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Tag: research projects

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.)


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.

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.

Lab (Cleaning) Party

I find the weeks around the September Equinox fascinating and especially important for me.  At this time of year, change is evident, and rapid, and significant.  The weather shifts from sultry, to sunny, to stormy, and maybe back again a few more times.  The academic semester is now in full intensity: the students are busy with multiple assignments submitted, which of course affects my workload as I try to grade them.  And of course, my birthday is a personal milestone event, with greetings and connections to family and friends.

This year was an especially important and life-defining birthday… no, wait.  The calendar marks a date.  But, my sense of where I am—in my career, in the life of the lab, about my own experience—is defined more by how I feel in the morning during tai chi and while eating breakfast than by a focus on how many revolutions around the Sun the Earth has managed since I first appeared.  So, last week’s big lab event to mark my birthday?  A party.  A lab party.  Well, actually, it was a lab cleaning party.  Boxes of unnecessary and outdated materials were sorted and removed.  Non-functional computers were disconnected.  Tables were rearranged into a new and more functional configuration.  This was a very helpful meeting.

Hold on.  Are you telling me that GROUPER is just about room arrangements?  Of course not.  There are five research projects going on right now.  There’s two PERCH projects (pharmacist-based information flow for congestive heart failure patient prescription filling; patient information flow and expertise using electronic medical records); a SMELT project (alignment of learning outcomes for first- and second-year engineering courses); and a new DOPHIN / CORAL project looking at information presentation to control room operators.   The fifth project used to be looking at information concentrations and dynamics of information- and task-based elements of emergency responder situation awareness and event response.  This could be a great idea for simulation-based human factors engineering.  Except for a few tiny details.  It’s a non-equilibrium decision making and performance task.  With multiple scales of information dynamics.  And the requirements for several years of data that aren’t available.  Although there are examples of dissertations that had unexpected complexity or challenge, I believe it is one of the advisor’s responsibilities not to allow (or worse yet, intentionally create) a situation where the student finds themselves caught in a bad project.  As the Zheng Lab students say, “I want to graduate in less than 5 years… I want a job and I want to be free.”  So, let’s make an environment that helps that happen.  (And let’s shift an impossible dissertation to just a challenging and interesting and valuable one.)

Somewhere along the way, I came to believe that a university should be about people working together to explore what has not yet been seen, and translate it across disciplines and times for others to understand.  An advanced degree is not just about working on a more obscure detail for some research area that no one else cared to study.  It’s not about following exactly the same program areas as everyone else, because that’s the “hot funding area” or because “everyone in the field is working that problem”.  What do we really mean when we say that we want a PhD?  The humor, but too often the true experience, suggests that it’s just about “Piled Higher and Deeper”.  (You’ll have to wait for us to talk more about how GROUPERs learn from robots on Mars.)  But Ph.D.  means Doctor of Philosophy.  One who teaches how to think, and think different.

But, back to the birthday, and the lab party.  This group is coming together.  The lab looks and feels better, more ready for the year’s work.  There is lots to do, and I am thrilled to recognize that I feel more engaged and enthused to do it.  The trajectory of one’s life and career is often described in a particular way, and the most recent birthday is often associated with dirges and black crepe and funereal humor about negative second derivatives regarding hills.  (Okay, they don’t really say it that way.)  However, the fun of the lab party is that it was one of new preparation.  New opportunity.  We’re just getting started.  Chronological age aside, the past two weeks have been about a joyous recognition.  Since I’ve now spent a dozen years in Indiana (another recent milestone), it’s easy for me to hear John Mellencamp songs on the radio and in my days.  But one is certainly appropriate here: Your Life is Now

It is your time here to do what you will do…

In this undiscovered moment,

Lift your head up above the crowd.

We could shake these worlds,

If you would only show us how…

Your life is now.

Thanks for the cake, folks.  The frosting was delicious.