT: Information and Communications Technology.  When I first started as a faculty member, most computers had line-by-line display screens in single colors of amber or green; email and word processors and bulletin board chat groups were the most sophisticated information exchange tools available.  Even with all of the changes in capability, it’s still important to recognize that the point of these technologies were, and are, for humans to communicate.

SHARK, DOLPHIN, PERCH:  These are designations of project areas within the research lab, referring to knowledge sharing architectures, information flow delays, and applications to healthcare delivery improvement, respectively.  Check them out at


With a flourish and frenzy of activity, the cycle has completed itself and begun once more.  This week, of course, was particularly hectic.  On Tuesday, we in GROUPER were pleased to celebrate Liang’s successful defense of her dissertation (now to finish the writing!), and after a 2-hour lab meeting, I went home and got some pleasure reading in.  Wednesday was a travel day, with challenges of unstable weather leading to one canceled flight, and ground stops due to ramp closures at both the start and finish of the second leg of the trip.  Hours late, but with the air cooled from the rain, I finally finished the trip and got home for a good night’s sleep.


“Hold it.  You were at home, then you got stuck during thunderstorms, and finished the trip, and went home?  Did you not get to your destination?  Was your trip canceled?”


Even as I write this entry, there is a type of surrealism about this week.  I’m sitting in one of the chairs I have had for over five years, with Amber on my lap, looking at her cat tree and food and a bunch of other items I clearly recognize.  The window still faces east, but the image is different: instead of an empty parking lot across the street, I see a tall tree and an office building.  In other words, the shift has now occurred.  Amber and I have moved to Washington, DC to start my position as a Jefferson Science Fellow.  My first day is next Monday, and I have begun enjoying the exploration of the neighborhoods of McPherson Square and Thomas Circle, and picking up coffee and pastry and fruit at the White House Street Market.


Amber exploring the new window view

My world is changing significantly, and yet some things remain consistent.  I am still an engineering faculty member, but I am thinking about a completely different set of issues this August compared to last August.  Our lab meeting addressed a very interesting topic based on students’ recent experiences, and one that I will be considering very hard in the coming months.  Academia, government, and industry are considered vastly different places, and representing wildly divergent career paths for those with PhDs.  And yet, we’re taught (and have first hand experience) that a variety of people all craft their actions, decisions, and processing of information based on perceived risks, costs, and outcome benefits.  There’s only one challenge.  The benefits that drive most industry teams (profit—hey, I hear the new Aston Martins are really nice) don’t come into play at all for most academic or government folks, and the primary risk keeping academic folks up at night (someone already published my idea in that journal I love!) don’t seem to bother industry or government people much.  A government employee may complain bitterly about the costs of having to work 5-10 hours of overtime one week; many academics and industry research folks take a 60-70 hour average work week as pretty much standard.


You may notice that the website ( looks very different than a few months ago; that took us a while to work through.  Elliott, our wonder-undergrad, did a pretty thorough redesign and architecture job, but what was more important was not just the scripting language or tab sequences.  We went back to a very basic question: who comes to our lab’s website?  Three different types of groups (yes, it’s that “use case” thing) want distinct types of information, at varying grain sizes.  Even our own GROUPER alums represent different types of interaction profiles.  We’ve got government employees seeing how our work can inform improvements for federal agencies.  GROUPERs are also rising up the ranks in industry, and may be in a position to hire a new or recent grad (in this sense, GROUPER is definitely a distinct and valued brand).  With the lab’s traditional gender mix (somewhere approaching 2/3 female), it’s not surprising that a number of alumnae list their primary function right now as “Mom”.  I see no reason to hide that, or feel guilty or ashamed to highlight such life pathways.  If everything is a system, and GROUPERs look at information everywhere, can’t those skills be applied to everything from medical information use for family members, to understanding the daily experiences of neurodiversity, to getting a front-row seat to the miracles of how humans develop broad processes of learning and skill development sets in ways that still challenge our most sophisticated machine learning algorithms.


Over the next few months, the GROUPER blog will be more active again, but it won’t be focusing as much just on our current lab research.  We’re still researching, of course, but we have other stories to tell, and other forms of impact and effect to consider for how we get, share, and use the information we’ve been gathering and lessons we’ve been learning.  Thanks for visiting us again after our quiet period.  Hey, it gets busy learning how to be in multiple places at once.


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.


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.


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.

Communication and Documentation (longer, connection-enhanced version)

Communication and Documentation


[I am feeling a bit like Chuck Lorre, the producer for several extremely popular television series, including the The Big Bang Theory (TBBT).  Chuck has “vanity cards” which appear very briefly at the end of each episode of the shows.  These vanity cards express Chuck’s perspectives, insights, and fevered rants on a variety of topics, and basically act like a blog.  Since I record TBBT quite extensively (any similarities I have to Sheldon Cooper will be, and have been, hotly contested), I have gotten good at pausing the recording to read the card.  Every once in a while, the card makes some reference to censoring, but with a website address to indicate where you can read the uncensored version of the card.  When I first created the “Communication and Documentation” entry for the Indiana Space Grant Consortium Director’s Blog / Notes, it was pointed out that it was long and tangential and wouldn’t appeal to some of the readers.  Well, in Chuck Lorre fashion, I edited the blog entry for that audience, but here’s the full version.  Why?  It’s GROUPER—so, it’s because I can.  And those of you in GROUPER will recognize Karim and know why Shannon and Weaver are important.  So there.  –BSC]


“Document your code!”


This is a lesson I remember from my first computer programming course as a college frosh, now more than 30 years ago.  The language was FORTRAN, and the computer was a PDP 11/44[*] but the lessons were the same.  If you didn’t provide enough comments in your code for the instructor to understand what your logic was intended to accomplish, or what the variables meant, or what that subroutine was for, you got points off.  The essential message was not subtle: no matter how good a job you think you did, you haven’t done the whole job unless you’ve effectively documented it.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve had substantial reminders of the importance of those lessons of communication and documentation.


Since the Affiliates’ Meeting in April, the INSGC staff have been trying to upgrade our processes and activities, and bringing onboard a new set of student interns for the summer.  Part of this comes from our Affiliates’ survey of communications with the Central Office.  Although the overall responses were excellent (from the perspective of demonstrating to NASA that we take our performance seriously and assess it regularly), there were some areas of concern (from the perspective of continuous improvement and achieving a model of excellence).   It’s clear that we could use our website to better advantage, and thus that is a priority for us this summer.  Angie has reported a much more timely and useful set of responses to our requests for reporting, due in part to our more clear presentations of what, when, and why we need those reports to meet our NASA grant reporting and documentation obligations.  Wow… we can get that much more just by being more explicit about what we’re looking for, and how we need to use it?


Effective communication is a tricky thing.  Some people like their documentation “spiced up” a little bit; others just want the immediate facts, in order, with an agenda of what will be covered and how many minutes are associated to each fact.   I just had two conversations this weekend highlighting these challenges.  On Friday, I had dinner with one of my former students, who recently started a new job at a major hospital as a quality engineering and improvement manager.  He noted that some of the physicians and others at the hospital were frustrated with some of his meetings, because they couldn’t see how, or whether, there was a point to the meeting and what they were supposed to recognize and respond to that point.  (Interesting: that was, almost verbatim, one of the comments from our Affiliates’ survey.)  He said that those people would have found our research lab meetings intolerable, but he then took the feedback as an indication to simply write down what he already had in his head and give it a more formal structure as a meeting agenda.   I have had to learn the same lesson in our INSGC Central meetings and those with Dawn and Angie—it’s the agenda that helps focus time and understanding, and improves advanced preparation.


What level of communication works for you?  A friend of mine commented on my software commenting style over the weekend, because I was the only person they’d known who actually used “emotion” and eloquent language structures in their code [†]comments.  On the one hand, there is a big world of language out there, and it’s nice to be able to use it well and communicate richly.  On the other hand, one doesn’t want to turn into Dennis Miller as the color commentator for Monday Night Football, making snarky or esoteric literary references that even your colleagues don’t understand, when all they wanted to say was that it was good that the guy in the blue uniform tackled that guy in the white uniform.  Do people find your style amusing and intelligent, or obscure and elitist?  This is an important question when you’re trying to do public outreach and engagement for the general population.  There are lots of different audiences (faculty and students who receive awards, administrators who want to know effectiveness of campus cost sharing, people who stop you on the street and ask you questions about airspace utilization), and I want to learn how to connect with them all.


Is this where I mention that one of our primary ways of regular communication with our affiliates, partners, and friends is the INSGC Director’s Blog?  I try to put together a new blog entry every month or so, and use it to communicate some of our strategic concerns and general oversight topics.  Great, right?  Except that Dawn told me a few days ago that people don’t look at the blog entries.  (That is the point of website analytics—is anyone actually receiving the message you’re sending?)  Well, if we never updated the blog, that would be the expectation.  Or, if it was assumed that nothing important ever showed up there.  But what if I said that the best way to see what we’re planning for (and why) will show up first, or best, or most explicitly, in that Director’s Blog?  Would that get more visits?  Perhaps, but the goal of the blog is not more visits.  It’s to communicate more effectively with our constituents.


According to information theory (as developed by Bell Laboratory researcher Claude Shannon and MIT professor Norbert Weiner), communication includes a sender, a transmission channel, and a receiver.  There have to be several effective elements of good communication:  the sender has to send a message that is meaningful to the receiver; the channel must be able to support that message; there has to be a minimum of noise or signal loss to distort the message; there has to be enough redundancy of the message so that the receiver understands the intent of the message even if some of it gets lost.  (This seems very tangential to the point of anything else relevant for Space Grant Directors.  However, it’s actually part of my research background and training.  For me, the analysis of communication effectiveness is a social and technical engineering problem, and not just a management or persuasion issue.  Remember, the message is based in part on the context of the sender as well as the context of the receiver.  I’m trying to explain more of my context in a more explicit way.  Any resemblance to Dennis Miller’s football color commentary is accidental.)


So, what next?  Over the rest of the summer, expect additional upgrades to our communications: not just in the use of the available technologies, but in our strategies, messages, and references.  This is a critical point in Space Grant evolution, and I believe that one of the ways that INSGC will succeed in the future is to be a powerful and effective source of communication and documentation of STEM engagement in the State of Indiana.



[*] The specifics here are only to suggest that I have been a geek for a very long time.  Some of you may fondly remember coding in FORTRAN, or even what a PDP is.  If you don’t, just think of it as part of that quaint long-ago time when there were pay phones that people used coins to operate when they weren’t at home to access their permanently wired landline phone.

[†] Yes, these are the sorts of friends I spend my time with.  We talk about styles of software comments, and mathematical models of information exchange in company meetings, and the use of multi-dimensional graphs to understand social dynamics.  Don’t judge.  It works for us.

Broad, Deep and Wide

Early Friday afternoon, I was riding back to the airport on the Metro Yellow Line in Washington, DC.  Somewhere between L’Enfant Plaza and Crystal City stops, an older man looks at me and asks, “Are you a Boilermaker?”

“Yes, I’m on the faculty there.”

Much to my surprise, he reaches out to shake my hand.  “I graduated from there… a long time ago.”  He smiled as he got up, and then got off at his stop.  I proceeded to look around at my bags, and noticed how he figured it out: my business card luggage tag was visible, with the Purdue University logo clearly showing.  I was glad to know that seeing such a reference to his alma mater was a source of pleasure for this gentleman, and I do take those moments to reflect on the nature of the experience.   As it turns out, it was the third interaction in less than 24 hours where someone sought me out for interaction due to the Purdue reference.

In the hotel lobby Thursday evening, I was introduced to the MS advisor of the IE Undergraduate Coordinator, Patrick Brunese.  There was no mention of football, though Pat went to the University of Alabama.  (You may recall that their football team won a particular football game earlier this week.)  Instead, we talked about Pat’s interest in undergraduate IE education, and my attendance at the Industrial and Systems Engineering Research Conference.  (I do intend to attend at least part of the conference, but I do have the challenge of also wanting to attend my daughter’s university graduation.)  This morning, I had a discussion with a young faculty member who had heard of the interdisciplinary opportunities and sustained reputation of Purdue Engineering.  When I mentioned the current effort of the College to increase the faculty size by 30% in the next five years, and the fact that she could find interested colleagues in Biomedical, Electrical, and Industrial Engineering (along with opportunities in the College of Science), she was hooked, and even grateful to me for taking the time to speak with her about it.  I replied that I remember what it felt like to be “young, hungry, and grateful,” and wanted to provide whatever advice and mentorship I could.

I admit that when I was at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico earlier this week, there was some sports talk.  But I was there for a formal talk and project work, including discussions regarding monitoring and procedure checking / validation tasks, and processes of distributed knowledge coordination and knowledge sharing.

These are examples of a more focused connection, and part of the level of Purdue recognition that focuses on our engineering reputation.  There are over 400,000 Purdue alumni, 80,000 Engineering alumni, and over 8,000 IE alumni… pretty large numbers overall.  But it’s not just number, or breadth of reach: we seem to be overrepresented in various circles (such as NASA or NSF, Sandia National Labs, or the “C-suites” of various companies) where I might interact. So, I continue a practice I learned long ago, and maintain the habits and rituals associated with Purdue representation (business cards, Block P pins, “Hail Purdue” mentions during formal presentations).  We’re widely visible, and widely influential, as a university and engineering program.  Why is this important for the GROUPER blog?

When we are doing our work, people notice, and take some notice of (and if they’re Purdue folks, maybe some pride in) it.  They expect a Purdue person to be very good. As I say to the undergrads, the reputation that people know about and want to benefit from is borne on the shoulders of the history of past work and recognition.  In my formal Sandia presentation, I talked about some of the prior GROUPER work in information alignment, root cause analysis, and event response.  There were some very busy periods of note-taking, and challenging questions that not just addressed straightforward aspects of human error and performance shaping factors, but also more fundamental queries about the nature of complex system development, analysis, and evaluation.  And of course, on every slide, there was the Purdue College of Engineering logo, the “Rethink IE” logo, and the GROUPER “data fish” logo.



Over the coming semester, we plan to increase our rate of posting—not just my various commentaries (once per month still seems the right rate for me), but to have other opportunities to highlight what is happening in the lab from a variety of sources.  The goal is not actually just to broaden our discussion, but to address issues in a more focused way, from a variety of perspectives.  Let’s see how that works.

Inputs and Outputs

It’s not a great time to be a student–end of semester exams, project papers, and completing all of that work that seemed infinitely manageable back in October.  It’s not a great time to be a faculty member–thesis drafts to read, letters of recommendation and proofreading students’ research statements fall on top of grant proposal deadlines and all that grading.  So, it seems reasonable to be both a bit gentle, and a tad more explicit in clarifying the difference between “nice to have” and “required”.  Some extra data, or a couple more days to work on that draft of the term paper is nice to have.  What’s a challenge at the end of November is recognizing what is required, and how to get to all that is necessary in the too-little time available.


Most academics want to get grants to do their research.  That’s not an easy process, and the competition grows in complexity and sources of frustration.  Whether it be a development contract from a company, or a research grant from a governmental funding agency, the folks reading the proposal want to know “Who Cares” and “Why Should I Spend the Time to Read This?”  They don’t know about what you meant to say, and they probably aren’t in your field.  It’s your responsibility to communicate what’s so cool and new and shiny to you, to other people who may not even care until you show them why it’s valuable and critical and efficient to help them in what they do every day.  A challenge at the best of times; a burden worthy of Atlas if you’re trying to write five proposals in two weeks to different types of organizations.  Faculty usually talk about funding as an input measure (“Congratulations! You got the grant!  Now what are you going to publish, which students will graduate, and what new things will come out of that lab that other people also want to use?”) .  It’s also an output measure, of course: “I wrote nine proposals, and two of them got funded!  I’m a star!”  (Actually, that is kind of true.  Funding rates for proposals from the most competitive agencies are often described as being in the 6-12% range.  Hitting on 22% of your proposals would be good.  Like Ted Williams in baseball, hitting on 40% of your tries would make you a Hall-of-Famer.)  Either way, there is a big lag between the pain of creation and the success of the award.  (Maybe just long enough to forget how much it hurts.)


But faculty have another set of inputs and outputs: their students.   There was a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the evolution from being your professor’s advisee to being his or her peer.  I was able to send this to the current GROUPERs, and even to my five most recent PhDs.   I’ve even gotten a reply already–the start of a thread.  This helps me feel good about the students as outputs–but I can still gloss over the importance of inputs.  Not just the students as inputs (you need good material), but what we can do to get the student where they want to go.


Unfortunately, Natalie is leaving us in a few weeks: she’s graduating with her BS.  Although an undergrad, she’s been one of the more experienced members of the lab for the past two years, helping to keep us aligned and sequenced (she’s been the project management software goddess).  Student as input, student as person needing inputs, student as providing inputs… (that’s also modeling project we’re working on as well, within the SMELT stream).  The greatest reward though, was the news we’ve gotten over the past week or so.  At the HFES Annual Meeting back in October, I met a researcher from an organization doing research on human factors in healthcare.  Have I got a student for you, I said.  She’s already developed her own research study.  She is fantastic as part of my lab.  She wants to work in this area.  And now, Natalie gets to announce that she got a job!  And then she said that being part of GROUPER was a large part of how that happened… as well as my work that went into it.

GROUPER is an input into the students’ lives and professional evolution?  What I’m doing is a transformation that gives someone a better outcome, a stronger trajectory, a more favorable future?  OK, maybe that is worth it, and a great reward that turns into inputs for the next cycle.  That, and a few extra hours’ sleep.  And maybe some visits by the proposal writing muse.


Summer Drives

Welcome back.

I don’t know if I have gotten used to it yet, even as I begin my 12th year on the Purdue campus.  Tomorrow is August 31, and we’re now finishing our second week of classes.  (My daughter, who is at the University of Wisconsin (where I was faculty before here), starts a week from today.  Just that difference in mentality regarding when the “Fall” semester starts seems to have a significant effect on cognitive, emotional, and social patterns of awareness and activity.  (In fact, this idea was one of the contributing elements at the foundation of our research on information alignment and information clutch factors affecting task coordination in organizations.)  The ramp up of demand may or may not match your increase in readiness for that demand, and if you’re not careful, that could cause falling into a task deficit “hole” that is extremely hard to climb out of later in the busy semester.  (Ah, yes, that would be my undergraduate controls course, talking about feedback systems and response dynamics to input functions.)

Every once in a while, my mind takes one of these enjoyable side trips, and it can lead to interesting research insights.  Members of the lab sometimes go along with me on these trips, which often involve discussions of mathematical definitions and relationships, as well as empirical or analytical planning and research designs.  For instance… let’s talk about what dispersion means, and how it applies to production systems.  Hey, does digital signal processing help us manipulate the timing and synchronization of entire files, rather than simple waveforms?  Can we link student advising questions to convolution functions that describe knowledge transfer?

A real advantage of the beginning of this academic year is that most of GROUPER is back intact.  Almost everyone was gone at some point: Natalie was in Germany (at Alcoa); Omar was in Egypt (finishing a Master’s at Alexandria and getting married); Jeremi was in Washington (at NSF); Kelly was in Cincinnati (at P&G) Jake was in San Diego (at SPAWAR); Liang even got to return to Xi’an China to see her family.  We’ve graduated two students since the Spring Equinox. Jeff Onken defended his dissertation (although he was already working at Northrup Grumman) and completed a final presentation to his committee.  Melvis Chafac completed her Hong Kong-based Master’s research writeups, and was off to MIT a few weeks ago after campus and conference presentations.   Now, we’re back in lab meetings, telling stories and sharing / renewing the culture of the lab.  (“Good idea / Bad idea” seems to be the best description of these culture shaping stories.)  Even though there’s no one new, the reasons for the stories still exist.

Things get much busier after this week.  I’ve taken on new responsibilities, both on campus and in the larger community.  (Yes, we’ll tell you; however, I’d like to wait for the official updates.)  I think I won’t be going much of anywhere this weekend—football season starts, but we’re also awaiting the arrival of a guest named Isaac.  Not great weather for a drive… unless of course you’re talking about a series of running plays from the Purdue offense.