Author: Chris Clonts

New Chair of Cognitive and Learning Sciences Has Passion for Human Factors and… the Ukulele

David Hemmer, Dean of the College of Sciences and Arts, announced that Kelly Steelman has accepted the position as chair of the Cognitive and Learning Sciences department.

Kelly Steelman

Steelman, an associate professor of psychology and an affiliated associate professor of mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics, had been working as the interim chair.

Hemmer cited her work developing Michigan Tech’s new bachelor’s degree in human factors as one reason he’s happy to see her in the role. “Kelly has done a great job as interim chair, including shepherding the department’s new Human Factors BS degree through to approval,” he said. “I look forward to working with her over the next three years.”

You’ve been working as the interim chair during a time of great change here. From a new university president, to a new college. What have you enjoyed about it?

Some people might view this as somewhat terrifying: to step into a chair position, or really any leadership position, in a time of great institutional change, with a global pandemic and lots of uncertainty in the world and in higher education. But for me, this seems like the best time to be in a leadership position, because you can actually do things and facilitate positive changes. You know, when everybody’s off-kilter, it gets the ball rolling and then you just get to help guide it in different ways. That’s a lot easier than trying to get people who are used to the status quo to take that first step.

You came a really long way to join us in Houghton. Tell us about that.
I came to Michigan Tech following a post-doctoral fellowship at Flinder’s University in Adelaide, Australia. So I traded in the ocean and warm temperatures for the shores of Lake Superior, and a much heavier jacket.
I had returned to the States for a conference where I saw an advertisement for an assistant professor position in CLS. So I went over to check out the Michigan Tech lab poster. I grew up in Grand Rapids, so I was familiar with Michigan Tech and its reputation. And I knew that there was a graduate-level program related to human factors. But, when I walked up to the poster, I saw a group of women standing there, and I thought, wow, that really defies my expectations about Michigan Tech. That was not the crowd that I expected to see.

Susie Amato-Henderson, our former department chair, walked up and introduced herself and then invited me out to lunch with a group of graduate students. By the end of the lunch, I knew I had to apply for the position. I actually ended up extending my stay in the US long enough to be able to interview for the job before returning to finish my post-doc in Australia.

I was thrilled when I got the job offer and luckily managed to convince my wife and son that it was a great idea to move here even though neither of them had even been to the Upper Peninsula and didn’t really know where it was. After I accepted the job, we came up to find a place to live and actually saw a moose on our drive up to Copper Harbor. That was, of course, really thrilling and the first sign that we were moving to a really amazing place!

What do you like about life in the Upper Peninsula?
I love that it is just so easy to get outside and explore. I really enjoy hiking and cross-country skiing on the Tech Trails and exploring new waterfalls and beaches. I’m not a downhill skier but the rest of my family has really gotten involved at Mont Ripley. My wife works in the ticket office and my oldest son is a ski and snowboard instructor. Even my four-year-old has tried out snowboarding and loves the tube park.

I’ve particularly enjoyed getting involved with the Pewabic Community Garden in Houghton and the Keweenaw Roller Derby league. Both were great ways to meet folks with common interests and helped us feel like we were actually part of the local community.

The competition for students is tougher than ever. What do you see as a competitive advantage here?
Most people don’t think of psychology when they think of Michigan Tech. But I am very proud of our program and what it offers to our students. As one example, our psych students have far more opportunities to get engaged in research in our department than they would in other programs. All students take a two-semester research methods course that gives them the opportunity to work in teams to design, conduct, and present their own research studies.

Many students go on to do research with faculty members and really hone their research skills, making them competitive on the job market and also for graduate programs. Our undergraduate psychology program has a great record of students getting into competitive masters and Ph.D. programs.

Our undergraduate psychology program is also flexible by design. In addition to gaining research and internship experiences, we encourage our students to add minors, double majors, join the Pavlis Honors College, and really focus on building a personal portfolio of skills. Many of today’s college students will be working in jobs or industries that don’t yet exist, so it is really important that students can clearly communicate their skill sets to potential employers. We build advising right into the curriculum to help students do this.

What makes you so passionate about human factors in general and what does the study of this discipline offer to Tech students?
I completed two degrees in Aerospace Engineering before discovering the field of human factors. For those who are unfamiliar with it, human factors is the study of human performance, especially within socio-technical systems, and the application of that knowledge to the design of safe, efficient, and satisfying products, workplaces, processes, and systems. For me, pursuing human factors in my graduate studies allowed me to blend my interests in people and technology.


Through the Tech Forward Initiatives of the past few years, we’ve talked a lot about the fourth industrial revolution, the integration of the physical, digital, and social worlds, and the rapid pace of technological change. The problems facing the world today require that we take a human-centered approach and that we understand how people think, feel and behave and how they interact with technology.

Our new human factors major will be great for students that are interested in designing the future and building new technologies, but also really care about people and want to understand why people do the things that we do and why we make the mistakes that we do. A human factors program is a particularly good fit for Michigan Tech as it blends foundational coursework in psychology with courses in systems engineering, human-computer interaction, usability, business, and design. Designing the major was a true multi-disciplinary effort, with faculty from numerous departments and colleges providing input and feedback.

You already mentioned your roller derby involvement. What’s something else people might not know about you?

About two years ago, I joined a local ukulele troupe called The Yooper-leles. One of my colleagues in engineering Engineering Fundamentals, Michelle Jarvie-Eggart, invited me and it was so much fun! We had folks from five years old to probably 85, with a variety of skill levels. I’m still a beginner, but I did get in a fair bit of practice during the stay-at-home order. I’m really looking forward to when we can all gather to play together again.