A Closer Look

In 1970, as the Apollo 13 spacecraft hurtled toward the moon, one line of data buried on a Mission Control display screen could have alerted NASA ground controllers to the oxygen tank problem that led to the spacecraft's aborted moon landing and dramatic, jury-rigged reentry. If Mission Control in Houston had noticed the error code, they could have alerted the astronauts that pressure in the spacecraft's oxygen tanks was dangerously building and possibly intervened before the problem reached a critical level-forcing the astronauts to abandon their mission and return to Earth in a "lifeboat" craft.

As it was, though, the key piece of alphanumeric code was hidden on a screen that was so full of information that it was overlooked, says engineering psychologist Michael Matthews, PhD.

"I don't consider that accident to be human error per se," says Matthews, an engineering psychology professor at West Point Military Academy. "It was a design error, a contributing factor to the accident, along with a host of engineering and human factors issues."

Members of APA's Div. 21 (Applied Experimental and Engineering Psychology) such as Matthews study how to prevent such technological accidents and help people be more productive in high-risk situations such as space flight and in everyday settings where they use technology.

"As psychologists, we are primarily interested in people's limitations," says Div. 21 Past-president Deborah Boehm-Davis, PhD. "As applied experimental and engineering psychologists, we are interested in applying knowledge of those limitations to the design of everyday objects in order to improve human-system performance, either in the form of productivity or safety."

Div. 21 members apply their skills in the areas of computer information, work environments, energy and transportation, medical and health-care settings, consumer product design and living environments. For example, some members work with auto manufacturers, such as General Motors, to design heads-up displays to show information, such as the speed at which a car is traveling, on the car's windshield. Others, like Div. 21 President Ron Shapiro, PhD, and Arnold Lund, PhD, work in the computer industry with companies like IBM and Microsoft to design computers that are as easy as possible for people to use.

In addition, a large segment of the membership work in military settings. Each year psychologists from all areas of the field, civilian and military, gather to share their research and network at their mid-year symposium.

Military applications

Experimental and engineering psychologists who consult with or work for the military work on tasks ranging from designing hospital equipment so that the displays are easy to read to evaluating the ergonomics of fighter jet cockpits.

Such psychologists might also help design a robotic device used to investigate suspicious objects along a roadway in a battle zone. From a safe distance, a soldier could maneuver a bomb-detecting robot, equipped with sensors to detect the odor of explosives, to investigate and even detonate a suspected bomb.

Experimental and engineering psychologists study how a soldier's performance varies based on both physiological and psychological factors. For example, a soldier trying to perform a complex cognitive task such as interpreting data on a digital command and control display from the back of a bumping and swerving vehicle might became nauseous, making it uncomfortable, if not impossible, to carry out the assigned task. In such cases, psychologists, according to Matthews, have found that by putting a grid screen on the back of the vehicle and telling soldiers to focus on a horizon line that is "earth-referenced," soldiers feel less discomfort and can carry out their duties.

These military applied experimental and engineering psychologists also help design unmanned aerial vehicles, (UAVs)-planes that pilots fly remotely with a joystick, often from the ground thousands of miles away. Psychologists help design the UAV control systems so that the pilot can effectively operate the vehicle in the absence of the sensory clues, like the vestibular sense, that a pilot who is actually in the plane would have.

Such unmanned vehicles can support the mental health of troops as well as keep them out of harm's way, says Matthews.

"Performing an important duty with minimal risk to themselves and others leads to a real sense of satisfaction," says Matthews of the soldiers who pilot UAVs. "In preventing unnecessary harm to unit members, you enhance morale, because in military leadership, your goal is get your troops home safely while achieving mission objectives."

A meeting of minds

In fact, the theme of Div. 21's mid-year symposium this year is "Building a Better World: Improving Quality of Life and Productivity." Co-sponsored by Div. 19 (Society for Military Psychology) and the Potomac Chapter of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, the symposium will be held at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., March 2-3, and will feature paper presentations, poster sessions and an invited keynote address. In addition, as in the past, the Potomac Chapter is sponsoring a dinner meeting on Thursday with a guest speaker.

Each year, more than 75 psychologists and students from the field of applied experimental and engineering psychology attend the meeting, some from as far away as England, Singapore and Israel. Most attendees work in academic, military or computer-related fields, and some hold positions as government workers or independent contractors.

The smaller size allows for informal contact and socializing.

"You feel like people are more approachable at this conference," says Div. 21 member and meeting co-chair John Ruffner, PhD. "It's a nice mixture of top-notch faculty, researchers, military and students, and great ideas are hatched or come together in hallways or at dinner."

A psychologist who works on command and control issues for the military might hear a paper by a psychologist who focuses on ergonomics in industrial design-and thus be exposed to a subdiscipline of their field they might not otherwise encounter, Ruffner explains.

The conference also encourages submissions from the next generation: Teams of cadets travel from military academies like West Point and the Air Force Academy to present work that they've been doing with their advisers on topics like the design of new generation military command and control systems. The division also presents awards for the best graduate and undergraduate papers. For example, a recent winning student paper by Jennie Hattman and Michelle Kracht, both undergraduate students in West Point's engineering psychology program, examined how soldiers' resiliency in the face of adversity affects their ability to perceive and understand a combat situation. They found that more resilient soldiers were better able to understand a potentially chaotic battle scene and then act in ways that are most productive to attaining the goal of the mission.

The conference is still accepting registrations, and it will accommodate same-day registrants as well. See Div. 21's Web site for more information or to register.

Div. 21 at a glance

Div. 21 (Applied Experimental and Engineering) promotes research and applied work on human psychological and physical characteristics to create safer, more effective and more reliable systems and equipment.

The division hosts a March annual symposium, typically in the Washington, D.C. area, and also meets at APA's Annual Convention. Among its more popular activities, the division offers a mentorship program for students and new professionals in academia, government and industry positions.

The division recognizes career contributions through several awards, including the George E. Briggs Dissertation Award, the Earl A. Alluisi Award for Early Career Contributions and the Franklin C. Taylor Award for Outstanding Career Contributions to the field.

Members receive the Division 21 Newsletter, the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, and membership on a listserv and Web site that hosts discussions and job information.

Further Reading

For more information on Div. 21 and its programs, go to the Division 21 Web site. To join, download a Membership Application and mail it to the Div. 21 Administrative Office at the APA address.